Series Two, Episode One
So, with the regeneration out of the way and David Tennant suitably eased into the role, it's time for his first full day on the job. How do we think it went?
Hmm. Well, what's wrong with it isn't his fault. New Earth is largely an excuse to give Tennant's acting skills a quick workout, and mission accomplished there: he's funny, he's compassionate, he's angry, often in rapid succession. Not that you'd need much more convincing after The Christmas Invasion, but... yep. He's good.
|"Okay Dave, now emote with the big plastic head-in-a-jar."|
"Like this, you mean?"
It's a tad disappointing that it's set shortly after The End Of The World, which makes everything a bit familiar and safe, but then that's probably to help us accept Tennant as the same man. (We didn't need the help, but never mind.) Nicely contrasting this, the script has its mind on newness and change, which makes a good backdrop for a new Doctor. It's all very stylish, particularly the super-cool opening scene, and there's some great CGI (New New York) and even better prosthetics (the cat-nurses). It all looks good. (Speaking of which, the Doctor's new outfit is one of the best ever. Stylish and a bit eclectic, but normal enough to blend in? Nailed it.) Oh, and the guest cast are superb. Doña Croll is chilling as Matron Casp, and Anna Hope always draws my attention as Novice Hame: a small role, bubbling over with compassion and humanity. Well, for a cat.
The problem, and it's a dealbreaker, is the tone. This is camp, frothy stuff, even less likely to frighten the horses than last year's series opener. Not something I'm thrilled about, but fair enough. Except it also tries to be a moving character study, and make a serious moral point about human rights. Sorry, what was that? I couldn't hear you over all the comedy music.
Let's start with the character study. Cassandra's back. Um... yay? Not that Zoe Wanamaker isn't funny, but there's really nothing more to say about a character who's so two-dimensional she's literally two-dimensional. So, Step 1: Have other characters bodyswap with her, to make the act seem fresh. This is not advisable, as it means losing Zoe Wanamaker (without whom, there's no Cassandra), and it lets David and Billie camp it up, which is at best a mixed blessing.
Step 2: Completely rewrite her personality. All of a sudden, Cassandra wants to stop being a trampoline with a face and steal someone else's body. Hey, power to her, it must suck being a flap of skin with eyes and a mouth... but isn't this what she wanted? What's changed? Character development's great, but this is just twisting her 180 degrees for no reason.
|"Okay Zoe, now make us sympathise with you."|
"Like this, you mean?"
*everyone stares unsympathetically*
Sadly, we're not done with her yet. After inhabiting one of the diseased humans for a few seconds, she suddenly feels remorse and wants to become a better person. Ye-eah. And just as you're reeling from this highly unlikely bit of soul-searching, the Doctor takes her back in time (in servant Chip's body) to tell her younger self that she's beautiful. Which says... something about... vanity, I think? Or is it meant to do something other than encourage her total self-obsession? No, I've no idea either.
Cassandra was a one-note character to begin with, and what's more, revelled in it. Adding further dimensions to her is both unconvincing and pointless, as it's precisely her shallowness that endeared her to people in the first place. The whole thing's doomed from the outset.
Which brings us to the other really stupid bit: the moral horror. Humans are being grown, pumped full of Every Disease Ever, and used to research the cures. Oh, the humanity! Except they're not human, or not sentient anyway, until now. Yes, it's wrong to keep living, thinking humans in confinement for the betterment of others, but what about when they were brainless lumps of skin and bone? The Doctor's not mad that they're waking up, he's mad at the whole thing. I'm guessing Russell T Davies isn't a big fan of stem cell research, then. (And if he's trying to make a point about animal testing, it's rather muddied since it's only human testing the Doctor's got a problem with. If the cat-nurses were getting their cures from cats, would he still have a problem? (Not that I'm saying he shouldn't, but it's a thorny issue and it deserved more than a cursory This Is Wrong.))
The Doctor condemns the whole enterprise without a second thought, but there's more to it. For starters, it has enabled cures for every conceivable disease. Are they going to get rid of every bit of data they've learned? Because if not, they're still profiting from it, which makes it rather hard to condemn the research. You can't have it both ways.
A mindless problem means a mindless solution, so the Doctor determines A) that all the zombies want is to touch and be touched (even though there's nothing preventing them from touching each other, and they obviously do), and B) they can be cured of Every Disease Ever by squirting them simultaneously with Every Cure Ever. (But then, since Every Disease Ever just amounts to Lots Of Boils, it's probably not that hard.) This mega-cure can be passed on by touching, because yay touching, and I think my brain just dribbled out of my ears.
There are episodes made entirely of froth, and episodes of substance. Both have merit, but it's almost impossible to mix them successfully. This one, with characters nearly saying swearwords and making jokes about chavs, hasn't got a hope. You should stick to what you're good at.