“I.. am… the Master!”
A bit of a mixed bag, this Utopia. It was always going to be tough to follow the last three superb episodes, and this also had the unenviable task of being the setup for a three-parter.
Not that I’d expected that. Like everyone, I’d been led to believe that Utopia was a standalone, the last such before the big two-part season finale, as in previous years. True, I knew that Captain Jack was being reintroduced, but thought that was the only tie to the rest of the series. So, at first it seemed like rather a humdrum story, Russell T Davies coasting in a very traditional tale of humanity menaced by savage beasties on a planet in the far future. And then, about halfway through, it turned into something much, much more interesting.
The basic plot of Utopia is pretty average, so much so that initially I wondered why they were wasting a guest star of the calibre of Derek Jacobi in such a trite role. In fact, the story of a long dead civilisation menaced by savages and awaiting rebirth in the form of a great rocket launch is actually the plot of season one Blake’s 7 episode Deliverance. From the moment the TARDIS touched down in a dingy quarry to be menaced by refugees from Mad Max via Ghosts of Mars, there was more than a whiff of Blake’s 7 about the whole thing.
Actually, even within the bounds of the somewhat derivative story, there was some pretty good writing in evidence. Russell does characters very well, and the inhabitants of this far future were nicely drawn. The authoritative little boy who guided us through the Silo was a lovely little character, typical of Russell’s detailed approach to even the minor players. But main cast aside, the episode proper belonged to two characters, Professor Yana and his alien assistant Chantho. As has already been mentioned, Yana is the least convincing character in it, the traditional bumbling elderly scientist typical of all science fiction from HG Wells onwards. The clever thing – or perhaps get-out clause – is that there’s a reason for this. Yana’s not a real person, he’s a fabrication invented by the Master to disguise himself. It’s particularly fitting that he chose to disguise himself as someone so similar to his nemesis the Doctor, and all the way through Russell cleverly draws parallels between the two; both the Doctor and Yana, and the Doctor and the Master.
Derek Jacobi was, needless to say, superb in both roles. It’s a measure of the actor’s skill that at first he seemed to be making little effort as Yana; it’s only when you realise the full nature of the character that you see how well you were misdirected. The moment when he opened the watch and turned back into the Master, the very way he used his face changed utterly, all that genial kindness replaced by a flinty, cold hardness. His voice, too changed utterly, and he proceeded to give us the most menacing interpretation of the character I’ve ever seen.
Playing second fiddle as Chantho was Chipo Chung, who gave a rather sweet performance from underneath layers of latex. It’s a well-written character but an intentionally cutesy one, the kind of cuteness that makes me hate, say, Ewoks. But even here, the depth of writing was impressive; making her the last survivor of a very alien civilisation, and giving her a very alien speech pattern, meant that cute or not she seemed very believable.
And indeed, character is what this episode was all about. There was so much character development to be squeezed in that it was probably sensible to have a very straightforward plot. Not only did the story have to reintroduce the Master, it also had to deal with reams and reams of exposition concerning what had happened to Captain Jack Harkness. This was handled fairly well in the scene with the Doctor outside the radiation room as Jack struggled to activate the rocket’s power source. It must have been difficult to tell such a complex story and avoid mentioning Torchwood lest young kiddies should want to see it, but Russell managed it.
Needless to say, John Barrowman – now in the opening credits, no less – was his usual ebullient self as Jack. It was hard to say I’d missed him since he never seems to be off the telly these days, but I had missed the more likeable Jack of Doctor Who as opposed to the miserable, brooding one of Torchwood. He was given some good opening moments for an audience who might not have seen the character before, which neatly showed his immortality and his desire to chat up everyone he meets – count ’em, Martha, that bloke on the ship, Chantho. I’m not sure what benefit bringing Jack back actually has to the series as a whole, but I suspect something very important will hinge on him in the next couple of weeks.
David Tennant was also well up to his usual high standard of this year. He too was just coasting until about halfway through, and his face was a picture when Martha told him about Yana’s Time Lord watch. It was doubly chilling that rather than seeming happy that another of his race might still exist, he almost seemed terrified. “But which one?” he muttered, almost as if he already knew the answer. He also got a stunning moment of telepathic realisation as his old adversary was restored to his former self.
With all this going on, Freema Agyeman’s Martha was rather sidelined. She got some nice lines about Rose and a fun little scene with Chantho, but she really had little more to do this week than run up and down lots of corridors in a trad sort of way. Fair play though, she does that OK. And she did get a nice moment of horrified realisation herself as she recognized the voice of the regenerated Master. Obviously she was paying attention to politics back home.
Then there was that regeneration scene. Deliberately playing it as a parallel to the Eccleston/Tennant one was a brave move which I thought paid off rather well, emphasising that this is indeed another Time Lord. The effects actually bettered the previous regeneration, although it seemed a mite convenient that the Master’s clothes still fit afterward. As the new Master, John Simm gave a fair approximation of Tennant’s post-regeneration confusion, which may not be a good idea. I always had the impression that most Time Lords coped with the process rather well, and it was only the Doctor who had a lot of trouble with it. Post-regeneration craziness makes the Doctor goofy and loveable, something ideally the Master should not be. I’ve a lot of respect for John Simm, and hopefully he’ll be allowed to tone down the performance for next week, when subjectively he’ll be a long way past his regeneration. Still, I have to say Derek Jacobi’s performance was so magnetic I really wished he’d stayed around.
Director Graeme Harper made a very good job of a rather disjointed, complex script, turning something that could have been very talky into a fairly tense, gripping bit of TV. From the first, faint sound of drums to Jacobi’s chilling turn as the Master, he used lighting and editing to make a heart in mouth climax to an episode that had seemed fairly staid.
There are quite a few obvious criticisms to be made, the main one being that Russell perhaps tried to squeeze way too much into one episode. Reintroducing one old character would be hard enough to do and maintain a real plot, reintroducing two is near impossible, which is why the plot sort of goes away about halfway through. What was Utopia? Was it real? The Master sneers the name as he removes a circuit from his computer, so was it all just a ruse of his? I also thought that the idea of a story set at the very end of the universe, as reality disintegrates, had the potential to be really interesting, so it was a shame that the exploitation of the idea was confined to a few throwaway remarks from Professor Yana. And on the subject of Yana, it seems a little comic-book convenient that his name is an acronym of “You are not alone”, the Face of Boe’s message to the Doctor. I suppose there might be a rational reason he knew about it, but it’s hard to see how.
With this only the first of an unprecedented three-part story, it’s hard to judge it. Still, it seems a game of two halves, dull at first but then genuinely gripping after its big reveal. Like twist movies such as Fight Club, it will probably come across entirely differently on a second viewing, especially as part of a larger story. Overall, though, it’s a bit of a mixed bag which doesn’t quite live up to the really high quality of the three episodes before it. But next week really looks exciting…