Review: Doctor Who – 3×11 – Utopia

Utopia

Fan. Bloody. Tastic.

That’s all I have to say on the subject.

Okay, being the kind of guy who has lots to say on lots of subjects, that’s patently untrue. But if I had to summarise yesterday’s episode, that would be where I’d leave it.

Fan. Bloody. Tastic.

I’ll go on at length in a minute, but what was most clear from Utopia was that it was a massive one-finger salute from Russell T Davies to the more critical members of Doctor Who fandom. A nice one, mind, but clearly RTD was smiling a very secret smile as he wrote Utopia.

Scrawled in nine-feet high letters across the entire season, culminating in Utopia, the message from Rusty was clear: “You think I don’t know what I’m doing? You think I’m a soap-opera hack with ego problems, intent on trampling all over your memories with infantile fart gags?

”Well, I can do structure. I can do foreshadowing. I can do mirroring. I can do tension of opposites. I can hide things in plain sight where even you geniuses can’t spot them. By the end of this episode, you’ll forget everything you’ve ever said about me and you’ll beg for my forgiveness. And do you know why?

“Because I am the Master and you will obey me.”

Now the story proper wasn’t that special. We have a load of colonists holed up in a quarry with evil monsters trying to break in. Nothing special so far, and as Graeme Harper rightly pointed out in the Doctor Who Confidential, they looked like a bunch of extras from Mad Max. Indeed, the whole thing looked like someone had been watching the Beeb’s 80s dramatisation of Day of the Triffids, with padlocks, pertrol-driven trucks, automatic weapons and more doubling for tech that should be inconceivably more advanced than our own.

All the same, compared with some of Rusty’s other efforts, the supposed A-plot was still an acceptable piece of storytelling.

But the A-plot wasn’t the point. It was merely there to serve as a backdrop for the supposed B-plots. First up was the return of Captain Jack.

F**k me. It’s true. They’re actually going to do it.

Ho, ho, ho. Clearly, while RTD was typing away with his right hand’s middle finger (“Blogging. Ha!”), his left hand was raised in a similar, steady, fixed gesture at Chris Chibnall (“Mess up my beloved spin-off idea, will you?”) and any Torchwood fan in the neighbourhood. Every single mystery about Captain Jack that Torchwood ever raised has now been cleared up and not even in the show that raised them. That’ll learn you for sitting through 13 episodes of mostly rubbish crud in the vague hope it’ll be worth it.

Rude gestures at Torchwood aside, the return of Captain Jack was the return of Captain Jack proper, not his Torchwood variant. If it moves, he’ll flirt with it. Hoorah. The Torchwood reboot starts here, it seems, and Chibnall isn’t the one rebooting it. Look for a happier, less mysterious Captain Jack next season on Torchwood.

But even the return of Captain Jack wasn’t the the highlight of the episode. No, it was the return of The Master. Now, for old-school Whovians, I suspect there were more than a few shudders of delight (in fact, I would like to suggest “a shudder” as the collective noun for fans. It would be multi-purposed) at the arrival of the other last Time Lord. And what an arrival, firstly as Derek Jacobi and secondly as John Simm.

I’d been dumb enough to spoil myself so I knew the possibility of Jacobi and Simm being The Master was there. Yet knowing what was coming was still no preparation for its arrival. Once the first real hints started to arrive – subtle hints that meant nothing at first – my poor little brain realised what was happening. “F**k me. It’s true. They’re actually going to do it.”* and went into meltdown. It was then just a matter of time, Jacobi’s performance mesmerising throughout, as the Master emerged.

You have to hand it to Rusty, though. Every since The Sun revealed what was going to happen, fans were speculating about how The Master avoided the doom faced by the other Time Lords, how he was going to come back and more. Not once did anyone suggest that RTD would use the same plot device he used just two episodes earlier to do it. Everyone was too busy using existing continuity to notice that Rusty was making up his own continuity as he went along and was free to re-use it later.

Now that’s smart.

Equally smart were all the little similarities he was building into the script between the Doctor and the Master. Now, for most people, the Master doesn’t quite pack the same punch as the Daleks. In fact, odd thought though this might be, he’s unheard of in many quarters.

I’m not sure Who life gets much better than this.

Certainly, when Anthony Ainley’s chuckle came on and I grinned like an idiot and said “It’s the Master!”, my wife’s shrug and “Sorry. I have no idea who that is. Means nothing to me,”** made me realise just how important it’s going to be for RTD to establish the Master as a worthy adversary and an equal of the Doctor.

So you have to admire all the clever mirroring: the sort-of companion, the expertise with science, the same regeneration effect, the “different voice” line with its echoes of Tennant’s “new teeth”, the same post-regeneration lunacy as Tennant, the same fob watch, the ability to control the TARDIS, et al. Marvellous stuff that suggests we’re going to have a battle of the titans for the rest of the season, assuming the Doctor can fix Jack’s watch and get them out of Thunderdome (and then what will they do with the watch? Torchwood fans will know…).

I’m hoping that Simm simmers down a little bit by next episode, since both he and Jacobi went massively over the top as soon as they got to be The Master. I suspect he’ll be more subtle by then.

Key Whovian points this episode, which I’m sure some people will quibble with

  1. Quarries are back in fashion! Yey!
  2. It’s the first time we’ve seen the Master properly regenerate (fill in the blanks about how he’s able to for yourself, assuming Rusty doesn’t next week)
  3. It’s only the second time we’ve seen a proper on-screen regeneration by a Time Lord other than the Doctor
  4. Graeme Harper is now the only director to have directed not one but two regeneration sequences. How fitting
  5. It’s the first time we’ve had any audio or video backflashes to the original series in the new series, other than through the re-use of sound effects
  6. The Sun was completely right again. It was right about Pipes leaving. It was right about Freema taking over. Saying “You can’t believe that. It was in The Sun” is no longer an option, at least with regards to Who stuff
  7. You can’t trust Rusty quotes. Never going to bring the Master back because he’s not got a proper motivation? Hmmm…

There was no trailer at the end of the episode, but there was at the end of Doctor Who Confidential and it looks like John Simm is going to get a chance to do what Delgado, Ainley, Beevers, Pratt and Roberts were never allowed: be really evil, take over the world*** and win. And by George, did I see a Tissue Compression Eliminator in action? Fan. Bloody. Tastic.

I’m not sure Who life gets much better than this. I think I’m going to go off and watch the episode again. I never do that.

The Murray Gold Watch

This week, Murray Gold was mostly drowning out the dialogue and removing all sense of drama by deriving music from… Zulu and his own back catalogue.

* Yes, my brain censors itself with asterisks

** She was more interested by John Simm’s being the Master, though

*** As has been pointed out before by others, but I’ve been holding off from mentioning until now, “Mister Saxon” is an anagram of “Master No. Six”

  • Poly

    There was a next episode trailer after the credits.
    I don’t know classic Who, still I was excited. All Doctor Who fans – especially old Doctor Who fans – should bow and kiss RTD’s feet because he took the mythology from the classic series and woven it inside the new series in a resonant and thrilling way to everyone. The use of the fobwatch was inspired. Human Nature / Family of Blood was such a seminal episode, self-contained in its brilliancy and its philosophical questions, that didn’t seem to have any ties with plot arcs. Utopia isn’t only great in itself, it adds another level of brilliancy to Human Nature / Family of Blood.
    Plus Captain Jack making more sense than he ever did in the last year, a touching resonant making-perfect-sense-in-the-way-only-flawed-decisions-can-make-perfect-sense explanation of why the Doctor left Captain Jack behind, deep-felt relationships between the Doctor and Captain Jack and the Doctor and the Professor and the mouthwatering prospect of the Doctor-Master dymamic.
    Yes, I think I liked that.

  • “the Doctor-Master dymamic”
    As I pointed out on Anna’s blog, the producers of Who during the Pertwee years were eventually going to reveal the Master to be the Doctor’s brother. And it was in Smith and Jones this very season that the Doctor revealed that he had once had a brother…

  • “Not once did anyone suggest that RTD would use the same plot device he used just two episodes earlier to do it.”
    This was *brilliant* 🙂 How did we miss it?!

  • I just have such a BIG GRIN from re-watching the episode.
    You hit the nail with your review Rob, as ever.

  • Poly

    As I said, I know next to nothing about classic Who (I didn’t grow up in this country, all right?). But Tennant played the realisation and the brief interaction with a mix of horror, longing and regret, so the foreshadowing for a complex intriguing relationship is there. Oh the juiciness of it.

  • Wasn’t saying you should, just that there were potentially even more delightful things to come!

  • POly

    Don’t worry, I didn’t take offense. My indignation was meant to be funny. I should have added a smiley or something.
    My point is it’s amazing how well new Who works for everybody, even for people like me who aren’t familiar with the casual pop cultural references of 70s/80s Britain. Old mythology is present and correct, and gives the current stories an additional depth and epic scope, but it doesn’t alienate new viewers. In fact, new viewers feel it’s their own mythology. An anecdote: my colleague’s 10 year old daugher, very early in the third series, said conspirationally to me that Mr Saxon is the Master. She wasn’t even born when the Doctor Who movie was out! The excitement of the storyline and the Who mythology was leaking beyond the traditional fan forums.

  • Stu

    If they are going to reveal The Doctor as being The Master’s brother then that would explain the ‘I’m sorry..’ business. Also — what if the Doctor dropped The Master off as a human with the fob watch after the TV Movie to protect the universe from him and him from the universe? There’s nothing in continuity to say he isn’t the Doctor’s brother and in fact it explains and deepens a hell of a lot of things going on in other stories related to why the Doctor always seems to want to save him even at the expense of his own life despite what he’s capable of…

  • *nods and agrees with everything you’ve said*
    There is a surprising lack of continuity-anger amongst the TW fans, actually; in fact, the new information has triggered a whole new surge of fanfiction and ideas. I think everyone’s so pleased to see fresh Jack they don’t care a huge amount.
    (and then what will they do with the watch? Torchwood fans will know…)
    *raises hand in guilt*

  • Mark H Wilkinson

    The Sun was completely right again. It was right about Pipes leaving. It was right about Freema taking over. Saying ?��Ǩ?�You can’t believe that. It was in The Sun?��Ǩ�� is no longer an option, at least with regards to Who stuff
    Been trying to tell that to people for a while now. They also anticipated the Daleks vs Cybermen end of last season. Of course, it doesn’t preclude their being wrong at all (Zoe Lucker to play the Rani?).
    You can’t trust Rusty quotes. Never going to bring the Master back because he’s not got a proper motivation? Hmmm…
    He did actually say in a season one Confidential that the Master could return but it would require “a writer who can do it properly”. Not short on chutzpah, though, is he?
    As I pointed out on Anna’s blog, the producers of Who during the Pertwee years were eventually going to reveal the Master to be the Doctor’s brother.
    Weeell, it was mooted as an idea, but no definite plans were made.

  • “Here’s a suggestion: we’ve had human Doctor and human Dalek. Could it be that the “Mr Saxon” who John Simm (tapping the table in a mask!) plays was perhaps not human once but is now?”
    That was me, two weeks ago. Very close to bullseye. *Smug*.

  • ?��Ǩ��ish. Except was human and now isn’t, rather than the other way round. Plus it wasn’t Simm, it was Jacobi who was human for a while, and Saxon has never been human.
    Not bad though!

  • Well, ish or not, I’m still chuffed that I was on the right track.

  • And so you should be.

  • Poly

    I have a stupid question:
    The Doctor has said many times that he knows he is alone because he can sense it (or more accurately he can?��Ǩ�Ѣt sense any other Timelords). Prior to the Professo opening the fob watch that makes perfect sense. But the Doctor was on early 21st century earth at the same time as Mr Saxon, why couldn’t he sense the Master then?
    Is there a similar precedent and a canon explanation?

  • Either we put that down to the never-ending vagaries of time travel in Doctor Who (because let’s face it, it does get a bit vague at times. The usual explanation is “it hasn’t happened yet” even though it has, if you see what I mean) or we assume that Mr Saxon is busy using Jack’s Doctor-detector as a Doctor jammer as well.

  • Actually, now I think very slightly harder, it occurs to me that the Doctor merely can sense there are other Time Lords in existence, not where they are. (cf any previous story in which he has to go hunting for The Time Meddler, War Chief, The Master, The Rani, Morbius, Borusa, Romana, etc, but can’t find them)

  • Poly

    This timey-whimey stuff do my head in, in a good way. The Doctor is not limited by time and space, so every place at any time in history exists for him simultaneously. To be able to sense the other Timelords, it would mean that he at least knows when they are (otherwise that sense would be useless, of course he can sense them because they existed once). But “when” for him (and them) is not the conventional passage of history, it’s their personal timeline. So my personal explanation is that the Doctor’s knowledge, sense and capabilities are limited by his personal timeline.
    If his sense of the world (especially the things he knows intuitevely, like knowing whether other Timelords exist) isn?��Ǩ�Ѣt limited by his personal experience, he would know everything before it happened. He would know when the Master appeared again, even before he experiences it. He would know when the Master will cease to exist, even if he was to be an active participant to the events and those events haven’t happened to him yet. So in my mind the Doctor wouldn’t be able to sense another Timelord at any place or time until that Timelord existed in the Doctor’s timeline.
    Or something?��Ǩ��
    Of course a devive that jams the sensors is more practical.
    (Continuity is hard enough in most shows, in Doctor Who is almost impossible :))

  • One of the things I liked about both Family of Blood and Utopia were there implications that the Doctor can see time to some extent. In Family of Blood, his essence in the watch is able to show John Smith the future he would have if he continued to live. And in Utopia, the Doctor talks about Jack looking strange and not being able to look at him properly because of the fact he’s a fact, the implication being that he can see extra-dimensionally in some way. It’s something that the Big Finish Eighth Doctor tales deal with quite well, with the Doctor suffering pain, misery, et al, when he’s in the alternative Zagreus universe that doesn’t have time and he can no longer see the extra dimension(s).
    God that’s geeky. Oh well. Too late to pull out now. I’m passed the point of no return, I suspect.

  • Poly

    Haven’t you heard? Geeky is the new something.
    For the Doctor (or Timelords) to be able to understand time in a sensory tactile way makes perfect sense. I need to track down those audio plays now.

  • Neverland is the one that sets the scene with the Zagreus, Rassilon and anti-time stuff; Zagreus follows but is a bit of a mess, although is worth getting as the “40th anniversary” story; Scherzo is the first and probably the best of the alternate universe stories and introduces the whole “my visions are impaired; I cannot time-see” concept. It’s also the best of the Doctor/Charley pairings – think Rose was the first companion the Doctor fell in love with? Think again…
    I also overlooked the fact that Eccleston appeared to be able to do some time manipulation/see time to some extent/something clever anyway in Rose and The End of the World.

  • Poly

    Many thanks for this, I wouldn’t know where to start.
    In my general ignorance of classic Doctor Who, I have only seen half and hour of Patrick Troughton and the Doctor Who film. While the film was a bit rubbish, I really liked Paul McGann so I am happy to follow more Eighth Doctor adventures.

  • McGann was good. The movie wasn’t.
    If you’re desperate to watch old Who, you can view pretty much any story you care to mention on YouTube in 10 minute chunks if you look carefully. So do a quick search for The Mind Robber, for example, and a whole lot pop up. If you get too many results, just add ‘Doctor Who’ to the search.
    If you’re going to start on the eighth Doctor Big Finishes in any serious way, it’s worth getting Storm Warning first, just to get a handle on what’s going on and who Charley is. I can give you a “recommended” list if you want.

  • Poly

    Any recommendations will be appreciated. I don’t want to start with something that’s rubbish, in case it puts me off permanently. And the sheer volume of the Doctor Who stories available is intimidating.

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