Much like “The Long Game“, “New Earth” is an episode I think I enjoy a bit more than a good chunk of the Doctor Who fandom. Mind you, I am always surprised that “New Earth” was actually the Series 2 premiere. “The Christmas Invasion“, the preceding Christmas special, felt way more like a series opener than this episode. The typical job of a series opener is to establish all the main cast members and set up the themes and story arcs of the season. The Doctor, Rose, Mickey and Jackie were all introduced in Series 1, and the seeds of the Torchwood arc were already planted in “The Christmas Invasion” (which will receive a significant amount of progression in the following episode, “Tooth And Claw“), so “New Earth” really doesn’t have to do any heavy lifting for a change. Instead, Russell decides to write a frothy, comedy romp to kick off the series.
“New Earth” serves as a sequel to “The End Of The World“, which further showcases how the Tenth Doctor is still the same man as the Ninth Doctor while also being very different from him in a lot of areas, having a lot of laughs along the way. The end result of Russell’s decision is one of the most gleefully silly episodes of his tenure. I’m actually surprised “New Earth” works as well as it does, considering how jam packed it is; it’s basically the opposite of “The Christmas Invasion”. “The Christmas Invasion” was very slow-paced and was pretty thin on plot, “New Earth” is very fast-paced and it tries to juggle several different ideas at once. It tries to be a body swap comedy romp with Cassandra, a zombie plague story with the human lab rats, a debate about the ethics of animal testing, a cautionary tale about the dangers of vanity, and a major tease for a Face of Boe arc. On paper, this episode should be a hot mess of clashing tones and subplots, but onscreen, it’s completely hilarious, largely because of Billie Piper and David Tennant.
Something I admire about the way the Doctor (David Tennant) is written in this episode is how often Russell T. Davies stresses his love for life and his zest for new experiences. There’s a wondrous scene early on where the Doctor and Rose take a moment to marvel at the sights of New Earth, from the flying cars above them to the apple-grass beneath their feet, which perfectly illustrates why the Doctor likes to travel: there are so many beautiful wonders of the universe just waiting for him around every corner. Later, Ten seems to enjoys every second of repelling down an elevator shaft, and gets pretty ecstatic about watching a new species of humans be born. It strikes you that the Tenth Doctor is still so young in these early episodes. Aside from his regrets about the time war that he inherited from Nine, Ten is still unburdened by the trauma of future episodes like “Doomsday“, “Last Of The Time Lords” and “Journey’s End“, and it’s strangely heartwarming to see him be so footloose and carefree in this adventure.
The new Doctor endears himself to us even further by showing plenty of kindness and sympathy to the Face of Boe, even if he knows nothing about him yet. And we’re shown again that Ten is a very hands-on Doctor when it comes to solving the problem of the week: concocting a fairly ridiculous plan to stop a horde of oncoming zombies, using himself as live bait. Ten’s gift of gab is here to stay, since he gleefully jabbers away for most of this episode, but underneath his breezy geniality, the Tenth Doctor is very hotheaded when he’s confronted with injustice and atrocities. His outburst at Harriet wasn’t just a fluke: Ten’s mood can change on a dime, and he barely restrains his fury when he discovers the cat nuns have been genetically engineering people to inhumanely experiment on from birth to death. Despite that, thanks to his character development, the Doctor has got a better handle on his wrath as of late. The Ninth Doctor let the Lady Cassandra die violently for her crimes, while the Tenth Doctor decides to do her a kindness and make her happy before she meets her natural demise. Whether it’s out of pity, or because he decided to give her some modicum of forgiveness is up to your own interpretation.
While she felt anxious and uncertain about the Doctor’s new regeneration in “The Christmas Invasion”, Rose Tyler (Billie Piper) has warmed up to the Tenth Doctor considerably by the time we rejoin them in “New Earth”, and now the two of them have grown closer than ever. The early scenes of Ten and Rose leaving the Powell estate behind them and then taking in the sights and the sounds of New Earth, gleefully enjoying everything the universe has to offer them, are very infectious. These are clearly some of the best days of Rose’s life. As she enters her second year on the show, Rose is well on her way to becoming a seasoned companion. She knows when to ask important questions, she immediately decides to arm herself when some random dude in a creepy basement knows way more about her than he should, and she tries to avoid walking into an obvious trap, which still happens anyway, since Cassandra outwits her.
The scenes that Rose shares with Cassandra in “New Earth” are really interesting to read into, because their relationship has subtly shifted over time in a way that’s difficult to define. They’re still enemies of course, but the bitter, antagonistic nature of their rivalry is mostly one-sided on Cassandra’s part. Rose tends to either be annoyed by her or amused by her, depending on the circumstances, and during the last act, she feels sorry for her more than the Doctor does when she discovers she only has a few minutes left to live. Seeing as how Cassandra tried to have her killed last season, and tried to steal her body in this episode, that says a lot about Rose’s compassionate nature (much like her scenes with the Dalek in Van Statten’s underground base). Rose actually isn’t in this episode much, since she spends most of it being possessed by Cassandra, but that doesn’t mean Billie Piper isn’t given a lot to do. Billie Piper and David Tennant are both clearly having a ball getting to act way out of character for a change when the Doctor and Rose are possessed by Cassandra, chewing so much scenery and doing their best Zoe Wanamaker impersonations as the whiny diva.
The Lady Cassandra was an entertaining villainess in “The End Of The World”, but here I would argue she’s the real star of “New Earth”. Having found a way to escape her demise back in Series 1, Cassandra rather hypocritically despises the Doctor and Rose for letting her die, and she eagerly plots her revenge the next time she sees them. Cassandra didn’t just have all those surgeries done because of her vanity, she also wants to cling to life at any cost (despite already being centuries old). She hijacks Rose’s body so she can have a flesh body again, and tries to steal Rose’s life for her own. Her attempts to fool the Doctor don’t last for long though – not only because of her terrible fake accent and her inexplicable knowledge of future technology, but also because she’s so incredibly selfish to the point of sociopathy that she can’t possibly be Rose. Her attempts to kill the Doctor and blackmail the Sisters of Plentitude backfire horribly, so she’s forced to tag along with the Doctor for the rest of the episode, which is a surprisingly fun experience.
Much like in “Boom Town”, a subdued, amoral antagonist is forced into a position where they have to cooperate with the Doctor and Rose to survive, while they’re still holding on to their own agenda. Ironically, Cassandra (who looks down on everyone she deems impure) helps to give a brand new species of humans their freedom because of her actions. Eventually, “New Earth” reiterates the aesop of “The End Of The World”: times change and species evolve because they have to. Everything ends eventually. Cassandra’s whole experience with the clone humans in this episode finally taught her that lesson, so she finally relents and accepts that it’s time for her to die, even if she’s wasted her life. But before that happens, the Doctor takes her back to a nostalgic, simpler time: before she had destroyed her body to preserve her ego and she had some compassion for people other than herself. It’s actually a pretty messed-up scene – she dies in front of her past self without anyone ever knowing, creating one of the few meaningful highlights of her life via a bootstrap paradox – but it’s also a sad one, and a good example of how Doctor Who can be very strange yet surprisingly moving at the same time.
The B-plot of the episode concerns the Sisters of Plenitude: a group of supposedly wise and aloof cat nuns who run a hospital in the far future. They’ve learned to cure all ailments on New Earth, at a high cost. In secret, they genetically engineer their own human lab rats to test horrible diseases on, using the process of elimination to find antidotes. There’s something very disturbing about their complete disregard for the life they’ve created; they purposely distance themselves from the clones and dehumanize them at every turn so they don’t have to feel any shame or remorse for their actions. Being born just so you can be experimented on, and having no purpose in life other than to suffer for other people’s benefit before you’re executed is a rather nightmarish concept to find in an otherwise lighthearted episode, and it actually feels like a precursor to the “Rebel Flesh” two-parter in Series 6. In any case, the cat nuns get their just desserts when Cassandra ruins everything for them, the zombies revolt and utterly wreck their hospital, and the whole lot of them are exposed to the world.
The final C-plot centers around the enigmatic Face of Boe, an immortal alien who has supposedly lived for millions of years and is considerably older than the Doctor. The Face of Boe was a minor, background character in “The End Of The World”, but in this episode he’s suddenly given a lot more attention, and a bit of lore is built up around him, as he sends a message to the Doctor to visit him in his hospital ward. He has a message that he needs to share with the Doctor, concerning the time lord’s future, and he knows he can only give it to him when he’s about to die. However, today is not the day for him to leave his mortal life behind, so he postpones their personal talk and promises the Doctor that he’ll see him again one more time – because he somehow knows they’re destined to meet. All of this makes a lot more sense in retrospect, in light of Series 3’s story arc where we discover who the Face really is to the Doctor. In particular, his scenes with his personal nurse, Novice Hame (who gets arrested with the rest of her sisters at the end of this episode), are a lot more poignant in hindsight, because of the strong bond they’ll go on to have in next season’s “Gridlock“.
With principal photography being shot at the Wales Millennium Center (which proves to be a pretty beautiful, clinical, sterile setting, particularly in the patients’ wing), James Hawes once again returns to helm “New Earth” and his direction for this episode is a massive step up from his work in “The Christmas Invasion” (though again, the script for “New Earth” probably gave him more to work with). With the help of some tight editing, he frequently lends the episode a strong sense of kinetic energy, through sequences like the Tenth Doctor firing up the TARDIS at the start, the establishing shots of the hospital and the surrounding territories, the zombie chase through the restricted areas of the building, and the Doctor and Cassandra’s hasty jump down an elevator shaft.
“New Earth” is another good day for Doctor Who when it comes to the show’s CGI, which manages to convincingly creating a line of flying cars on New Earth’s surface, and a labyrinth of cages in the secret chamber of the Sister’s hospital (I like how sickly green the lighting always is in these scenes), though it fares less well with portraying the spread of the zombies’ diseases. As a sequel to “The End Of The World”, Murray Gold revisits several of his pieces from that episode for “New Earth”, like like the the rousing synth of “Westminster Bridge“, the gentle, innocent wonder of “Rose’s Theme” (which the show has actually been getting a lot of mileage out of for the last few episodes), and the wavering, alien sass of “Cassandra’s Waltz“. The rest of Murray’s material has a lithe, bouncy, playful touch, and he composes a new, quiet, dignified piano piece titled “The Face Of Boe“, hinting at the long, old life the character has had, filled with many secrets. “The Face Of Boe” would receive a pretty heartfelt and appropriate expansion in Murray’s score for “Gridlock” the following season.
“New Earth” is an unorthodox story to start a brand new season with, but it’s also a fun one and one of Russell T. Davies’ better romp episodes.
* I’ve never asked before, so I’m going to ask now, why was the lighting in this show so overexposed during Series 1 and 2?
* “So where are we going?” “Further than we’ve ever gone before!”
* “Rose Tyler! I knew it. That dirty blonde assassin! This is beyond coincidence, this is destiny! At last, I can be revenged on that little-” “Bit rich, coming from you”.
* “He’s thousands of years old. Some people say millions, although that’s impossible” “Oh, I don’t know. I like impossible” Clara Oswald has entered the chat.
* This episode is set unfathomably far into the future, and yet Cassandra stores her precious memories of her glory days on a 20th century movie projector. She really likes her retro stuff.
* “Mistress?” “Moisturize me“.
* “Arms, fingers, hair! Let me see! Let me see! Oh my God. I’m a chav! Look at me, from class to brass!”
* “She’s… she’s with the Doctor. A man. He’s the Doctor. The same Doctor with a new face! That hypocrite! I must get the name of his surgeon”.
* “This Doctor man is dangerous” “Dangerous and clever. I might need a mind like his. The Sisterhood is up to something. Remember that Old Earth saying, never trust a Nun? Never trust a Nurse. And never trust a cat”.
* “What I don’t understand is, what have you done to Rose? I’m being very, very calm. You want to be aware of that. very, very calm. And the only reason I’m being so very, very calm is that the brain is a delicate thing. Whatever you’ve done to Rose’s head, I want it reversed. Because these people are dying, and Rose would care!”
* “We understood what you did to us. As part of the machine, we know the machine. And we will end it!”
* “Goodness me, I’m a man. Yum. So many parts. And hardly used. Oh, oh, two hearts! Oh, baby, I’m beating out a samba!”
* “What do we do? What would he do? The Doctor, what the hell would he do?” “Ladder. We’ve got to get up!” “Out of the way, blondie!”
* “All our good work, all that healing, the good name of the Sisterhood! You have destroyed everything!” “Go and play with a ball of string!” “Everywhere, disease. This is the human world. Sickness!”
* I know it’s supposed to be frightening, but the way that sped-up shot of Matron Casp dropping down the elevator shaft is framed makes me burst out laughing every time.
* “Oh, chavtastic again”.
* “Oh, I hate telepathy. Just what I need, a head full of big face”.
* “I can take you to the city. They can build you a skin tank and you can stand trial for what you’ve done” “Well, that would be rather dramatic. Possibly my finest hour, and certainly my finest hat”.