Doctor Who: The RTD Years Vol. 1 - Revisiting NEW EARTH - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Doctor Who: The RTD Years Vol. 1 - Revisiting NEW EARTH

New Doctor. New Earth. Same old Tony.
And so it begins.

Having promised a bold new chatty way of being the Doctor in Born Again, and barnstormed his way through the last act of The Christmas Invasion, David Tennant takes over the Tardis for his first full-on, post-regenerative story as the Tenth Doctor in New Earth.

And… erm… it’s a bit naff, really.

New Earth could be said to announce its own slight self-dissatisfaction in its title, inasmuch as the most interesting thing abut it is that it takes place on a planet with a name. Arguably of course, it’s a symbolic name that wraps up a lot of significance in its newness, but it is rather hard to care about that newness when it’s a conceit only introduced at the start of this episode.

What New Earth does deliver is the third zombie apocalypse in just over one series of Doctor Who – gas-zombies in The Unquiet Dead, nanite zombies in The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances and now proper diseased zombies. What’s more, New Earth borrows heavily from the first series to establish more of the Davies universe of Who – the Face of Boe and Cassandra, from The End of the World, are both back to display differing attitudes to the “New New Doctor.”

The Face of Boe, while genuinely delivering some textbook enigmatic throughout the episode by the time-honoured method of simply sitting there and having legends told about him, functions in plotting terms to bring the Doctor and Rose to the planet for the second of three meetings he’s destined to have with our favourite Time Lord.

He has no surprise at the Doctor’s changed appearance, and they talk as old friends – which is perhaps unsurprising, given future revelations about the Face. Meanwhile, Cassandra is outraged at the Doctor’s face-changing hypocrisy, almost railing against the Time Lord trickery that has kept him alive.

And the central storyline itself is - whisper this quietly – lifted like a fillet of fish from its skeleton straight from the Steven Moffatt-written The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances. As Doctor Constantine in that story expresses it, it’s a case of “Physical injuries…as plague.”

But to help us disassociate the two stories, Davies removes us from the dinge and darkness of World War II London, and takes us to a sleek, futuristic hospital for much more traditional, Classic Who-style base under siege action.

A hospital that’s too good at its job is, on first principles, a joyously mysterious idea, and the fact that he’s been invited to come and investigate by persons or faces initially unknown just adds to that sense of intrigue.

It’s worth noting that the energy of New Earth is absolutely different to the energy of any of the Eccleston episodes. The pre-credits sequence has none of the story set-up or drama of most episodes in the Eccleston era – it’s all about the new Doctor getting to know his Tardis, and Rose Tyler taking proper leave of her mother and Mickey (who notably says he loves her, getting just a “Bye” in return). For nothing but nitpicking pleasure, it’s also sunny and daylight when they leave, rather than the Christmas Day snowy night it was when they were deciding which star to visit first at the end of The Christmas Invasion.

This Doctor feels young - in fact, almost uncomfortably callow - and Rose clumsily tries to express her newish feelings by dropping the word “love” into two sequential sentences about the experience of travelling with him. If her relationship with the Ninth Doctor was “better than that” when examined for romance, there’s been a definite shift in the energy now she’s grown used to the more traditionally fanciable Tenth – and it’s a shift that’s noted even within the course of this episode (by Cassandra, after popping into Rose’s head), let alone along the road to Doomsday at the end of Series 2.

The rest of the story is an odd mixture of comedy and action, with some healthy RTD creativity along the way. Cat… nurse… nuns run the hospital to which the Face of Boe has summoned them. Because, why wouldn’t they? The sequence with the Doctor and Rose being disinfected in the lift still raises laughs in 2023. Cassandra (Zoe Wannamaker) has, if anything, grown more sharply… well, we hate to say “catty” in the context of this story, but waspish, certainly, and it begins to feel all a little too much even before she starts bodyswapping.

When the bodyswapping starts, the whole thing takes on a Red Dwarf meets Carry On vibe, and while Billie Piper carries it off well, let the record show that stage and screen legend David Tennant camps it up like Christmas, to the detriment of a couple of scenes. The whole bodyswapping vertical chase feels like comic redundancy, although it does add some height and layering to the adventure, rather than the altogether more traditional “running down corridors.”

There’s an energy in scenes like the lift-drop that announces that “the new Doctor” is here, because while Eccleston never especially shied away from running and jumping and physical action, there’s a whole different level to the Tennant stunt, underscored by both the speed of the descent and the pumping music. This, it announces, it what the new Doctor is like.

For more on what the new Doctor is like, there are some slightly worrying but never less than interesting hints. The Ninth Doctor was never particularly above acting as a final sanction, a great big brick wall against which the plans of the universe’s combined gits could dash themselves (particularly when it came to teleports, as both Cassandra and Blon Fel Fotch Pasameer Day Slitheen found out), but he rarely took to grandstanding about his power and authority, except when up against the Daleks – who frankly deserved it.

This Doctor, on encountering the Cats’ human flesh farm and the colossal suffering it entails, gets his Sixth Doctor righteous anger on, and firmly tells them there’s no higher authority than him, and what he says goes. And where the Ninth Doctor almost begged the universe for a day when his plans worked and everybody lived in The Doctor Dances, this new Doctor appears to have a rock hard, reckless self-belief – “I’m the Doctor, and I saved them!”. The humility of the Ninth Doctor’s joy when “Everybody lives, Rose! Just this once, everybody lives!” is burned away into a simple, triumphal “Ha!” from the Tenth Doctor.

Cassandra’s change of mind over her very survival comes incredibly fast and adds a jerky convenient tone to the ending, which, despite the moving moment where she realises how devastatingly lonely the farmed flesh is, fails to particularly redeem her – though the final sequence, which shows her one-time compassion for a fellow creature, manages to act as an object lesson in what it means to be the last (or any) human.

And perhaps as an antidote to the monolithic authority, raging action, and triumphant self-congratulation of the Tenth Doctor’s first post-regenerative outing, it’s telling that the final scene doesn’t show this new Doctor in that mood. There’s no smile, no quirky, sudden grin. There’s the Tenth Doctor’s frown, as he moodily moves out of shot. It’s a postscript that says “Under no circumstances mess with me” – more or less his last note to the alien invaders of The Christmas Invasion, too.

There will, it suggests, always be darkness bubbling along under the surface of the Tenth Doctor, for all he fills our screens with comedy, quirkiness, action, and an absolute moral authority drawn from the Classic era. The energy might be different, and the plot is, if not exactly recycled, then distinctly an homage to things we’ve seen before, but the darkness of the 21st century Doctor under Russell T Davies is still alive, and occasionally kicking to get out.

Tony Fyler lives in a concrete cave, somewhere on the edge of the sea, with his wife, who exists, and the Fictional People In His Head, who don't as yet. A journalist and editor by day, he has written Some Books, and is more or less always writing another. One day, he may even get around to showing them to people. In the meantime, he's Script Editor and occasional Executive Producer at Third Time Lucky Productions, and a proud watcher of things no-one remembers they remember until they remember.

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