|Blue Steel, you say…|
It’s April 15th, 2006. Gnarls Barkley is at number one with “Crazy.” The Black Eyed Peas, the Pussycat Dolls (with will.i.am from the Black Eyed Peas), Pink, and Mary J Blige and U2 (collaborating on a version of the latter’s “One”) also chart.
The four months since the Sycorax were repelled seem long, not least because they were extended via a leap second. Ariel Sharon suffered a severe stroke that resulted in his formal removal from office the day before this story aired. (He remains in a coma.) The Winter Olympics took place in Turin, and the Hajj took place in Saudi Arabia, the latter resulting in the deaths of three hundred and sixty-two people during the stoning of the devil ritual. A swan with Avian Flu was discovered in Scotland, marking the first UK case of the disease. While in the vicinity of this story Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announces that Iran has successfully enriched uranium, and Proof, a member of the hip hop group D12 (which also features Eminem) is shot and killed in Detroit.
It is worth reflecting on the somewhat odd social conditions in which a season premiere exists. Doctor Who is, of course, terribly successful and popular, but it’s also been out of the popular consciousness for four months. It thus has to announce itself with a bang of some sort. But the bang is not, this time, “here is what Doctor Who is.” It is “Doctor Who is back.” This is a different sort of announcement. Rose had to introduce the idea of Doctor Who, charting out new ground. New Earth, on the other hand, has to remind people what Doctor Who is and that they like it.
On the other hand, New Earth does have an introduction to do. It’s just a very strange one. On the one hand New Earth was transmitted a day short of the one-year anniversary of Tennant being announced as the Tenth Doctor. On the other hand, despite having been culturally in the role for a year at that point (having been the rumored consensus since Eccleston’s departure was announced on March 30th), Tennant has only actually spent about twenty minutes on screen being the Doctor instead of being the guy who’s going to be the Doctor. So in that regard he does need to be introduced, albeit for something like the fifth time. (His press announcement, The Parting of the Ways, Pudsey Cutaway, The Christmas Invasion)
The result is a story that must introduce the Tenth Doctor by being as straightforwardly Doctor Who as it is possible to be. This is ultimately accomplished by, for the second story in a row, making Tennant work with his predecessor’s guest cast. But in The Christmas Invasion this was a guest cast he was legitimately inheriting – Mickey and Jackie would go on to appear in numerous other episodes in the Tennant era. This is more akin to Robot, Tom Baker’s debut story, in which he did one of two runarounds with Jon Pertwee’s UNIT guest cast. Here Tennant is dealing with the Lady Cassandra, last seen in The End of the World, in what is in hindsight the second part of Russell T Davies’s trilogy of stories featuring the Face of Boe.
This serves two purposes. First, as mentioned, it is familiar. The Doctor fights an enemy that we know. Perhaps more significantly, he fights a relatively low rent enemy that we know. Lady Cassandra is not, on her own merits, a particularly impressive threat so much as she’s a skin trampoline. The Doctor can handle Lady Cassandra. This invites us to enjoy ourselves, tacitly flagging the episode as a bit of a romp instead of as something comparatively difficult and scary.
Second, this time Lady Cassandra’s in a body-snatching plot, spending most of the episode in Rose’s body and thus played by Billie Piper instead of Zoë Wanamaker. Where The Christmas Invasion defined the Doctor in negative, allowing us to see his absence in the space around Rose, New Earth defines him in isolation, taking Rose away from him for virtually the entire episode. Their last scene together before her posession is at the five minute mark, and we don’t actually get an exchange between them again until four-and-a-half minutes from the end.
So what we get is essentially thirty-five minutes straight of David Tennant larking about in a comedic plot. In some ways this is an extension of his twenty minute turn at the end of The Christmas Invasion, though the story goes out of its way to put the Doctor through more of his paces and to make him do all of the standard stuff: anger, horror (“I’m so, so sorry”), explaining the plot, running through corridors, et cetera. But truth be told, New Earth is a relatively slender story, its plot so threadbare that it actually entails a serious effort at having the Doctor cure zombies infected with “every disease ever” via a contagious shower.
I’m not usually one to complain about Russell T Davies’s somewhat, shall we say, capricious plot resolutions, but this one is particularly abrupt, and more to the point, falls afoul of the get-out clause by which Davies usually salvages these things. Typically Davies’s plot resolutions get away with it because they are more about the consequences of resolving the plot than about the actual plot logic thereof. So while the whole “Bad Wolf” thing makes only a dodgy amount of sense it works because the resolution isn’t really about the time paradox, it’s about Rose and the Doctor each giving up everything to save each other.
But here the plot isn’t actually about the plague zombies in any sense, and the resolution of curing them is on the whole fairly vapid. The closest thing to an excuse is that the real plot isn’t the plague zombies, but the matter of Cassandra and what to do with her consciousness, but even that’s oddly rushed: she weirdly goes from not wanting to die while in Rose’s body to being OK with it in Chip’s. Were it not for the final scene of bringing her back to see her legitimately human self the resolution would completely flop.
Admittedly it’s hamstrung by a bizarre technical snafu. Several scenes of the location shoot around where the TARDIS lands were lost because of a technical fault with a camera, among them an entire sequence in which Cassandra-in-Chip, the Doctor, and Rose return to the TARDIS. We’ll talk more about this scene in a bit, but for now let’s note that its exclusion undoubtedly hampered the already strained resolution.
But all of this dances around the fact that New Earth was designed to be a slender and digestible trifle. That’s how Russell T Davies begins seasons – with big, fun episodes full of visual set pieces. Given his demonstrable success with the show, it’s difficult to argue with this logic, and it’s telling that Moffat has retained the structure for three of his five season premieres. When re-establishing Doctor Who there are worse things to start with than reminding everybody that it is terribly fun.
It’s also worth noting that this is quite well-thought-out fun. The episode uses the same “get to the top” structure that Dalek borrowed from Paradise Towers, only at high speed, completing two full journeys up and down the hospital. On the commentary Davies goes on at slightly ludicrous length about his belief that up-and-down motion is cinematic while left-to-right motion is televisual, but he is right that the sharply contrasting basement and ward twenty-six visuals provide the story with a sense of motion, and the breathless energy generated by the rainbow-bag-laden Doctor’s rapid descent to save everybody almost lets them actually get away with the plot.
On top of that, the acting is great. It’s easy to forget the challenges of a possession plot, and here they’re exacerbated considerably: fully five separate actors play Cassandra over the course of the story, and they have to successfully give the character an emotional arc while, in three cases, maintaining the character as distinct from their regular characters. David Tennant’s Zoë Wanamaker imitation is outrageously funny (if you can keep a straight face for “Oh baby, I’m beating out a samba!” then I salute you), but the real credit here has to go to Billie Piper and Sean Gallagher. Billie Piper is impeccable, managing to pitch Cassandra, Rose, and Cassandra pretending to be Rose as distinct performances, with the hilarious detail of using a more padded bra and a pinker shade of lipstick when possessed.
But it’s Sean Gallagher who has the really impressive job to do. Gallagher spends forty minutes of the episode as a bumbling henchman, then has four minutes in which he has to suddenly play Cassandra and sell the entire dramatic ending nearly single-handedly. This requires him to make Chip memorable enough that we care when he’s possessed, which Gallagher manages by giving him a host of carefully chosen physical gestures, and then to separate hit a big dramatic scene playing, essentially, a completely different character.
Also impressive is Cassandra’s backstory, which is played out subtly, but which has lovely potency. There’s a throwaway line at the beginning about how her home movies are of the last night anybody told her she was beautiful, and another about how Chip is modeled on her “favorite pattern.” It’s not until the end that we see the other end of this little time loop, with Cassandra in Chip’s body being the last person to tell her that she’s beautiful, and we realize that the experience of Chip dying in her arms while everybody at the party ignores her cries for someone to help is, in a real sense, what broke her as a person. This sort of detail reveals a key fact about Davies, which is that it is not so much that he’s sloppy with his plotting as that he simply does not believe that the mechanics of what bit of fake science the Doctor defeats the monsters with is actually an interesting part of the story. Instead he focuses his energy on creating characters with interior depths that allow for emotional payoffs.
It’s also worth noting that as shallow as the plot resolution is, New Earth itself is a surprisingly detailed concept. We only ever actually see a grassy outcropping and a hospital, but it manages to feel like a world. This is in a large part because it is, in practice, just our world done a bit outlandishly. (In the planet’s next appearance Davies tips his hand and admits that he just designed the whole thing as an homage to Judge Dredd’s Mega-City One.) But in the lost scene of taking Chip/Cassandra back to the TARDIS there’s also a detail that goes a long way towards explaining Davies’s view of science fiction. In that scene the Doctor was to explain to Chip/Cassandra that the human race never goes away, but instead is endlessly reiterated so that there are multiple human races, one after another, over history.
We might first note that this is, in fact, the ending to Battlestar Galactica, which is reasonably funny. But more important and interesting is the fact that it establishes history as cyclical, reaching back to the Hinchcliffe-era trope of history repeating itself. (Or, as Battlestar Galactica puts it, all of this has happened before and will happen again.) And so it, philosophically, frees Doctor Who up to function across the years. One of the secondary questions Season Two, and New Earth in particular has to answer is, roughly, “OK, you’ve brought Doctor Who back, but how do you keep it on for a quarter-century like last time?” And while New Earth does not provide a credible vision of Doctor Who in 2030 (that’d be around the time of The Wheel in Space and Enemy of the World), it does, at least, answer the basic question of how the series survives. It postulates a universe in which our present moment reiterates both forwards and backwards across time, allowing us to view it through the cracked mirror of these repetitions. As long as our present moment changes – that is, as long as something approximating human history continues – this process can continue indefinitely. The moment that is reiterated changes, and thus the reiterations do as well. It is, in other words, not that the premise is infinitely extensible at any given moment, but that the premise is extensible enough to survive to where repeating itself is a form of change and evolution.
Put another way, New Earth, more even than the first season, is about establishing what Doctor Who is in mid-April of 2006. But Doctor Who needed to be established at that time, and even if it is not a particularly grand week to be Doctor Who during, it’s hardly a problem: there’s another week coming right up.