Doctor Who complete reviews: New Earth
|REVIEWS - DOCTOR WHO|
David Tennant's Doctor gets off to a false start...
And it was going so well too...
Doctor Who's first season of the 21st century had proven more successful than possible with a high level of good, imaginative stories, a well-matched Doctor/Companion team and for those that really give a damn, impressive visual effects. There has to be a downside to all of this positivity though in that the next season had even more to prove – or what some arty-farty critics like to call The Difficult Second Album Syndrome.
What's more, the 2006 season was essentially a reboot in itself, since a new Doctor was at the helm. The omens were good with the outstanding Christmas Invasion, thanks to a crisp plot, big screen production values and a fine performance from new kid on the block, David Tennant. But still, a lot was riding on the next season – would it live up to the high standards?
Well, New Earth inspires no such confidence. The title's a bit of a misnomer, since there's little in the story that's new – the tale reads as a non-stop conveyor belt of hoary old clichés: Body swaps. Cat people. Lab rats. Walking zombies. Add in the return of a baddie that didn't really warrant a rematch in the first place, as well as puerile, unfunny jokes, heavy-handed moralising and a crass imitation of the end of the Empty Child two-parter, and the end result makes me feel as ill as the patients in the New New York hospital.
New Earth is a huge disappointment after the run of excellent stories in the previous season. Put it this way, if this had been the story to launch David Tennant's reign as The Doctor, I'd suspect that it would have acquired a far worse press. And all of this after what's quite a cool pre-credits teaser in which an excited Doctor prepares for his first alien trip - “Further than we've ever gone before!”
In fact, despite the big promise of landing in the year Five Billion And Twenty Three, their destination isn't that hot – it looks like The Doctor and Rose have landed on a soggy October day on the top of the South Downs. Yeah, the sort of day where you've tried to make the most of the last remnants of Autumn sun with a picnic, except the heavens inevitably open while you're trying to eat your sandwiches. There's nothing worse in a picnic than eating soggy bread and drinking watery wine.
Well, except for overstating the gushing sentimentality. “Can I just say... travelling wiv you? I love it!” gushes Rose – er, to a bloke that she hardly really knows yet – all to the strains of Murray Gold's swooning orchestration as heard through what seems to be the world's largest amplifier. As ever, the incidental score seems to be one continuous 45-minute suite with no opportunity for the viewer to take a breather. You shall obey the will of Murray and not make jibes about his Pompous Choir.
So all this sickly Doctor/Rose lovey-dovey stuff sets up the loose season arc of the two getting even closer. To be brutally honest, I think that the dynamic between Doctor Nine and Rose worked better, since there was more of an edge – neither the Ninth Doctor nor Rose were afraid to challenge each other during times of crisis, but the Tenth Doctor/Rose dynamic – hmmm, it's too cliquey and giggly, and at times comes across as incredibly annoying and smug in stories such as Tooth And Claw or The Idiot's Lantern. Fortunately, there's not so much of that in New Earth, since Rose is – for the most part – possessed by Cassandra.
Ah, Cassandra. Just like a mildly funny joke, it only works the once. After that, it just becomes irritating and second hand news. Not only that, it lessens the impact of her 'death' in The End Of The World. Already, the whole bitchy trampoline routine seems a bit old hat – she now has her own gimp thing called Chip, who resembles a Holby City extra dunked in white paint. Chip actually doesn't get to do much in the story, apart from fawn over his mistress, scream like a woman when chased by zombies and then become a host for what seems to be the love of his life.
"Both Cassandra and the body-swap plot device are older than the dawn of time, but at least Billie provides some form of consolation with a brilliantly judged performance"
On the up side, at least the re-emergence of Cassandra gives Billie Piper the chance to extend her repertoire even further. Piper had already proved that she could deliver the goods in the previous season, and she continues the good work in New Earth with an outrageous but amusing turn as the walking Cassandra. Top marks to Piper for getting Zoe Wanamaker's speech mannerisms just right – standout moments include her feeble attempts at trying to sound Cockney (“I shall proceed up the apples and pears”), her initial horrified reaction (“Oh my God, I'm a chav!”) and her later attempts to woo a slightly baffled Doctor. Both Cassandra and the body-swap plot device are older than the dawn of time, but at least Billie provides some form of consolation with a brilliantly judged performance.
And hey, even The Doctor gets to samba a bit as Cassandra quickly test drives his lanky frame. For some reason, The Doctor starts doing bad Kenneth Williams impersonations when possessed by Cassandra, which I suppose is fair game in a hospital where more innuendoes fly about than in Carry On Matron. Still, David Tennant, while sometimes amusing, isn't quite as consistent as Billie, and in fact, he's mysteriously off the boil for most of the story, which is odd considering that he'd made a fantastic start in The Christmas Invasion (recorded before New Earth, incidentally).
In his quieter, contemplative moments (such as his quiet greeting of the Face Of Boe), Tennant's very good indeed – it's just the manic shouty moments that don't really work. The boggle-eyed, manic fury (“HOW MANY??!!??”) during his rant at Novice Hame is ridiculously overdone – to be fair to Tennant, it's not really his fault: rather the script which requires him to spout out quasi-hardnut tosh like “I'm The Doctor. And if you don't like it... If you want to take it to a higher authority, then there isn't one. It stops with me!” The Doctor has never really had to resort to sad “I'm so powerful and brilliant” tactics before, so this big, grand speech just makes him sound like the nerdy kid trying to sound tough before a pack of bullies in the school playground. And despite his very best efforts, Tennant doesn't really seem that comfortable with this ridiculous proclamation.
"Tennant will become an excellent Doctor in the future, but it's sad that his first season keeps putting obstacles in his way"
Same goes for his manic squealing at the end when the zombies are cured by – er, coloured water. “Completely, completely alive!!” he wails in delight, while declaring “I'm The Doctor and I cured them!” - this just makes him sound like an over-excited toddler who's come first in the local sports day sack race. OK, so this is a new new Doctor who's possessed with a brand new zest for life, but the characterisation is so over the top that it becomes a microscopic dot in the sky. And it's not doing Tennant any favours either, since his Doctor just looks like a shouty juvenile. As I said, Tennant will become an excellent Doctor in the future, but it's sad that his first season keeps putting obstacles in his way – giant toy bricks probably, given The Doctor's childish simpering.
Childish is probably a good way to sum up New Earth – somewhere, deep in the motherlode, there's actually quite an interesting plot just waiting to burst out. The themes of animal testing and vivisection had been explored before in Who, in Full Circle – it's explored here with the idea that the Sisters Of Plenitude use thousands of specially grown human clones to act as lab rats – injected with every disease under the sun, so that they can find cures for their patients. It's a worthy subject for discussion, but it's buried beneath lots of blatantly obvious hand-wringing statements (“If they live because of this, then life is worthless”), bad comedy japes and poor humour.
The humour's just so obvious this time, as Davies inexplicably resorts to Austin Powers-style innuendo to get laughs. “At last I can be revenged on that little bi...” growls Cassandra before we cut to Rose saying “Bit rich coming from you” in a corridor. Clever, eh? Not only that, but a good portion of the episode seems to comprise The Doctor, Rose/Cassandra and Chip running away cartoon-style from the hordes of zombies. Cue lots of close-ups of Chip screeching while either hiding in a giant dustbin or in one of the upright caskets. New Earth, in fact, contains an awful lot of padding, which doesn't progress the plot one instance – the body swap scenes are quite funny in small doses, but they do seem to go on for an age.
And what's worse, when Cassandra beams herself into a female zombie for a nanosecond, she miraculously has a sudden flash of conscience. From a bitchy, greedy trampoline through to a Good Samaritan in the blink of an eye: Wow, that's some turnaround. Presumably, we're supposed to feel for Cassandra and her convenient Damascus moment, but it never rings true for a second, because it's so out of character. The ending also feels a bit forced (despite the excellent acting from Sean Gallagher), since we're being asked to feel pity for a character that never deserved it in the first place.
There's also the issue of the Face of Boe, who's become The Doctor's new chum (even though they never said one word to each other in The End Of The World). Unfortunately, we're left with a bit of a cop-out, since his great message to the “Lonely God” never comes to anything. He never imparts his secret to The Doctor, and instead just fades away with the promise that he will hear it another time – ie: in the next season, when most viewers will probably have forgotten the horror of New Earth. Textbook enigmatic? Possibly – although I'd call it Textbook disappointment.
"The script is uninspiring, contains way too many overdone speeches, and provides some rather weak material for the new Doctor"
Much like most of New Earth. However, there are one or two lights at the end of the tunnel. Billie Piper's excellent acting I've mentioned, but in fact, most of the guest cast are pretty good. Plaudits go to the three actresses playing the Sisterhood: Dona Croll; Adjoa Andoh and Anna Hope, who all add different facets to their characters to make them stick in the mind. Croll's Matron Casp is memorably nasty, but it's Hope who provides the best turn as Novice Hame with her haunting, softly spoken voice and expressive eyes. Hope would prove popular enough to return as Hame in the next season's Gridlock (while Andoh would also re-appear without the make-up to play Francine Jones, Martha's mum). The make-up for the cat nuns is just amazing – a lot of detail and thought went into this, and the end results are very convincing. And also, the make-up for the multiple diseases is well achieved, not to mention the grisly deaths of Casp and Jatt – although why does the random victim woman react with the blank expression of someone who forgot to buy a carton of milk from the grocer's when infected by the moaning zombies?
The visuals are generally arresting, and this is another score for James Hawes, who does his best to inject the flabby script with some kind of urgency. The effects of the flying cars are well done, the interior designs look both expensive and expansive, and there are some well-executed set pieces such as The Doctor and Rose's shower and blow-dry; the pair whooping and hollering down the lift shaft; and the art deco final coda.
Flashy production and direction then, but despite the best efforts of Hawes, the deficiencies of Davies' script sadly can't be hidden. The script is uninspiring, contains way too many overdone speeches, and provides some rather weak material for the new Doctor. The ending's also desperately unoriginal, as The Doctor leaps about in joy as the zombies are miraculously cured Crackerjack-style with coloured liquid and – not for the first time – there are some rather unsubtle Biblical references with the “Pass it on” cure. We've already had this sort of ending with The Empty Child / The Doctor Dances, except that story did it far more genuinely and movingly. Another aspect of New Earth that by contrast feels like old dregs – At a crucial point where you're properly launching both a new Doctor in his first full adventure (no power naps here) and a brand new season, old dregs just won't do.
John Bensalhia limbered up for this mammoth task with a full four-series review of Blake's 7, and writes professionally and recreationally all over the web. Check out his portfolio of work at Wordprofectors.
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