Saturday, 28 June 2014

Utopia written by Russell T Davies and directed by Graeme Harper

This story in the nutshell: ‘You Are Not Alone…’

Mockney Dude: A great episode for the tenth Doctor, Utopia gives him some wonderful opportunities to be sly (materialising the TARDIS before Jack can get on board), upset (discussing Rose), intelligent (getting the Footprint Engine to work), fiercely angry (practically shaking and screaming at Martha when she gives him the news about the watch) and desperate (as he discovers which Time Lord has survived). Coming on the back of the near-perfect characterisation in Human Nature and Blink it would appear that all of the writers (but especially the showrunner) have mastered the character of the tenth Doctor. The last time he came to Cardiff and defeated the Slitheen and he was a different man, literally. Not even the Time Lords travelled this far out into the future and he grins with excitement at being able to explore the unknown. The ninth Doctor's relationship with Jack was a very cut and dry affair, he helped to redeem the crook and put him on the straight (well not quite) and narrow. Things with the tenth Doctor are much more interesting. It's clear that neither the Time Lord nor the TARDIS trust what Jack has become one inch and they are feeling their way into their relationship throughout Utopia. Watch the scene where they discuss Jack's developments since The Parting of the Ways, there is a dark, flirtatious chemistry between the two characters that is riveting to watch. And how like two men to wait until they are in a life and death situation where one of them might not walk away to open up about their feelings. When Jack asks why he abandoned him the Doctor callously explains ‘busy life, moving on.’ The end of the universe is very humbling for the Doctor since nobody can even remember the Time Lords, not even their myth. He’s known about Jack’s strange powers ever since he ran away from him and instinctively cannot face him because everything about him is wrong. Jack suggests he is prejudiced and the Doctor smiles cheekily. He is still mourning Rose’s passing much to Martha consternation. He is so desperate to see another of his kind that he sprints over to the Professors laboratory but he is terrified of just who it might be (and with good reason). You have never seen the Doctor quite this hysterical and terrified before and it is quite frightening to watch him lose control as he faces up to the presence of his greatest enemy. He sabotages his own TARDIS at the end of the story to prevent the Master from travelling where he likes and is well and truly stranded…

Delicious Doctor: Considering how much I adored Donna I always kind of shrug now when I think of Martha or Rose and yet every time I have revisited a season three story I get a real wake up call of a reminder of just how good Freema Agyeman was. This was the beginning of a three part storyline that saw her character go from mooning companion to a fully fledged, series transitional character in her own right. Utopia is the exquisite first step in that journey, a trip to the end of the universe for Martha and her first exposure to the man who would go on to turn her world into a living Hell. When she finds Jack lying outside the TARDIS she ignores the Doctor’s protestations and tries to revive him anyway. She is training to be a Doctor, after all. Upon discovering the Doctor’s hand in a jar she states that there is still so much to find out about him to learn. Good old Rose, you really feel for Martha here as the Doctor and Jack enthuse over their ex, she is well truly the odd one out at that point. Martha’s cheeky relationship with Chan’tho is wonderful, especially the swearing scene which really draws you close to both characters.

Horny Hunk: Finishing off this very fine ensemble, I would probably go as far to say that this is the strongest Jack story because it give him a great deal of focus and there are so many interesting things to talk about. Jack is determined to catch up with the Doctor and sprints at the TARDIS (tying in with the end of season one of Torchwood) and rides the police box through the time vortex. It is such an insane idea but one that is given full justice in the realisation (I wish he had still been clinging on during the titles) and is adequately explained as we see him die and survive several times throughout the episode. He used his vortex manipulator to bounce from the Game Station to Earth in the 20th Century but got his figures a little wrong and ended up in 1869 and had live through the entire 20th Century to meet a version of the Doctor that co-incided with him (he must have missed him in Tooth and Claw, The Idiots Lantern, Human Nature, etc). Jack is perfectly willing to shoot the future kind (Torchwood training exposed) but the Doctor stops him, claiming he is his responsibility. Rather wonderfully he flirts with men, women and aliens in this episode and none of them seem to mind very much (and I can’t say I blame them, he looks damn hot in the white T-shirt and braces). Jack sacrifices himself to jump start the override, willing to experience the agonizing pain of dying of radiation to save the human race. Little did the Doctor know that he was watching a portent of his own death. The scenes where he discusses his supposed invulnerability whilst surrounded by stead radiation are loaded with tension and sexual chemistry, as mentioned earlier both Barrowman and Tennant acquit themselves beautifully and really spark off each other. He learnt he was the man who can never die after he was shot; fell of a cliff, starved, hit by a stray javelin, etc… He went back to visit Rose in the 1990’s, just once or twice, just to see her again because he figured she was dead. The Doctor, Martha and Jack wouldn't have been a ensemble I could have seen working before this episode...and it's one I wished had featured in an entire season afterwards.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘The call came from across the stars. Come to Utopia…’
‘Now I can say I was provoked…’ is one of the scariest lines to have ever featured in Doctor Who.

The Good Stuff: What a coup it is to get Derek Jacobi to play Professor Yana and he is instantly likeable in the role. Another thing I think the Davies era was much better at was securing fantastic guest stars and giving them something meaty to play. The Moffat era has seen fit to waste the talents of Richard E. Grant, Celia Imrie, David Warner, Ian McKellan...Jacobi transforms throughout Utopia from sweet old Professor Yana to the most powerful and dark Time Lord who has ever existed and he makes the transition look effortless.  Chan’tho makes a fine foil for him, similarly delightful and and featuring some clever and subtle prosthetics. Come on, who didn’t get a little buzz seeing the TARDIS sitting alone in that bleak quarry? The FX of the conglomeration is both subtle and epic, it looks genuinely alien. I know Davies fancied the whole episode being set in amongst the warrens of the conglomeration but I can't help but get a secret thrill to enjoy an old fashioned story that devotes so much time to running about in a quarry. Even if it is the sexiest quarry we have ever seen. I love how low budget this story is, it feels more like classic Doctor Who because it trades in imaginative ideas rather than just using money to tell a story and the simplicity of the situation,. The huge notions of stars going out and the last of humanity having to face an eternal night is quietly rather astonishing and nightmarish. Yana’s face when he first sees the TARDIS reveals a world of confusion and clarity. has the Ship ever been photographed so lovingly? Death by stead radiation looks very nasty is akin to your body exploding into little pieces of paper. Great work by the Mill, it's not a way I would want to go. As soon as Yana shows Martha his watch this episode steps up a gear, becoming unbearably tense and exciting with possibilities. If you have been watching series three then you will understand the gravity of the watch and if you haven't the director stresses it enough for you to pick up on it anyway. When Yana snaps opens the watch and the lights flood through I was literally on the edge of my seat, this being a pivotal, dramatic piece of direction. Jacobi is simply the most frightening Master we have ever seen; his performance is unforgettably scary and feral. The regeneration is bold and unforgettably dramatic and John Simm leaps free as a younger, cheekier Master. We'll have to wait and see how he turns out in the next episode but as a mirror to Tennant's Doctor he certainly shows a lot of promise.

The Bad Stuff: There is an assault of continuity in the first scene that reminds me of a JNT story. In fact great chunks of this episode consists of exposition and continuity. Fortunately it is all extremely interesting and even better, it all converges in the last third to push the series onwards in an exciting direction. I thought Russell T Davies said he wanted to avoid grunting, Stargate style natives?

The Shallow Bit: Tennant, Agyeman and Barrowman, what a gorgeous team.

Result: Featuring the return of Jack, an gripping end of the universe scenario and a chance to see what David Tennant is made of, Utopia is one of my favourites from series three. The concluding fifteen minutes are the some of the most snappily edited and dramatically powerful material we have ever seen in the show. I'm left breathless, no matter how many times I have seen it. The return of the Master has always been an event, but for once I was unspoiled and able to bask in the reveal as it was broadcast. This one went out on my 30th brithday and I watched it in the dead of night after I had finished celebrating and it was the best present I could have asked for. There's fantastic work from John Barrowman who gets a chance to underplay his material and show what he is made of as an actor. David Tennant and Freema Agyeman are on fire at this point in the season and the characterisation of both the Doctor and Martha scales higher than the rocket that screams towards Utopia. I especially like the cute moments between the Doctor and Professor Yana. It is such a shame that we didn't have more time with the Jacobi Master because this is about as sinister as he has ever been but the fresh faced version hints at promise too. This is the NuWho episode for classic Doctor Who fans. It has primitives hanging out in a quarry, a great big rocket, the return of an old foe and relatively little of the innovations that seem to wind a certain section of fandom so much. The reason this works so well rather than feeling like a throwback is Graeme Harper's extraordinary direction which keeps things moving at a rate of knots, fills the screen with stylish imagery and allows the viewer to cut through all the exposition and continuity with some strong visual clues. The concluding scenes are all a bit too much for an old fanboy like me and I was tearing my hair out with excitement: 9/10


Audrey the Leviathan Vampire Girl said...

I think you were a little hard on this one. ;)

Joe Ford said...

Dirty mare :-)

Corpus Christi Music Scene said...

I have always enjoyed your reviews and respected your opinions even when i disagree. However lately it seems you cant write a review without taking a dig at Steven Moffat . Youre certainly entitled to change your mind but in your own reviews , you had nothing but praise for R.E Grant and Celia Imrie. I would hate to see you jump on the Bash Moffat Brigade.

Joe Ford said...

Thanks for your comment. I have come to the sad the conclusion that the Moffat era, or at least Matt Smith's era, is not for me. There have been some shining moments but on the whole it hasn't been the sort of Doctor Who that I enjoy watching. Unfortunately if I am going to approach critquing the show with any integrity then I have to be completely honest with my opinion and sometimes that involves comparing an era I don't like with an era that I do. Whilst Imrie, Grant, etc give excellent performances with the material that they have been given, I don't think they have been presented with material that is worthy of performers of their status. I think (on the whole - there are exceptions such as Michael Gambon) the guest stars in NuWho are genuinely better served during RTD's years.

Anonymous said...

"the guest stars in NuWho are genuinely better served during RTD's years."

Oh yeah, and what about Derek Jacobi? He deserved better than single Utopia. He would have been better Master.

Joe Ford said...

How can you possibly say that Derek Jacobi wasn't well served in Utopia? He plays two different characters and is the main focus of the story. I think you are mistaking characters being better served with who you would like to play a particular character. I think Simms is a perfectly fine Master.

David Pirtle said...

You're right about this being right up the alley for classic Who fans. I've always felt it was the strongest part of the three part end to series three, but that's probably just because I adore Derek Jacobi, and I love seeing legends like him being given such great material. His Yana is so sympathetic a character right up to the end, and his Master is so loathsome and frightening from the very start, that it feels a bit like whiplash watching the transformation, but in a good way!