By chance, the episode of Series Three of Doctor Who that I had been randomly assigned to review before I ended up having to throw together something about scarecrows at the last minute (as you can read more about here) was the eleventh – Utopia. At that point, I had no idea that it would feature the return of John Barrowman as Captain Jack Harkness, nor indeed the return of The Master. In fact I remained blissfully ignorant of the latter right up until broadcast. Completely by chance, I watched it in a room full of people both young and old who essentially had next to no knowledge whatsoever of Doctor Who history. I recognised Anthony Ainley’s laugh seconds before The Master’s revival was actually announced in the dialogue, and got a genuine jangle of excitement at having realised what was going on seconds before the room went up in a collective gasp. I have no doubt that this was entirely Russell T. Davies’ intention; having been a fan when Doctor Who was at its least popular, he knows the value of a quick acknowledgement to those who went on that ‘journey’ with him. Above all else, however, it’s proof positive that anyone who trades in ‘spoilers’ is deliberately ruining everyone else’s enjoyment for no good reason. A lesson it seems few have learned, judging by the amount of perfectly decent accounts I have had to temporarily mute on Twitter recently.
This review was originally substantially cut to remove some gags that I have reinstated here; quite what degree of seriousness anyone was reasonably expecting from something originally entitled Back Once Again With The Renegade Master I’m not entirely sure; this incidentally was a reference to Wildchild’s 1995 dance hit Renegade Master, and not Fatboy Slim’s 1998 dance hit Renegade Master ’98 like you thought. Pleasingly, one of the few forum comments this generated was from an unidentified poster who kindly remarked “I think he writes very well when he likes things”. And good lord, did I like Utopia…
Trailers used to be such simple things. As any number of Doctor Who DVDs will attest, the average television 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 networks started to ape the bombastic cliffhanging style favoured by big-screen blockbusters, heavy on dramatic music, fast edits and attention-assaulting clips suggesting heaps of excitement and 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 over here, but filter through it did, and now even the most innocuous of shows is pushed to the viewer with blaring sounds and dizzying images. Such is the need to pack them with enticing glimpses of things to come as far ahead of transmission as possible that, thanks to a short break in transmission (which people actually 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 wrote Kinda! Of course, anyone who believes fan speculation codswallop deserves everything they get (or indeed don’t get, as the case may be), but hype is a more serious problem, especially when that pesky two-month gap included the superlative Human Nature/The 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 considerations, the signs were not good. 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 exhilarating 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 TV’s 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. 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 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, 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 more menacing a figure than 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 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 the show, and indeed effectively back in character, having been slightly overshadowed in Torchwood by the more interesting Toshiko and Ianto, the more foul-mouthed Gwen, and the more sort of just there Owen. 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. 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 – but because of 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!”.
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 nervous thrill 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.
Some things that may need explaining…
A clip of Sylvester McCoy listening to an apple was genuinely used to trail the first episode of Delta And The Bannermen in 1987. How they thought this would get anyone watching is beyond me. This used to be a common running joke reference of mine, and I used to go to great lengths to work it into reviews and features in a way that couldn’t be edited out. It usually was, though.
People complaining about the very short break in Series Three – this really did happen. At this point Doctor Who was still in a consistent timeslot; around the same time, episodes of the continuity-heavy Life On Mars were having their timeslot changed literally on the evening of transmission, and nobody kicked up quite as much of a fuss.
The ‘speculation’ jokes are an assortment of unlikely returning characters and a quote from Delta And The Bannermen that had always irrationally annoyed me, accompanied by a reference to the bizarre fact that it had often been erroneously rumoured that Kate Bush wrote the 1982 story Kinda under a pseudonym. I’m not quite sure why I picked on Claudia here. I think her biggest gig at the time was Comic Relief Does Fame Academy.
The latest join-the-dots ITV 9pm drama and whatever show this week features unreconstituted bigotry cunningly disguised as ‘deliciously non-PC’ – I’m certain these were pointed references to two specific shows but I really have no idea what. Extras had finished by then, hadn’t it?
The reference to The Underwater Menace was inspired – as if I needed an excuse – by the fact that this review was written while I was working on a spirited defence of the unfairly maligned 1967 story for a multi-handed ‘charity’ Doctor Who book that began to smell like a massive con to me, leading me to withdraw abruptly from the project; it ultimately didn’t come out which doesn’t exactly convince me that I was wrong. I later gave a hasty rewrite of what had been written so far to a fanzine editor, and a fully written version appears in Well At Least It’s Free. I should point out that they hadn’t found Episode Two at that point, though.
As for nobody ever hiding behind the sofa, I stand by this claim – throughout my entire childhood, I never witnessed anyone watching anything from ‘behind’ the sofa and refuse to believe that anyone ever actually did. From behind the door, checking to see that ‘The Clown’ wasn’t on, yes. On top of the sofa, hiding from the snake on 16mm film that had been developed with a Brillo Pad on Sesame Street, certainly. But behind the sofa? Nope. Plus if we’d even thought about moving ours to get behind it, we’d have been turfed out of the room with immediate effect and barred from watching television for the rest of the day. So there.
That Voice – this gritted-teeth-audible-quote-marks comedy voice was a major irritation of mine at the time but thankfully seems to have long since dropped off the radar. In case you were wondering who actually invented it, the first instance of it I’ve been able to find was “ifff you were listening” in Steve Coogan’s spoof interview in Armando Iannucci’s Radio 1 show.
General Grugger was a character in the spectacularly useless 1980 story Meglos. The published version of the review omitted this punchline, which made me look like I was being a lot more snarky and serious than I actually was.
A hapless spaceman chanced upon the Daleks and their ridiculously-costumed pals plotting total universal conquest in Mission To The Unknown, 1965’s one-episode prelude to the twelve-part The Daleks’ Master Plan. Again there’s a huge feature on both of these in Well At Least It’s Free.
I still enjoy Utopia immensely, and aside from noting yet another example of being surprised by how quickly they got straight into the story – which opens with the Tardis ‘refuelling’ above the rift in Cardiff and Captain Jack thundering across the horizon hoping to catch it before it’s gone – there’s very little I can add to this. Being so familiar with the episode, however, I was able to concentrate more on the scenery and settings and was notably taken with the antiquated, technologically mismatched nature of the laboratory with its musty old keyboards from differing eras of computing lashed together to do something very futuristic indeed; kind of like an updated take on Steampunk if you want to be pretentious about it. There’s also the latch on the back of the Tardis door, which could have been silly but in fact due to being shot and acted with the right way just adds to the tension of the scene. What you notice most of all about Utopia, however, is John Barrowman – admittedly it would be difficult not to – and how he just doesn’t seem as visible on television and, well, everywhere bloody else any more. At the time, you almost literally couldn’t move for him, and if he wasn’t in primetime drama shows he was in primetime game shows, or being interviewed on every television and radio talk show in existence, and showing up in coverage of major national events, and even had his own board game. Back then the world seemed a more positive place, and I’m not sure the general lack of Barrowman is as fundamentally unrelated to this as you might think.
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Not On Your Telly is a collection of columns and features with a slant towards ‘forgotten’ television, including plenty of pieces related to Doctor Who. Not On Your Telly is available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.
You can hear me talking to Emma Burnell and Steve Fielding about politics and Doctor Who in The Zeitgeist Tapes – the show where politics and pop culture collide – here.
© Tim Worthington.
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