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Doctor Who 3.11: Utopia

June 19th, 2007 (01:50 am)



I can't say much more than has been said already by other people, I think. I enjoyed this episode a lot, but - as Mark Wright has written in The Stage blog - it felt like something of a guilty pleasure. As soon as the Doctor dismissed Martha and Jack as "bloggers" I thought that this episode was going to be the most fannish so far, in the sense that it would foreground the internal mythology of the series in a way particularly addressed to long-term obsessives. So, I think, it proved.

I don't know enough about literary SF to comment with any degree of authority, but Russell T Davies's far futures - in which the TARDIS is projected so far into the future that speculation about how human societies might work is sufficiently redundant to allow for undisguised exaggerated depictions of contemporary concerns - owes a lot to Michael Moorcock's The Dancers at the End of Time. The shrunken reality around Malcassario reminded me a little of the microcosm the last humans inhabit at the end of Moorcock's universe. Here, however, humanity can still hope, and it's the presence of this belief that leads the Doctor to recall his fourth self's speech from The Ark in Space. I liked the way this line was slightly fumbled as if the Doctor was searching for a memory, and while painfully self-conscious David Tennant now delivers his lines in a way that in recent episodes has started to work through understatement.

Philip Segal liked to point out the 'kisses to the past' pecked throughout the 1996 TV Movie. For a Doctor Who which has John Barrowman's name in its opening titles (about time; his absence from the credits of the final five episodes of the 2005 series was incongruous) kisses to the past are too decorous; the new series goes for something more explicit. Utopia turns out to be reworking one of the most successful devices used in the old series - reintroducing the Doctor's arch-nemesis by way of a kindly character who is sacrificed in such a way as to emphasise the Master's evil. In The Keeper of Traken, back in 1981, we had Tremas; this year's wordplay, over a quarter of a century later, is Yana. Presumably the next wave of revelations (and Lizo's preview over at CBBC's Newsround site indicates that there are more to come) will explain why the Face of Boe couldn't just tell the Doctor that the Master was out there. Nonetheless the early signs are that the reintroduction of the Master is being handled more effectively than it was 26 years ago. I've said before that the effect of the Master's return last time was to end Tom Baker's reign by creating a situation where the fourth Doctor was comprehensively mugged by someone left over from his predecessor's era. In this case the new Master seems much better adapted to the Doctor to whom he acts as a counterpart.

How much did Chanto know?
How much of Professor Yana's life story actually happened to him?
Was this episode actually a good idea, even though I enjoyed it?

Comments

Posted by: Pellegrina (pellegrina)
Posted at: June 19th, 2007 07:01 am (UTC)
noodle1

I didn't get the "bloggers" comment at all. There was no computer involved, and it felt obscurely snide.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: June 19th, 2007 08:03 am (UTC)

Tachyon TV has a running gag where RTD blames the ills of the world and himself of 'online fandom'. I don't think RTD's attitude to fandom is all that constructive.

Posted by: Naraht (emily_shore)
Posted at: June 19th, 2007 08:44 am (UTC)
Where's Jack?

It was the consensus of my group of watchers that the Doctor obviously didn't know what the word meant, or that perhaps it had turned into an insult in some future that he had visited.

Posted by: bunn (bunn)
Posted at: June 19th, 2007 10:12 am (UTC)

To me it felt like it was illustrating the Doctor's alien-ness and accentuating the whole 'initially likeable, but...' aspect. At that point I was rather more interested in where Jack had been and why the Doctor left him there than the new adventure, in a human, social, vaguely hobbitish kind of way. But the Doctor wanted to rush on, not re-examine or provide information, in the way he always does. It seemed in character for him to be a bit rude about it, even though that was quite unjustified*.

It worked for me!

* possibly the word he would have used if the writer had been at university with us, would have been 'milling'...

Posted by: Naraht (emily_shore)
Posted at: June 19th, 2007 08:43 am (UTC)
Where's Jack?

I don't know enough about literary SF to comment with any degree of authority, but Russell T Davies's far futures - in which the TARDIS is projected so far into the future that speculation about how human societies might work is sufficiently redundant to allow for undisguised exaggerated depictions of contemporary concerns...

As someone who reads a decent-ish amount of sci fi, I don't find this at all convincing or forgivable. Although I take the point that there is time for human civilisation to have collapsed and been re-founded in different ways several million times over, by jumping forward such a ridiculously long time he brought biological evolution into play as well. It doesn't seem likely that humans would look so similar, pointy teeth or not.

It seems sometimes as if Doctor Who and RTD wants all the advantages that the sci fi genre can offer--time travel, parallel universes, cool aliens, etc--without being willing to pay the piper in terms of plausibility or enlightening use of the basic concepts. Don't get me wrong, I do like Doctor Who, but this is its weakest aspect.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: June 19th, 2007 09:14 am (UTC)
regeneration

RTD does acknowledge this point in the script - human beings have evolved through different forms and ended up looking as they did in our time. I think it's glib, yes, but it's an acknowledgement of the programme's limitations. (There seem to have been severe mistakes in budgeting this season, with Evolution of the Daleks being rewritten at the last moment to lose its battle sequence, and Blink's statues being more expensive than predicted, RTD having to sacrifice his original concept for the Futurekind because it couldn't be afforded.)

I'm entertained by the implausibility, and the presentation of a fantasy with SF trappings. But at the same time I miss the educational aspirations of the original series, particularly the first season, when writers were urged to extrapolate their 'scientific' stories from recently reported research.

Posted by: daniel_saunders (daniel_saunders)
Posted at: June 19th, 2007 11:31 am (UTC)
Outsider

RTD having to sacrifice his original concept for the Futurekind because it couldn't be afforded

Is there any evidence for this other than Moffat's comments in his DWM interview? I thought those remarks were not entirely serious.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: June 19th, 2007 11:16 pm (UTC)

Phil Collinson mentions the budget reallocation in the commentary, I think.

Posted by: Dewi Evans (wonderwelsh)
Posted at: June 19th, 2007 09:44 pm (UTC)

If, in sci-fi terms, this is a weakness, then Doctor Who isn't sci-fi, but a fantasy drama series - hence, the show is specifically designed to have, as you say, all the advantages of the sci-fi genre without the need to pay the piper. Same with Torchwood. That is - if it makes a good story, who cares about evolutionary biology? But hey, I think The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds are as much gothic novels as sci-fi novels, so what do I know.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: June 19th, 2007 11:34 pm (UTC)
Horace Walpole

I think that a 'scientific romance' can be made to a variety of recipes; and the science can be shaped by the fiction as well as vice versa. I should really know more about the history of gothic fiction - I've read The Castle of Otranto, and (a long time ago) Frankenstein.

Posted by: Naraht (emily_shore)
Posted at: June 20th, 2007 04:57 pm (UTC)

Sounds like a logical conclusion to me. I am definitely more of a sci-fi fan than a fantasy fan, though, so it makes sense that I would view it according to different conventions.

Posted by: daniel_saunders (daniel_saunders)
Posted at: June 19th, 2007 12:31 pm (UTC)
Outsider

The shrunken reality around Malcassario reminded me a little of the microcosm the last humans inhabit at the end of Moorcock's universe.

The parallel to seemed to be The Time Machine - except that was a work of visionary genius depicting class conflict in nineteenth century Britain on an allegorical level, as well as exploring Darwinian evolution, entropy and the fall of civilisation, at times using an almost pastoral style to ironically counterpoint the regression of human civilisation to a more primitive form. On the other hand, Utopia was... written by Russell T Davies.

I should plot a graph of the waspishness of my comments on this series against time; I'm sure it's an exponential increase.

Presumably the next wave of revelations (and Lizo's preview over at CBBC's Newsround site indicates that there are more to come

I sincerely hope so, as so far this series has left far too many unanswered questions.

Nonetheless the early signs are that the reintroduction of the Master is being handled more effectively than it was 26 years ago.

I've always felt The Keeper of Traken to be hugely over-rated, one of only three Tom Baker stories I would consider outright failures (the other two being The Invisible Enemy and Meglos, which gives you some idea of what I think of it). It was a brilliant idea, but someone (probably Christopher Hamilton Bidmead) ripped out the emotional guts of the story and replaced them with technobabble and standard Doctor Who running around. In that respect, there is a certain parallel to a lot of this year's Doctor Who, with innovation and experimentation drowned in 'reassuring' cliches, and even the emotional development of the Doctor returning to themes fully explored in series one.

In this case the new Master seems much better adapted to the Doctor to whom he acts as a counterpart.

It depends what you mean by 'better'. Yes, he seems to be a mirror image of the Doctor, just as Delgado was to Pertwee's Doctor. However, that means that just as the Doctor is a hyperactive child who is impossible to take seriously as something as portentous the Last of the Time Lords (you know you're in trouble if your Big Theme is ripped from the tag-line of a spin-off film that was never made and would probably have been a disaster), the Master is equally unimpressive, unthreatening and not at all 'mythic.'

Was this episode actually a good idea, even though I enjoyed it?

I would say no, and not just because I did not enjoy it. It's yet another example of the way this series is becoming fixated on the past, not just on the fictional mythology of the series (although it is), but also on its narrative cliches. This series is a remake of the popular memory of what Doctor Who was in the early seventies, something which bares very little resemblance to Doctor Who across the twenty-six years of its original development. While Davies' first series seemed to take the show in bold new directions, since then he has been moving closer and closer to this 'ideal' form of Doctor Who and the show is stagnating creatively, with growing laziness at every level of production. I don't know how long the public will accept this (probably quite a long time, actually), but as someone who knows the old series well, I can't help but get bored. Moreover, by perpetuating the myth that this is what Doctor Who does, when the public eventually does get bored, it will be near impossible to convince them that Doctor Who can do something else.

I can only hope that series five will see not only a new creative team, but a new direction for the show, less focused on past glories.

Posted by: ((Anonymous))
Posted at: June 19th, 2007 12:46 pm (UTC)

"the Doctor is a hyperactive child who is impossible to take seriously as something as portentous the Last of the Time Lords ..., the Master is equally unimpressive, unthreatening and not at all 'mythic.'"

Aren't you a bit unfair?
The Doctor is hiding a lot of depth under his childish facade, and David Tennant is bringing that out quite well. He might have been much more annoying if played with constant 'mythic' gravitas. I admit I was a bit worried by the very close parallel between the Doctor's and the Master's regenerations, but I think John Simm deserves a chance...

KT

Posted by: daniel_saunders (daniel_saunders)
Posted at: June 19th, 2007 09:19 pm (UTC)
Outsider

Aren't you a bit unfair?

No, I don't think so. Firstly, like all aesthetic judgements, it's just my opinion. Secondly, it took Christopher Eccleston ten minutes to convince me he was potentially a great Doctor; after about four episodes, he was threatening Troughton and Tom for the 'all time greatest' crown. In two years David Tennant has barely convinced me that is even a mediocre Doctor, and that's without comparing him directly to his predecessors. Every so often he'll improve for a bit and I'll begin to be won over, but then he'll slip back into his 'wacky and postmodern' routine again and all the good work will be undone.

As for Simm, until Saturday I had never knowingly seen him in anything, and so while I had heard rumours of his casting, I had an open mind. The fact that in the space of about two minutes he managed to turn me completely against him, despite the fact that I'm usually much more forgiving of bad acting than most fans and that I don't usually rush to judgement, speaks volumes.

Posted by: ((Anonymous))
Posted at: June 20th, 2007 12:28 pm (UTC)

"Firstly, like all aesthetic judgements, it's just my opinion."

Fair enough.

And I admit that I am also sometimes not entirely convinced by the more whacky aspects of Tennant's incarnation of the Doctor, although in general I quite like his performance. I *think* I prefer Eccleston, too, though.

As for John Simm, I liked him in Life on Mars so I'm probably biased.
I put down some of the questionable elements of those final scenes to overeager directing rather than bad acting...

KT

Posted by: ((Anonymous))
Posted at: June 19th, 2007 12:38 pm (UTC)

"Was this episode actually a good idea, even though I enjoyed it?"

I think it was.

Even though I start running the risk of seeming unable to express myself, I think the Radio Times write-up pretty much got it right, saying (roughly) that the episode seems only to exist for its climax, but that that at least was worth it.

I must admit, I do not rmember much else of it (although admittedly, I was a bit drunk at the time and maybe ought to rewatch it).

KT

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: June 19th, 2007 11:40 pm (UTC)
DavidIcon

I've watched this episode far too many times. I'd answer my own questions but for the fact I need to get to bed, need to catch up on work and have a job interview on Thursday...

Posted by: ((Anonymous))
Posted at: June 20th, 2007 12:21 pm (UTC)

sorry, didn't mean to intrude...

KT

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: June 20th, 2007 12:22 pm (UTC)

Just being conversational! :)

Posted by: ((Anonymous))
Posted at: June 20th, 2007 12:29 pm (UTC)

BTW
Good luck on Thursday

KT

Posted by: philmophlegm (philmophlegm)
Posted at: June 19th, 2007 09:47 pm (UTC)
I'vegotasportscar

"I don't know enough about literary SF to comment with any degree of authority..."

I don't know much about literary SF either, but I do know that mention of a 'foundation' committed to maintaining human technology is more than a passing nod to Isaac Asimov.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: June 19th, 2007 11:37 pm (UTC)

Another one of those book sequences I didn't read through sheer contrariness, but must get round to. I'm sure that RTD is more of an SF reader than he lets on.

Posted by: gervase_fen (gervase_fen)
Posted at: June 20th, 2007 12:54 am (UTC)
tolkien

I've read them, and the homage is pretty blatant - the concept, the epic time scale, the quest for a mythical location (Utopia would be analogous to the Second Foundation in the original trilogy.)

Having watched the episode a second time I'm pretty sold on the idea that Utopia is literally u topos, no place, so perhaps Yana's account of the foundation is based on what the Master might have read in the prison library when he wasn't watching the Clangers!

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: June 20th, 2007 08:28 am (UTC)
salmon

I think that Yana believes that Utopia exists, or wants to. I doubt that Yana's lifespan extends to the babyhood he talks about, and possibly little more than Chanto's seventeen years... but I think we'll find out a bit more over the next two Saturdays.