Tales from New Earth

Posted in Audio by - March 11, 2018
Tales from New Earth

Released March 2018
SOME SPOILERS FOLLOW

New Earth was an essential setting for the early years of the modern incarnation of Doctor Who, providing a sprawling alien landscape that retained an innate sense of familiarity and formed the core of a loosely-linked trilogy of 2005’s ‘The End of the World,’ 2006’s ‘New Earth,’ and 2007’s ‘Gridlock.’ Following the paths of first Cassandra and then Novice Hame, New Earth provided an intriguing look at the progression both of individuals and of an entire world over time with the Doctor and his friends as a guiding influence for good to try to circumvent the bad. And although the seeming redemption of Novice Hame served as a logical endpoint as New New York entered a time of rebirth, Big Finish has now chosen to continue the narrative in the audio medium in the aptly-titled Tales from New Earth.

Opening this series is ‘Escape from New New York’ by Roy Gill in which life in the titular city has regained at least a semblance of normality while now-Senator Hame continues to try to recompense for past misdeeds and transgressions. The city has rebuilt itself up from the ground and become one in which elevators are essential for traversing the resultant verticality, and Devon Pryce of the Elevator Guild is quickly established as the everyman figure around whom events will centre and to whom the audience can relate as events verge into ever more fantastic territory. With people going missing- including Devon’s sentient tree boyfriend, Thorn- and reports of some individuals being engulfed by light as they enter elevators and ascend, cat and new human align to uncover and tackle the latest threat to New Earth that goes straight to the heart of the presidency itself.

Kieran Hodgson makes an immediate impact as a young man who suddenly finds his known world turned upside down but finds the courage to look where others will not, and the inclusion of Anna Hope who perfectly reprises her role as Hame puts these events in a familiar context while providing an entry point to the highest level of this society where the root of the problem exists. The two work well together and independently, but there just isn’t enough time to truly develop either because of the evenly-split focus on each as the mystery surrounding the disappearances continues to advance, meaning that Hame’s redemption hinted at in ‘Gridlock’ provides much more narrative thrust than any single event here. Nonetheless, the President feeling compelled to make a deal with the Lux in which they will help the city rebuild with elevators in exchange for the lives of a few individuals is an understandable if morally reprehensible decision for one in power, and the unfettered escalation of the disappearances as the Lux seek ultimate dominion both in their Lumen frames and not is an unsurprising occurrence that nevertheless brings the city to a crippling halt when the truth behind Lux-built elevators is revealed. There are plenty of engaging characters and sequences, but even with Thorn’s fight to retain a sense of individuality providing a strong anchor believably delivered by Matthew Jacobs-Morgan, there just isn’t the overall development needed to elevate this forthright reintroduction to something truly unique.

On his first mission for Senator Hame, Devon crosses continents to arrive in the New Forest in ‘Death in the New Forest’ by Roland Moore. Believing he owes it to Thorn to tell his family what happened to him, Devon finds the tree people understandably suspicious of outsiders following a series of seven identical attacks on high-branch members of the Deciduan religion. Teaming with Sapling Vale, a cutting of the noble Jabe of the Forest of Cheem, and the Tenth Doctor who is seeking to repay his former incarnation’s debt to Jabe, the three travel to the last mound of the Termitons, the ancient enemy of the trees whose population majority had formerly been relocated to a sky isle suitable to their needs. After revealing that old grudges and enmity are still present on both sides even as the Termiton leader proclaims innocence, their investigation next takes them to Xylem Maple Dorm, the highest-ranking cleric still surviving and likely the next target of attack, and then to the revelation behind the ominous scorched clearing.

In a way, this story suffers from the same shortcomings as its predecessor as both Devon and Vale serve rather generic roles, the former to provide an outsider’s perspective and ask the necessary questions and the latter to act emotionally due to intimate involvement. Yasmeen Bannerman, who memorably portrayed Jabe and now returns as Vale, gives a spirited performance that unquestionably hints at the emotional turmoil and rage her character feels, but the equally split focus on the viewpoints of these two leads again keeps both from fully developing. This is compounded more with the Tenth Doctor also being voiced by Hodgson, not because the performance isn’t serviceable but because the character’s eccentricities are amplified to make what is ultimately a supporting role that could have been narrated just as effectively slightly more intrusive than was likely intended. It’s always a novelty to see the modern Doctors involved in stories, but there are simply too many competing voices to prevent the tone and narrative from becoming slightly muddled along the way. Fortunately, the return of the Lux is a welcome explanation for both disappearances and foregoing of faith for the light even as the foes employ new tactics to further their spread, and the intriguing dynamic that results from the tenuous partnership between the Lux and the Termitons presents plenty of danger and furtive scheming to challenge the heroes and their moral codes to their fullest, providing a depth and true menace that together enhance the overall affair.

‘The Skies of New Earth’ by Paul Morris sees Devon arrive in the great floating city of New Caelum to look into the Lux energy panels that have been distributed while debates about the energy crisis and how solve it continue. With a competing company offering to mine the planet’s ice clouds via laser fragmentation, the notorious solar bear activist, Oscar McLeod, is able to illicitly prove that the proposed process is flawed just before an unavoidable explosion that threatens to send ten million pounds of ice down on Nest City at twice the speed of sound is somehow set in motion. When the Lux swoop in and use their affinity with light to contain the damage, their newfound goodwill with the bird people becomes all the more suspicious to Devon and newfound companion, Loba, who understand that there is always a cost to be paid for any seeming selfless act.

Nina Toussaint-White gives a robust performance as Loba Christata who serves as the entry point to the culture of the bird people who have for the most part remained unaffected by the influence of the Lux as the majority of the remainder of the planet has slowly succumbed in bigger numbers. The Tenth Doctor once more joins the investigation here, positing that there is a small black hole at the heart of Nest City that keeps the malign influence of the Lux at bay around it without affecting the city itself, and his presence here is simultaneously more tempered and vital than in the previous serial. Strangely, the narrative initially paints a great focus on finding the so-named Old Man of the Nest, toying with assumptions that this is a pseudonym of the Doctor himself, but while this leads to an intriguing bit of backstory about how the Lux damaged relations between humans and bird people for generations and then a crucial statement that the light blinds itself, the meeting itself feels somewhat minor given the buildup and the resulting grandiose visual nature of the Lumen and McLeod joining the fray in the sky as the Doctor and his friends try to turn the laser fragmentation device to maximum to defeat the Lux with as little collateral damage as possible. This is another story filled with captivating characters and intelligent ideas, but again it’s the brief time spent in this unique environment that precludes the full gravity of the situation from reaching its full potential.

‘The Cats of New Cairo’ by Matt Fitton concludes this set as Senator Hame is summoned to New Cairo by the spiritual leader of Catkind, the Most Exhalted High Persian, to report on her investigations. Through the introduction of the camel-like Dromedans who still worship the cats and the vast Octahedron structures, Fitton is economically able to paint a picture of what life for these felines who see themselves as superior to every other being on the planet is like, and the narrative quickly shifts to the conspiracy in which the spiritual leader admits he has taken a central role. Striking a deal with the Lux to receive unlimited power in exchange for the lives of non-feline beings to swell the Lux’s ranks, the Persian has put self-importance and greed above all else, hoping to maintain a lifestyle just below godhood regardless of the ultimate costs. James Dreyfus is commanding in this role as demanded, but the necessity of quickly advancing the plot means that the character is completely one-dimensional without time to develop into a meaningful and nuanced figure to create any sense of empathy or emotion.

With the Doctor unable to intervene due to specific circumstances in the story, it’s wholly up to the denizens of New Earth to take charge, and using possibilities established in the preceding story with Oscar returning finally gives these stories a sense of cohesion despite disparate settings that the constants of the Lux and Devon haven’t yet fully achieved. The resolution is another visually ambitious one that suits the audio medium perfectly, and it’s undeniably satisfying to see Devon and Hame working together as equals to overcome their common foe, bringing Hame’s search for internal recompense full circle as her actions unite the many different beings on New Earth to boldly face the future after walking away from her own Catkind past. Indeed, this unification has been a common theme given the rather xenophobic notions that have pervaded the different species whether due to long-ingrained beliefs of entitlement or the pressures of dangerous circumstances, and that sense of hope and fortitude underlying each story is unquestionably the strongest component of this set.

Tales from New Earth was always going to be a release facing an uphill battle because it’s not a set that anyone was necessarily clamouring for or expecting prior to its announcement. Unfortunately, while the television serials relating to this setting dealt so successfully with the internal ‘human’ condition across species as certain pressures intensified, the decision to have one common threat attacking four incredibly distinct subsets of the planet’s population in wholly unique settings with wholly unique cultures and beliefs is simply too much to allow anything more than a superficial glimpse at each. For the same reason, the character of Devon doesn’t quite have the time to develop like a typical protagonist in an extended series despite his incredible dedication to doing good even as he is increasingly taken out of his comfort zone. Thus, despite the usual polish, great direction, and strong performances that are so constant across Big Finish releases, this is a case of a set trying to be too ambitious while relying too much on the television serials to build up the current state of this world and not fully being able to explore and realise its many ideas and characters as a result.

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