TV EYE: Doctor Who, Week 11: Utopia

Thanks to a holiday, I’m going to miss the Season 3 climax– a scheduling snafu that wouldn’t have happenned if it hadn’t been for the godforsaken hell that was Eurovision. Hey ho. I’ll still be doing a final wrap-up, just over a week later when everyone else will have moved onto other things. Anyway, it’s week 11, Russell T. Davies is firmly back in the driver’s seat, and John Barrowman has elbowed his way into the main credits of the series. It’s ‘Utopia’, and fear the spoilers…

DOCTOR WHO: S3E11, ‘Utopia’

If there’s any more proof needed that Season 3 is the strongest and most consistently entertaining season of Who yet, we’ve now got an RTD episode that’s packed full of the kind of problems that normally annoy the hell out of me, and yet still managed to entertain me with its mixture of running around, characterisation and shameless fan service. RTD’s attitude to SF has always been to simply throw in whatever seems to be hanging around at the time, and the strongest influences on this week’s episode were the post-apocalyptic sequences from The Terminator, Mad Max 2 and – bizarrely – a 1978 episode of Blake’s 7 entitled ‘Deliverance’, which revolved around a planet covered in primative tribesmen and a climactic rocket launch.

The main thrust of the episode- the battle to escape the planet- was as weakly thought out as plenty of RTD’s other sci-fi based episodes, boiling down to lots of confused talk about Stet Radiation and Footprints that only even began to make sense towards the end. He’s wise to make sure that the stories are based more around emotion than technobabble, but it’d be nice if the science was just a little more convincing than a stream of nonsense burbling quietly in the background. In the mean time, we’ve also got some of the most arch moments since S1’s End of the World, from the rubbery-faced insect assistant for the Professor (who was obviously for the chop the moment she got a scene emphasising how ‘charming’ her vocal tic was) to the Futurekind person who conveniently bares her teeth, just so we know she’s definitely evil. Again, we have enemies who have no real motivation other than ‘kill’, acting as primal monsters rather than actual adversaries, and another sweaty, red-lit science fiction environment (a la ’42’) that proves that the all-purpose use of powerstations and industrial environments are fast becoming the show’s biggest cliche.

‘Utopia’ was a mess in a variety of different ways– and yet it actually managed to entertain despite its flaws. It’s hard to imagine that at the same stage in S1, we were being served up the grotesque mess that was ‘Boom Town’– and while this episode serves a number of the same purposes, setting the stage for the two-part season finale, it also managed to hold together, thanks to some fine direction from Graeme Harper (who’s definitely far more comfortable with ‘dark and gritty’ Who than with last season’s two glossy Cybermen tales) and some of the best work yet from the leads. The dialogue between the Doctor and Captain Jack while the rocket was being primed is the kind of thing that’s dragged episodes to a halt in the past, but here felt genuine and natural rather than forced, making the Tenth Doctor actually feel like a real person rather than the collection of weird habits he’s often been in previous RTD episodes. John Barrowman can still bellow like the best of them, and it’s a relief to see Captain Jack back in flirty swashbuckling after so much moody Angel-like gloom in Torchwood (I couldn’t help laughing at the fact that the ‘re-introduction’ of Jack doesn’t really fit together with the climax of Torchwood in the slightest, or at the fact that RTD seemed to have stolen the ‘Jack dragged through the Time Vortex’ sequence from Bill And Ted’s Excellent Adventure). Freema Agyeman continues to excel, while the story touched on a ridiculous amount of continuity that would have left new viewers scratching their heads in confusion.

Of course, everything is shadowed by the re-introduction of the Master. The surprise had been blown a while ago for me, but I didn’t know the exact details of how they were doing it, and tying the Professor’s confused background in with the fob watch from Human Nature was, to be honest, a stroke of genius, and almost had me jumping around as much as the point a few moments later when, admidst the words and phrases we heard coming out of the watch, there was the clear and unmistakable tones of Roger Delgado, the original Master- a lovely piece of continuity that was there if you spotted it, and didn’t confuse the hell out of people who didn’t. Certainly, the use of story arc this season has been much more confidant and effective than the somewhat timid efforts last year, and the general sense is that the Doctor is getting a genuinely dangerous adversary– a good thing, considering how fatally both the Cybermen and the Daleks have been weakened by their most recent appearences.

Derek Jacobi bordered on OTT earlier in the episode, but pulled off the transformation from eccentric old buffer into total diamond-hard psychopath with lashings of style, and his final scenes (even with the somewhat creaky “The Master…. REBORN!!!!” which I could possibly have done without) were some of the finest moments the series has produced. Then of course, he regenerated into John Simm, a move which left me a little worried, mainly because Simm seemed to be falling into the “Ha ha, I’m evil and I’m enjoying myself!” school of acting which always sets my teeth on edge, and I’d rather have had Jacobi’s menacing gravitas than a thirtysomething Master laughing his head off. A superb cliffhanger, and– for once– a teaser which doesn’t give away how (or even if) the Doctor and co manage to escape. Next week it’s back to the present day, and more chances for RTD to do political satire (which I’m really not sure is a good thing), but despite the ups and downs, Season 3 is still continuing to impress.

Of course, the next two episodes may go some way towards changing my mind….

4 thoughts on “TV EYE: Doctor Who, Week 11: Utopia

  1. That Pesky Master…
    So just how exactly did he get his mind in the watch then? How can he regenerate? Where is his evil goatee? Was his name Sam Tyler when he was stuck in 1973?

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    • Re: That Pesky Master…
      Expect it all to be wrapped up in some throwaway line. I doubt there’ll be a “Last time I saw him, he was being sucked into the Eye of Harmony on the TARDIS while looking like Eric Roberts!” line. To be honest, the Time War acts as a convenient continuity reboot button in plenty of respects, and it has been established that regeneration is an ability you can require (The Master gets offered it as part of the deal to rescue the Doctor back in The Five Doctors). The abscence of the evil goatee (especially as Derek Jacobi was doing so damn well) is, frankly, shameful. And teaming the Master with Gene Hunt as an assistant is an image that may haunt me for a while…

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