Posts Tagged ‘Utopia’

It is a bit of a truism that you never really appreciate something until it’s gone, and – for me at least – this certainly applies to the Doctor Who created under the auspices of Russell T Davies and Julie Gardner. I recall, a bit ruefully, the cheerfulness with which I was willing to disregard the flaws in the final episodes produced by this team, as they were heading out of the door anyway and a new golden age under Steven Moffat was only a year or so away.

Watching the episodes from David Tennant’s run now – those from his full seasons, anyway, as opposed to the various specials – my response is very similar to that I had upon revisiting Christopher Eccleston’s tenure, if not quite as strong. Most of these episodes are good, and some of them are very strong indeed. There is a tendency towards mid-season slumps (The Idiot’s Lantern, 42, The Doctor’s Daughter), which may be one of the factors which lead to the current format of dismembered seasons, but generally they start strongly and finish very strongly.

Picking one story in particular to write about has therefore been a bit difficult. The temptation is obviously to do a Moffat story, as his contributions are unfailingly one of the best stories each season, if not the best of all (I’m going to say it: he’s more Eric Saward than Robert Holmes, a brilliant scriptwriter but a bit questionable as a story wrangler), but they’re so very similar to the tone of the current show that I feel we would be missing out on the essential Rustiness of the Rusty Davies era.

And so – it’s a tough call, but I think David Tennant’s second season is his best. And of these episodes the one I found myself revisiting again and again, even in the days immediately after its first broadcast, is not Blink but the following episode, Utopia, written by Davies himself.


This is, by any sensible reckoning, only the initial third of a much longer story, but I’m mostly going to focus on it as opposed to the two following instalments. This is mainly because it is by far the best of the three, and one of the best episodes of 21st century Doctor Who.

The story goes thus. The Doctor pays a brief visit to Cardiff, not realising this is where his former associate, the man known as Jack Harkness, is now leading an underground team (this is underground in the sense of appearing on BBC3, not because their base is subterranean). Instinctively both he and the TARDIS recoil from Jack, who is now impossibly immortal, a fairly sizable flinch as it transports everyone involved to the planet Malcassairo in the final years of the universe’s existence – the End of Time.

However, life clings on and a tiny colony of humans are struggling to survive the predations of the feral Futurekind. Their one hope is a ship that will take them to the planet Utopia, a beacon of hope in the final darkness. But the ship is the creation of the kindly Professor Yana, a man struggling with the weight of expectation upon him – and also a terrifying secret not even he is fully aware of…

Why do I like Utopia so much? I think mainly because, more than virtually any other episode, it takes the greatest virtues of both 20th and 21st century Doctor Who and combines them almost flawlessly.

One of the ways this manifests is in the sheer amount of continuity essential to the plot, complete with copious flashbacks. The 21st century show under Davies got increasingly confident about this sort of thing, but this is still a high-water mark in terms of how involved the continuity references get. Never mind that most of the rest of the season feeds into Utopia and the two following episodes, there are also flashbacks to The Christmas Invasion and The Parting of the Ways, not to mention the fact that the Torchwood episode End of Days leads directly into this. Most gobsmackingly of all at the time, there are actually audio flashbacks to the 20th century series, although you have to be fairly hardcore to identify them as such.

Despite all this, Davies is careful to craft a story which is (I would imagine) pleasing to a wider audience and not remotely dependent on you actually having to remember the significance of the continuity for yourself. Every key point is helpfully signposted and recapped, usually by Martha. I’m not the world’s biggest Martha Jones fan, but I do think both she and Freema Agyeman weren’t really done any favours by a series of scripts which focussed on the Doctor not quite having got over his previous companion. There’s a bit of that here, but mostly she just recaps the continuity and has character-building moments with Chipo Chung.

Everything is slick and positive and generally upbeat, and the pace of the thing is a marvel – but there’s still time for a heart-to-hearts between Jack and the Doctor, so the relationships of the main characters aren’t neglected. In short, it’s a great example of how the series under Davies excelled. Except that on this occasion, the subject matter is much more like that of a 20th century story.

In some ways this is rather like a Terry Nation script, maybe even a Blake’s 7 script – most obviously in the presence of the Futurekind. Who and what they are is never really explained – despite initial appearances, they’re more of an incidental threat than the main menace of the story – but it’s clearly implied that they’re a possible evolutionary destiny of the human race. On one level this foreshadows the Toclafane from the rest of the story, but it also very much recalls the savage Links from Nation’s Terminal, and the origin of the Daleks as presented in a 1973 text story.

However, Davies also does something very clever in his presentation of Professor Yana. Davies is very keen on playing up the idea of the Master as a reflection of the Doctor, and in his Yana form the reflection is that of a generic Doctor from the 20th century series. The big difference between the Doctor in the 20th century and that in the modern show comes in his transformation from Ancient Wise Man to Juvenile Lead (I simplify, but not that much), and Yana is almost indistinguishable from an old-school Doctor in his diction and even his dress sense (there is apparently even a frock coat somewhere in Yana’s lab).

Every time the modern series revives a monster or villain from the original run it essentially constitutes a tribute, and so it makes sense for this particular revival to be so steeped in the ancient lore and mythos of the series. But this shouldn’t distract from the fact that the last third of this episode is brilliantly, brilliantly done, the slow build from the almost-casual revelation of Yana’s watch to one of the greatest cliffhangers in the show’s history being perfectly executed. Direction, music, and Derek Jacobi’s jaw-dropping performance come together and the result is simply magical.

It’s not really a surprise that The Sound of Drums and Last of the Time Lords struggle a bit to live up to the quality of Utopia. The consensus is that this story gets weaker as it goes on, and I would tend to agree – but that isn’t to say that there’s nothing of interest here, either. There’s some serious political commentary going on in The Sound of Drums, behind all the jokes and the fanservice – and there’s possibly a piece to be written on how public views of the establishment can be monitored through how they’re presented down the years. The Delgado Master is a threat to the establishment, but the Simm Master is the embodiment of it, and neither seem out of step with their zeitgeist. Last of the Time Lords has one of those climaxes you either like or you don’t, but I’m always impressed by the scene of the Master’s ‘death’ – it seems to me to get very little comment that here we’re presented with a hero who barely reacts to the loss of a woman we’re always being told he loves, but is reduced to tears by the death of his arch-enemy.

(I feel obliged to point out the slightly eggy plot device whereby the Master, even over eighteen months, is unable to repair the damage done to the TARDIS by the Doctor – while the Doctor himself is able to fix it all up apparently in a matter of days. When the plot demands it…)

I get a sense from reading interviews published not long after this story aired that the production team thought they had perhaps pushed the boat out a bit too far, in terms of the darkness of the plot and how convoluted the season-long arc was. Certainly the story of the following year was lighter and less demanding to follow, and I do think Tennant’s final full season is also extremely strong. But if you want to see just why the Tennant years were great Doctor Who, and why Doctor Who itself is such a legend, then this is a good place to look.

Read Full Post »