Shiny Shelf

Doctor Who: Utopia

By Mark Clapham on 23 June 2007

WARNING! Contains spoilers!

Extra special spoiler warning – ‘Utopia’ leads straight into the next two episodes, so there’s no point talking about it without discussing the climax. If you don’t want to be spoiled, abandon this review now.

‘Utopia’ is low on plot, but high on major developments. Russell T Davies has always given himself the ‘thankless task’ assignments, and this is no exception – he has to reintroduce Captain Jack, explain what has been going on with Jack and his immortality without accidentally getting all the kids watching ‘Torchwood’, introduce the Master for the end of season showdown, give Sir Derek Jacobi a guest role worth his talents, and still find room to have a self-contained ‘Doctor Who’ plot with peril and monsters and so forth.

Most of this works very well, with the exception of some of the self-contained plot which is squeezed so thin that it comes across as a bit generic – there’s some good people in a rocket and some bad guys with leather coats running around a gravel pit, and the Doctor and co have to get the good people in the rocket off the planet before the leather coated bad guys come and eat them. To launch the rocket, the Doctor has to tie some wires together and Jack needs to push some cardboard props into place.
That’s pretty much it. It’s not much of a plot, but it provides the impetus to have the characters running around as they talk rather than just standing there, and director Graeme Harper adds his usual intensity to proceedings.

While the gravel pit and leather clad blokes are reminiscent of so much old ‘Doctor Who’ and generic TV SF (‘Blake’s 7′ anyone? On the other hand, let’s not.), ‘Utopia’ packs in the fun to an extent that it really doesn’t matter. The nods back to the excellent ‘Human Nature’ and ‘Family of Blood’ as the strands tie together are welcome, but are delivered in a way which is unobtrusive for new viewers. The plot is mainly a framework around which RTD can move his pieces around before the end of the season, and develop his characters, and that’s no bad thing.

The Doctor, Jack and Martha get some good stuff, while main guest characters Professor Yana and his companion, the alien Chantho, are both well developed. There was something nagging me about Jacobi’s performance as the Professor throughout his early scenes, as he bumbles and flusters to complete his rocket in the early scenes, which only snapped into place later on – Jacobi, a ‘Who’ viewer since the 60s, brings some of the qualities of the early, more patrician, Doctor Whos to his performance as the Professor. There’s a bit of Troughton here, a touch of Hartnell there, even the odd bit of Jon Pertwee. No wonder the Doctor gets on with the Professor – he’s a human version of his older selves, a kindly man in antique clothing trying to save people through science.

Which makes the twist all the more painful, as the lovely Professor realises slowly that he isn’t really Professor Yana at all, that his identity, this charming parody of the Doctor himself, is a human disguise to hide the Time Lord within, the Master. Jacobi only spends a few minutes on screen as the Master proper, but he uses every second and really doesn’t need much more. The Master has always been the ultimate black hat, evil for evil’s sake, but Jacobi turns this to his advantage, his Master a creature of seething malice and rage, bitter and sadistic to the last. It’s a great moment.

Jacobi is a top star turn, but Tennant also does some great work as the Doctor befriends the Professor, only to realise that he may be another Time Lord, descending into confusion and then horror as he finds he isn’t alone, but that this other last Time Lord is the worst possible person to set loose on the universe.

As Jacobi’s Master regenerates, one would think there was nowhere still to go. Then John Simm jumps up in his place, and turns his performance right up to eleven. Jacobi’s Master was old, bitter, and sadistic, while Simm’s is demented, chaotic and gleeful, hyperventilating as he bursts into life, stealing the TARDIS and leaving the Doctor stranded at the end of time. In a few minutes of screen time Simm’s Master is established as a major, highly entertaining threat. The confrontation between the two last Time Lords that plays out across the next episodes should be well worth the anticipation.

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By Mark Clapham

Mark Clapham is a Devon-based writer and editor. You can find out more about him at the egotistically named

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