Doctor Who And The Utopia

Continuing the run of Doctor Who reviews, here's the episode of series three that I was originally asked to review. It's far from being the best of the revived show, or even of that particular series (and you can find more about my overarching views on such matters in an epic-length overview of the entire Russell T. Davies era in my book Well At Least It's Free), but it remains the one that I enjoyed the most and the review speaks for itself, really. Incidentally, this version here restores a couple of gags that were cut for being 'flippant'. Quite what anyone had expected from a review originally entitled Back Once Again With The Renegade Master, then, is a bit of a mystery...

Trailers used to be such simple things. As any number of 'old skool' Doctor Who DVDs will attest, the average TV show was once content to promote itself with a short and usually not that exciting clip, with minimal assistance from an avuncular voiceover man and a day and time caption. If they wanted you to tune in later that evening, they never felt the need to include anything more dramatic than that bizarre scene with Sylvester McCoy listening to an apple.

Then it all changed. Some time in the eighties, American TV networks started to ape the bombastic cliffhanging style of trailer favoured by big-screen blockbusters, heavy on dramatic music, fast edits and clips suggesting heaps of nailbiting tension to come, even if it later turned out that there wasn't. It took a long time for the influence to filter through to UK TV (although, weirdly, JNT had an unbroadcast go for Doctor Who’s twenty fifth anniversary in 1988), but filter through it did, and now even the most innocuous of shows is pushed to the viewer with blaring sounds and dizzying images. And such is the need to pack them with glimpses of things to come that, thanks to a short break in transmission (which people complained about, even though it was a fraction of the length of the ones they had in the sixties), viewers had their first sight of Captain Jack doing his slow-motion tribute to Del Boy falling through the bar over two months before Utopia aired.

Two months is a long time in television. Well, not really, but it’s enough time for rumours to spread and hype to spiral out of control. Captain Jack’s The Master! No, he’s The Face Of Boe! I think he's The Shrivenzale! The returning villains in this story will be The Monoids! Or possibly The Pirate Captain! 'Harold Saxon' is Gaelic for 'You are my honeyhoneyhoneysuckle, I am your beeeeeee'! Claudia Winkleman will explode! OK, so frankly for believing such self-invented tripe the rumourmongers deserved not to enjoy the story, but the hype is a more serious problem, especially when the two-month gap contains the superlative Human Nature/Family Of Blood, the enormously fun Blink, and the at least watchable 42. That's quite a lot to live up to.

Even aside from such contextual considerations, the omens for Utopia were not good. The Radio Times, always so quick to talk up the latest episode of Doctor Who in amongst all their witless cheerleading for the latest join-the-dots ITV 9pm drama and whatever show this week features unreconstituted bigotry cunningly disguised as 'deliciously non-PC', had no hesitation in describing it as a 'clunker'. The preview clips at the end of Blink weren't overly pulse-quickening either; although to be fair, once you'd actually seen the episode it became clear that this was probably down to them not wanting to give too much away.

Well, one viewer's 'clunker' is another viewer's exhiliarating edge-of-the-seat television, and even though there isn't room to start singing the praises of The Underwater Menace here that's also a description that applies neatly to Utopia. Any story that starts with Captain Jack clinging to the Tardis whilst hurtling through the time vortex and continues with Rene Zagger putting the skills he learned as Grange Hill's champion runner Mike Bentley to good use whilst being pursued by savage-looking tribal characters who looked as though they'd just run head-first into a still-drying example of those 'ethnic woodcut' paintings that you used to get everywhere in the eighties is always going to be pretty far removed from clunkerdom, no matter what those with access to preview tapes might argue.

Although clearly intended from the outset as a build-up to the climactic closing two-parter, Utopia was no mere scene-setter and some thought had clearly gone into making it a worthwhile episode in its own right, something that the production team have noticeably skimped on for previous outings. In fact, the episode was pretty much a distillation of everything that the new series does best - a hostile dying planet, a saboteur driven purely by primal rage, a tense 'this must be done in the right order' scene overlaid with humour, a comic relief character with an amusingly irritating turn of phrase, you name it and it was slammed together in this one single episode that shook just like the starbound rocket did on take off.

These thrills were effectively just a sideshow though - something that was subtly underlined by the way that the fate of the Utopia-bound travellers was so quickly and totally forgotten about - and the main purpose of the episode was to reintroduce The Master. Of course, it's true that many viewers will have guessed long ago that the bearded jackanapes was likely to find his black-clad way back into the series eventually, but who would have guessed at him being both Professor Yana and Harold Saxon? And the element of surprise didn't end there either - despite it having stared the entire audience in the face for weeks on end, the revelation that he had survived the Time War and escaped subsequent detection by using one of those Time Lord pocket watches came as a real jolt with a genuine sense of nervous realisation creeping in throughout the scene. The intercutting between Yana's initials and The Face Of Boe's ominous proclamation was an inspired move, as was the sound of Anthony Ainley and Roger Delgado's voices issuing from the watch which must have caused a great number of older viewers to shudder as if they were still behind that imaginary sofa that nobody ever actually hid behind.

Not that anyone should expect anything less from an actor of his calibre, but Derek Jacobi's performance was little short of, erm, masterful, beautifully sketching the slow and gradual degeneration from the benevolent, kindly Professor Yana (a performance that called to mind no less avuncular a figure than Douglas Adams' long-forgotten animated friend of the animals Dr. Snuggles) to a new version of The Master with one foot in malevolent snarling - his sneering dismissal of the idea of 'Utopia' was genuinely chilling - and the other in a studied childishness ("killed by an insect... a girl!"). Equally impressively John Simm seemed to immediately take the post-regeneration character off in an entirely different direction, coming across as somewhere between an arrogant politician and a sinister Timothy Claypole, especially when mocking the old series' habit of having The Master arrogantly reveal his plans in full in order to engineer his own defeat, although he'd better have lost that tendency to lapse into a Coogan/Pegg-style That Voice when called on to deliver a 'mocking' line by the time the next episode rolls around. Meanwhile, holding her own against these two heavyweights (and the not-that-bad-on-the-acting-front-either regular cast too) was Chipo Chung, who managed to imbue the faintly ridiculous Chantho with a genuine sympathy and depth that made her fate all the more shocking.

Anyway, never mind The Master, it was great to see Captain Jack back in the thick of the show, and indeed effectively back in character, having been slightly overshadowed in Torchwoodby the more interesting Toshiko and Ianto, the more foul-mouthed Gwen, and the more distractingly quick-cart-him-off-to-acting-school Owen (mind you, it's a shame that none of them will be appearing in the last two episodes; it'd be a great crossover, especially as they could be comically unfazed by the dimensions of the Tardis interior). This was exactly the right moment for John Barrowman to be back straddling that fine line between comedy and white-knuckle-ride excitement, as the series has been subtly and cleverly moving in that direction throughout. As indeed did the episode itself, slowly but surely ratcheting up the tension until the climactic final few minutes, when the audience held their breath en masse, and for once Murray Gold's incidental music didn't sound at all excessively dramatic or over the top. And extra points for the erstwhile musical contributor to Radio 1's short-lived comedy 'rock history' The Knowledge for sneaking in a subtle echo of theTorchwood theme, although forgetting to do likewise with Dudley Simpson's old 'Master Theme' from the Pertwee era was a real missed opportunity.

Less impressive was the big reveal of Captain Jack's post-The Parting Of The Ways pre-Torchwood backstory. Not in any way because of the content - in fact, it was nice for once to have an explanation that both made sense and fitted exactly with everything else that has already been established - nor indeed because of the direction, acting or scripting of the scenes themselves. Rather it was down to the overwrought gravitas applied whenever the subject was touched on in Torchwood, which hinted at something far darker and jolting than simply 'I had to wait around for a very long time'. Still, that's more Torchwood's problem than it is Doctor Who's, and in any case it was far better we had that than "I'm The Doctor's son... and also General Grugger!".

On top of everything else, Utopia was followed by a tremendous instalment of Doctor Who Confidential. Even just a fortnight ago, the words 'tremendous', 'Doctor', 'Confidential' and 'Who' seemed like words that were scientifically unable to appear in the same sentence as each other. David Tennant's bizarre hallucinogenic diversion into trying to create a visual version of those old World Distributors annual articles about the making of the series aside, it's been pretty much unwatchable for the most part this run. Well, alright, maybe that's a tad harsh, but it's not unfair to say that by and large they run out of anything genuinely interesting to say within a third or less of its ludicrously overlong running time, filling up the rest with members of the production team saying very little about nothing in particular.

Some would doubtless argue that Doctor Who is a special case that deserves special treatment even if it does mean that length outweighs interestingness. Well, it isn't, and how exciting would the 'classic' series (and indeed the all-too-rare 'making of' features that accompanied it, fondly remembered purely because they were so few and as a result so heavily concentrated in terms of content) have been had every episode been followed by interminable footage of JNT trying to explain why nobody watched The Two Doctors? Not to mention if the practice had been extended to the rest of the schedules and audiences passim had thrilled to Blake's 7 Confidential, Beachcombers Confidential, Captain Zep Confidential and Sorry Mate, I Didn't See You! Confidential. Doctor Who Confidential has little to say and a lot of time to say it in, turning what could be a cracking post-show shot of trivia into something that's basically a bit of a chore to get through. Thankfully this time, with three articulate actors who haven't been in the rest of the series on hand, things get a little more interesting. If Simm, Jacobi and Barrowman aren't on commentary duties when the DVD release rolls around, somebody really will have missed a trick.

We've come so far technologically since the days when it was all done live and in black and white, but some things never change, and just for a second, audiences watching in 2007 must have felt the same sort of jangle of nerves as their counterparts did when witnessing a hapless spaceman chancing upon the Daleks and their ridiculously-costumed pals plotting total universal conquest in another 'teaser episode' over four decades previously. Sometimes trailers do give away far too much, but nothing - least of all a leaping Barrowman - had hinted at just how much impact Utopia would have. Hype means nothing when its subject exceeds all expectations, nor indeed when it points towards the following two episodes being something rather spectacular through sheer on-screen action alone. And who would have thought this sort of praise would ever be heaped on an episode written by Russell T Davies?

You can find my huge piece on the entire Russell T. Davies era of Doctor Who in my book Well At Least It's Free, available as a paperback here or as an eBook here.