The Squee Factor
(Utopia Reviewed)

Before I embark on the review of the latest episode of Doctor Who to appear in the United Kingdom (which is going to spoil some major elements, so if you want to stay unspoiled, turn away before the break), I would like to invite all Waterloo-Wellington area bloggers to the pub at the Heuther Hotel in Uptown Waterloo, this Saturday at 2 p.m.

We will be hosting the Idealistic Pragmatist who is visiting from Alberta. Greg Staples will be there, along with Greg Bester, so expect some good multi-partisan beer drinking and camaraderie. I will be there, and I look forward to seeing you there as well.

Now to the review.

I’m extra serious about the spoiler warnings on this review, by the way. Utopia, by Russel T. Davies, is perhaps the biggest surprise of all three seasons.

I have an unusual relationship with spoilers. I’m too connected to the Internet, and I am the sort of person who sometimes likes to skip ahead and read the end of books (please, refrain from the death threats :-)). So, there have been few moments on television that I haven’t anticipated. I’m still able to appreciate each episode on its own merits, however, and I also have Erin. Erin is less connected with the Net than I am, and manages to avoid most of the descriptions, which means I get to have my cake and eat it too. I might know what’s coming, but I can get the reaction of the unspoiled by watching her.

Russell T. Davies has also instituted a tighter control on information going out from the Doctor Who production office, so the big surprise of Utopia wasn’t revealed to me until just after the episode aired in the United Kingdom, although it turns out that a portion of the script was leaked, and others anticipated elements in other ways.

The main review comes after the break.

Derek Jacobi in Utopia

Images courtesy the BBC.

When Russell T. Davies announced that he was writing the final three episodes of the third season of Doctor Who, entitled respectively Utopia, The Sound of Drums and Last of the Time Lords, many figured that Utopia was something of a throwaway. Sure, it featured the return of Captain Jack Harkness and a guest appearance by legendary actor Sir Derek Jacobi, but all our attention turned to the final two episodes, which explicitly brought the Mr. Saxon storyline to a close.

What we didn’t expect, and where Russell T. Davies shows his genius, was that the season finale he claimed to be a two-parter was really a three-parter, and Sir Derek Jacobi’s guest star role becomes integral in the Harold Saxon plot. Most fans fell for it, hook, line and sinker and, in addition to relishing the arrival of Captain Jack and Sir Derek Jacobi on our screens, we’re treated to some continuity that makes fanboys young and old rub their hands with glee.

The Doctor makes a pitstop in the millennium plaza of Cardiff (site of Boomtown and several Torchwood episodes), to use the energies of the temporal rift (see The Unquiet Dead) to fuel up the TARDIS. During those twenty seconds, Captain Jack Harkness (last seen in 200,100 AD in The Parting of the Ways before being somehow transported to 21st century Cardiff for the episodes of Torchwood) comes running, shouting the Doctor’s name. The Doctor, seeing Jack, takes the uncharacteristic step of driving off with wheels screeching (the TARDIS equivalent thereof, anyway). There are explosions across the console and the ship accelerates rapidly into the future, passing the year five billion, then fifty billion, five trillion— they’re heading for the end of the Universe, and Captain Jack is on the outside of the TARDIS, going on the ride of his life through the vortex.

Arriving in the year one hundred trillion (American trillion or British trillion? For reference, in American notation, the number would be 100,000,000,000,000, whereas in British terms it would be 100,000,000,000,000,000,000), the Doctor is initially overawed. The Time Lords never went this far. We should leave, he says. And then gets a look on his face that would do Magellen proud. The Doctor and Martha rush out of the TARDIS and encounter Captain Jack, who comes to life after his harrowing ordeal. The Doctor isn’t pleased to see him, and Jack has questions he wants to ask but will wait on for now, but the two go off with Martha in tow to talk about old times.

Jack can’t die, obviously, and he’s not too pleased about it. Rose gets mentioned a lot, much to Martha’s chagrin (get over it, Martha!), as well as the powers the heart of the TARDIS can deliver. Take special note of the line that if a Time Lord absorbed that much energy from the vortex, he’d become a god — a vengeful god — as I expect they’ll be a test in the next couple of weeks.

But before we get overloaded with explanations (okay, maybe a second after we’re a little overloaded), the Doctor and company stumble on a human hunt. Savage (and curiously humanoid) creatures are chasing down a pure blooded human, who is running for the sanctuary of a refugee camp. The Doctor and company help said human make it to the camp and discover the rag-tag remains of the Battlestar Galactica crew (you know what I mean) waiting on repairs to finish on a failing rocket so they can complete their journey to the mysterious Utopia.

The man spearheading the repairs is Professor Yana (Sir Derek Jacobi) and his cute insectoid assistant Chantho. Nobody knows what Utopia is; it’s just a beacon beckoning in the dark (all of the stars in the Universe burnt out long ago; there are few natural sources of energy and the technology is breaking down in advance of the “collapse of reality”). Is this a place where humans can outlast existence and live on? Well, not unless the Doctor can help Yana with the repairs.

But Yana is more than he seems. He’s sensed the TARDIS’ arrival. Stray words from the Doctor and company trigger flashes of memory that hammer at his consciousness with a sound of drums: TARDIS, Daleks, regeneration, Time Lord and… oh, look! He has a pocket watch, very similar to the one the Doctor hid his Time Lord essence in back in Human Nature.

Some of us should have expected this, and some of us did. While many expected that Harold Saxon (played by John Simms) was going to turn out to be the Master, young John Simms was not the first choice many fans had for that role. Sir Derek Jacobi (heir to the throne of Sir Lawrence Olivier — he always manages to steal the show in any Kenneth Branaugh Shakespeare production), was always pegged as a favourite candidate to play the Master. And, indeed, he did do just that, in the non-canon ninth Doctor Internet animation story Scream of the Shalka (starring Richard E. Grant rather than Christopher Eccleston), where Derek Jacobi played a robot version of the Master, whom the Doctor kept in the TARDIS as a bizarre gentleman’s gentleman.

And the reason why so many fans squeak at the prospect of Sir Derek Jacobi reading a phone book on an episode of Doctor Who is that he is so very good at what he does, and a lot of that is in his eyes. Look at him as Professor Yana, and his eyes are pools of innocence and befuddlement, but when the watch gets open and the Masters’ essence returns to him, they are pools of evil. It is a powerful transformation that is accomplished by music, and Jacobi’s acting alone.

Derek Jacobi is so good that he has rendered Captain Jack Harkness’ comeback an afterthought. Explanations that were dodged throughout an entire season of Torchwood are tossed aside in under five minutes. And we don’t care because it’s Derek Jacobi, he’s stolen the show once again, and he’s playing the frickin’ Master! And he saves some lines that would be downright schlocky in the hands of a lesser actor. Indeed, it’s quite an experience. When we get “The Master… REBORN!!!”, one part of my mind tells me that this has more cheese on it than an extra large pizza, but I don’t care. Derek Jacobi makes it work.

And, thankfully, it’s probably the only line in the script that really needs saving. Russell T. Davies does a good job with dialogue otherwise, with the banter between the Doctor and Jack being a highlight, and Martha given good character moments with Chantho and the young boy.

Utopia is not perfect. Elements of the plot feel cobbled together; some items click, but others clunk. The twenty-second Cardiff scene feels tacked on, and although Russell T. Davies tries to explain that the TARDIS’ trip to the end of the Universe was its attempt to shake Jack off, it still feels like a contrivance. On the other hand, Davies does manage to tell a compelling backstory about the rag-tag remnants of humanity with deft shorthand, a handful of characters, and a few visuals. Consider: the head of the colony, who has been on Professor Yana’s back to try and fix the rocket faster, never appears on screen, and is only a disembodied voice. Humanity’s struggle to leave is encompassed with an attempt to uncouple the ship, and one human sacrificing himself in a high radiation environment while a colleague screams at him to get out. And while one would normally have expected the humans’ struggle to be the focus of the story, I don’t mind that it gets set aside, as the sudden appearance of the Master would tend to set just about everything aside.


But that doesn’t excuse everything. The Futurekind need some sort of explanation, and Professor Yana’s suggestion that they are what humanity might become if they don’t get to Utopia (a few years in the dark give us tattoos and bad teeth?), doesn’t cut it. Without some resolution here, some explanation as to why they’re smart enough to infiltrate the base but hostile enough to chuck an anvil at complex circuitry when “subtle” sabotage doesn’t seem to work, then they’re not a plot development so much as a plot contrivance — a convenient excuse to push the plot forward and an artificial threat to the Doctor and company. It’s not enough just to say, we get to the end of the Universe and a Mad Max movie breaks out. There’s no real motivation behind these creatures, and they need one.

But ultimately I have to reserve judgement. Russell T. Davies puts in enough clues to suggest he knows where he’s going, here. When the Master pulls out a circuit board near the end of the story and sarcastically says “Utopia!”, it’s clear that he knows far more about where the humans are heading than Professor Yana did, and it doesn’t sound like it’s a good place. Also, the Doctor and company are stranded without a TARDIS, and with Futurekind breathing down their necks. Yes, they do have access to Jack’s burnt out (and more than a century old) vortex manipulator, which suggests a way out, but in terms of plot, I’m looking for a longer resolution — some way to keep the Futurekind at bay, or calm them down enough to get some explanations.

If what we’re looking at here is, rather than a one-part story at the end of the Universe followed by a two-part story set in Saxon’s England, we have two one-and-a-half part stories as the Doctor and company take the time to resolve the Utopia subplots, I’ll be happy. If, on the other hand, if Jack’s vortex manipulator is fixed within five minutes of the Doctor’s stranding, and Utopia is not revisited, I will be very, very annoyed.

Remember, theoretically, the Master’s TARDIS is around here somewhere, so I’m hoping that the Doctor’s rush to Saxon’s England involves it rather than some quick fix and lazy plotting.

The end of Utopia is loaded with a lot of continuity that old fans will go gaga over; so much so, I’m forced to wonder how fans who are new to the series will cope with all of this. Are we leaving them behind? Well, I don’t think so. Most viewers have probably heard of the Master at some point and those that don’t can quickly cotton on to the fact that he is Moriarty to the Doctor’s Holmes. Even if that isn’t the case, Russell T. Davies manages to walk us through the elements so that new viewers can catch up, even as the old fans savour the moments. We see Professor Yana’s watch. We’re reminded of what a similar watch did to the Doctor in Human Nature. We know that Professor Yana is a Time Lord, and we know that the Doctor has thought for the longest while that he was the last one. We see the Doctor’s fears deepen.

And we are reminded that whenever the Daleks make their appearance as the “last” Daleks in the Universe, it’s wrong. Everybody died in the Time War. Even the Doctor shouldn’t be alive, really (and he has survivor’s guilt as big as Mount Krakatoa — before it blew up). Anybody else surviving the cataclysm is living beyond their time, just like Professor Lazarus trying to extend his life and encountering those difficulties. Everything dies, or should. Only the unassuming humans get to see the end of the Universe, not the gods and demons who had a hand in creating it.

The meek shall inherit the Earth indeed.

And here we see the true brilliance of Russell T. Davies work, not as an individual episode writer, but as a showrunner. He has expertly guided the development of this season so that the diverse grouping of stories each contribute something to the overall theme, in ways that we don’t cotton onto until the very end. It’s far, far better done than the Torchwood subplot from last season, and more subtle than Bad Wolf.

And, even if we don’t get it, we see it, in Derek Jacobi’s eyes once the Master’s essence is inside him. He’s pure evil in there, and the Doctor is in deep trouble.

Doctor Who Notes

  • Rebecca Anderson may have guessed a fair chunk of this story’s plot before it happened, but is she typical? Perhaps not. Erin is quite intelligent, and she didn’t guess that Derek Jacobi was the Master until just before he said it, just after his line, “That (Professor Yana) is not my name.” And it’s easy to see why the anticipation comes at that moment. We already know that Professor Yana is a Time Lord, thanks to the pocket watch, and if Professor Yana isn’t his real name, chances are his real name is going to be something we will recognize, and just how many Time Lord names will we recognize? And who would be worth bothering writing a return for? Of course it’s the Master. It’s not like Derek Jacobi would be forced to deliver the line, “I… am… FRED!” (causing fans everywhere to scream ‘Romanavoratrelundar?!’)
  • One of the best analogies I’ve ever heard comes in this episode when the young Boxy wannabe tells Martha about what he heard about Utopia. “My mother says the sky is covered in diamonds,” he says, which is just about the perfect analogy to stars. There’s a lot here: the hope of humans, the longing for what has passed. And it’s ultimately tragic. If all the stars in the Universe have burnt out, I doubt they’ll be shining in Utopia.
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