We were partying with the aristocracy of the Nineteen Twenties, and there was something unpleasant in the attic being kept hidden from the guests. How times change. In the future, it's being hidden in the basement!
The Year Five Billion. Strictly speaking, we were introduced to this distant future setting in "The End of the World", but that was a select gathering of the plus plus super-rich. Not that we aren't still moving in exclusive circles; clearly the patients who can afford the services of the Sisters of Plenitude are extortionately well-heeled, but New Earth broadens out the canvas from space-going party venue Platform One to, well, brave new worlds…
And finally… finally!... after a whole season of stories set on or very slightly abve our own planet, we get a World in new Doctor Who that isn't the Earth. It's called New Earth.
Ten Reasons To Watch "New Earth" (warning: spoilers)
- All of the tenth Doctor is here – It's only David Tennant's second episode (and he was asleep, recovering from regeneration, for most of his first, "The Christmas Invasion") but so many of the tropes of his era, for better or worse, start right here: the excessive clinginess with Rose; the "lonely god" thing; the self-righteousness, and self-appointed "no higher authority" status; we even get the first use of his "tragic" catchphrase: "I'm sorry, so sorry"!
You may now squee
But we're also, starting here, getting the sense of tragedy that enfolds the tenth Doctor: his anger is his fatal flaw: it unlocks his hubris and he starts asserting that he – specifically in his tenth self, it seems – is the highest authority, he knows best and he can impose authoritarian solutions – as when he flew off the handle and deposed Harriet Jones, leading to the rise of Mr Saxon; as when he goes all "Time Lord Victorious" in "The Waters of Mars". His clinginess with Rose foreshadows the heartbreak at the end of the year, as though he knows it's coming – and as a Time Lord he just might. You seem only to list two “for better” after a string of worse!
"Song for Ten", from "The Christmas Invasion" but often referenced by Murray Gold, includes the lines: "I wish today could be like every other day / Because today has been the best day". And this encapsulated ten's misfortune: his very best day was his first day; everything was downhill from there; disappointment upon betrayal; culminating in the loss of Rose, and then Martha and then Donna.
Tennant does a thing that Eccleston also did which is to drop the animation from his face entirely at moments. But where the ninth Doctor was revealing that his foolery was to cover bleak despair; the tenth is hiding inextinguishable fury. Denial and then anger, it seems the Doctor is moving though the stages of grief, post Time War, post Gallifrey.
- But it's a comedy – While both 2007 and 2008's opening stories ("Smith and Jones" and "Partners in Crime") are also light-hearted romps, "New Earth" is way more out there than either of them. The cross-cutting of dialogue ("I'll get revenge on that little—"/"—bit rich coming from you" and "you're talking out of your—"/"—ask not!") is very Russell Davies, but to achieve Carry On ends. And the diseases of the rich and famous – Petrifold Regression and Marconi Syndrome to name but two – seem calculatedly crackers.
And that's before we get to the body-swapping hijinks and hilarious peril-escapes: the Doctor's not even established his new character yet, and he's already getting possessed by Lady Cassandra channelling the spirit of Charles Hawtrey. It certainly give Billie Piper a chance to flex her acting muscles with a very different character (and her proper accent – it’ll be Davy T's turn next week) but Mr Tennant… well, "no, no don't do that."
...with HILARIOUS results!
Overall, it's a bizarre choice to open a season with such an oddball, off-beat episode. And in fact, it works vastly better if you watch it as episode two following on from the more "straight" "The Christmas Invasion".
- But it's a horror comedy – It's a story about possession and vivisection and plague carriers. On the one hand the implicit linking of these two different ways of destroying liberty is a pretty strong Liberal message. On the other hand, "pretty strong" rather describes the content for early evening hilarity.
the horror, the horror
- In fact, it's Day (Nurse) of the Dead – Like George Romero's zombie classic, this can be seen as a social satire, with the super-rich literally quarantining themselves from the heaving masses. Who are Zombies. The jovial Duke of New Manhattan throwing his ample frame into the fray to keep the doors sealed may seem almost heroic, until you think about what he's actually doing – saving himself. Though of course it's the hangers-on – here in the person of officious Frau Clovis – who are the really nasty ones when it comes to defending their privileges.
this is satire
The Sisters of Plenitude refer to their plague zombies as "the flesh", as in, presumably, "the flesh is weak", though, also presumably, not the white goop from "The Rebel Flesh"/"The Almost People". They're not really supposed to be self-aware – putting this into a category of morality play about testing on animals, where we decide that it's "OK" if they're dumb animals and not if they start to think, talk or indeed beg us to stop.
- And Cat Nuns – The Sisters are cats. Where "The End of the World" had trees that had evolved into humanoid (or Gallifreanoid) form, here we have felines. It's a classic sci-fi trope of Russell's, though one that the series generally avoided for its first twenty-six years of the alien that's a bit like an earth animal. The following year would bring us "Space Rhinos" in the form of the Judoon, before it all gets extremely silly with the humanoids-with-flies'-heads in "Planet of the Dead".
At least here the cat-nuns have the excuse of being (a) five billion years in the future and (b) descendants of planet Earth who (like the trees) have probably been engineered to look semi-human by humans in the intervening billennia.
The look of the cats, achieved mostly though make-up rather than prosthetic, is terrific, though. (In fact, the difficulty of achieving this sort of look is probably why the classic series steered clear – see also the "fun fur" cheetah people in "Survival".) Particular kudos to whoever thought of having veiled nuns to pad out the numbers so that extras can be cat-nuns (with hidden faces) without the need for extensive make-up time (handy when you're already doing a lot of extras up as plague zombies).
- Novice Hame – All three of the "lead" cats are excellent – Doña Croll as Matron Casp and Adoja Andoh (of "Casualty", but also later Martha's mum) as Sister Jatt, but in particular Anna Hope as junior Novice Hame. It's a beautiful and varied performance, full of depth, from her innocent wonder at the Face of Boe and the stories about him to her remorse as she is led away at the end. Hame, whose very name suggests "shame", is guilty, along with the rest of her Sisterhood, of crimes against the sentience of the flesh, but she at least appears to try to make up for it by confessing to the Doctor. Unfortunately she didn't encounter the sixth Doctor; the tenth is not so much of a cat person.
(Though if you enjoy Anna Hope's performance, she does get to appear with Old Sixie as DI Menzies in a trio of Big Finish adventures: "The Condemned", "The Raincloud Man" and "The Crimes of Thomas Brewster", all well worth a listen.)
And speaking of performances…
- Lady Cassandra – is played here by no fewer than five different actors: Zoe Wannamaker reprising her voice-role from "The End of the World" and as a pre-flatness Cassandra; Billie Piper; David Tennant; one of the zombies; and Sean Gallagher, who has been portraying Cassandra's "pet", Chip: another engineered being that she describes as a "half life".
Not a single Chip and PIN joke, though
And yet it's Gallagher's performance as Cassandra that is the most touching: as she realises not only that she is dying, but that it's okay; that her time, the time of "pure" humanity has passed, and that it is surely time for the new new humans to take over.
- So in fact it's a tragedy – The real tragedy, though, comes from the Ouroboros loop that the Doctor creates by taking the dying Cassandra/Chip back to the party for the Thracian ambassador. Not only is Chip designed based on his own pattern, which therefore comes from "nowhere" (or is a "gift from time" as the New Adventures would have it), but the last person to tell Lady Cassandra that she is beautiful is… herself.
And the version of herself to whom she is saying this is the one before all the flatness, as though she recognises the truth of what Rose told her about nipping and tucking away all the humanity in herself.
- Because no one is entirely human any more – The flesh become New New Humans. The Cats have as much claim to humanity as the Duke of Manhattan. With the Earth gone, suddenly the human race has a whole new future to look forward to – or in fact the post-human race; it's a term coined by Lawrence Miles (see "Alien Bodies") for the descendants of humanity after the Earth is destroyed, and clearly picked up by Russell Davies if only obliquely in Lady Cassandra's claim to be "the last human": or, the last – as she specifies - pure human; as opposed to all those others who were too darn Liberal and… mingled…
(And in the previous story, the Sycorax were a bunch of voodoo cultists wearing bone masks… just sayin')
But then even Cassandra "mingles" when she finds herself having to body swap into one of the flesh, and it's from that experience that she appear to learn her lesson.
The Doctor wasn't murdering her in "The End of the World"; he just knew too well the burden of living on as the last of your kind when your time has passed.
- Textbook enigmatic – The whole story occurs, ostensibly, because the Face of Boe (a giant head-in-a-tank seen in the background of "The End of the World") has a message to deliver to the Doctor. He summons the Time Lord by the psychic paper, and we hear that he has one great secret to impart before he dies. And then he decides to bugger off instead.
Big Ol' Boe Face
What Else Should I Tell You About "New Earth"?My original review is here.
As part of the BBC's general attempt to broaden itself into new-fangled multi-media presentation, the 2006 series of Doctor Who came with mini-prequel episodes called "TARDISodes".
Unlike the Moffat era, these preludes, prologues and prequels tend to be more amuse-bouche than plot critical (except possibly the one for "School Reunion"), but they are a nice touch and obviously ought to have been included as VAM on the DVD releases…
If you need one, my score:
It's just too much of a roller-coaster between the slapstick and the Grand Guignol. And the Moffat-eqsue "everybody (not already dead) lives" ending is just plain daft. (To be fair: Moffat nicks "Did you miss me" from "The Christmas Invasion" for "Sherlock"). The cat make-up looks lovely, and the pre-titles with Mickey and Jackie and the last ten minutes as Cassandra reaches acceptance are from a much better, but darker episode.
If You Like "New Earth", Why Not Try…"City of Death" – Doctor Who was very often funny, but very rarely an out-and-out comedy; when it tried the results were often… mixed (compare "The Romans", "The Myth Makers" and, er, "The Chase"). Season Seventeen, script-edited by Douglas Adams, was the nearest the show did to a run of "comedy", and "City of Death" is considered the apotheosis of the fourth Doctor's charm and whimsy. Even this is more "wit" than a string of gags.
"Partners in Crime" – A far more successful use of Russell's comedy cold open, reintroducing Catherine Tate as (new and improved) Donna Noble, the jokes are sharper, the performances tighter and the stakes are lower adding up to a much more enjoyable hour.