This episode is distinctly underwhelming. Or, as my wife put it during all the body-swapping, “this is pretty corny”. I have to agree.
The basic story is fine, as far as it goes. The Doctor and Rose visit “New Earth”, a planet in galaxy M-something where mankind migrated after the destruction of Earth. The Doctor gets an invitation from the Face of Boe via his psychic paper, and he and Rose go to visit the hospital, where it turns out that strange experiments are going on. The Cat-like sisters of Plentitude are conducting experiments on an army of clones beneath the hospital, trying to find cures for all known diseases that plague the human race. The ethics of animal testing are examined tongue-in-cheek through the idea of animals testing cures on humans, but no real-world ethical questions are asked, nor are answers provided, so it’s a bit of a waste. The idea of using supposedly mindless human clones was raised in “Vampire Science” if I recall, so the idea has been done before in Doctor Who, though not on TV. It does provide an excuse for a ‘zombie rampage’ which produces some tense moments when everyone in the hospital is forced to run or lock them out. The return of the Face of Boe, and his actual use as a character and a plot device is welcome, since he pretty much existed as a background joke last year. I do wonder just what secret he was going to tell the Doctor.
However, the story is not content simply to explore medical ethics issues, which would have been straightforward enough in and of itself, but it also sees the return of Cassandra. While I found her tolerable enough the first time around, I had no desire to see her make a return appearance. Consequently, not only is she unwelcome, but the antics with the body-swapping are doubly so and just get sillier and sillier as the episode goes on. Billie Piper and David Tennant’s mimicry of Zoe Wannamker’s performance are at times grating, and at times embarrassing to watch. Cassandra’s about-face at the end of the episode and her sudden willingness to die is a character shift that is hard to believe after all the extreme measures she’s been willing to take to stay alive. The ending where she dies in her younger self’s arms is probably meant to be touching, but I don’t care about the character and find the scene just too bizarre to muster up much emotion. Hopefully we’ve seen the last of her this time.
The script suffers from the usual excesses that I’ve come to expect from Mr. Davies after last year: lots of good ideas marred by sexual entendres and poor plot resolution. I know a lot of people think RTD is unfairly criticized and wish the critics would just shut up, but flaws are flaws. I’ll give Mr. Davies credit when it’s due, and criticize poor writing when that’s appropriate, which is unfortunately far too often. Case in point: the ending of “New Earth” is an unbelievable ‘magical solution’ type ending that doesn’t even pretend to make sense. The idea that the Doctor could take twenty different cures for twenty different diseases and blend them all into one big concoction, and then use that to cure a few zombies is laughable in its absurdity. The idea that the clones could then ‘pass it on’ to their fellow clones and cure their multitude of diseases by touch is even more absurd. Compare this bit of nonsense with the Doctor and Liz testing drugs in “The Silurians”, and ask yourself which scene is easier to believe. Which one looks like a scientist trying to find a cure to a disease? I get the feeling that RTD wrote himself into a corner and had to come up with something to get out of it that didn’t involve blowing everything up. He deserves kudos for perhaps trying to come up with a life-affirming ending, but that ending doesn’t actually make very much sense.
Visually, the episode looks quite good. It’s nice to finally leave Earth behind, even if the new planet is functionally the equivalent of Earth which somewhat negates the impact. The hospital is well designed, and the New New York cityscape is very nice as well. The massive clone cells below the hospital reminded me of the Borg cubes from Star Trek, especially with the green lighting, but there’s no denying the effectiveness of the imagery. And the Doctor and Rose’s drop down the elevator shaft is a nice bit of action. I think I spotted some re-used locations from last year though.
Billie Piper is still quite good. There’s not much new to say about her. Despite the annoying silliness of the body-possession by Cassandra, it’s good to see Piper stretch her acting a bit and make the possessed Rose quite distinct from normal Rose. Different body language, different accent, different vocabulary. I had to look up ‘chav’ by the way. Not being from the UK, the reference didn’t mean anything to me.
My first impressions of David Tennant were very good. “New Earth” was my first real exposure to his interpretation of the part. Eccleston took time to grow on me, but Tennant gets a lot right from the beginning. He just seems to more naturally fit the role. Tennant’s Doctor is cheerful, energetic and quite sure of himself. He’s quiet and thoughtful when talking with the nurse about the face of Boe, and he’s convincingly outraged when demanding an explanation about the clones beneath the hospital. The drop down the elevator shaft is well executed, and the Doctor’s enthusiasm is infectious. “You want to live? Live a little!” In retrospect, he is perhaps trying a little too hard in this episode, and it shows.
I’m not quite sure where the writers are going with the “I’m the Doctor, There’s no higher authority!” statement, or “the lonely god” title. It’s tempting to simply read it as another attack on religion by an atheist writer, with the Doctor denying any higher power to the religious order who run the hospital. Several other reviewers have referred to it as ‘self-mythologizing’. It does put me in mind of Paul McGann in the Big Finish audios saying things like “I’m the Doctor, I don’t do things like that”. It’s a sort of exaggerated self-awareness and ego, and is really a very strange and artificial character trait. The whole show exudes self-awareness and winks to the audience far more often than it should, but in this story it’s begun to be written into the Doctor’s character. Not good.
That aside, it’s tremendously refreshing to see a proactive Doctor again! Rather than sit around and wait for Rose or someone else to solve the problem like last year, the Doctor is constantly curious and acts with decisiveness. However nonsensical the method of curing the plague clones is, at least it’s the Doctor who works it out and carries it out. Which is exactly as it should be.
Overall, “New Earth” is fairly entertaining nonsense, and despite my nitpicking, I did enjoy it for the most part. There are some decent if derivative ideas, but a poorly thought-out plot resolution. It is a good start for David Tennant however, who plays the role very well. I look forward to his future episodes.