Sunday, June 17, 2007

Doctor Who - Utopia

I feel so torn by Utopia. On the one hand, I really enjoyed it. It's exciting and gripping and rattles along at a great pace. It hit all the fannish buttons in me: the Master returning, but also the tremendous pace and the ending. But it also has little or no plot, and, in common with many of the episodes written by Russell T Davies, seems to exist solely to acheieve an objective: in this case to introduce the Master to a new audience. But I'm not sure it even does that very well.

The opening had a very much 'been there done that' feel. Cardiff again, and the TARDIS needs to re-fuel. Again. And Captain Jack. Again. I'm not sure how he knew where the TARDIS would be though. Perhaps he has bionic hearing like Jackie and Mickey have at the start of The Christmas Invasion. He races for the ship, and in a moment which must have had evil bus drivers the world over clapping with joy, although the Doctor sees him on the monitor, he takes off anyway. Leaving poor Jack clinging to the side of the TARDIS as it headed through the Vortex. Hmmm. Not sure about that. Visually great, but not really explained and not in keeping with what we've heard about the Vortex before.

Anyway ... Jack's presence sends the TARDIS hurtling into the distant distant future. Again. But this time they arrive on the planet Malcassero - a deserted and decidedly quarry-like place. I half expected to see a bunch of extras from Blake's 7 there. Malnourished and tribal, dressed in the remnants of their costumes and managing to somehow survive ... hang on ... there they are! And they're chasing a human.

Said human is naturally rescued by the Doctor, Jack and Martha and they all race to somewhere called the Silo. There they gain entry and the ragged outsiders, with their pointy teeth clashing, are locked out. But what is young laddo doing running about out there anyway? Everyone else is in the Silo, patiently waiting to board the rocket to take them to Utopia, the promised land. It seems that the pointy toothed ones eat humans ... well they must be pretty starving then as there's not much evidence of them out there!

In the Silo is Professor Yana and his assistant, the insect Malmouth, called Chantho. The Professor is trying to get the rocket working but is failing to do so. So the Doctor helps and before you can say 'reverse the polarity' he has buzzed with his sonic screwdriver and it's all fixed. But first, five lever things have to be set in a room full of deadly radiation. I get it. This place was designed by the same committee who did Platform 5 and that spacecraft from 42. It's the only explanation as to why the radiation can't be turned off, or even why the switches are in a lethal zone anyway.

Handy Jack gets it sorted though - there are advantages to being immortal - but meanwhile Martha discovers that the Professor has a fob watch the same as the one the Doctor stored his Time Lord self in a couple of episodes earlier. This was a lovely touch. Very unexpected. Of course it points towards the Professor being a Time Lord ... perhaps even the Doctor!

But it's obvious something is up. The voice the Professor hears is evil and old ... and I cheered out loud when I heard a clip from The Daemons in there of Roger Delgado's distinctive voice ... we know what's coming.

The Professor opens the watch and becomes his Time Lord persona ... that of the Master! I liked the idea of the Professor's name relating to the Face of Boe's message 'You Are Not Alone'. Y. A. N. A. Very clever.

Now, all avid fans know who the Master is. We know the history and everything. But new viewers don't. He's just a bad guy. Another Time Lord admittedly, but that's about all we know. Put it like this, if it wasn't the Master, and was someone called Askwith, would it have made any difference. Nope. Hopefully we will get more of a sense of the Master and why he is special in the next couple of weeks. I just hope it doesn't involve him unexpectedly growing a goatee beard and chuckling a lot. Oh, and wearing black leather gloves.

While all this has been going on, the Doctor and Jack have allowed the rocket to take off, and race back to the Professor's lab. The Master has opened all the external gates allowing the great unwashed to enter, and so the final moments of the episode are a chaos of running, snarling, exciting music (some of which seemed to be pinched from the soundtrack to one of my favourite horror films, Phantasm) and shouting.

The Master electrocutes Chantho (Chan. Well, her stupid language was starting to get on my wick as well. Tho.) and she in turn shoots him. The Doctor recognises his old adversary, but the Master gets into the TARDIS and locks the door against the Doctor. He then regenerates into the form of John Simm. Very nicely done, but I wish it hadn't looked the same as the Doctor's regeneration ... I guess the production team was providing a reference point for the viewers though.

Simm seems far more like Tennant's Doctor, and is manic, energetic and rushing. He promptly leaves in the TARDIS after a last gloat at the Doctor over the speakers (and Martha recognises his voice) and we leave the episode with the Doctor TARDIS-less, and Jack and Martha trying to keep the tribe of Blake's 7 extras from getting through the door.

Breathless stuff.

On the utterly awesome front was Derek Jacobi. What a brilliant performance. Full of pathos and love as the Professor, and then cold and hard when the Master took over. I did sense the scenery being chewed a little in these scenes, but that's forgivable I feel. John Simm? Not enough to really tell. The only question of course being whether he is in a coma, dreaming, or really in the far future (sorry ... you have to have watched Life on Mars to get that).

On the 'a bit rubbish' side, the plot - there wasn't one. The whole Utopia thing and the savages - or futurekind - outside and the running about and snarling. Maybe Utopia is significant later on in the season - the Master did take the disk from the machine which was showing its location. Captain Jack was a bit of a wet fish, though I did like the Doctor's 'stop it!' every time Jack said hello to anyone (though quite how a blue insect girl would be attracted to a human is hard to fathom).

Overall then, a true example of style over substance. From the sublime and superbly plotted and acted adventure of Human Nature, The Family of Blood and Blink, we regress to a plotless runaround which is just crammed with great bits. Rather like an unthemed buffet meal consisting of everything you enjoy, but with no structure or menu to make palatable sense of it. I really enjoyed it, but feel that in time it won't stand up to repeated viewing.

Next week looks like some sort of party political broadcast as Mr Saxon takes centre stage ... Listen for those drums though.


Abu Yair said...

Once again your comments were spot-on. I enjoyed this episode tremendously, and the teenager in me was as excited as he was back when the Daleks and Cybermen made their reappearances in the 1970s and 1980s.

I also appreciated the great performance from Sir Derek Jacobi, who must have been somewhat puzzled by the whole thing. (On my way to work yesterday, I mentioned his appearance to a colleague of mine who left Australia in 1969 and hasn't seen Doctor Who since couldn't believe that an actor of his calibre would perform in the programme!) I was also very pleased to see the Master rejuvenated and recharacterised in the form of John Simm, whom I adored in Life on Mars. And here I confess that I often enjoyed Life on Mars more than I enjoyed the current Doctor Who series. As you wrote, there was a nice sound bite from The Daemons, as well as a wink at The Ark In Space ("indomitable!").

However, the downside is that, as you mentioned, the story had no real plot, no real explanations, and was too wrapped up in its own mythology for comfort.

To begin with the plot: What was the planet? How did all those people get there? Why did those human mutos have funny teeth, and speak in that odd language? Does the Utopia really exist? (Remember that the meaning of "Utopia" is "no place".) How is it that it was not destroyed like the rest of the universe? As you say, maybe these issues will be solved in the next episode, but I wouldn't presume anything.

As for the mythology, I get the impression that Russell Davies is very proud of his additions to Doctor Who mythology, and is determined that we won't forget them. Captain Jack cast into immortality? Hmmm... does this mean he's gonna be hanging around forever? Well, he certainly stole the limelight from the Martha Jones character, who seemed to do nothing for 45 minutes. And all that Great Time war stuff is just irritating now. Perhaps "in" viewers are supposed to know something about it from the novels, but since I never read any of the novels published after the early 1980s I haven't got a clue. I hope it's finally going to be resolved now.

Perhaps I'm just too old for change, but I haven't found these grand ideas all that compelling. I would like to see some more good storytelling on the episode level, and less of the "we've got something really profound to tell you" mythologizing.

So in summary: I look forward to seeing the great John Simm in action, and hope that his great qualities will allow the Master as much idiosyncrasy in each of his regenerations as the Doctor enjoys in his.

Peter said...

I think the lack of plot might (*might*) be explained by the fact this is the first part of a three parter; Phil Collinson has said this and the "to be continued" imply this. After all the episode wasn't really resolved. As I've said before you can't really judge a two parter on the first part and i think the same holds for this.

Also the regeneration scene was kept the same for the reasons you mentioned and I think that works well. After all they are the same race and I kind of like the fact they have the same regenerations. Despite the Master being the opposite of the Doctor they are essentially the same race.

george said...

Very late comment, but i had to.

Upon hindsite,i agree. great analogy about the Buffet..full of things we love,and we do appreciate them,but no theme.

The one area that plaques me,is Jacks odd obsessed hero worship of the Doctor.

It makes about..ZERO sense.
First of all,the Doctor abandoned him(the explanation of the "fixed point in time and space making him run away by instinct was no excuse)

Second, is it just me, or unless jack uber more time with the Ninth Doc and Rose than seen on screen, The Doctor made THAT much of an impression on Jack, that he
would let the Doc treat him like utter crap?

Because That is what he did. he was rude, disrespectful,and he acted pompous and arrogant and Jack listened to him order him around with the gun,and the hello's..why?

If anything if i was Jack, i would have beat the crap out of the Doc until he Regenerated..again.

Jack has had NO reason to look up to the Doc after the abandonment issue..period.

HUGELY overlooked character stuff. otherwise..i loved the conversation about Jack visiting Rose and watching her grow up..
great touching moment.