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Jun 18, 2007

Parting is such sweet sorrow

Doctor Who and I are parting company now. Only temporarily, you understand, but Saturday was the last that time I will see a first-run episode of the series as it is broadcast until Christmas. For the next couple of Saturdays I will be otherwise engaged, firstly with my dad’s 60th birthday bash and then with the wedding reception of some friends of mine. Damned inconsiderate of everyone to have their celebrations on the two weekends following one of the dangliest cliffhangers in the history of the series, I have to say.

Damned inconsiderate of everyone to have their celebrations on the two weekends following one of the dangliest cliffhangers in the history of the series, I have to say.

Some of you will doubtless be wondering what the hell I am moaning about, when I will safely be able to watch the episodes on video only a few hours after they have shown, probably no later than many foreign fans have to put up with every week. But come on! After a finale to an episode that left you hanging like that, with so much going on and so much still to come, wouldn’t you be annoyed that you won’t be able to see what happens as it goes out on air?

Such is life, though, and I have to give credit to Davies, Harper and everyone else involved with Utopia for giving us such a dramatic conclusion. I doubt I would have been half so anxious about the extra wait to see each of the next two episodes had there not been such a terrific set-up here. Yes, there had been whispers and rumours flying around that made this not quite the ultimate surprise it would have been nice for it to be, and yes this was not the perfect episode, but I find it hard to believe any Doctor Who fan wouldn’t have found themselves sucked into the drama of the last ten minutes or so of Utopia, even if they had already thoroughly spoilered themselves beforehand.

I find it hard to believe any Doctor Who fan wouldn’t have found themselves sucked into the drama of the last ten minutes or so of Utopia.

What made it all the more surprising to me that I found this so exciting was the fact that I have never been much of a fan of the character of the Master. I quite like Roger Delgado’s original ‘gentleman villain’ version of the character, but a lot of that is to do with how well he combines and contrasts with Jon Pertwee’s Third Doctor. No other Doctor and Master combination of the classic series ever really replicated the success of that sparring relationship. Although Anthony Ainley struggled manfully with what he was asked to do with some poor scripts and misguided direction in the 1980s, he only very rarely seemed like a nemesis of the Doctor worthy of the name.

The new series could change all that, although it’s still early days. If the new Master isn’t a success, though, you can’t say it’s not because he wasn’t given a good enough build-up. People might – and have already – complain that Utopia’s plot is rather slight, but I don’t think this episode was really any more about the refugees heading for the last outpost of humanity than Rose was about the Nestene Consciousness’s third attempt to conquer the Earth. It was very clearly an ‘episode one’, too, just one of the many ways in which it was a decidedly ‘old school’ example of Doctor Who. Despite it having a different director and not being advertised as one of a three-part finale, I suspect that we should no more judge it alone and isolated than we would the first episode of any other story. We just have to keep our fingers crossed and hope it’s the introduction to further delights to come along the lines of a Genesis of the Daleks part one, rather than a false dawn such as the opening episode of The Space Museum.

Jack is now the only surviving character from the first series of the Doctor Who revival, just two short years ago.

That said, there was a lot crammed in – I’m not sure whether it’s too much or not, but it occurs to me that I’m already a fair way into this review and I’m only just now mentioning the return of John Barrowman as Captain Jack Harkness. Counting the two Doctors separately, Jack is now the only surviving character from the first series of the Doctor Who revival, just two short years ago. Viewers of Torchwood will already have known how he has spent the intervening time since we last saw him in the main series, and although I enjoyed that programme more than some reviewers did, I did have problems with some of the ways in which his character was handled. Here, however, we got the rather happier Jack we saw originally in Doctor Who, back once again in Davies’s hands, and it was nice to see him. True, he had the confrontational scene with the Doctor in the radiation chamber, but even that was played rather more lightly and less earnestly than it might have been, and overall Jack’s presence only increased the enjoyment of the episode for me.

I don’t think we’re entirely done with Jack and his backstory, though – I know he was invented in the first place because Davies needed a soldier for the series one finale, but that can’t be the only reason for his presence this time around, surely? Especially given as he was specifically prevented from firing a gun by the Doctor here. In any case, it’s a shame that circumstances seem to have dictated that he will never be a full-time member of the TARDIS crew, as I think that the series might be all the better for it.

Doctor Who has its first knight as Sir Derek Jacobi brings all the Claudian weight of his not inconsiderable thespian reputation to our humble little programme.

There is admittedly the issue of finding enough for two companions to do in an episode, and it has to be said that both Jack and Martha suffered at times from being sidelined during this episode. That wasn’t because of each other or the Doctor, though – it was because of the main guest star, and someone who has wanted to appear in the series for a very long time and has nibbled around the edges with Big Finish and the BBC website. Yes, Doctor Who has its first knight as Sir Derek Jacobi brings all the Claudian weight of his not inconsiderable thespian reputation to our humble little programme.

Jacobi was excellent. In fact, I would go so far as to say he was one of the best guest actors there has been in Doctor Who, either in the revival or in the classic series. I really liked poor old Professor Yana, battling away to try and get humanity off the ground and out onto its final journey to the stars. He reminded me a little of a sort of a cross between the First and Second Doctors, and perhaps if Jacobi were twenty years younger he would be an excellent candidate for the lead role in the series.

The build up to his transformation into the Master was very tense and exciting, and even for someone like me who doesn’t really have all that investment in the character, just the mythological status the transformation was given made it seem like something really quite special. There was an interesting mix of references both to the recent and long-distant past of the programme – Delgado’s voice and Ainley’s laughter, coupled with the flashbacks to the likes of Human Nature and The Parting of the Ways

Vast networks of hidden and half-seen storytelling, and the sense that there was a deep and mysterious history to the programme and its characters out there.

When I was a child and first getting to know and love Doctor Who, I was especially drawn to it because of these epic, vast networks of hidden and half-seen storytelling, and the sense that there was a deep and mysterious history to the programme and its characters out there. I would have loved an episode like this with its touches of history; I’ve no idea what the children of 2007 thought when watching it, but I hope it fired their imaginations as much as the likes of Remembrance of the Daleks fired mine all those years ago.

And then that ending! The Doctor, Martha and Jack, trapped, without even a presence in the trailer for next week to reassure anybody about their fate. The TARDIS, stolen! And the Master… dead and reborn!

It’s too early to judge Simm’s performance, I think, as he was very clearly in a post-regenerative state and a bit hyper and manic, although I do feel a twinge of regret that we couldn’t simply have kept Jacobi. But I suppose to get back to that old Delgado – Pertwee feeling, you do need to actors of the same generation, and seeing Tennant and the talented Simm sparking off one another in the next couple of weeks ought to be worth waiting for.

Even if, like me, you’ll have to wait a few extra hours for it.

Comments

I don't think I mentioned that I did like how Utopia ties up so neatly with Small Worlds regarding Jack's backstory. One of the complaints I had with that episode was it was attempting to cram in so many seperate pieces in forty-five minutes that didn't really gel well, but Utopia instantly makes Small Worlds a contextually better episode to watch now.

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