Doctor Who: Tales From New Earth – Starring Adjoa Andoh, Yasmin Bannerman, Anna Hope, Kieran Hodgson, Matthew Jacobs-Morgan, Dan Blaskey, Toby Hadoke, Matt Wilkinson, Derek Griffiths, Pippa Nixon, Nina Toussaint-White, James Dreyfus, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Suzy Bloom, Youssef Kerkour and Louise Gold. Written by Roy Gill, Roland Moore, Paul Morris and Matt Fitton. Directed by Helen Goldwyn – 5xCD / Download (Big Finish)
Ahh, New Earth. Russell T Davies’ playground of possibilities, most of which manifest as versions of things on Old Earth, given a personality – trees, cats, you name it. It’s worth remembering that back in Davies’ era of Doctor Who, we got three full stories introducing the ideas, the people and the world of New Earth, and they at least mostly worked. The very second episode of regenerated Who introduced us to Jabe of the Forest of Cheem, played by Yasmin Bannerman. New Earth, the Tenth Doctor’s first full season-opener, introduced us to the cat nun nurses and the ‘New Humans’ of New Earth, including Anna Hope’s Novice Hame. And Gridlock, the Macra story that only sort of was, showed us New Earth in the grip of a bizarre but ultimately logical traffic jam that could never end without the Doctor’s intervention.
What’s perverse about New Earth is that it’s actually an example of relatively self-sustaining, independent hard sci-fi. The concept of taking something from Old Earth and making it a person might be relatively old hat, but the world itself is ripe for adventures of its own. New Earth feels like a world that doesn’t need the Doctor to keep popping by to pull its fat out of the fire. It feels like it exists in a universe of its own, into which the Doctor occasionally intrudes with his silliness and his brilliance and his twiddly stick.
Given that, it’s perhaps a little odd that it’s taken this long to spin New Earth off on its own adventures, but here they are – Novice Hame is now Senator Hame of the Senate of New New York. A second generation New Human by the name of Devon Pryce becomes her assistant and friend, and the budgets of audio production allow us to explore a bit more of New Earth than we’ve ever seen before – different bits of New New York, New Cairo, the (ahem) New Forest, and New Caelum, a nest-city in the clouds for the bird-people of New Earth.
So, does it work? Does it deliver?
The answer to that really rather depends on what you’re looking for from it. For a world so eminently suited to solving its own problems and exist independently of him, it does seem in this first (and apparently so far, only) set of stories to rather cling to the Tenth Doctor’s flappy coat-tails, with him popping up in three of the four stories, voiced by Devon Pryce actor Kieran Hodgson. That’s either brilliant if you’re a big Tenth Doctor fan, or it arguably misses the point of New Earth’s potential, because the overall tone of a New Earth series where three out of four stories have the Doctor in is that it falls between two stools: it’s neither independent enough to make its nominal stars, Hame and Pryce, take sole control of the action, nor Who enough to be full-on Doctor Who.
If we treat it as an independent New Earth set, the good news is that as individual stories, due diligence has been done. The first story, Escape From New New York by Roy Gill, establishes Devon and Hame in their day-to-day lives in the city, gives Devon a boyfriend, gives him a point to prove and a passion to prove it, and works hard – and with some success – to establish characters, societal layers, threat, chicanery and shenanigans. The villains are interesting in Gill’s story, and to give them their due, each subsequent story finds a new way to force them to be interesting, but on their journey through the box set, they do feel like they’re being forced on us as the consistent Big Bad, when perhaps several Smaller Bads might have kept the feel a bit fresher.
Death In The New Forest, by Roland Moore, introduces us to a new version of a throwback character – Sapling Vale, played by Yasmin Bannerman, is a cutting of the Great Jabe from The End Of The World. There’s some philosophical fun here with two competing religions, one of which offers tangible benefits in the here and now, and the other which offers a sense of continuity with a cultural past. There’s also some poignant discussion about the need for evidence before jumping to conclusions about who’s responsible for a murderous act (a discussion which has become even more relevant since a former Russian spy keeled over in his carbonara and a bunch of diplomats were given their marching orders). And, perhaps best of all about this episode, there’s cornerstone-of-many-people’s-youth, Derek Griffiths, giving a glorious performance as an ancient tree-cleric. Where perhaps this story takes the New Earth philosophy of Thing-People a little too lazily is in the existence of a race of tree-haters called the Termitons. Go on, take a guess what they are?
The Skies of New Earth by Paul Morris doesn’t mess around with subtlety – it’s an anti-fracking story, with some details changed. As such, it’s a powerful push-along tale, with some fantastical elements – nest-city of the bird-people, eco-warriors led by a talking ‘solar bear’ in a jetpack, Julian Rhind-Tutt as an unscrupulous frackmeister-general. There’s more than a touch of black and white adventure serials about the piece, a dash of Flash Gordon, a splash of King of the Rocket Men, while also giving a hat tip to the likes of Douglas Adams and Philip Pullman, to create the most frantically enjoyable of the stories here.
That said, Cats of New Cairo, by Matt Fitton, is probably the most successful story here in terms of taking the Russell T Davies idea for New Earth and running with it – we learn about the expanded cat society of which Hame is part, and run into senior cat nun Sister Jara, played by Adjoa Andoh, who originally played Sister Jatt in the on-screen story New Earth. We meet the self-indulgent cat-pope, discover how cats controlled their new human experiments, and encounter a crisis that plays on the self-interested, self-revolving nature of cats as a species. It’s true, there are camel-people here too, but they’re given a culture that feels inherently more rich than the Termitons have, and so they’re woven into the fabric of the New Earth idea with what feels like far more success.
So ultimately, does Tales from New Earth work?
It works as four individual single-hour stories, yes. As a box set with a continuous villain through four hours of storytelling, it begins to feel forced, and less than sure whether it’s a set of Doctor Who stories with less Doctor than usual in them, or the bold set of independent New Earth stories it wants to be. Tales from New Earth could work very well, with a broader variety of challenges and less handholding from the parent programme. Whether it gets the chance to prove that probably depends on audience take-up for this series. And that rather depends on the audience seeing the potential and the invention of these stories, rather than being thrown by the tonal uncertainties of the overall set. Tony Fyler