...a blog by Richard Flowers

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Day 2358: DOCTOR WHO: Utopia


I have ORDERED Daddy Richard to write a review of the latest Doctor Who. I said:

“I AM the Millennium Elephant, and you will OBEY me!”

And it worked!

I am thinking of asking for STICKY BUNS next…
One and one and one make three

My bad, bad angel put the devil in me.

Think about the foreshadowing!

To my exceptional delight, no sooner was the episode over than I was phoned up by my niece and nephew with a whole list of questions. They’ve finally been captured by the new series and their whole family had watched last night enraptured. Afterwards, they wanted to know how many Doctors (10), how many companions (33 or 34… ish), and – leaving even me reeling – how many baddies has the Doctor defeated (er, at least a million Daleks and then some…). Being thoroughly wicked uncles, we had already provided them ages ago with much Tom Baker on video, and so we sent them off to watch “The Deadly Assassin” as homework on the Master.

Yes, in the series’ worst-kept secret since, er, last year, the Doctor’s evil arch-rival has returned. This in spite of his last appearance in the series, the 1996 feature-length story with Paul McGann, seeing him disappear down the business end of a black hole. Ah well, it’s not like being thoroughly killed has ever stopped him before. (See also “Castrovalva”, “Planet of Fire” and the rest.)

More testing for the continuity cops, perhaps, is that he seems to have recovered the ability to regenerate. The Master having used up all his lives in various schemes has been a keystone of the character for almost as long as he’s been in the series, with many of his key stories hinging on his desperation to achieve more longevity.

The regeneration itself – as well as obviously being a reference to the Eccleston-to-Tennant regeneration (but done right, if you want to be unkind: the morph is far superior and the visual effects on the Master’s eyes are terrifyingly good) – also reminded me of David A McIntee’s New Adventure “First Frontier”. That story sees the Master, in the version as played by Anthony Ainley, shot in the chest by Ace only to tumble backwards into his own TARDIS and regenerate.

The Master’s regeneration seems to need the TARDIS too, which is getting back to some of the classic series basics of regeneration being “a part of the TARDIS. Without it I couldn’t survive.” Perhaps the explanation for how he can do it at all is that he’s stolen one of the Doctor’s!

Sir Derek Jacobi’s dual role as first Professor Yana and then the resurrected Master is completely compelling. Masterful, even, and you can say that almost without irony. It’s not his first time in Doctor Who, of course, having previously been a sort-of-alternative Doctor for Big Finish’s Unbound series, and having previously realised the Master in “Scream of the Shalka”. In fact, there’s enough about this episode to make you wonder if they want to re-canonise “Shalka”.

However, more than either of these “Utopia” reminded me of Joe Lidster’s Big Finish story “Master” wherein the Doctor does a deal with Death to see the Master turned into a human, and as a human he is a good man until he rediscovers his true self. Sound familiar?

The marvellous thing about Yana is the way that even though he’s a person in his own right, little bits of the Master still bleed though, just as little touches of the Doctor bled though into John Smith. There’s a moment when he says, almost wistfully, that some admiration would have been nice: his finger there on the key flaw in the Master’s personality. And the Master’s propinquity for ludicrous word play comes out in that – I’m sorry – impossibly acronymic name.

Lawrence Miles – yes, I know he’s always cropping up in my reviews – in his novel “The Adventuress of Henrietta Street” had the Master in conversation with the Doctor say “whatever you do, I do the opposite”.

Mind you, Lawrence also cast the Master as “The War King”, Gallifrey’s wartime leader against “the enemy”, which is about as diametrically opposite to Russell’s reading as you can get.

Faced with the Time War, Russell has the Master run away.

Recall this exchange from “Doomsday”:

Dalek Sec: “How did you survive?”

The Doctor: “By fighting on the front line… but what about you lot, you ran away and hid!”

Young Tim Latimer made the same choice in “Human Nature”: if you’re good and the battle really matters, you have to go and fight, because that’s the only way for good to survive. But the evil ones run away and hide.

The irony is that the Master has chosen to disguise himself as the Doctor. Actually, if you have travelled to the end of time to hide from the Time War then setting yourself up like this is a reasonably sensible fall back position, since there’s always the chance that if the Daleks find you they’ll think “oh no! It’s the Doctor! Scarper, Scarper! Scarper!”

Interestingly, when it comes to becoming human, the Doctor and the Master both chose to become what they really want: the Doctor gets an “ordinary life”, living day by day, the one adventure he can never have; the Master becomes the Doctor. (Although, as Alex points out, he can’t resist giving himself a title that is one better.)

On the other hand, the one thing that the Doctor has which the Master hasn’t – and again we turn to the dying words of the Face of Boe from billion of years in the future/trillions of years in the past depending on perspective – the Doctor is not alone, while by his very nature, the Master is. The fact that he’s congenitally incapable of trusting anyone in the way that the Doctor trusted Martha in “Human Nature” meant that he spent almost a lifetime as a human and very nearly died of it.

The Doctor surrounds himself with brilliant vibrant people because he loves life, and humans in particular – Russell is always quoting from “The Ark in Space”, and does so again in “Utopia”, describing humans as “indomitable, indomitable”.

The Professor even has his own companion: last-of-her-kind Chantho. She’s a brilliantly played little character in herself, a little reminiscent of Dr Sato from “Aliens of London” if not from Torchwood, and with a wonderfully alive prosthetic – I thought the movement of the antenna/mandibles was much more credible than, say, Dalek Sec’s twitching tentacles. I wonder if her insect nature is another nod to “The Ark in Space”, but this time inverting the alien-as-monster, with girly giggles and a crush on the Professor.

And the very first thing that the Master does is to commit genocide, by killing her.

His twisted contempt for the character that he was and the companion that he befriended climaxes in that perfectly delivered hoarse whisper of: “I am the Master!”

Of course, brilliant companions can sometimes be a double-edged sword, as when Ace tipped Fenric off to the Doctor’s winning move, or here where it is Martha’s insight that breaks the perception filter and frees the Master from the chameleon arch fob watch.

Ahh, the fob watch – that was one hell of a surprise when dear old sweet Professor Yana pulled that out of his pocket. I’d previously seen “Human Nature” as the backbone of this season, but I’d never guessed that it was actually being used as the cleverest foreshadowing of them all. What really ices the cake is that Martha thinks that this is brilliant news, that she’s found another Time Lord so the Doctor doesn’t have to be alone forever, she thinks she’s solved the Face of Boe’s riddle, but everyone in the entire country is screaming at the screen: “don’t open the watch!!!”

The watch, with its whispering voices (how we thrilled to hear Ainley’s chuckle and Delgado’s voice) and its “keep me secret, keep me safe” still reminds me of the ring of power from (particularly the movie of) “The Lord of the Rings”.

And this allows Russell to subtly rework the injunction against staring into the Time Vortex. It’s not because it would be too dangerous, but it would be too powerful. Like Gandalf refusing to take the One Ring, the Doctor believes that any Time Lord gaining that much power would become a terrible and vengeful god. Rose was protected by her human nature. Like Frodo the Hobbit, it was her smallness that made the enormous power bearable, for a little while.

Perhaps this is one of those things that only the Doctor knows, though, but you would have to ask yourself, why wouldn’t the Master be first to stare into the Vortex then.

Actually, much good use is made of the Master’s stare, with Jacobi getting several straight to camera moments. Particularly fine is the Master’s moment of awakening standing in front of the TARDIS and turning to face us, where the lighting makes it look like his eyes have turned almost entirely black, and, oh, a good few hours before this was the centrepiece of Steven Moffat’s new Jekyll.

But then having hired Derek Jacobi, perhaps the single most traditional choice possible, to play the Master – and play him brilliantly – for all of about a minute, what a startling and different direction to get John Simm. Yes, obviously he’s one of Britain’s best actors today but completely different to the suave and focussed model as exemplified by the original Master, Roger Delgado. And yet his manic, dare I say Tennant-like performance, skipping and dancing around the TARDIS console and, again, very reminiscent of Tennant’s own “New teeth, that’s weird” introduction also seem to be going back to the origin of the character as the Doctor’s equal but opposite. In Barry Letts’ Buddhist era of Doctor Who, the Doctor and the Master were in many ways the same person, and had Roger Delgado not died tragically, their final confrontation would have seen them re-combined.

Fortunately, we were spared that perhaps too-mystic mumbo jumbo of an explanation (at least until the Valeyard turned up).

So instead, we’re promised a clash of titans between two ancient and fey beings, yet wearing the bodies of vibrant, energetic young men.

And yet, to show the playfulness of this series, the connectedness to its core family audience, the Doctor and the Master reduce their conflict to the level of five-year-olds! The Doctor’s final appeal to his foe is: “I’m asking you properly,” and the Master’s reply: “Tough!” both pitched like a playground fight between rival siblings.

Of course, deliciously fourth-wall as it may have been for the Master to taunt the Doctor with “let’s have a cosy chat, and I’ll tell you all my plans so you can work out how to defeat me. I don’t think!” the Doctor should have had the come back: “I don’t need you to tell me – you always have the same plan, team up with an alien menace who then betray you, you moron.”

(And looking at the trailer for Next Time on “Master Who” staring John Simm, it turns out to be the bloody Megara!)

“Utopia” also saw the welcome return of old friends. One of the few directors who can say “oh I’ve handled regenerations before” is Doctor Who veteran Graeme Harper. “Ooh, this will be all slow and sedate,” remarked Alex ironically, as the episode takes off like a rocket. It is Russell T Davies’ genius to make what is essentially quite a talky episode never seem like info-dump, but you’ve also got to credit Harper with keeping everything so up-tempo that none of it ever seems static. Not only does he present his famous fluid camera work, but he’s always discovering new ways to present simple shots: consider the Doctor’s conversation with Jack through the red-filtered window; or the “moment of realisation” as he cuts from Jacobi as doomed Yana opening the watch to Tennant as the Doctor’s dawning horror is realised.

There was also a return for the piece of adventure music that Murray Gold has been using this season, first heard in the season trailer, but Alex and I have come to call it “Dance of the Macra” in honour of its first full use in the episode “Gridlock”. This was a particularly aggressive evolution, all whah-whah guitars and invading Futurekind and the thundering thundering of the drums. It was also lovely to hear just a bit of the Torchwood theme (it’s from “Army of Ghosts” protests one of the young Fear Factorers when challenged on how he recognises it!) to remind us of Captain Jack’s holiday job. But the real musical coup was the sound of drums in Yana’s head, a repetitive ba-da-da-dhum ba-da-da-dhum which later returns in cacophonous strings in the console room. Recognisable to any child in the playground, it’s the “evil” version of the Doctor Who theme – the last time that we heard that done was for “The Evil of the Daleks”.

But of course, it was the well-deserved appearance of John Barrowman’s name in the titles that raised a huge cheer in this household. Surely, that must confirm him in “companion” status. (Our list includes him, along with the traditional-but-questionable ones Katarina and Sara Kingdom, but with a question-mark over the Brigadier and another over Mickey Smith. Interestingly, one of us counted the two K-9’s as separate companions but only one Romana, while the other counted the tin dog only once, but gave Romana 1 and Romana 2 separate status. But I digress…) Not only was it marvellous to see John back on Doctor Who, but how good was it to have Captain Jack back. The real Captain Jack, not that misery-guts with his face who appeared in “Torchwood”. Seeing him running across a quarry with a great big grin on his face yelling “oh I’ve missed this!” we didn’t half agree with him.

The Doctor’s reaction to Jack’s return is interesting and startling. There is certainly a case for saying that it is the Doctor’s own prejudice that is the trigger for these events: his eagerness to be away and the symbiotic TARDIS’s reaction to Jack clinging to the outside between them carry them away to where the real incarnation of the Doctor’s dark side can be found.

It’s possible that someone has had a word with Russell about the unlikeliness of humans remaining in the same form billions of years in the future. Here (now trillions of years in the future!) he throws in some off-hand remarks about evolution always bringing us back to the same basic form, which is at least a little more plausible. Nice to mention in passing that we spend a few million years as downloads and a few more as clouds of gas along the way – and the latter presents an unexpected possible origin of the Family of Blood.

Speaking of human evolution, the origin of the “Futurekind” was left unexplained, but Professor Yana’s description of them as “what we will become”, highlighted in the trailer, might have smacked a little of Terry Nation’s old, old idea of evolution following inevitable paths (I remember Servalan has an almost identical line in the Blake’s Seven episode “Terminal”). Equally, though, it could be a nod to “Frontios” where the human colonists, already under siege from the planet, threaten to splinter into a civil war between those who remain loyal to the colony and those who have gone renegade, feral.

They are really another symptom of the unravelling universe. Just as humans have returned to our traditional humanoid form – de-evolving from clouds and downloads and whatever else – so these creatures show the dissolution of civilisation into tribal and animal behaviours.

It’s an unusually downbeat future from Russell T Davies.

Even by the end of the Universe, we never actually get to Utopia, which would possibly be an interesting metaphor for unattainable Heavens on Earth. However, I suspect that this plot thread was left deliberately dangling for the future… the Master did remember to steal the map to Utopia. Our friend Stephen suggests the alternative reading that this is him pulling the guidance for the humans’ rocket ship out of pure spite, but for me it’s reminiscent of him trying to discover the location of eponymous Logopolis in the last Tom Baker story.

So, “Utopia” turned out to be part one of a three-parter, a well-kept secret until “Totally Doctor Who” blabbed it the day before. It comes in the classic Robert Holmes model of 2+4 parts (allowing for the new series double-length episodes), where the story continues but there is a major shift in location to raise the interest levels. A story like, say, “The Seeds of Doom” spends two episodes in the wilderness of Antarctica before returning to the creepy confines of a very English megalomaniac’s country pile. Similarly, here we are at the end of time for part one but you can bet the battle will be joined in the 21st Century for the final showdown (this year, anyway) between the Doctor and his Master.

Next time… somehow I don’t think it’s the Liberal Democrats sweeping to power in the General Election. Vote Saxon! “The Sound of Drums”


Richard Gadsden said...

I'm still too busy being scared by every statue I see, including the nice bronze ones of John Bright and Richard Cobden I pass on the way to work every day, to comment properly on this episode, but what a wild and glorious ride it was

James said...

For me, this episode does highlight one problem - the seasons are too damn short! Just imagine how much more satisfying the big reveal at the end of this week's episode would have been if it had been six months or even a year after Human Nature. I suspect the reason we didn't get that is that Russell is in a bit of a hurry to get all his best ideas out before he leaves the series.

Captain Jack being back is welcome, but a little confusing. At the end of Torchwood, we heard the Tardis and Jack had disappeared. My reading of that was that the Tardis had appeared in the room and Jack had been spirited away. I'll clearly need to look at it again, but I'm not sure how the Tardis landing on top of the HQ and Jack running after it works, continuity-wise. On the other hand, this meeting with the Doctor MIGHT predate Torchwood (I doubt it though).

It was also a bit bemusing to have Jack blab out 120 years of backstory to Martha having just watched an entire season of a programme in which he refused to explain ANYTHING, particularly given that it contained so few surprises. Aside from the possibility that there might have been more adventuring between 20100 and the 1880s, it was all pretty blindingly obvious. Still, we still haven't had his back-backstory revealed, so there is much more to come.

Finally, on evolution, my reading was that these humans were 'living fossils' - no species ever evolves uniformly: maybe humans just found their niche? As for 'evolving' into Futurekind, I suspect the version that isn't suitable for the kiddies is that what the FKs don't eat, they shag. The last humans are the equivalent of the neanderthals, simply not able to compete with their more aggressive cousins.

Finally, it was good to see a quarry again. Some traditions never die!

Joe Otten said...

Futurekind: very HG Wells I thought.

James said...

Very Firefly I thought, actually (the Time Machine does apply as well, but it's the other way round).