One of the few valid criticisms of last year’s stunningly-successful BBC reinvention of the venerable DOCTOR WHO was that Russell T Davies’s vision of his childhood hero was a bit too Earthbound. Most of the resurgent Time Lord’s new adventures (then in the form of dour thesp Christopher Eccleston) involved zipping back and forth up the intergalactic motorway between London and Cardiff with the occasional trip up to an orbiting space station just to prove that the TARDIS can break free from Earth’s gravitational pull every now and again. Davies’s reasoning for this makes a lot of sense; in a UK TV landscape where aliens and spaceships are either kid’s stuff or weirdo’s stuff, there was no sense in risking losing a potential large mainstream audience by sending the TARDIS crew to the hostile planet Zog where the Zog people are battling the Zog monster whilst searching for the lost crystals of Zog. Who, he said, gives a damn? There’s got to be human interest, it has to connect with an audience emotionally ?and you can only do that in even the most outlandish drama by making it relevant to Mankind, to the human race and, to an extent, how we live today.

But with season one becoming embarrassingly successful, it was inevitable that the second series would see the show shoot off into space again. How perverse of Davies then, in his first script for the new series (or the second if you count ‘The Christmas Invasion’ as part of season two) to do it by sending the new Doctor (Tennant) and feisty young Rose (Piper) five billion and twenty-three years into the future onto a planet called New Earth. It’s a sign of the enormous faith the BBC has in the show and the confidence the production team has in what they’re making, that this bold, brash, breezy, slightly camp romp could have been chosen to kick off a new run of adventures in Space and Time. It could have gone so disastrously wrong?n

The Doctor takes Rose “further than we’ve ever gone before”, arriving on a paradise planet in the middle of an FX tour de force of hurtling shuttles, gleaming cityscapes and an ominous-looking cliffside hospital. Summoned by a mysterious message received on his ubiquitous psychic paper, the Doctor investigates ?and in best DOCTOR WHO tradition, he and Rose are separated and within minutes Rose is in deadly peril when she falls into the clutches of their old enemy Cassandra (Wanamaker), the stretched flap of skin purporting to be the last ‘pure’ human, the saboteur who caused them so much trouble on their visit to Platform One in last season’s ‘End of the World.’ No sooner has Cassandra swapped her consciousness into Rose’s body than the Doctor begins to realise that there’s something very odd going on in this pristine hospital staffed by catnuns and that no-one seems to die, no matter how serious their ailment.

Romp really is the only word that comes close to describing ‘New Earth’. It rattles along at a breakneck pace and, as a production, it’s pretty faultless. The prosthetic effects ?from the catnuns to Cassandra and her manservant Chip right through to the scabby zombies ?are extraordinary on a TV budget and there’s a scale here the show’s never been able to manage before. The plot ?sometimes a problem in earlier Davies script for the series ?hangs together quite well with only the odd gaping chasm of logic ?and the performances are quite superb. Tennant, in his first full episode of DOCTOR WHO (remember he was out of action for much of his Christmas adventure) oozes confidence and enthusiasm and he’s clearly already much more comfortable in the role than Eccleston, for all his brilliance, ever was. But this is really Piper’s show. Having run the emotional gamut in season one, she’s now got the chance to flex her comedy chops and she’s a revelation. Her body language is wonderful as Cassandra/Rose and the actress is clearly revelling in the chance to depict a very different Rose to the one we’ve all grown accustomed to. Davies’s script fizzes with witty one-liners and, as usual, he manages to be saucy without offending. Rose, realising that Cassandra has been reconstituted from a flap of skin from the back of her ‘body’ chortles “So you’re talking out of yourT “Ask not!” retorts Cassandra, courtesy of Wanamaker’s icy, haughty delivery. The laughs, however, do start to mount up to the detriment of the drama as the episode crashes into its last third. The continual body-swapping raises the eyebrow slightly as it becomes a bit pantomime (although Tennant gives a great turn as Cassandra briefly inhabits the body of a man for the first time!) but, typically, Davies brings it all to a halt when Cassandra inhabits the body of one of the infected zombies for just a moment and realises, with chilling horror, what a lifeless, soulless existence they’ve lived.

The real secret to enjoying DOCTOR WHO these days is to ignore the plot inconsistencies and just go along for the ride. So when the Doctor and Rose/Cassandra plunge down a lift shaft and the Doctor knocks up some handy concoction to cure the thousands of diseased zombies lurching about the hospital, it’s best not to ponder the convenience of the resolution but allow yourself to be swept up by the sheer energy rush of it all. And the absolute elation of the show is right up there towards the end of the episode when Tennant, having miraculously cured the plague victims, glories not only in his own brilliance but also in the implacable indestructibility of the human spirit. Which, in a very real sense, is what Russell T Davies’s DOCTOR WHO is all about.

Then it all seems to be over. There are mysteries (what is the secret of the Face of Boe?), there’s a hint of romance (“You love it!”) and, above all, there’s a moment of heart-wrenching beauty as the Doctor takes the dying Cassandra, now in the weakened body of her assistant Chip, back in time to meet the real human Cassandra ?where he proceeds to die in her arms.

It was a brave and bold move to kick off this new series with an episode as wild and unconventional as ‘New Earth’ ?and it was a move which could have backfired horribly. Fortunately, despite the moments where it looked in danger of veering off the rails, the episode managed to become a triumph of wit and imagination and, if overnight viewing figures are to believed (and there’s no reason they shouldn’t be!) it looks as if the public are as in love with DOCTOR WHO as they’ve ever been. A more than decent season opener butos I think we all know, the best is yet to come. And how.

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