Utopia presents one of the most troublesome episodes of Doctor Who purely from a reviewing perspective. I’ve never made a secret of my daftie credentials when it comes to Doctor Who. I can name all the companions in order, give a detailed description of a Taran Woodbeast, and expound on the complexities of production codes in the classic series at great length. I also appreciate the other side of Doctor Who, where it’s just full on brilliant and provides stunning, entertaining TV drama for the widest possible audience - see Human Nature/The Family of Blood for starters.
So how do I review Utopia, an episode that contains some sublimely cack-handed sequences of the variety that used to get the series sniggered at with alarming regularity? There are quarries, cringe-worthy savage future humans, and a grey depiction of the far future with overly serious men striding around corridors. On the other hand, there are some beautifully subtle performances (David Tennant and John Barrowman, I’m looking at you), a brilliant guest-star who makes this acting lark look effortless, and one of the most jaw-dropping moments that pushes my fanboy buttons like never before.
I’m going to rip the plaster off quickly, because having a go at Doctor Who is like insulting your gran. I thought the first 20 minutes were pretty dreadful. It had the hallmarks of that silly brand of TV sci-fi that sketch shows have been ripping the piss out of for years. We’ve zapped forward to the year 100-trillion and suddenly find ourselves in aliens-from-the-planet-Zog territory, previously criticised by Russell T Davies, so it’s a surprise to see his name on scripting duties. This wouldn’t have been out of place in an episode of Blake’s 7, and I love Blake’s 7. I just fear for the regular audience, the real people out there who might feel cheated by an unusually silly, over-earnest opening. Sorry…
That being said, there’s plenty going on to distract from the backdrop of Utopia, not least of all the return of Captain Jack Harkness in a fabulously audacious entrance. Freed from the shackles of Torchwood, John Barrowman feels so much more at ease, as if he’s somehow uncomfortable carrying his own show. Now he’s back to sharp one-liners, winking at the girls (and the guys) and bringing that essential Jack-ness to proceedings. The Captain’s return, combined with some flashbacks to earlier episodes is a sharp reminder of the mythology that Doctor Who has built up in just three years.
To be fair to all concerned, Utopia isn’t really about that troublesome first reel. It’s all about a climax that starts around 25 minutes in, and right at the heart of it we have Sir Derek Jacobi. Sir Derek Jacobi? In Doctor Who?! Oh yes! Brilliant, isn’t it? He plays Professor Yana, a gentle soul who has been struggling to send a huge rocket into the stars to transport the humans of this dark future to Utopia. We’re never told what’s at Utopia - it could be just a branch of Aldi, but as this is essentially a three-parter, we may find out next week.
But back to Jacobi; he’s just marvellous. He always does good business, and he breezes through the episode, giving every line an enchanting spin and breathy enthusiasm. Tennant, Agyeman and Barrowman are all clearly fired up by his presence, and scenes involving all four are a joy. But what’s with the Prof? He keeps getting headaches, the sound of drums banging away in his mind. And why does the TARDIS strike such a familiar chord with him? Why indeed…
Finally the story is buzzing, and with the rocket ready to launch, the Doc and Jack are off to do some techno-gubbins which gives them chance for a bit of bonding. Why did the Doctor leave Jack behind? Does the now-immortal Jack want to die? Does Jack look good in a tight white t-shirt? In the middle of high jeopardy, Tennant and Barrowman play this scene with such heart and truth (and it helps the dialogue is deftly written) I’m prepared to forgive that first 20 minutes. Well, almost…
And then the Professor has a funny turn… Oh, to hell with it, I’ll cut to the chase. He’s got one of those watch things that turned the Doctor into a human a few episodes back, and would you believe it, he only turns out to be the Doctor’s Time Lord arch-enemy, the Master!
He’s the Master, Moriarty to the Doctor’s Holmes, a classic Who bad guy dating back to the 70s, and I’m on the edge of my seat. The build-up is intense, and the pay-off is electric as Jacobi transforms from lovely old bloke into a murderous killer. The eyes, it’s all in the eyes.
But is the pay-off brilliant for that pesky regular audience of real people? The ones who don’t know he’s been played by Roger Delgado, Anthony Ainley and, erm… Julia Roberts’s brother? When the Daleks and the Cybermen came back, the production team went to great lengths to relate them to the new series, to give the audience time to catch up and not feel left out to the dafties. And it worked. Here, the Master is just thrown at us, and the missus sitting next to me is looking a bit confused. Oh well, I’m just excited that the Master is back to really care about that, so she’ll have to work it out for herself.
But now what? Blimey, Derek Jacobi just regenerated into John Simm! He got shot, and changed, just like that. And after a bonkers, Riddler-esque turn from Simm, he’s off in the TARDIS, stranding the Doctor, Martha and Jack in the far future where they’re about to be eaten for lunch by the dodgy locals.
And that’s it…
On the one hand, I think I’ve just seen the best episode of Doctor Who like, ever, and my fanboy sense is tingling. On the other, I can’t help but wonder what the real people thought of it. Hopefully they won’t be worrying and they’ll have got that the Master is a Time Lord, a really nasty Time Lord, and the Face of Boe’s prophecy has now come true. The Doctor is definitely not alone.
I should probably apologise for the somewhat confused review. It’s a measure of just how much Utopia has meddled with my fan gene, conflicting it with worrying what the rest of the audience think. This is very much an episode for the fans, a reward for the diehards, and after three seasons, that’s no bad thing.
Next Week: The Sound of Drums