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Doctor Who complete reviews: Utopia

REVIEWS - DOCTOR WHO

An ambitious three-parter that almost literally loses the plot...

Utopia,The Sound Of Drums,Last Of The Time Lords (Doctor Who)

Right now, I'm disturbed by a hubbub outside the window. A whopping great tractor is trying and failing to park in a cul-de-sac just over the road. No great surprise about that in theory – except that I've seen bigger cul-de-sacs in Trumpton. Tractor guy's already getting grief from a couple of creaky old codgers waving their fists aloft like he's just threatened to crush their cottages to rubble with his clunky vehicle.

What's this got to do with Doctor Who, I hear you cry. Well now, it just so happens that I've reached the last story of the 2007 season, no less: the equivalent of an old school six-parter. A big finale that brings back The Doctor's wretched nemesis, The Master, who's now wreaking havoc in two forms: an apparently genial old fossil on a futuristic planet and then in a younger version who's evidently been living on a crash diet of chocolates, sweets and fizzy drinks. Big news for Who fans, but there's just one teensy weensy problem – like the big tractor, it's got no place else to go but back to where it came from. Yes, the dreaded Reset Button rears its ugly head to ensure that the all new Master Trilogy turns out to be one of the most misguided cop-outs, not just in Doctor Who but in the history of television.

Utopia,The Sound Of Drums,Last Of The Time Lords (Doctor Who) - VFXWhat with all the racket outside, I think I'm going to leave this inevitable rant for a bit later down the line in this review. All I will say at the moment is that it's one of quite a few problems in what I'll call Utopia Drums Time Lords (which sounds like a lost album from the Todd Rundgren-led '70s/'80s prog band). It's another of Russell T Davies' bloated season finales, in which he's gradually throwing in more and more absurd concepts and ideas – some of which work, some of which don't. Looking at this monster three-parter, it's a bit reminiscent of the '80s stories in which John Nathan Turner would provide quaking writers with great big shopping lists of requirements. So in this case, not only do we get the return of The Master, we also get Captain Jack back in the fold, say goodbye-ish to Martha, and wrap up all of the loose ends in this season, such as who is Mister Saxon. Actually, the return of The Master was possibly one of the worst kept secrets in Doctor Who – the DVD box set of New Beginnings should have hinted at things to come when it was released in January 2007. Rearrange Mister Saxon, and you get Master No Six! Clever, huh?

But just like some of the overburdened '80s stories, it sometimes feels like there's too many boxes to tick and not enough plot to deliver. Which is a shame, since for all its many faults, Utopia Drums Time Lords does produce some breathtaking bits of telly. There are also some refreshingly grim aspects to this story too, which take Doctor Who into some very dark areas indeed. The normally optimistic Davies takes a bit of a cynical path when it comes to musing over the ultimate fate of the human race – and I'm not talking about the ridiculous global T-Mobile ad either.

Utopia,The Sound Of Drums,Last Of The Time Lords (Doctor Who) - TennantSo where do I start? Well, let's try at the beginning, you great fool. Utopia Drums Time Lords basically takes the form of the mid-70s six-parters in that there are technically two stories in one. The Seeds Of Doom, The Talons Of Weng-Chiang and The Invasion Of Time all tried this tack to considerable success, and so Utopia Drums Time Lords follows the same pattern. The difference however, is that the viewers and fans only twig that it's a six-parter by the time the To Be Continued sign hovers at the end credits of Utopia. There had been no prior warning that Utopia would link in with the last two episodes of the season, so it's nice to see that the secret was kept under wraps – especially when The Master makes his reappearance earlier than scheduled.

Compare the last frantic minutes with the beginning. Initially, Utopia starts off in a rather low-key fashion as The Doctor and Martha make another pit stop in Cardiff to get some more fuel for the TARDIS. It's a rather brief stay though, since The Doctor quickly spies Captain Jack doing a slow-mo high jump to get to the TARDIS. It's a bit odd that The Doctor doesn't want Jack around. Maybe he's horrified by the fact that Barrowman seems to be cropping up on too many crappy light entertainment shows. Or maybe Jack's got bad breath. Either way, Jack's not giving up, since we see him holding onto the TARDIS for dear life as it hurtles through the time vortex, only to land in...

A quarry! Doctor Who has been severely lacking in quarries lately, so Utopia needs to make up for last time with a dingy locale that actually looks like a slightly more upmarket Blake's 7 setting. As many commentators have pointed out, there's something a bit Blake-y about Utopia – the difference being that Terry Nation never thought of going all Dr Evil when deciding the year. This time around, it's 100 TRILLION (Written with little finger in mouth and smug grin on face)!! Seriously, has Davies got a bald cap and cat at home, given that he's constantly cooking up ridiculously arbitrary figures that actually mean zilch in dramatic terms? Perhaps he came up with the name of Arc Of Infinity when he presumably mooched around looking for work experience at JNT's office in 1982.

Utopia,The Sound Of Drums,Last Of The Time Lords (Doctor Who)But otherwise, Utopia's even more Blakey than On The Buses. It looks like it's been plucked from an unused B7 Season Four script, with ridiculous looking snarly people called The Futurekind, a giant female talking centipede head thing, and a doddery old professor who's supposed to be some great benefactor. Oh, and lots of radiation, a Season Four favourite, to the point where red is dead again. All it needed was for the snarly witchy woman to turn out to be Servalan and the picture would have been complete.

Even with these Seven influences, there's something quite unique about Utopia. By that I mean that there's more to it than meets the eye. What begins as a quest to get the last of the human race safely off the planet to the destination of Utopia turns in to a dangerous battle against time as The Doctor realises that his old adversary isn't as dead as he thought. Somehow, Professor Yana must keep some terrible secret, given that he's regularly screwing up his face against the sound of Phil Collins performing a drum solo in his bonce. But it's only when he produces a familiar fob watch that everything starts to slot into place. And what started out as a routine but serviceable adventure becomes just that bit more dangerous – especially when Murray Gold actually gets it right with that brilliantly effective Master theme – the eerie, juddery rising falling orchestration really hammers home the danger of the bloke, and by now, most fans are waiting for the inevitable moment when he opens the fob watch.

"The Jacobi Master is one of the most convincing portrayals of evil in the new reboot, all hissing malevolence and narrow eyes"

Utopia,The Sound Of Drums,Last Of The Time Lords (Doctor Who) - Derek JacobiIt helps that highly regarded thesp, Derek Jacobi turns up as The Professor in what's quite a high coup for Doctor Who, given the actor's acclaimed history. And sure enough, he delivers the goods both as the harmless old benefactor and then as the evil Time Lord. There couldn't be a bigger difference between the two, and Jacobi judges the contrast with studied precision. He gives the Professor a lot of amiable warmth and geniality, so it's actually quite a wrench when he slowly turns round after opening the watch. The Jacobi Master is one of the most convincing portrayals of evil in the new reboot, all hissing malevolence and narrow eyes. The “I. Am. The Master!” bit is just fantastic. The problem is he's not The Master long enough, and what's more, his replacement isn't anywhere near as good (More on him in a minute) – but for those five minutes, make the most of one the best portrayals of malevolence in Doctor Who.

Davies in this case, proves to be a bit of a master himself – he gradually weaves some of the most notable plot points of the season to provide a revelation that's genuinely exciting. The dying words of the Face Of Boe make sense, and so does the Chameleon Arch device, which had only been seen a couple of weeks previous in the Human Nature two-parter. They all add up to those frantic moments of The Doctor realising that something's up, and thanks to a combination of David Tennant's acting and Graeme Harper's stellar direction, the tension really hots up.

In fact, Harper's been back on form after the poor 42. He has that great talent for making a boring quarry look like a genuinely alien planet, and uses some suitably clever camera trickery to add a sense of scale to the place. His knack of producing quick cuts to accentuate the tension pays off in the last few moments, and he also uses that breathless energy to great effect. His casting's also pretty good too – the guest cast for the first part of the story is quite small in number, but they do what's required and do it well – even the annoying kid who looks a bit like a Peter Frampton foetus with the voice of a speeded up David Tennant. Apart from Jacobi, the best of the guests is probably Chipo Chung, who copes admirably with the clunky prosthetic mask and the self-consciously stilted dialogue of Chantho. Chan-putting Chan at the beginning of a sentence and Tho at the end does not an alien race make-Tho.

Utopia/The Sound Of Drums/Last Of The Time Lords (Doctor Who) - Jack Harkness [ John Barrowman ]Still, at least Jack gets a bit more to do in this episode than in the rest of the story, even if he's purely there as a convenient talking backstory infodump machine. Again though, Martha's reduced to playing second fiddle to Rose as Jack lectures The Doctor on what happened to her (“Good old Rose,” she sighs wearily as The Doctor and Jack whoop in delight at the fact that she's alive in a parallel world). But The Doctor at least starts to make friends with Jack again, especially when there's a bit of fence mending while Jack trips the system in the rocket silo – The Doctor says that he deliberately tried to abandon Jack because he can live forever. And sure enough there's plenty of instances when Jack should meet his maker, but instead comes back to life with that familiar Huuuggghhh noise – the sort that Uncle Albert made when trying to look horrified at Rodney's random date in the 1990 Only Fools And Horses Christmas special.

Yes, the sort of horror that's reserved for when The Master regenerates into a younger version – John Simm, better known for being a regular on Life On Mars. He's a card, that Simm – he chooses to discard the understated evil seen in Jacobi's performance and instead opts for pure pantomime ham. Apparently, the plan was to make each Master relate to the then incarnation of The Doctor, so you had the suave Delgado incarnation to tally with Pertwee's debonair man of action, for example. In this case, the over-loony new Master is, I guess, meant to tally with the over-excited Tenth Doctor. Except that this is the Tenth Doctor's childish lunacy multiplied by 100 trillion – and it's at times, painful to sit through.

"For some reason John Simm's so over-zealous as to make Anthony Ainley and Eric Roberts look positively subdued by comparison"

Utopia/The Sound Of Drums/Last Of The Time Lords (Doctor Who) - John Simm as The MasterAt the time of transmission, I hated Simm's performance. These days, I don't quite mind it as much. I think it helps now that I've seen The End Of Time, in which we saw the depravity of The Master's madness (and in which Simm gives a better performance), so it sort of puts his earlier adventure into context. And looking at Utopia Drums Time Lords again, there are instances when it looks like Simm's taking it fairly seriously. The hushed chinwag with The Doctor on the phone is a good example, as is the two-hander with the wizened dwarf Doctor in a birdcage. But a lot of the time, Simm goes so over the top that he catapults himself into the sky and into another galaxy altogether. Too many examples to mention but how's about – the over-wacky panto first meeting in person with The Doctor; the kids' TV presenter style-acting when sucking his knuckles at the sound of Vivien Rook's slice 'n' dice; the “HERE! COME! THE DRUMS!” bopping; and that rather strange comedy cross-eyed gurn as he 'dies' in The Doctor's arms. Don't get me wrong, I've seen Simm in other things, and he seems perfectly capable, but for some reason he's so over-zealous in this to the point where he makes Anthony Ainley and Eric Roberts look positively subdued by comparison.

And so it's revealed that The Master is – gusp! Mister Saxon! By now, the action has moved back to Planet Earth, where the human race are about to face yet another terrifying threat for what seems like the 756th time this series. There's a bit of political satire going on here, given that at the time of transmission, weird meerkat two-face Tony Blair was making way for Igor The Butler, Gordon Brown. But in fact, Saxon Master is very reminiscent of Blair in his insincere mannerisms, speeches and regular sermons on telly. In this case, he's addressing “Britain Britain Britain” (smart reference to Big Tom here) with the promise of contact with oversized ball bearings called the Toclafane (which apparently translates as Fool The Fan in French). The Toclafane naturally do not mean the human race well, slicing up well-meaning Vivien Rook into fish sticks and blowing the President of the USA into small red pieces. Again, more political satire here, following Blair's excessive pandering to Bush's every little whim. Clever political commentary - although mind you, that's got to be one of the lousiest campaign trails ever. I mean would you vote for a man who ropes in squeaky fake Sharon Osbourne, pop toddlers McFly and Baron Greenback herself, Ann Widdecombe to promote the campaign?

But, the sound of drums has been subtly absorbed by anyone with a mobile phone, thanks to the mysterious Archangel Network. “There it is, that rhythm,” says The Doctor referring to the looping Duh-Duh-Duh-Duh beat. “It's everywhere, ticking away in the subconscious.” That's quite a neat trick on Davies' part, and at least it offers a reasonable explanation for Britons just accepting his obviously fake credentials at face value. It's also a welcome throwback to the days of The Master's hypnosis, except on a larger scale.

Utopia/The Sound Of Drums/Last Of The Time Lords (Doctor Who)Old school fans can also marvel at the flashback to the days of Gallifrey. For a programme that had originally shunned the thought of harking back to the past, the new reboot of Doctor Who ranks alongside (again) the mid-1980s, when a face or race from long ago would suddenly crop up again. So here we have The Master (not The Doctor's brother, incidentally - “You've been watching too much TV” says The Doctor) and a look at the world of the home planet of the Time Lords, all orange and yellow skies and Deadly Assassin costumes. There's also a bit of new mythology introduced here, in that Time Lords are taken for initiation, to stare into the vortex of time and space. Which drove The Master mad, as his bowlcutted younger self looks into the heart of the storm. And which might explain why the 1980s Heh Heh Heh-ing incarnation was such a nutbar. But altogether, it's good to see that Davies looks back to the good old days with respectful skill, while adding a new twist to add to the mythology.

And in fact, The Sound Of Drums largely continues the good work laid out in Utopia. There's a continuing sense of doom throughout, as The Doctor, Martha and Jack become increasingly isolated, forced to go on the run and hide away like common criminals (“You're public enemies one, two and three,” says The Master). Not only that, but Martha's family are captured for The Master's evil schemes, although in Francine's case, it's difficult to give a damn, considering that she was the one who sold her daughter out in the first place. And by the end of the story, everything's gone to pot, as the Toclafane turn out to be anything but benign, acting as The Master's stooges and wiping out anyone that crosses their path. Worse still, The Doctor's aged to the point where he's an unrecognisable old man in what's actually quite a shocking sequence. Admittedly the Tennant Tantrum's back for the last time this season, and still sounds as high-pitched and screechy as ever – and incidentally, Tennant seems to be channelling Peter Gabriel in the 'Sledgehammer' video when he's writhing about like a mad dervish. But the sight of the ancient old Tenth Doctor looking about in helpless shock is a pretty bleak one, particularly in that final close-up shot as he realises that he can't do anything about the mass slaughter taking place down below. The episode's also handled well by newcomer Colin Teague, who treats this instalment very much like an episode of Spooks, full of hi-tech camera-work, chases, and arty film noir angles. If anything, the visual side of this flawed three-parter very nearly compensates for the deficiencies in the last instalment.

Which begins ominously with a One Year Later caption. At which point the warning klaxon in my rancid little brain started hooting. Could it be that this would mean a big case of Reset Button at the end? You'll have to find out, but in the meantime, there's equal helpings of good and bad. On the good side, the guest acting's uniformly strong. In the last act, we're introduced to two new faces – stubble chops Tom Milligan and cynical old battleaxe Professor Docherty. They're both played well – Tom Ellis, better known these days as the perpetually bemused Gary from Miranda, makes for a good sub-companion to Martha, gelling well with Freema Agyeman. Ellie Haddington is also very good as Docherty, adding a weary, worldly-wise grit to her part, although it's quite a shock when she turns out to betray Martha to The Master. Weirdly though, stealing the show in the last couple of parts is Alexandra Moen (the second Hotel Babylon alumnus this season) as hapless wallflower Lucy Saxon. I say weirdly, since Moen only gets a few snippets of dialogue here and there. And yet – she conveys her troubled madness pitch perfectly through subtle facial expressions and nervy tics (such as her pitiful shuffling to 'Voodoo Child' by The Rogue Traders). In the last part, we see that Lucy's hit rock bottom in that her husband not only blatantly cheats on her with other women, but hits her too. Moen really sells that almost zombified state of mind, through her awkward, trance-like body language, and overall, it's just a brilliant performance – shame she'd be underused in the later End Of Time two-parter.

There's also the grim realisation that the Toclafane are in fact, the last surviving humans. The lone Toclafane taken for capture turns out to be the Frampton Foetus, who's now been reduced to a disembodied head which looks a bit like a Ronsealed Davros. It's a stark contrast to a common theme of NuWho in that the human race always prospers, and even if it's tempered by the resolution in which The Master's mass defeated by his subjects, this is still as bleak as Doctor Who can get. But it's a bold idea which still works.

Utopia,The Sound Of Drums,Last Of The Time Lords (Doctor Who) - Freema AgyemanOther good stuff. Hmmm, well at least Martha gets something substantial to do, and the last episode is pretty much carried by her anyway, given that The Doctor's reduced to the state of Dobby The House Elf. Like the Human Nature two-parter, Freema Agyeman proves that she's perfectly capable of taking centre stage, and again, she gives a thoroughly likeable performance, even if some of her lines border on cloying lovey-dovey schmaltz. It's a shame that this is her last regular appearance, although she'll be back the next season with even worse material. The unrequited love story has been an abject failure and wasn't fair on Agyeman, who was stuck with a character that for the most part, played second fiddle to a character who had long gone. At least with the Human Nature story and this last episode, there's been an attempt to redress the balance a bit, but Freema has been pretty much ill served by the limitations of a story arc that shouldn't have been there in the first place.

But what's become of the other two? Well, Jack spends most of the last part chained up in what appears to be a set that's been nicked from Duran Duran's Wild Boys video. Jack's been curiously underused in this story, basically acting as a convenient taxi service for The Doctor and chipping in with the odd line. It seems a bit pointless to bring back a semi-regular, who's then all but forgotten about for the whole tale. John Barrowman gives his usual dependable performance, but the story could probably have functioned perfectly well without him.

Oh, and he's The Face Of Boe apparently. I mean, seriously. He's The Face Of Boe. Quite when he decides to go for the dreadlocks look I'm not sure. Possibly he'll spend his last few days as a human performing cheesy versions of Bob Marley classics in a futuristic holobar.

"This whole Doctor Jesus thing has been an unwelcome mainstay since New Earth"

Utopia,The Sound Of Drums,Last Of The Time Lords (Doctor Who)Elsewhere, The Doctor's incapacitated further after The Master decides to use his wretched Lazarus contraption further. Apparently, this ageing device doesn't reduce The Doctor to a skeleton or a pile of dust, but to some weird wizened goblin thing that looks a bit like Dobby the House Elf from the Harry Potter movies. Or Yoda from Star Wars. From some angles he looks like a Rory Williams cuddly toy which has been spun in a washing machine non-stop for 24 hours. Ah, pity The Doctor – the problem is, the show's called Doctor Who, and it's only been the latter days of William Hartnell that the title character's been shunted to the sidelines as much. We've had John Smith taking centre stage, then Sally Sparrow, and now the Time Lord is out of the picture yet again. The Dobby Doctor works I guess, and I suppose it's meant to make his resurrection all the more punch-the-air, but then considering the way in which it's done, it's more punch-the-fist.

Yes, welcome back Doctor Jesus, who's resurrected through the power of prayer – even The Master scoffs at this. For Bidmead's sake, couldn't Davies have come up with a better solution than this? This whole Doctor Jesus thing has been an unwelcome mainstay since New Earth when he was referred to as The Lonely God, and then proceeded to heal a gaggle of clean-looking zombies with coloured water. Since then, we've had various sermons about how The Doctor's so awesome and heroic and how everyone should bow down before his smelly trainers. But it's so crass and unnecessary, and this is taken to extremes when Martha supposedly spends a year travelling the globe to spread the gospel about how bwwilliant The Doctor is. Which inexplicably leads to humans bypassing the Toclafane machines en masse and chanting The Doctor's name as one. Not only is this a pretty unlikely way of restoring The Doctor, it's also the sort of hokey schmaltz that belongs in soppy kids' movies. Yes, a bit of sop is OK once in a while, but never to this extent. And all the while in the background, Murray Gold is back to his old tricks with his orchestra and pompous choir grabbing the audiences by the ears and demanding that they be moved to tears or else. Oh, and a floating Doctor too? Please...

"Perhaps the biggest sin committed in this story is the fact that most of the last episode never really happened"

Utopia/The Sound Of Drums/Last Of The Time Lords (Doctor Who)The worst aspect of this is the way in which The Doctor forgives The Master. Yes, you heard that right. He forgives The Master – a man who's beaten his wife, slept around, tortured people, killed en masse, and overacted to the point of Soldeed's staff. Quite what message this is supposed to send out to the kids I'm not sure – it's misguided at best and jaw-droppingly wrong at worst. Perhaps The Doctor's feeling some sort of massive compensation syndrome after abandoning his nemesis to a horrible flamey death in Planet Of Fire (during which all The Master really did was to shrink two spacesuits and trick a gullible old fool). But even so, the sequence in which he hugs his arch enemy (note the emphasis on arch here) is just wrong on so many levels – so much so, I think I'll dye my hair blue and hang out with a load of reactionary old Daily Mail reading grannies who love to find fault in every TV programme.

But perhaps the biggest sin committed in this story is the fact that most of the last episode never really happened. Yes, the big reset button, in which time is rewound to the point after the President's been zapped. Inexplicably, all of the Valiant staff have gone, and there's no sense that the population below have just seen a world leader executed live on TV, but never mind, eh? The reset button is such a lazy con – it basically means that the viewers have just wasted forty minutes for nothing. Davies has basically backed himself into a corner that he can't possibly get out of, because he's raised the stakes way too high. The golden rule of good writing is that you need a beginning, middle and end. Take away any of these and you're left with a non-existent story. So while we get an extended beginning and many many endings (probably to over-compensate), there's no middle any more because Davies has just wiped out everything that happened in between. OK, so The Doctor says that the small group left on the Valiant will remember, but that's not enough to satisfy. It's not just Davies that uses this pesky device – Moffat's just as guilty, perhaps even more so with the wretched Big Bang, a story that's considerably gone down in my estimation – but you'll have to wait another time for that all-new whinge.

"Blimey, you can never have enough endings, can you?"

But hey, at least there's plenty of endings. Lucy shoots The Master, who refuses to regenerate and apparently dies in The Doctor's arms (causing more girly weeping and shrieking from Tennant, naturally). Then The Doctor burns The Master on a funeral pyre. Then The Doctor and Martha say goodbye to Jack. Then Martha says goodbye to The Doctor. Twice. Then a woman with horrible nails picks up The Master's ring from the ashes in a Ming The Merciless tribute. Then The Doctor apparently crash lands into a big boat, causing yet more “What? What? What?” nonsense. Blimey, you can never have enough endings, can you?

Ideas and production wise, Utopia Drums Time Lords succeeds. It's got a triumph of a shock surprise at the end of the first part. The narrative strands of the season come together well. The direction's excellent. The cast, both regular and guest, are of the highest calibre. There's even plenty of good lines from Davies, not to mention plenty of nods to the past – even the sly reference to The Sea Devils where The Master checks out Teletubbies on the TV, just like The Clangers. But structure wise, the story fails. It's too big – the peril is too great that Davies can't think of a satisfactory solution to the problem. And so, the structure of the story means that a third of it technically doesn't exist. The reset button shouldn't ever be used, since it's a cheap cop out, and so much like the tractor opposite the road (which has now slowly but surely trundled away back to where it came from), the bulk of Last Of The Time Lords turns around with a complete lack of dignity. Altogether, a story that's entertaining, gripping and well written in parts, but as a season finale, it's too bloated to succeed. And by breaking the golden rule of writing, it can't ever live up to its potential.

 

John Bensalhia limbered up for this mammoth task with a full four-series review of Blake's 7, and writes professionally and recreationally all over the web. Check out his portfolio of work here.

Check out John's previous Doctor Who review, Blink

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