A few weeks after the events of The Christmas Invasion, the Doctor is rested, recovered and itching to return to the stars. After Rose bids farewell to her family (again), they pack off and zip forward to the year 5,000,000,023 AD (You’d think they’d stop counting at around 999,995 or something).
We’ve been to the year Five Billion before, when the ninth Doctor took Rose to Platform One to witness the explosion of Earth’s sun and the final destruction of her home planet (“our first date,” says Rose. “We had chips,” says the Doctor in a delightful moment of remembrance). In The End of the World, the Doctor uncovered a plot by the Lady Cassandra (voiced wonderfully by Zoe Wannamaker, who was having a ball in this episode), the last “biologically pure” human, to eliminate several business rivals. Doubly unfortunately for the Lady Cassandra, however, being through so many plastic surgeons that she is little more than a vertical trampoline of stretched skin, during the moment of discovery, she is accidentally caught without her attendants and their moisturizing sprays. The dryness of the air stretches her too taught, so that she pops like a balloon.
You’d think that would have been the end of her, but I could see that the producers had left themselves a way out. Most viewers may have had their eyes glued to the CGI talking stretch of skin, but shots of the whole apparatus showed a brain in a jar beneath it. Surely Cassandra could survive this catastrophic skin eruption, I figured, although she’d be very, very mad.
Sure enough, as the new Doctor and Rose return to the year Five Billion and discover New Earth (a re-creation built thanks to a burst of nostalgia following Old Earth’s destruction), one of Cassandra’s minions spots Rose, and the rebuilt Lady remembers. What better way to take revenge on the little rhymes-with-witch than to take Rose’s body out from under her.
But there are other things going on to keep the Doctor, Rose and Cassandra. The Doctor is here to visit the hospital that Cassandra is lurking beneath because someone has called him. A dying ancient entity called the Face of Boag has a message for the Doctor. Unfortunately, he’s asleep when the Doctor arrives, so the Doctor has to wait around — lending just enough time for Cassandra to spring her revenge, and for the Doctor to uncover the skeletons the hospital’s cat nun doctors have hidden in the bowels of the facility.
New Earth encapsulates all the strengths and weaknesses of writer Russell T. Davies in its hour of storytelling. The dialogue sparkles. David Tennant’s Doctor is backed with wonderful one-liners and an excellent repartee with both Rose and Cassandra. The emotional story that Russell tells here is also a highlight, as he makes use of a number of strong emotional themes that create moments which are alternately powerful and sweet. Unfortunately, to do this, and to resolve everything by the end of the episode, Davies sacrifices key narrative elements, such that the plot resolves itself in a Deus ex Machina, and a key villain relents in a most unconvincing fashion.
Part of the problem is that too much is packed into this storyline. Davies has three separate plot elements here: the message from the Face of Boag which brings the Doctor to the hospital, Cassandra’s revenge on Rose, and the human lab rats the cat nun doctors have been using to develop their miraculous cures.
With all of the time spent on some excellent chase scenes through hospital corridors, there is not enough time to give everything its due. So the message from the Face of Boag is shipped to an indeterminate episode in the future (rendering the whole element pointless) and Cassandra has a change of heart that I simply do not buy, despite Davies valiant attempts to sell me on it (or, perhaps because of those valiant attempts. There is a moment in the script which justifies Cassandra’s transformation, but it’s subtly done — and at odds with the unsubtle assurances after the fact that Cassandra had transformed).
Still, there is much to recommend this storyline, and Davies must take credit for that. He hired director James Hawes, after all, and together they hired all the actors that populate this story. New Earth looks and sounds excellent, with only one or two shots ringing false (the cat nun falling down the elevator shaft coming to mind, here).
And special mention must be made of actors David Tennant and Billie Piper, as both deal with possession from Cassandra’s consciousness. Billie almost steals the show, here, making me believe that Cassandra’s voice actress Zoe Wannamaker was inside her. And while David Tennant is still growing into his role as the tenth Doctor (he has an unfortunate tendency to tear at the scenery), he transforms himself the moment Cassandra is inside him. It’s a delightful performance all round, easily the best moments of the episode.
New Earth won’t win many polls to determine the best episode of this season, but in a way that’s good. There are still twelve episodes to go, and my sense is that Russell T. Davies is keeping his powder dry. David Tennant and Billie Piper are in fine form, the directorial work is sound, and the dialogue is quick and witty. And Russell and the other writers haven’t yet rolled up their sleeves. New Earth is a good hour of television, and better things are to come in the following weeks.