Saturday, 8 March 2014

New Earth written by Russell T Davies and directed by James Hawes

This story in a nutshell: The Doctor visits New Earth and discovers things aren’t quite as they seem…

Mockney Dude: There is a world of difference between Tennant’s faltering performance in this episode and his confident portrayal in Partners in Crime (which I have recently watched) and what really stood out here was that he is trying too hard to impress. There's actually a great deal of his performance here that reminds me of Peter Davison in Four to Doomsday, a nervous actor trying to find his feet in an important part and choosing manic energy and squeaking voices as a default setting. The Doctor’s vicious advance on Novice Haim in the face of the slave pharmacy really hits home how righteously angry he can when he feels strongly enough about a cause. Although I do wonder if it would have been more effective had Tennant chosen to underplay it a bit. Still I wouldn't want to face that torrent of abuse myself. When he says that there is no higher authority than him you have to wonder if he hasn’t gotten a bit to big for his boots as this is exactly the sort of thing I used to criticise the seventh Doctor for in the New Adventures – taking responsibility for the universe and insisting that things were done his way. I’m not sure what gives him the right, he understood that in Genesis of the Daleks but maybe he has been at this lark too long now to see that he can’t manipulate the entire universe into one that he is happy with. Perhaps the loss of the Time Lords has given him something of a God complex, which is something that would develop and build momentum throughout his era and finally explode in his penultimate story. But the first stirrings of that behaviour begins right here. Cassandra inhabiting the Doctor doesn’t work at all for me and not just because Tennant acts like a bad drag act but because of the same reason that The Twin Dilemma troubled so many people – you shouldn’t make the Doctor act like a complete twat in his first full story. There are compensations though; Tennant's reaction after Rose/Cassandra kisses him is a scream and his non-reaction to the decontamination lift really made me chuckle. Tooth and Claw would set up his Doctor far more effectively for me, everything is a bit too self indulgent here.

Chavvy Chick: Since when did people being happy get so annoying? There has been a shift in the dynamic between Rose and the Doctor since Tennant took over and it is now less of a marriage of equals and more about stressing how deliriously happy they are travelling together. People who are happy together don’t have to constantly drive home the fact – that’s what insecure people do when they think they are happy. Trust me, I do it all the time. I really wanted somebody to pass me the sick bucket during the scene where they are lounging on the grass talking about their ‘first date’ – its so cloying I think my blood started to clot. Davies is capable of much subtler characterisation than this and it feels like he is praising his own success a little too much. Cassandra calls Rose a ‘dirty blonde assassin’ which isn't exactly true (she had nothing to do with her murder) but it's very funny nonetheless. Cassandra inhabiting Rose’s body allows Billie Piper to drop all the gooey stuff and have some fun as a seriously bitchy tramp and strangely enough she is much more appealing in that role (‘Nice rear bumper!’). New Earth does set the scene for some overdone moments of happiness between the Doctor and Rose in series two...but as has been pointed out elsewhere Davies was setting up their downfall in Doomsday from afar and trying to make sure that the finale hurts. We might have to experience the smugest Doctor/companion pairing to get there but the pay off sure is devastating.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Goodbye trampoline and hello blondie!’
‘That’s all they are…flesh.’

The Good Stuff: The effects landscape for New Earth is startling after a season that shied away from giving us this kind of impressive planetary surface for budgetary reasons. It is a stirring mixture of modern (the spectacular cityscape) and retro (hover cars). The Cat People make up is really shows the difference between what was capable in 2006 and what was capable in 1989 – the Cheetah People from Survival would have benefited from subtler, more detailed make up such as this (and as a cat owner for years those noses are so uncannily realistic). I like the idea of a run of stories in the same time period that fleshes it out more each time the Doctor visits. The End of the World/New Earth/Gridlock builds up a detailed picture of a time in a way that a 45 minute episode rarely has time to. I do think it is a shame that there wasn't a New Earth tale in series four (in place of The Doctor’s Daughter for example) so Davies took the story right through to his departure. After her attention grabbing debut in The End of the World it wasn’t going to be long before Zoe Wanamaker was back as Cassandra and whilst the character doesn't have the same impact as she did in her debut, she is still a great deal of fun with her bitchy asides and grandiose schemes of body snatching. There is a great deal more depth to her this time around which is rewarding, this isn't simply the case of bringing back a popular character for the sake of it (something that both the classic and new series are both guilty of) but Davies has decided to add layers to her now he has opportunity to revisit her. Shots of the huge underground warehouse housing millions of cloning pods are impressive, it’s a similar effect that they used in Star Trek for the inside of the Borg Cubes and just as memorable. Cassandra’s quietly horrific reaction to being inside the clones head is the one point that I felt Davies managed to add a little depth to his plot without pushing too hard. It's a subtle reaction in a story that is lacking any. The final scene almost makes watching this story worthwhile on it's own, a beautiful moment of redemption for Cassandra where she greets herself at an earlier point in her life and reminds her that she is beautiful. It is so gorgeously played and directed that it feels like belongs in an entirely different episode.

The Bad Stuff: The Millennium Centre is clearly the Millennium Centre and not a hospital on New New Earth. That might seem like facetious comment to make but sometimes you just have to say it like it is. Shooting scenes in the abandoned areas of the hospital gives the show a cheap and nasty look – I was having flashbacks of The Invasion of Time. ‘Oh My God! I’m a Chav!’ is a funny line but it does throw open that question of whether the inhabitants of the universe 5 billion years in the future would be talk in 21st Century slang terms. I doubt it. Davies stretches broad comedy to his limits in giving Cassandra some painfully unfunny cockney to drawl. Should a story that is supposed to be a treatise on slavery and medical experimentation really be hung with such camp and slapstick dressings? The idea of the Sisterhood's medical breakthroughs all being the result of slavery and torture is a powerful one but it hardly has time to be considered when we are being distracted with farcical body swap scenes and Tennant camping it up. Doctor Who has a good track record of confidently switching between comedy and drama but the two genres are presented at such ends of the scale that one actively fights the other. I would much rather this was a seedier episode that concentrated more on the darker underbelly of the Sisterhood's operation. As a result New Earth feels like a watered version of both stories that Davies is trying to tell. Not only that but they don't feel like they should be part of the same episode at all. The only point in which Cassandra's body swapping has any impact on the 'clone meat' plot is when she (in desperation) has to pop into the body of one of the victims. Otherwise the two plots exist side by side, fighting for dominance. Why would Cassandra snog the Doctor when he was the one that tried to kill her? Or is that Rose's deep rooted feelings bubbling to the surface? Mind you how can Rose have such affection for this new Doctor...she has only just met him! If Cassandra can read Rose’s mind surely she can see that she doesn’t understand any of the technical jargon she is pouring from her mouth. Or is this a really obvious marker for the kiddos at home to explain how the Doctor knows that Rose isn’t Rose. If so it makes long me for the days of sophisticated plotting and characterisation of the classic series. A dazzling city filled with fit people who are unwillingly (and unknowingly) sucking the goodness out of force bred clones to keep healthy – this should be really powerful stuff but because we never get to visit the City and meet the people and force them to understand the implications of the secret behind their prolonged lives it has no bite. We just assume that once the hospital was shut down the secret was leaked. Cut out the body swapping nonsense and make this a split narrative set half in the hospital and half in the city and show the cause and effect of the cures that are being administered and the shock knowledge of how they came about. It's not like Davies not to make the drama cutting and personal but he avoids holding a mirror up to society who just want a quick fix at the expense of a tortured species and instead focuses on them as a slave race who need to be liberated in a very clichéd Doctor Who plot. You could cut out the whole sequence of the Doctor and Rose leaping down a lift shaft for a start which adds nothing but spectacle and wastes time that could be spend add a little substance to the scenario. Spraying the clones with the various solutions and watching them all hugging each other is not only an insultingly easy solution but also irredeemably twee one. What was Davies thinking? The kids in the audience aren't so simple that they need things boiled down quite this simply. The more interesting consequences like what happened to the Sisterhood now they have been exposed is ignored altogether.

Result: With a slave race being exploited, the villain doing a very bad impression of the companion, a new Doctor making his debut and making a tit out of himself and a scene with a character screaming ‘let me out!’ from inside a plastic cubicle it is heartbreaking to see Davies paying tribute to another classic tale – Time and the Rani! Considering the effects work, the make up and the amount of extras on display it is an oddly cheap looking episode that dodges the dramatic bullet at every turn when what was needed was a sizzling re-instatement of the best of the first series. As a comedy it fails because it isn’t very funny with some arch and embarrassing performances from the leads and as a tragedy it bombs because there is simply no time to give any substance to the situation. It's agonisingly sentimental in places (I always take a sick bucket for the first scenes with the Doctor and Rose) in a way that Doctor Who has never dared to be before and it swaps mature storytelling for a childish tone and overly simplistic solutions. Contradictory to this, the last scene manages to be one of the best moments in the entire Davies era for its stark emotion and you have to wonder what this could have been like had the whole piece been written this powerfully. New Earth reminds me of a dopey puppy that desperately wants to be liked but unfortunately all it deserves is a good kick. There's a much stronger story to be told that ejects all the body swapping frivolities and focuses more on the dark underbelly of the Sisterhood's operation and it's effect on New New York: 4/10


Audrey the Leviathan Vampire Girl said...

I've always enjoyed this one, but then I also enjoy 'Time and the Rani'.

David Pirtle said...

Well it isn't AS bad as Time and the Rani, but it is certainly the worst thing the new series did up to this point. I also get nauseated by the opening scenes, which officially herald in the era of the 'Boyfriend Doctor,' something that didn't serve either the Doctor or Rose very well. I remember being excited to see the return of Cassandra, but then I was excited to see the return of the Rani, too.