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Doctor Who - New Earth (Episode 1, Season 2), BBC1, 15th April 2006

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Apr. 16th, 2006 | 10:44 pm

Doctor Who is back... again. And once again, everything here is meant to be ‘new’ - a new Doctor, a new series, a new planet. New Earth, as the title suggests, is about a new home planet for the human race. Needless to say, this being Doctor Who, there is something wrong in this seeming paradise, and this is where the episode stops being quite so new and starts becoming distinctly old. Not half as clever as it thinks it is, this new episode of Doctor Who revisits some hoary clichés but does it with such panache and sheer enthusiasm that it wins the audience over despite itself.

David Tennant is the Doctor

The first thing you notice is the production values. If memories of wobbly, over-lit sets and home county quarries were not banished by the revival of the series with Christopher Eccleston last year, you will be suffering amnesia by the end of this. The ambition of the production team and the realisation of their vision impresses on almost every level. It would be fair to say that the special effects almost rival those of Hollywood blockbusters on occasion. The gleaming landscape of New New York (*cough*) and the superb make up on a race of alien cat nuns (*clear throat*) reflects the sheer joie de vivre of the series. A particular highlight is an incubation chamber for specially grown human clones for medical testing, which gives a sense of scale which would have been undreamt of back in the 60s, 70s, and 80s.

There is a frenetic pace to the show now, with no tedious longueurs which blighted the programme back in the day (the episode 3 syndrome, as fans call it). Contributing to this is David Tennant’s wonderful performance as the Doctor. Joyful, exuberant but capable of switching on the gravitas to give an internal credibility to the ludicrous proceedings, Tennant shows what was missing from Eccleston’s performance last year. While the script did veer dangerously into almost outright camp at times, it gave Tennant an opportunity to show what the Doctor should be – a fun, engaging companion who has a dark side bubbling under the surface. Tennant promises to be the best Doctor since Tom Baker, with hints of Patrick Troughton in his performance. His Doctor is incredibly frenetic and action orientated, which is reminiscent of Jon Pertwee’s tenure in the role as a kind of dandy James Bond/ Jason King type of character. In the mix, there is also a touch of Eric Idle/ Dudley Moore impish cockney charm to Tennant’s Doctor. Tennant, if nothing else, will be a reason to watch the show over the next 13 or so weeks.

Billie Piper returns as the Doctor’s companion Rose Tyler, giving admirable support to the new man. Last year’s season at times seemed to be a programme that should have been called ‘Rose Tyler’ than ‘Doctor Who, but the script and the balance between her and Tennant’s performances provide a better equilibrium to the show, which is reminiscent of its Tom Baker golden heyday. Maybe it’s no coincidence that in a couple of week’s time the show will be bringing back one of the show’s most iconic ‘companion’ character, Sarah Jane Smith, who dates from that time of the show. Saturday night’s episode deviated from its theme of renewal once again by having the old chestnut of characters swapping bodies (which could have been so bloody awful), but is saved by the strength of Piper’s performance while possessed by Zoe Wannamaker’s evil Cassandra.

Not the purrfect episode...

However, the success of New Earth is despite the script, written by show saviour Russell T Davies. The script is essentially a clichéd mess, saved by some witty dialogue and the performances and production discussed above. Taking its cues liberally from everything from George Romero’s Land of the Dead to some of the old show’s numerous stories about seemingly benign institutions turning out to be evil, there is a sense that New Earth is rather second hand. Also a cack-handed allegory to animal rights is thrown into the mix, andthe episode’s own internal logic belays the fact that the very black and white view Davies’ seems to adopt to the issue has not been thought through. Yes, it’s light entertainment but when you deliver an over-emotional, manipulative statement that easily overlooks the usual ambiguities on both sides of the argument, do not expect the more intelligent viewer to be overly indulgent in return. If the overall episode had not been so fun and spectacular, I would have quite happily adopted an ‘oh, f*ck off’ attitude and switched over.

This allegory is then promptly followed by a miracle as the Doctor goes into Jesus mode to cure the human lab rats of all diseases. For a very public atheist, Davies does seem to have an almost Catholic fixation with Christian iconography. Bathed in golden light, Tennant’s Doctor walks through the sick and the lame radiating some kind of airborne cocktail antidote to all ills, curing the Romero-esque zombies as they touch the hem of his coat. Oh dear. Given the tight timing of the episode, Davies is not given too much time to indulge in this or his rather inconsistent musings on mortality. A recurring theme of the series is that death is inevitable for all of us... well, except for the Doctor who does not seem to practice what he preaches, as his seeming immortality grates with the death all around him.

But these irritations, although annoying, cannot dislodge the exuberance of the production as a whole. Judging from the trailers for the rest of this year’s episodes, and the fact that Davies will be writing only a fraction of them, the fan can rest in the knowledge that the best is still to come. If New Earth is the worst of this year’s batch, we are in for a treat.

Check out the official BBC mini-site for New Earth by clicking here.

Not convinced by the opening episode? Well check out this showreel of clips from forthcoming stories, which was shown on BBC-i last week. It has even got K9 in it (for those of you old enough to remember)! To wet your appetite, click here

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