Tony’s feeling under the weather.
When it hit screens, New Earth had a lot of jobs to do and a lot of pressure to do them well. While The Christmas Invasion had laboured the point of regeneration, and David Tennant had blown the doors of the new incarnation of the Doctor using more or less just the last ten minutes, New Earth would be the actual proof of concept for the 21st century – the Troughton Moment, if you like, when new viewers would either take to the idea of the Doctor being entirely different but yet the same, or they wouldn’t, and the revival would face diminishing viewing figures and a slide into what would probably be the show’s final on-screen demise.
For the Series 2 launch, showrunner Russell T Davies served up a cocktail of old and new that he hoped would bridge the gap while also giving enough of a flavour of the new Doctor’s difference from what had come before.
The question of whether it works seems academic ten years on – arguably if it hadn’t, we wouldn’t have had any of the years that have followed. Watched again a decade after broadcast, it stands up better than at least some of us felt it did on first viewing, probably because more of its intentions feel clear now than they did then.
It opens with powerful scenes of the new Doctor in his Tardis, operating controls with confidence, and David Tennant’s trademark Ten smile growing, infectiously, on his face, while the soap opera elements go on outside – Rose preparing properly this time for a trip in time and space. One thing The Christmas Invasion had distinctly done was to show this new Doctor’s comparative comfort with Rose’s family and her life back home, altering the dynamic immediately, so this send-off was put front and centre to remind us how things had changed.
After the credits, things get just a little sickly pretty quickly – the new Doctor and Rose getting almost snuggly, expressing love for…the life of travel, grinning and almost mooning over each other. There’s a sense of being voyeurs on a date – a sense exacerbated by Rose’s assertion that the end of the world had been their ‘first date.’ Moving the story to the hospital via the handy fast-forward button of the psychic paper helps break up the goo factor, but by then we already know who’s skulking in the basement – Cassandra, somehow alive, and neatly recognising Rose, rather than the Doctor in his new body.
The mystery in the hospital is fairly Classic Who fare – something’s going on that’s too good to be true, and the Doctor wants to find out how it works. The healing of diseases for which there should be no cure is a great moral dilemma for a Who story, and in itself it helps highlight another difference of the new show – moral complexity. Davies had dabbled with that in the Eccleston era, in scripts like Rob Shearman’s Dalek, and his own Boom Town especially, but this story had the potential to be chilling. Petrifold Regression is one thing, made up to soften the impact, but have a loved one with a real disease like cancer and a facility promising to cure them, and the moral dilemma stands in sharp relief. How hard would you look into how the cure was derived and delivered? That’s the point made by the cat nuns in this story – they actually do good. It’s whether the cost can be borne that’s the issue.
There are some gorgeous, almost Ark-In-Space-How-It-Should-Have-Looked visuals when the Doctor and Cassandra (hitching a lift in Rose’s body) uncover the secret at the core of all the hospital’s curative powers, and we get a couple of what, looking back, became classic Tennant notes – the very first ‘I’m sorry. I’m so sorry’ is here, as is the explosion of furious, self-righteous anger. We hadn’t really got that anger in The Christmas Invasion, but there it is, very different to Eccleston’s desperate fury at the Daleks. This is more measured, more considered, a Time Lord who keeps his anger at himself and the universe tightly bottled, but who can still unleash it where it’s needed.
With the release of ‘the flesh,’ the second act of New Earth becomes even more Classic Who in its approach – with the quarantine in place, the patients and visitors are potential victims in a base-under-siege story, with added zombie fun, and it gives the new Doctor a chance to establish himself as different to his predecessor – while the Ninth Doctor was still scarred by the Time War, and longed for days where just once, everybody lived, the Tenth Doctor determines, almost perversely, with the stuck-out tongue of a toddler, that he’s going to be better than that, that he’s going to take on the disease-touch of the flesh, the righteous anger of the cat nuns and the classic, self-serving small-minded panic of those who are trapped in the hospital and want nothing but to escape. He will take on all that, plus Cassandra’s self-interest and the danger to Rose, and he will win, because he’s the Doctor, and his way is to save people. It’s a case of the Physician healing himself, by proving he can do what he used to do, before the Time War and the tremendous guilt it left him with.
And so it unfolds – by the rather ‘no time to explain’ expedient of mixing some curative chemicals together and taking a shower in them, he becomes that thing that the Doctor has always been: a beacon of improvement, which makes you better if you simply touch it and pass it on. This is a Tenth Doctor smug and grinning, a Tenth Doctor testing himself out and not taking no for an answer from even the universe – in a very real sense it’s a Doctor who remembers the triumph of The Doctor Dances and determines to live his life more in that way than he has, a Doctor who finally feels fully healed after his part in the Time War (however naïve a feeling that may be), prepared to really take up the mantle of ‘The Doctor’ again, with everything it entails.
Of course, there are holes in New Earth – as soon as the infectious zombie horde is clean, and declared a brand new race of cloned humans, the cat nuns are all rounded up by New New York police, having, it seems, no spirit for a fight based on the morality of doing good they have cited to justify their actions. The whole reason for the Doctor’s visit – a message from the Face of Boe – dissipates at the end after a conversation the Doctor accurately describes as ‘textbook enigmatic.’ And the final solution to the question of ‘what to do with Cassandra’ is rather conveniently engineered through an old movie of ‘the last time anyone told me I was beautiful’ and Chip, her cloned, half-life, worshipful slave. The loop that allows her to engage in quite a selfish act of emotional onanism works well enough, and delivers a yearning note on which to end a story that has been mostly about renewal and redefinition, but it relies on a change of heart for which there’s little evidence right up to the moment it takes place. The link between Cassandra’s experience inside the head of the infected ‘flesh’ and her sudden acceptance of the need to die is not made strongly enough, so it feels like authorial convenience. Watching it again after ten years though, the most jarring note is the comedy and wordplay – the ‘bit rich’ segue, the ‘Ask not!’ imprecation from Cassandra (which considering her otherwise normal mode of speech is positively crowbarred in to be funny), the faux cockney from Cassandra-Rose, and the reincarnation of Cassandra in both Rose and the Doctor as camp to an almost ludicrous degree. In particular, the Cassandra-Doctor’s words to Rose about her noticing the sexiness of the new Doctor come across as cringe-making, rather than the invasive wold-shaking moments they could be. Compare and contrast with Buffy The Vampire Slayer’s Once More With Feeling episode, which did the same thing, speaking the unspoken, and the New Earth version feels like Carry On Mind-Invading.
But if these things stop New Earth ever being a classic, they never stop it being a breath of fresh air. While Eccleston’s Ninth Doctor was brilliant, New Earth is all about announcing that the new Doctor is ready for the wider universe – with a grin, a laugh, a mouth that won’t stop, but still with the convictions of his previous selves and with a touch of the Time Lord Victorious already about him, acting as the highest authority. New Earth is never going to be the story you point to as quintessential Tenth Doctor adventuring, But as a reboot after his regeneration, it lays down quite a lot of the groundwork for the Time Lord the Tenth Doctor would become.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly
nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who,
Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the
70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By
runs an editing house, largely as an
excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book.
With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk