‘Doctor Who – Tales from New Earth’ reviewed

❉ Don Klees returns to the year 5 billion in the latest collection of stories from the worlds of Doctor Who.

More so than any other long-running series, Doctor Who has historically blurred the distinction between official material and fan contributions. Even putting aside contentious figures like Ian Levine, fans-turned-professional have been part of the show’s landscape since the 1980s. With so many longtime fans working on the TV series’ 21st century revival in various capacities, this phenomenon has only intensified since. It seems almost a given that at least one future Doctor and/or head-writer will be a devoted fan.

Doctor Who’s loose copyright situation relative to other science-fiction “franchises” likewise blurs the lines. The combination of freelance writers retaining the rights for many well-known elements and the BBC being less litigious than most American companies fosters material – often the work of ambitious fans – that’s sanctioned by individual creators if not necessarily the BBC itself. Some of these stories have been quite appealing, while others are far less accessible to the average fan. The flip-side of this is that sometimes officially licensed material feels more like the insular strand of fan-made work, as in Big Finish Productions’ newly-released boxset Tales From New Earth.

Returning to New Earth was a natural narrative thread to follow. Russell T. Davies himself did it in Gridlock and delivered one of his very best episodes. In many respects, that 2007 installment serves as the starting point for the world portrayed here. The problem is that the resulting storyline is simultaneously steeped in continuity yet also completely inessential to the ongoing narrative.

Life on New Earth has returned to some version of normality, but the earlier trauma remains relatively fresh in people’s memories. This includes the feline Novice Hame – now Senator Hame – whose continuing effort to atone for past misdeeds leads her to the fight against a new threat, a mysterious entity called the Lux. While the idea of Hame taking an active role in rebuilding her world was teased in Gridlock, it still comes across as the premise for a sequel that was neither necessary nor particularly desired. The latter point isn’t inherently a negative, however, when trying to sell an audience something they neither need nor want execution is critical. This is where Tales From New Earth stumbles.

Among the many reasons why Doctor Who’s TV revival succeeded was its astute use of the programme’s history. Rather than deluging the audience with esoteric details, Davies and company either used continuity as just an added texture or offered sufficient context to make it accessible to those not already versed in it. It’s ironic to find a release which openly evokes some of 21st century Doctor Who’s earliest episodes disregarding that lesson.

It’s all the more striking considering that Tales From New Earth clearly wants to play on the same field as its televised precursors. Along with the familiar arc/episode/season structure, its primary protagonist – a “new human” named Devon Pryce (played by Kieran Hodgson) – is overtly positioned as another normal-yet-fantastic character in the vein of Rose Tyler. Though Hodgson is fine in the role, the character serves to highlight how muddled the narrative is. Devon has the potential to be the audience identification figure, but the writers often seem unwilling to commit to this.

Instead, the prevailing sentiment seems to be that a character being voiced by the same actor who played them on television is sufficient in itself to make them interesting. As a result, the focus often shifts from  Devon to Senator Hame, once again played by Anna Hope. A similar approach is at work with the character of Sapling Vale, an offshoot of Jabe from The End of the World who’s voiced by the same actress (Big Finish regular Yasmin Bannerman).

The episode with Vale, Death in the New Forest, also introduces the most questionable aspect of this set. The use of a Tennant-era version of the Doctor Who theme made an appearance by that Doctor almost inevitable. Unfortunately he’s not portrayed here by David Tennant. Kieran Hodgson attempts the Doctor’s dialogue as part of Devon’s narration. Hodgson approaches the task with enthusiasm, but his impression is more an assembly of vocal mannerisms than an actual performance. It’s an especially distracting move with so much focus given to characters being played by actors from the TV series.

It’s a puzzling move as well, because it really wasn’t necessary. The Doctor’s role in the plot is generally functional rather than adding any particular sparkle. With so much of the action narrated variously by Devon and Hame, his involvement could have been conveyed without resorting to a caricature that emphasized Tennant’s absence. Then again, most of the characters presented here – even the mysterious Most Exalted High Persian (played by James Dreyfus) in the finale The Cats of New Cairo – feel functional rather than well-rounded.

Though the current threat is thwarted by the end of that episode, Tales From New Earth leaves open the possibility of further installments. If Big Finish does revisit New Earth, one hopes they’ll do the same with Davies’ TV stories set there and focus more on their spirit than superficial trappings. Nothing in this release diminishes those episodes, but it’s hard not to see this as a missed opportunity to celebrate one of the genuine high points of modern Doctor Who.

Tales from New Earth’ is now available from Big Finish at £23 on CD or £20 on download. 

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