New Earth. New world. New Doctor. On one hand, that’s all this story is thinking about. We’ve got a shiny new Doctor and he’s much less angsty than the last one so let’s take him for a spin. Given that he spent much of his introductory episode convalescing, here is our first full date with the Tenth Doctor. While we’re at it, let’s go to an alien planet for the first time and meet some cat people.
Amongst all this newness, writer Russell T Davies brings us something old, flat and bitchy in the form of Cassandra (Zoe Wanamaker, and lots of other people this ep). Cassandra is a vampy socialite, reduced, after too many plastic surgeries, to a piece of skin stretched out across a metal frame. That’s why the lady is a trampoline.
She’s her own canvas, but now she has the ability to jump out of her tautly pulled self and into other people. This not only gives Billie Piper and David Tennant the chance to ham it up for a few scenes but also cuts down nicely on the number of CGI shots needed. Showy, saucy and economical! John Nathan-Turner would have loved it.
Cassandra is a critique of the vacuous pursuit of physical beauty. RTD famously thought her up while watching plastic faced Hollywood actresses at award ceremonies. I like to imagine he turned to Julie Gardner at that moment, and giving his best JN-T impression said, “I think I’ve found my next Doctor Who villain.” And like the best villains, she’s howlingly funny, so she’s too good to lie in little pieces on the floor of Platform One. Her return seems like the standard victory lap we might expect from your funny, slightly odious guest villain. She’s this century’s Sil.
But RTD is too smart to just bring back a character this promising, just to let her do the same thing she did last episode. He lets her out of her frame, lets her bounce around inside Rose and flounce about inside the Doctor and even slum it for a moment inside one of this story’s infected human guinea pigs. But this last body swap has a transformative effect on her; she’s shocked by the loneliness and hopelessness of these germ farms. “They’re so alone,” she murmurs. “They keep reaching out, just to hold us. All their lives and they’ve never been touched.”
This newfound compassion follows her through her final body swap into henna tattooed underling Chip (Sean Gallagher). When he starts to expire from the sheer delight of finally having Cassandra, um, inside him, she finally accepts what the previous angsty Doctor said to her, that everything has its time and everyone dies. His preppy replacement is kinder. He takes her back to the last day that someone called her beautiful.
It’s a swanky party, full of tuxedoed men, who really should have dialogue but don’t. Turns out it’s herself encompassed inside Chip who tells younger her, encompassed inside Zoe Wanamaker, that she’s beautiful. And thus long before Steven Moffat has got his showrunners on, things have got all timey wimey.
But that’s not the thing. Here’s the thing. That the story of a bunch of cat nurses incubating every disease ever in a bunch of human lab rats (who should really have dialogue, but don’t) in order to cure a bunch of other humans, and the Doctor fixing everything with a magic switch is fine. But it’s Cassandra’s story which is really emotionally effective. And it’s so expertly hidden, only revealing itself right at the end of the episode. It’s what the story’s been about the whole time – that you can’t fight nature and you can’t preserve life at any cost. Sooner or later, it all catches up with you. It’s harsh and moving and far more interesting than events in a big ol’ space hospital.
New Earth is brimming with confidence. It’s so sure than the combination of Tennant and Piper is going to be a massive hit. Which is remarkable when you think about… how annoyingly smug they are.
“Ooh, travelling with you, I just love it! Oooh, our first date, we had chips!” Ooh, put a sock in it, the pair of you. We romanceless nerds don’t tune into Doctor Who to watch date night in space. We certainly don’t want you with your perfect handsome/pretty loviness being rubbed in our faces!
I’m being flippant but actually, there’s something pretty seismic happening in New Earth with our perception of the Doctor. Tennant’s charm and good looks make the Doctor seem dateable for the first time. It’s no surprise that Rose and he are flirting and skipping about, reminiscing about chips. And when Cassandra inhabits the Doctor, she articulates the change in him pretty well. “Oo, he’s slim and a little bit foxy,” she purrs, confirming what the audience can already see. But then she calls Rose out: “You’ve thought so too. I’ve been inside your head. You’ve been looking. You like it.” We’ve positioned the Doctor, for the first time, as a potential suitor. That stripey brown suit of his? It’s made of boyfriend material.
Cassandra’s invitation for Rose, and for the audience, to view the Doctor as desirable, as a sexual object, is a first (with the possible exception of the TV Movie, I suppose). We take it for granted now, that the Doctor can actually be a love interest, since Tennant, Smith and Capaldi have had regular squeezes. It’s easy to overlook what a shift this was for the program. Eccleston, even though his interest in Rose, sealed with a big time vortexy smooch, was clearly signposted, somehow remained slightly avuncular. Tennant is the Doctor you want to randomly snog, as Cassandra does, because he happens to be there and you can. He’s the one you can safely admit to ogling. That never happened with Eccleston.
And because the perving and snogging and associated fascination is led by Cassandra and Rose, it’s a female gaze that New Earth is celebrating. It’s no wonder that so many female viewers (Mrs Spandrell included) joined the show when Tennant began his TARDIS tenancy. It’s not just that Tennant’s cute. It’s that we were, for the first time, invited to notice that the Doctor’s cute. “Do you like Doctor Who now?” I recall a bemused friend asking Mrs Spandrell back then. “Yes,” the old trouble and strife said. “Because the new Doctor is hot.”
All of which leads us to a peculiar inversion regarding Cassandra. She was created as a reaction to how women are viewed and how they react physically to that. She ends up reversing that gaze onto the Doctor. Once he was her judge, jury and executioner. Now he’s her toyboy. It’s a very new world indeed.
LINK TO Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS: both have zombie-like monsters.
NEXT TIME: If you had any more tawdry quirks you could open up a tawdry quirk shop. It’s time to ponder Amy’s Choice.