Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Cassandra's Back...Literally!

STORY 172 : NEW EARTH

When last we saw the dishonorable Lady Cassandra, she had apparently been obliterated and thus ended the last fully human being.  However, one can never really keep a good villain down.  New Earth not only brings back the first villain created in the NuWho series, but also a remarkably intelligent story that uses science-fiction to ask some serious questions about how shocking and immoral acts can be justified by claiming they are for 'the benefit of humanity'. 

The newly regenerated Doctor (David Tennant) takes his Companion Rose Tyler (Billie Piper) to the planet called New Earth.  The planet called Earth may have been destroyed in The End of the World, but humans are a resilient species.  They travelled and expanded, and a group of them found a planet similar to their long-lost world and settled there.  This visit to New New York is not a sightseeing tour, though.  The Doctor has been contacted via his psychic paper to pay a call at the hospital just outside New New York.

We find that it is the Face of Boe, whom the Ninth Doctor had met in The End of the World.  He is dying due to old age.  However, the Lady Cassandra (Zoe Wanamaker), who has been hiding out in the hospital basement, recognizes Rose and now wants her revenge, and her body.  She gets her half-life minion Chip (Sean Gallagher) to divert Rose's lift/elevator and bring her to Cassandra.  Rose is shocked to see she is still alive, with her devoted Chip caring for her.  Cassandra suspects the nurses, a cat-like group called the Sisters of Plentitude, are up to something.

So is the Doctor.  In this hospital, illnesses that have no known cure are indeed being cured.  He suspects something is wrong, especially in the Sister's ambivalence as to how they can cure.  Cassandra, meanwhile, takes over Rose's body.  While this causes Cassandras' brain to die, she is soon thrilled to have such a hot body to which to play with.  Attempting her best to pass herself off as THE Rose, she and the Doctor soon discover the hospital's shocking secret.

In what the Sisters call their Intensive Care, there are thousands of living species which have every disease in the known universe.  The Sisters have been using them to provide for their miracle cures, and should one become conscious of his/her existence, they are incinerated.  The Doctor soon threatens to bring down this whole hospital, but he has one other matter to attend to: Lady Cassandra.

Cassandra is determined to use the discovery of this "human experimentation" to gain wealth, but the Sisters refuse to pay her off.  No matter: Cassandra unleashes the patients, not quite understanding that a mere touch from them would give anyone they come in contact with all their diseases.  This allows the Doctor to escape and pursue Cassandra, and soon our villain is jumping around between Rose's body and the Doctor's.  She is so thoughtless that she has no problem abandoning her loyal Chip to the patients, who so yearn to be cured themselves they inadvertently infect all that come in touch with them.

As he is the Doctor, he finds a way to bring healing to all those trapped in Intensive Care.  He also brings down the Sisters, who are arrested for their crimes.  The Face of Boe, almost forgotten in the melee, tells the Doctor that the Great Secret he has to tell him will be revealed in their third and final meeting.  The Doctor tries to convince Cassandra that it is her time to die, but rather than face the uncertainty of death she plops herself into Chip.  While Chip is willing, he cannot sustain her.  Cassandra finally comes to accept that she indeed must now die, and in an act of kindness, takes her/Chip back to Cassandra's past, specifically the last time anyone told her she was beautiful.

"Chip" tells "the Lady Cassandra" that she is truly beautiful, then falls.  The Doctor and Rose leave a distraught Cassandra comforting a dying Chip.

It is here where Russell T Davies both creates a touching scene and a question of logic.  If we go by what we see in New Earth, it is Lady Cassandra who is telling Lady Cassandra that she is beautiful.  Add to that, has Cassandra lived so long that she no longer remembers who told her she was beautiful?  Now, I'll grant you that because it had been literally centuries since Cassandra had so shifted from a full human into a trampoline she might not have remembered this odd-looking fellow dying in her arms, but it is a bit of a stretch (no pun intended) to think she wouldn't, in the back of her mind, suspected that the life-form devoted to "The Mistress" wasn't the same one who told her she was beautiful.

Furthermore, it is a little strange to think that the Doctor would take Cassandra to tell HERSELF what she remembered so fondly. 

Timey-wimey in my view.

Still, given that, on the whole New Earth worked brilliantly on so many levels.  On the first is the actual story itself.  Davies established Cassandra's involvement in New Earth rather quickly, so it becomes an anticipation game to see when the rivals will finally meet (and get a logical explanation as to how she apparently made it out alive after she had literally been stretched beyond what she could endure.      

The fact that the Doctor had regenerated worked in New Earth's favor.  It brought to mind the first story of the Second Doctor's era, the sadly now-lost The Power of the Daleks.  In that story, although the Doctor had changed his physical appearance, the Daleks

New Earth flows very fast, which in this case is both good and bad.  It allows for all the pieces (Cassandra, the hospital, even up to a point the Face of Boe) to all fit in very well.  However, I couldn't help but think than in the classic Who the horror of the patients in the Intensive Care would have been built up more, even allowed for greater interaction between the patients and those who were in the hospital. 

There were great performances in New Earth.  David Tennant in his first full story (one must remember that in The Christmas Invasion he was pretty much out of it for at least the first half of the story) owns the role of the Doctor.  His shifts from almost manically goofy to righteous fury are so fluid that one accepts the Doctor as a fully-realized being, not a character on a program. 

He and Piper had an incredibly difficult task in New Earth.  They not only had to play the Doctor and Rose, but also convince us that the Lady Cassandra was now in possession of their bodies, so now Tennant and Piper have to play two characters.  Both of them pulled it off brilliantly, bringing a great comic style to how vain and selfish Cassandra was.

Equaling them is Gallagher's devoted Chip.  There is something almost endearing and sweet in how loyal he is to this stretched-out being, almost an innocence in his attachment to his mistress.  However, Gallagher's best scenes are at the end, when he not only has to play Lady Cassandra herself but also has to face his/Cassandra's death.  We feel so sad for them that it brings a touch of genuine sorrow in New Earth.

For her part, Wanamaker perfects the vanity and selfishness of the Lady Cassandra while never losing focus on the fact that she is also ridiculously funny.  We also get a chance to see Wanamaker as an actual human, not just her voice.  This ploy is familiar to me, but at the moment I cannot recall in what story I saw it done: a character that had been just a voice was given a full body in another episode/film. 

James Hawes kept everything flowing well, and he got great performances out of his cast.

Where I would fault New Earth is on things that have never appealed to me.  The Face of Boe, who was really one of many characters in The End of the World (is it only now that I note a curious trail in the titles from The End of the World to its sequel called New Earth?) is now being built up as this important, almost iconic being.  I think he was brought back because the prop was so expensive it was best to reuse it.  However, I am not a fan of anything that suggests there will be another tie-in to a future story; hence, when the Face says he will meet the Doctor a third and last time (AND reveal a great secret), I am slightly put off. 

I suppose as an American I didn't quite get the idea that the Sisters had to be cats, and the expression, "Never trust a nun, a nurse, or a cat", may be something British to tie in to why the Sisters were felines.

Finally, while there is a good suggestion that the beings the Sisters created to infect (and draw cures from) were worthy of life itself and thus should be considered human, I don't think there was enough follow-through on just how horrifying and evil the entire plan was.  It has some curious ramifications if beings created but not fully alive were thought of as having rights.

Pro-life advocates, anyone?

I figure Davies did not intend anyone to make those kinds of connections, but it was scratching at my mind's door.

New Earth moved fast, had moments of genuine smiles (not outright laughs) and even moments of tenderness.  It had one asking questions about what is right and wrong about experimenting on other life forms, and gave the leads a chance to expand on their acting range.   It is a good sign of a healthy series.  

8/10

Next Story: Tooth & Claw

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