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?
New Earth inspires no such confidence. The title's 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. So much for the promise of the cool pre-credits teaser in which an excited Doctor Ten 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, the Doctor's and Rose's destination isn't that hot: a soggy October day on the top of the South Downs. 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 sangers and drinking watery wine.
Mind you, the overstated gushing sentimentality is competition. “Can I just say... travelling wiv you? I love it!” gushes Rose – er, to a bloke that she hardly 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 is 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.
The Doctor/Rose lovey-dovey stuff sets up the loose season arc of the two getting even closer. To be 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 is 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 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 is old hat. She now has her own pet gimp 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.
On the up side, at least the re-emergence of Cassandra gives Billie Piper the chance to extend her repertoire 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.
The mystery here though is that 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 the manic shouty moments that don't 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 his fault: rather a 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 had to resort to sad “I'm so powerful and brilliant” tactics before, so this big, grand speech makes him sound like the nerdy kid trying to sound tough before a pack of bullies in the school playground. Despite his very best efforts, Tennant doesn't seem comfortable at all with this ridiculous proclamation.
Same goes for his manic squealing at the end when the zombies are cured by coloured water. “Compleeeeeteleeeeeee, compleeeeteleeeeeeeee alive!!” he wails in delight, while declaring “I'm the Doctor and I cured them!” - it's the sound of an over-excited five-year-old who's come first in the school sports day sack race. Introducing a new new Doctor who's possessed with a brand new zest for life isn't a crime, but the characterisation is so over the top that it becomes a microscopic dot in the sky. It's not doing Tennant any favours either, since his Doctor carries on 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 waiting to burst out. The themes of animal testing and vivisection had been explored before 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. These human guinea pigs are injected with every disease under the sun, so that the Sisters 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.
For no good reason, Davies inexplicably resorts to Austin Powers-style innuendo to get laughs. “At last I can be revenged on that little bi...” growls Cassandra before cutting 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 cartoony running around as the Doctor, Rose/Cassandra and Chip sprint away from 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 seem to go on for an age.
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 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, despite neither character saying one word to each other in The End Of The World. Unfortunately, we're left with a cop-out, since Boe's great message to the “Lonely God” never comes to anything. He never imparts his secret to the Doctor, and instead 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.
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 amazing. A lot of detail and thought went into this, and the end results are very convincing. The make-up for the multiple diseases is also well achieved, not to mention the grisly deaths of Casp and Jatt – mind you, 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 wafer-thin 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 New Earth's script sadly can't be hidden. The script is uninspiring, contains way too many overdone speeches, and provides some weak material for the new Doctor. The story ends on an unoriginal note 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 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 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.
* Visit other intergalactic destinations in my ebook guides to the Third, Fourth and Fifth Doctors.
JON PERTWEE ERA - £3.86
TOM BAKER ERA VOL 1 - £3.07
TOM BAKER ERA VOL 2 - £2.51
PETER DAVISON ERA - £2.98