Wednesday, May 24, 2006

REVIEW: Doctor Who - SERIES 2 PREMIERE: New Earth

[Review written for Gallifrey One: Spring 2006]

“New Earth” requires a couple of viewings. Before moving on, I suggest that viewers looking for an objective opinion on the story are best to give the episode a repeat look. Why? Because there is a great deal going on, arguably a little too much for a 45 minute slot, but personally I would rather a Who episode brimming with ideas than the old fashioned four episode story that consists of the Doctor running back and forth up and down wobbly corridors.

“New Earth” is a tale that combines a heavy mixture of storylines and ideas. We are introduced to a future planet and society that in turn opens up a curious medical mystery. We have the welcome return of the Face Of Boe who is preparing to pass on a major secret to the Doctor. Another past character pops up in the form of Cassandra who is back from the dead plotting revenge. On top of all this, we have new humans; deep dark experiments breaking out unleashing havoc. With a rather large dabble of mind swapping to boot; it’s a busy story.

The story is the first new televised Doctor Who to be set on a different planet. The opening shots of New Earth are beautiful and the use of outside location combined with computer imagery gives the future planet a very honest and believable ambience.

The hospital is nicely designed, using a mix of studio, CGI and Cardiff architecture to create this key location. Like the planet itself, it works well. The lower levels may slap ardent fans with memories of the Nestene lair in “Rose” because, well, that’s what it is. Personally I’m okay with location reuse. As a Doctor Who fan I’m used to a lot worse and Blake’s 7 used the same area of the same quarry a good 4-5 times through the series. Veteran fans can’t grumble, the location is redressed and works well within the context of the story. In the end, that’s what is important.

The return of Cassandra is a surprisingly welcome one. Moving Cassandra away from the living skin trampoline allows the character to be reused without rehash; she isn’t just back for more of the same, she’s back to cause havoc in an entirely different way. This time Cassandra is jumping bodies in the hope of finding a new vessel for her snobbish persona. Given how well this works in context to the story, I can forgive Mr Davies for using such an old sci-fi cliché. The mind swap truly injects new life into an old character. Furthermore her reintroduction serves as a bridge the series divide for the new audiences, reminding them this is still the same show and operates as strong comic relief to a rather visually nasty story.

The mind swap also gives Billie Piper and to a lesser extent, David Tennant, something new to play with. Wisely, the mind swapping is kept mostly with Piper; the tenth Doctor needs space to expand on his own without too much mind control interference. However, when the Lady Cassandra possesses the Doctor, Tennant doesn’t shy from the chance to have some real fun.

Piper is excellent as Cassandra, and it’s nice to see her getting a chance to have some laughs. Piper has proved she can do drama on several occasions in Series One, but aside from acting as a humour foil, she never got a really proactive comic role. In “New Earth” Piper is virtually flawless. You really believe she’s Cassandra and it’s rare to see such versatility in young TV actresses, being they are so often picked for the aesthetic than broad acting ability. Once again, I must doff my hat to Miss Piper, from her shallow pop star roots she has come far.

“New Earth” has a script full of both comedy and drama that should keep the casual and ardent fan watching. The supporting cast give a solid performance, and the make-up throughout the episode is exceptional. The feline Sisters of Plenitude look super and it’s a pity that the TARDIS doesn’t actually work because a bit of time travel back to 1989 could have done wonders for the Cat People in Survival.

So let’s look at the new fangled Doctor. Not quite as show stopping as he was in “The Christmas Invasion”, Tennant’s Doctor is a little more subdued in comparison. Probably a good thing in retrospect as there is always a danger of the show being suffocated if it’s lead man hogs the spotlight. Tom Baker’s era suffered from precisely this problem in the later years of his tenure.

Nevertheless, Tennant has the chance to portray some comedy, drama and serious Doctor energy throughout the episode. His character retains those elements quintessential to the Doctor; he’s compassionate, eccentric, dynamic and heroic. As with his seventh and ninth regenerations, he has a nasty temper when people cross his ideology and he is still willing to risk his own skin if it will saves others. Certainly a more charming Doctor than the more sorrowful ninth Doctor, and not as in control as the seventh. He has the sparkle of the forth and the dashing dynamic of the fifth. He’s a good mix of what’s come before with a dab of something new. Tennant is very different to Eccleston yet unlike previous regenerations, say between Baker and Davison or Troughton and Pertwee, the character of ‘The Doctor’ feels less challenged. He’s a different man once more, yet he retains far more consistency than many of the previous transitions.

So what’s wrong with “New Earth”? First off, let’s dispel some fan criticism. In “New Earth”, there is what some people would call ‘serious plot holes’, which to me, can be translated as ‘aspects of the plot which aren’t explained because they really aren’t that important’. Strangely, we still live in a time where sci-fi shows are meant to punctuate every last aspect of the plot. People are still looking for the “What’s going on Doctor?” or “What is it Doctor?” or “What are you doing Doctor?” type of explanations. The frustrating thing is, that any fiction that creates such a futuristic Earth is all made up anyhow. Any explanations that are forthcoming are no more than technobabble, yet for some reason, fans still feel cheated without it. “How do the drug compounds work?” “How does mixing the drugs make them more potent?” “How did Cassandra move her essence from one being to another?” It all boils down to needless babble, wasteful babble and dull, dull techno babble. We are told what the drugs will do in the same way we used to be constantly told that “reversing the polarity of the neutron flow” would remove a force field. We know Cassandra can jump bodies, we also know such a feat is physically impossible, so why do we need to have it made pseudo-factual by some technowaffle? We don’t need to waste valuable story time with superfluous explanations, yet if the fans don’t get these answers they condemn the story. After years of complaints about excess technoyawn from Star Trek, I’d hoped fans would have moved on from expecting explanations at every corner - clearly not.

It’s a pity that there are such wasteful demands on the show as it’s real focus is the drama, not the sci-fi pokery. Television and it’s audience are slowly learning that no matter how much we move fiction into future or onto other planets, the drama always remains contemporary. Only be being contemporary in it’s dramatic elements can a story create the audience empathy it requires. Nowadays, science fiction dialogue and plots are trying less and less to be “out of this world” fearing sounding silly. I far rather that Cassandra and her ilk use contemporary terms like “chav”, offer dialogue with relevance to contemporary satire or play 21st century pop music than continually attempt to create new sci-fi jargon. It’s those pop culture and topical elements that help give the series a stronger rapport with a greater audience. I don’t mind people not liking this writing approach, but it’s a pity the writer gets attacked for “terrible writing” when it’s simply using a specific writing technique.

While I appreciate sci-fi does have a more natural requirement for explanation than contemporary drama, I don’t think it needs to waste valuable character and plot time explaining what makes no sense anyway. With Buffy, Battlestar Galactica and now Doctor Who moving in this direction in the sci-fi genre, fans need to move on too. It’s not just perceptions of sci-fi that are changing, it’s sci-fi as a whole. We are no longer being spoon-fed – get used to it.

That said, there are still a few glitches here. The Rose and Doctor connection is laid on a little thick for my taste. Not an objective criticism for as we all know, sexual tension sells to mainstream markets and it’s mainstream interest which justifies budget. Doctor Who exists comfortably because of mainstream support, not fan loyalty. Personally, I found the dialogue outside the TARDIS a little icky but I know I just have to like it or lump it – it has to be there for the shows continual broad success.

Also in regards to such mainstream contexts, Rose does spend an awful amount of time touching herself in front of a mirror. Certainly, this works within the context of the plot but does feel a little ‘for the dads’ and that is an element of ‘old Doctor Who’ I hoped we were moving past. Most likely this was simply a character requirement to the episode, but it did feel slightly overdone and Piper has had a large makeover for this season. I just hope there is no attempt to move Rose into sex symbol territory. Keeping mainstream interest is one thing, but I’d hate Doctor Who to lose the dignity it has created for itself.

That said, such “show concerns” from fans like myself are amusing mocked by the writer, who seems to enjoy adding references that seem there just to irritate our anal fandom. Such references to certain Doctor body parts being “hardly used” are bound to create fury by purists. Good on you Davies, keep on pushing the boundaries. Doctor Who should never be safe, no matter how much many fans would like it to remain within certain boundaries.

Another minor gripe is the music, some of which is a return to the “End Of The World” motif. It’s not bad at all, but a little heavy at times. This has always been a problem in the new series, feels it could be pushed back a bit in the mix.

On the first watch of “New Earth” I was a little dissatisfied. There is a lot going on and as such it does sometimes feel as the story is screaming for some space to expand certain scenes. The contagion’s final cure in the finale feels a little rushed. The episode made a big issue of the amount of human containers opened in the basement, yet we see only a roomful of humans cured and that doesn’t give the impression of how fast this cure must be spreading through the diseased humans. It’s not a major issue, but the episode suffers from a few similar minor quibbles that on a first viewing seem bigger than they actually are.

Overall, this was a nice journey into the future and proof the show has come far from “Rose”. It’s not perfect; it’s a little over crammed with plots and ideas which in turn do take a slight toil on the pacing, but in comparison to the old show, it’s still miles out there in terms of script, production and drama. A good watch, an even better second viewing, this is far better than some of fandom will admit to. This is good New Who and while I fear for it’s critical success, with the media looking for a time to knock down what they’ve spend a year to build up, I think the production can be proud of this entrance into the second series. Well done – ignore the old school thinking from the sci-fi community and keeping moving forwards. My grandfather always used to say things were better in the old days and now I fear, it’s turn for my generation to start declaring the same.

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