Doctor Who: "New Earth"/"Tooth And Claw"

Doctor Who: "New Earth"/"Tooth And Claw"

“New Earth” (season 2, episode 1; originally aired 4/15/2006)

(Available on Hulu, Netflix, and Amazon Instant Video.)

“It’s a new sub-species, Cassandra. A brand new form of life. New humans! Look at them. Look! Grown by cats, kept in the dark, fed by tubes, but completely, completely alive. You can’t deny them, because you helped create them. The human race just keeps on going, keeps on changing. Life will out! Ha!”

“New Earth” has one of the strangest endings in Doctor Who history. I wish I could mean that as more of a compliment than I do, but at least this story has the courage of its bonkers convictions right to the bitter, baffling end. Somehow, this episode’s final sequence sees the Doctor and Rose bring the Lady Cassandra—in possession of the dying body of Chip, her genetically engineered manservant—back to her own past so that she can tell her younger self that she is beautiful. I’ll say this much for that scene: I can believe that that is how Cassandra would have wanted to die, as it’s the ultimate act of narcissism. But it’s far more difficult to understand why the Doctor would grant this final boon, or why the show apparently wants us to feel some sort of sympathy for a character who has stolen bodies, caused senseless mayhem, and generally broken every law imaginable in her mad effort to prolong her life. Perhaps Sean Gallagher’s performance as the Cassandra-controlled Chip is a little too good, as he evokes wholly unearned sympathy for a character who casually murdered innocents back in “The End Of The World,” a grim fact that is conveniently ignored when it’s time to give her the weirdest possible happy ending.

But there’s a story behind that story. More than any other story we’ve yet dealt with in the revived series, “New Earth” was the victim of behind-the-scenes problems. The production team was already significantly behind schedule before filming even began on this particular episode, and the weather proved distinctly uncooperative with respect to the location shooting. The script originally called for an exterior scene between the final hospital scene and the TARDIS’ materialization at the younger Cassandra’s party. The Doctor would have taken the opportunity while walking back to the TARDIS that he still had not forgiven Cassandra for her actions aboard Platform One, but a very British mix of rain and high winds meant this scene could not be completed. I still doubt that this one scene would have satisfactorily explained just why the Doctor is willing to show Cassandra such generous mercy, especially considering he stands by the “No second chances” rule in his treatment of the Sisters of Plenitude. But any additional insight into the Doctor’s decision could only have helped; indeed, this is a story that too often feels like it is missing vital context. The episode’s production troubles help explain such shortcomings, and they might even excuse them, depending on how charitable one is inclined to be.

In any event, “New Earth” struggles to convey convincingly many of its more outlandish elements. This isn’t the first episode of the new series to feature unconvincing CGI, but they are present in far greater quantities here than is typical, from Sister Jatt’s instant infection to the Doctor’s leap down the elevator shaft. I hesitate somewhat, because it’s impossible to be a fan of classic Doctor Who without developing an outsize suspension of disbelief for wonky special effects. Why not extend the same forgiving attitude to the new series? The distinction I would make between the two incarnations of the show is that the original series had to render its imaginative concepts on practically non-existent budgets, so it’s hard to be too critical of how the original series’ production teams managed money that they never really had. “New Earth,” on the other hand, did have a budget—albeit one that paled in comparison to those for even the cheapest of its American counterparts—and so it makes slightly more sense to criticize the new series when it overextends itself.

None of this would matter if the story were stronger. “New Earth” is caught between two irreconcilable tones. It wants to be both a fun little body-swap comedy and a relatively serious meditation on the plight of the artificially grown humans and the Doctor’s right to intercede on their behalf. In theory, such goofy duality is the epitome of Doctor Who, but the Sisters of Plenitude are so cartoonish in their villainy that their plans to feel like little more than your bog standard evil scheme. As Novice Hame, Anna Hope gives her all to the big speech explaining just why the disease-ridden human race needed such an abhorrent solution, but she disappears from the story immediately after, shifting the focus back to Matron Casp and Sister Jatt’s more straightforward corruption. Russell T. Davies has his faults as a Doctor Who writer—I’ve written on this topic once or twice—but one of his undeniable strengths is in characterization, so it’s disappointing how blandly evil the elder Sisters of Plenitude reveal themselves to be.

After the post-regenerative heroics of “The Christmas Invasion,” this episode stands as David Tennant’s first full outing as the 10th Doctor. After revisiting Eccleston’s Doctor in these reviews, what’s so striking here is just how big Tennant’s performance is. His Doctor is outwardly happy-go-lucky and naturally given to celebratory exclamations, but it’s more than that. When the Doctor learns the truth, his rage burns with a ferocity that his predecessor could only match when facing a Dalek. Eccleston’s Doctor often acted as though he had nothing left to lose, so his anger was couched in a certain cosmic weariness. This Doctor is a Time Lord who has rediscovered the joy of his own existence; he once more believes the universe is a good and wondrous place, and he reacts harshly when the Sisters of Plenitude shatter that illusion. Tennant ably conveys all the individual emotional extremes that “New Earth” requires of him, but his performance can’t yet make all those disparate elements gel together into an entirely coherent character. There’s the outline of a great Doctor here, but he’s still cooking.

The Doctor’s speech about there being no higher authority makes explicit the rationale behind his treatment of the Sycorax and Harriet Jones. Contrast that proud proclamation with how the 9th Doctor approached the Nestene Consciousness way back in “Rose,” invoking the authority of the Shadow Proclamation to seek parlay with that would-be invader. This new Doctor is big on talk, but at least he does follow through here. I’m not totally sure his plan to spray the New Humans with a cocktail of every intravenous solution really works, but then I’m only really complaining about insufficient technobabble. The Doctor gets to live up to his chosen name more literally here than in any other story. He can be forgiven a little boasting.

As for the Doctor’s companion, “New Earth” stands as a terrific episode for Billie Piper and a rather disappointing episode for Rose. Piper reportedly requested she be given more comedic material after taking on so much serious character drama in her first season. She clearly has a blast imitating Zoë Wanamaker’s take on Lady Cassandra, and there’s a fearlessness to Piper’s performance that suggests just how much she has grown as an actress over the course of the series. The only downside to the body-swapping is that it means Rose herself is effectively removed from the episode at a time at which Doctor Who still needs to reestablish her relationship with the new Doctor. After all, Rose got her big showcase in “The Christmas Invasion,” and then the rejuvenated Doctor got to do his sword-fighting, but the two interacted only briefly over the course of the special. It’s possible to see the logic of putting Cassandra in Rose’s body: It shifts the spotlight solely onto Tennant’s Doctor, it allows a memorable villain to return while keeping the expensive CGI shots to an absolute minimum, and it gives Piper a chance to show off her range. But the Doctor and Rose are starting over, and it would be nice to get more of a sense of how their new dynamic is going to work. Then again, as the next episode demonstrates, perhaps I should be careful what I wish for...

Stray observations:

  • Oh, hey! So this is new Doctor Who’s first trip to an alien planet, although I’d actually say this world feels less alien than did Platform One in “The End Of The World.” Considering this planet is meant to be a near-exact replica of the original, some may feel we’re still waiting for the first proper trip to an alien world. Well, don’t worry: It’s coming soon.
  • Rose refers to “The End Of The World” as her and the Doctor’s “first date.” Probably good to hang onto that. Also, while Rose does say “I love you” to her mom, she only says “Bye” when Mickey says that he loves her. On the other hand, Rose uses the word “love” three times to describe how she feels about traveling with the Doctor once they arrive on New Earth. I’m not yet ready to draw conclusions about any of this, but it’s good to keep track of.
  • As much as I enjoy Billie Piper’s performance as the Cassandra-controlled Rose, I’m not at all sure about some of her lines. I’m somewhat British, but I’m willing to admit that I’m not British enough to understand the full cultural implications of a term like “chav,” though I’m not sure whether that hurts or hinders my appreciation of some of Cassandra’s lines. Also, Tennant’s turn as the Cassandra-controlled Doctor is hilariously, intentionally awful. It’s just ridiculous, and I kind of love it. Beating out a samba, indeed.
  • Any guesses on how far back in time the Doctor and Rose took the dying Cassandra? Considering she’s had 708 operations and literally every other pure human has died out, I wouldn’t be surprised if that party was centuries, perhaps even millennia, before the events of “New Earth.”
  • “That is enigmatic. That, that is, that is textbook enigmatic.” The Face of Boe is technically the reason why the Doctor and Rose show up here in the first place, though his appearance turns out to be little more than a tease for some subsequent revelation. Also, Tennant’s delivery of that line is as good an illustration as any of why I’d like to see him and John Oliver play brothers in something. I’m not totally sure their energies would match, but I’ve been curious to see it for a while now. But I digress.

“Tooth And Claw” (season 2, episode 2; originally aired 4/22/2006)

(Available on Hulu, Netflix, and Amazon Instant Video.)

“Och, aye! I’ve been oot and aboot.” “No, don't do that.” “Hoots mon.” “No, really don’t. Really.”

“Rose would care.” That’s how the Doctor knew for certain Rose wasn’t in her right state of mind back in “New Earth.” It wasn’t her sudden insistence on jamming faux-Cockney rhyming slang into every sentence, it wasn’t her implausible jump in technical knowledge, and it wasn’t even the bit where she kissed him. All of those things probably made the Doctor suspicious, but they didn’t represent clinching evidence that something was very wrong. As far as the Doctor is concerned, what defines Rose is her empathy, her compassion. So what do we make of an episode like “Tooth And Claw,” in which neither Rose nor the Doctor really seems to care about the carnage unfolding around them? Too often, the traveling companions treat the madness at the Torchwood Estate like a big joke. Mere moments after Captain Reynolds sacrifices himself to buy the Queen and her retinue a few precious seconds, Rose makes yet another unartful attempt to get Queen Victoria to say her iconic, probably apocryphal quote, “We are not amused.” Then she and the Doctor share a big hug and geek out about how amazing it is that they are fighting a werewolf. The Doctor judged the Cassandra-controlled Rose harshly for her lack of compassion. But is callousness in the pursuit of naked self-interest really that much worse than callousness in the pursuit of one’s own giddy amusement?

In fairness, “Tooth And Claw” is aware of this problem, sort of. Queen Victoria shows no tolerance for the pair’s antics, and her decision to banish the Doctor from her empire should stand as a brutal condemnation of the TARDIS team’s occasional excesses. It should do all of that, except the Doctor and Rose don’t care. They’re too busy musing about lycanthropy in the royal family and making rather unnecessary cracks about Princess Anne. This episode isn’t “Boom Town,” which for all its wonky storytelling did at least confront the Doctor with coherent critiques that he could not immediately dismiss; that episode worked as a self-contained meditation on why the Time Lord isn’t necessarily all that he’s cracked up to be. “Tooth And Claw,” on the other hand, reveals itself to be setup for some future confrontation between the Doctor and Torchwood, which was first mentioned in “Bad Wolf” and was instrumental in blowing up the Sycorax ship back in “The Christmas Invasion.” As a beginning chapter in a longer serialized narrative, this story could function end up working quite well. But in isolation, the Doctor and Rose’s conduct here can be awfully hard to take, especially when the supposed resolution feels like a tease for a future story.

I’m oversimplifying, to be sure. Let’s go back to the Captain’s sacrifice and Rose’s subsequent silliness. As problematic as those moments might be, I’m eliding Rose’s initial reaction, in which she looks on in horror as the Captain is ripped to pieces. And Rose does acquit herself well elsewhere. The obvious comparison for “Tooth And Claw” is last year’s Victorian-era celebrity historical, “The Unquiet Dead,” and there are shades of Rose’s relationship with Gwyneth in the gentleness she shows toward the petrified Flora. There’s no time in this more action-packed episode for the sort of long, character-building conversations that allowed Rose and Gwyneth to become friends in the brief time they knew each other, but Rose genuinely cares about making Flora feel better after her ordeal. Rose is the only human willing to address the creature, and she figures out a plan to save Lady Isobel and her staff once the wolf begins its deadly transformation. There’s an argument that the Doctor and Rose need a certain detachment to endure all the horrors and the deaths that must come with all the good that they inarguably do; “Tooth And Claw” doesn’t really make that argument, but the broad outlines of it are there, if you squint. And for his part, the Doctor shows some very human compassion for Victoria as he asks her about her late husband, Prince Albert. When Rose is otherwise occupied, the Doctor treats Victoria less like an amusement park version of the Queen and more like an actual, breathing person.

All of which leads me to the uneasy suggestion that Rose and this new Doctor actively bring out the worst in each other in “Tooth And Claw.” The 9th Doctor could be goofy and he could be detached, but Rose tended to challenge him when he did not display proper concern for the puny mortals around him. Think back to “The End Of The World,” in which Rose took the Doctor to task for his “Deep South” joke in the midst of their discussion about the TARDIS’ translation circuits. That Rose still looked at the world from a proudly human perspective, and she didn’t take the Doctor’s rightness as an article of faith: Just look at “Dalek” for definitive proof of that. Back then, the Doctor showed Rose the universe, and she looked out at the cosmos with her own eyes; these days, it’s as though the Doctor and Rose only have eyes for each other. This didn’t begin with the 10th Doctor—Mickey did criticize the Doctor, Rose, and Captain Jack’s insularity back in “Boom Town”—but their self-absorbed behavior here far exceeds anything we have seen previously. Even if these are all intentional creative decisions (and I’m fairly certain that they are), the execution makes the main characters more unpalatable than they need to be.

Even so, “Tooth And Claw” is far from a disaster. The BBC once again shows off its proficiency at recreating historical settings, and the Welsh locations ably double for Scotland, conveying the cold but undeniable beauty of the highlands. The period details in the Torchwood Estate and the costumes of its denizens all create the feeling of a real, lived-in world; that verisimilitude makes it easier to swallow the werewolf special effect than it might otherwise be in a less grounded setting. Euros Lyn’s direction of the chases sequences is strong, as he employs off-kilter angles, tight close-ups, and occasional werewolf perspective shots to make the house feel as claustrophobic as possible.

The story’s version of Victoria is based more in her modern-day conception than the actual, historical queen; she doesn’t possess the depth of character that Mark Gatiss and Simon Callow were able to bring to Charles Dickens in “The Unquiet Dead.” But Pauline Collins compensates for this with a multilayered performance that mixes steely determination, wry wit, and regal imperiousness, all of which makes it possible to understand why she would effectively declare war on the man who saved her life. Derek Riddell and Jamie Sives are similarly good as Sir Robert and Captain Reynolds, as their manner, speech, and philosophies mark them as quintessential products of the Victorian age. “Tooth And Claw” feels like a sumptuous supernatural costume drama, one that just happens to have a pair of jackasses wandering through it. Honestly, it’s easy to see why the Doctor Who production team was so proud of this episode—so much so that they considered kicking off the season with this story instead of “New Earth”—even if I can’t second their high opinion of the story. Plenty of Doctor Who adventures have been mixed bags or partial successes, but this is the rare story that works as well as it does only in spite of the Doctor’s presence, rather than because of it.

Stray observations:

  • All right, fine, let’s talk about the kung fu monks. They still rank as one of the silliest things I’ve ever seen in Doctor Who, and I’ve watched most of Douglas Adams’ season as script editor. The main reason they’re in the episode at all is that Russell T. Davies was a big fan of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon—which came out in 2000, a full six years before this episode was produced, so I’m not sure Davies can really be accused of pandering to hot new trends. He could be accused of dredging up what by 2006 had become a horribly overused pop culture reference, but I don’t think there was anything calculating about the monks’ inclusion; I suspect Davies just really wanted to see some kung fu monks in Doctor Who. There’s no sensible reason ever given for the monks’ martial arts acumen, and they basically disappear from the story halfway through once the wolf goes on his rampage. Their nonsensical presence really irritated me when I first watched this; nowadays, I’m more just bemused by the ridiculousness of it all, but the monks definitely don’t improve my already low opinion of this episode.
  • It’s possible that the far more fascinating story occurs entirely off-screen, as Prince Albert and Sir Robert’s father apparently concocted the most fantastically convoluted plan to save the Queen’s life should she ever come under werewolf attack. I would love to have more of a sense of just how that pair came up with this particular scheme, especially since it seems to require the presence of someone as brilliant as the Doctor for it to actually work. I suppose Prince Albert might not have been planning on dying quite so young, so perhaps he intended to be there to save his Queen from the inevitable attack. I might wonder why he would ever let her go to the Torchwood Estate if he knew what was coming, or why he didn’t tell her about any of this, but I’m prepared to chalk that up to Victoria’s obvious obstinacy. She’s not the sort of person who is going to believe anything that ridiculous, so Albert likely couldn’t have convinced her of the danger anyway.
  • This Week In Mythos: An old companion gets a lovely shout-out when the Doctor adopts a Scottish persona—and yes, that is David Tennant’s real accent—complete with the pseudonym James McCrimmon. The Doctor’s standard fake name is Dr. John Smith, but Russell T. Davies wanted the Doctor to choose something more authentically Caledonian. He settled on the full name of the 2nd Doctor’s most iconic companion, the 18th century Highlander Jamie. Not the brightest, perhaps, but the Doctor never had a more fiercely loyal companion.
  • Speaking of companions of the 2nd Doctor, Pauline Collins almost joined the TARDIS team of Patrick Troughton’s Doctor and Frazer Hines’ Jamie. She originally played Samantha Briggs in the 1967 serial “The Faceless Ones,” and she turned down multiple offers to stay on as a permanent companion, which paved the way for the subsequent introduction of a Victorian-era companion named, um, Victoria. As such, it’s weirdly appropriate that she ended up returning to the show decades later to play Queen Victoria herself. She’s the second actor to appear in both the classic and the new series, and the first to have a substantial role in both; William Thomas only had bit parts in “Remembrance Of The Daleks” and “Boom Town,” though he did go onto a much more substantial role in the spinoff Torchwood. But then, we’ve got a far more momentous return appearance coming in next week’s story, so I think it’s time to start preparing for that. Without further ado...

Next week: The past catches up to the Doctor in a wonderful way in “School Reunion,” and he then meets a most remarkable woman in “The Girl In The Fireplace.”

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