Saturday, 1 May 2010

Doctor Who: Utopia / The Sound of Drums / Last of the Time Lords


“It’s like I’ve got a sports car, you’ve got a space hopper.”

I watched this episode on Tuesday and ended up filling up two pages of my notebook while watching it, which was twice as much as usual. I then started to write it up, and realised that these three episodes were in one single thread. Gulp. I’ve since watched the other two and made similarly expansive notes, so this is going to be a bit long.

There’ll be some proper nostalgia coming up later on, but the episode begins with a couple of welcome nods to the recent past. Once again the Doctor lands at the Cardiff rift to fill up the tank, and once again… it’s Jack! This doesn’t quite tally with the corresponding scene at the end of the first series of Torchwood, but never mind. Jack clinging on to the TARDIS as it vworps through the vortex is top stuff.

I like this alien planet, and I like the Futurekind… the overall vibe reminds me of Nottingham Rock City and other Midlands rock clubs I used to visit back in the ‘90s. So more nostalgia then. It’s the very far future, close to the unspecified end of the universe, and the Doctor is nervous- there are no longer any Gallifreyan laws for him to break, Frontios-style, but he clearly feels he’s being naughty by daring to be here.

The Doctor is not exactly pleased to see Jack again, for reasons which are not immediately revealed, but Jack is immediately back to his old self, dropping the world-weariness he showed on Torchwood. And where before I used to criticise this as an inconsistency in character, the Marathon has changed my mind. What we’re seeing here is a Jack who relishes the weight of his heavy responsibilities being lifted from his shoulders in a situation where he knows he can leave all that to the Doctor. I still think Jack was too miserable in Torchwood, but it isn’t inconsistent characterisation.

We learn a lot about him here. He used his vortex manipulator to travel from Satellite Five to Earth in 1869, and then waited 139-odd years for a version of the Doctor coinciding with his own time stream to crop up, deliberately placing himself by the Cardiff rift where the Doctor was bound to appear sooner or later. Blimey.

And then Derek Jacobi appears. Bloody hell. Forty-four years of Doctor Who plus spin-offs and forty-four years of great actors appearing, but this instantly tops everything. I would mention how great Jacobi is, but that would be a tautology.

Yana (gosh, what a peculiar name) is a likeable old buffer, a scientist and quietly a genius, with a female companion who quietly adores him. Remind you of anyone? He’s definitely human, though. I love the scenes in which the Doctor is in awe of his genius- Tennant really shines here. Yana has no real hope that he can ever get the ship to fly but, naturally, the Doctor has the solution. Oh, and Yana hears an ever-present sound of drums…

Oh, and Chantho’s great, too. I love her animatronic mandibles. It’s going to be a huge effort to get to the end of this review without talking like her, but I’m going to try.

For all that the actual plot and surroundings pretty much take a back seat to the story of Yana and the regulars here, it’s a well-realised and sketched out future, perhaps the ultimate in RTD’s determination top make future life look tough. There’s one unfortunate moment, though- apparently human evolution has led them to spends time as clouds of gas and a million years as downloads, but they “always revert to the same shape.” Aaargh! Once again an RTD script causes me to point out that that’s not how natural selection works!

The episode’s otherwise great, mind, and full of nice character moments. It reminds me of Boom Town in that respect, actually. The Doctor’s chat with Jack about his immortality is incredible; Jack simply undercuts the Doctor’s dislike of his immortality (everything has its time and everything dies) by pointing out that he’s prejudiced. And the Doctor immediately realises he’s wrong. It’s a great moment for both characters, and enables them to re-establish their friendship. Oh, and we get our first reference to “a fixed point in time”. Interesting. There’s a more general piece of possible foreshadowing in the Doctor’s admission that a Time Lord who looked into the heart of the TARDIS, as Rose did, would become a “vengeful god”. It almost feels as though the entire character arc for this Doctor can be summed up in these words.

Yana, meanwhile, hears from Martha about her and the Doctor’s lifestyle, and seems to be quite affected by it. Ruminating on time, he plays with his watch, which looks rather familiar…

This is such a charged and awesome moment. As soon as we hear Delgado’s voice from The Dæmons we know who Yana really is. The double whammy of the watch and the flashback to the Face of Boe immediately shows this to be a superbly handled season arc far surpassing anything we’ve seen in the previous two seasons. Oh, and it’s the Master!!!

Jacobi’s performance utterly changes from the minute the watch is opened, and the Master shows how evil he is by being nasty to that lovely Chantho. But she eventually shoots him, and he regenerates into John Simm. Blimey! I don’t think there’s been a single episode of the “new” series which left me more gobsmacked than this one when watching it unspoiled on its original transmission. And before the Master hops off in the Doctor’s TARDIS, leaving our heroes stranded in mortal peril, there are some more hints of what the nest two episodes will bring. The Master clearly knows all about the mysterious Utopia, and Martha knows the voice of the new Master…

The Sound of Drums

“I like it when you use my name.”

Well, that’s a quick, and in hindsight rather obvious, resolution to the cliffhanger. Still, on with the story: the Master is Harold Saxon, the prime minister, and in his timey-wimey way has been a shadowy figure plotting behind the scenes since The Runaway Bride, and indeed the Captain Jack Harkness episode of Torchwood. That’s good subplotting!

Oh, and I love David Tennant’s delivery of “The Master and his wife?” It speaks volumes…

John Simm is great in the cabinet scene. His Master is a total nutter, of course, but his unpredictability makes him genuinely scary. And, just to underline hoe evil he is, he’s been endorsed by Ann Widdecombe. Sends a shiver down me spine, that does. And sop does his discordant musical theme, courtesy of Murray Gold.

It’s rather clever how the Master seems to have appeared just 18 months ago and used a satellite-controlled low level satellite field to subtly brainwash people to not notice how blatantly dodgy he is. And the fact, revealed early on, that the Doctor locked the TARDIS between now and the future of Utopia is ultimately going to lead to some quite clever timey-wimey plot stuff.

The plot strand of Martha’s betrayal by her mother at the hands of Saxon finally comes to a head- and interestingly it’s her hitherto useless father who’s brave enough to warn her of the danger. Our three TARDISeers are now fugitives, as a charged phone conversation between our two Time Lords clearly shows. It seems the Master was regenerated especially to fight in the Time War, but proceeded to run very far away. That’ll be a whole new regeneration cycle, then. And also our first hint that the Time Lords of this era may not be all sweetness and light.

Best of all, the Master now prefers the Teletubbies to the Clangers…

Never mind that, though- it’s only a flashback but for the first time since the series came back we get to see Gallifrey! In CGI! And it all looks completely right, with Time Lords in Prydonian(?) robes and everything!! Plus there’s a bit of mythology with the continent of Wild Endeavour and the Untempered Schism. We’re shown the Master as an eight-year old boy (no Looms, it seems, fellow NA fans) and told that the drums began to sound once he’d looked into the schism. The Doctor ran away, of course; a coward, every time. Wonderful stuff.

There’s also a bit I’d forgotten where Jack tells the Doctor about his Torchwood connection, and the Doctor’s not at all pleased. Jack protests that Torchwood are not what they were, sort of implying he’s only been involved post-Canary Wharf. Hmm.

Then we get more cool stuff: the Valiant, the paradox machine, the Master acting all silly in front of the American president, the Master’s laser screwdriver (“Who’d have sonic?”) before the arrival of the mysterious Toclafane spheres. One gripe regarding the next bit, though; even I know the difference between a president and a president elect in the USA. As with the Aliens of London two-parter, RTD seems strangely ignorant of political institutions.

Still, at this point things are going very well indeed…

Last of the Time Lords

“Human race. Greatest monsters of them all!”

…But sadly the payoff doesn’t quite work. It’s a pity; the build-up, not only in the previous two episodes but right through the season, has been great. But as a finale this is flawed.

There still a lot that’s great, of course. It’s a brave move to have a year pass between episodes; this gives a real sense (deeply ironic, of course!) that all of these events matter and will have long-term consequences. And it gives Martha, in her final episode as a regular, to be magnificent.

We’re introduced to the status quo; the Master is keeping Martha’s family as servants, Jack as a prisoner and the aged Doctor as a pet. Most horrifyingly, there are plenty of subtle signs of domestic abuse in his relationship with Lucy. Her fate is particularly horrifying, particularly as we come to see how she came to be with the Master.

The escape plan fails, as we knew it would, because the Master’s laser screwdriver has “isomorphic controls”! He and the Doctor then have a quick chat about Axons and Sea Devils before the Doctor is turned into a little Gollum. Oh dear. This crosses a line into silliness.

It’s a great moment when Martha and her new, er, “friend”, Tom Milligan, capture a Toclafane and discover what it is; an evolved and infantilised human from utopia. The monsters are in fact humans from the future, exterminating their own ancestors; this is what the paradox machine is for. This is very clever, timey-wimey plotting of a sort not often said to be associated with RTD.

Martha seems to be on a quest to assemble parts for a gun with which to kill the Master but, betrayed, she is captured, and all seems lost. But it seems this was a cover story, and the real plan was to get the entire population of the planet to, er, pray at a certain time so that the Doctor can be restored, arms outstretched, and forgive the Master. Gosh, do you reckon there might just be a certain subtext here? This doesn’t feel right, which is a problem as it’s the main climax to the whole series. Still, again we get some clever plotting; the whole idea feels misguided but it was done well.

The paradox machine is destroyed, thereby pressing a great big reset button. It’s the only possible resolution, really, but it’s hard to get away from the fact it rather devalues what we’ve just seen. I don’t like the Doctor’s reaction to the Master’s overemphasised “death” either, great though Tennant is at playing it. I can accept that the two of them are close in a way, and that they’re the only two Time Lords left, but we all know the Master’s indestructible (cue the ring scene), and this degree of mourning is really rather excessive. On the other hand, I suppose it’s good preparation for a certain other part Tennant is to play in a year or so’s time…

Jack returns to his team, with Torchwood implicitly receiving the Doctor’s blessing. This makes me somewhat uncomfortable; as we’ve seen, the team are not necessarily a force for good. The hints about Jack’s future are… interesting though!

The misguided unrequited love strand of the season means the only way for Martha to keep her dignity at this point is to leave, and that she does. And I’m glad that she gets a final speech making it explicit to him why she’s doing so. Still, she makes sure they can phone each other; this is not a final parting.

It’s all over except for the “what, what, what”. For once, an RTD episode works well plotwise but doesn’t quite succeed when it comes to theme and character. It’s a pity, as the build-up has been great. The previous two episodes would both have been 5/5’s, Utopia a very high one indeed, but this flawed conclusion drags the whole thing down to a 4/5.

As for the season, at 4.375/5 it enters the chart at number 12, a pretty good placing. But as far as internal coherence and ongoing plot arcs are concerned this has outstripped any previous season, and in Human Nature and Blink it has given us the finest two Doctor Who stories yet.

No comments:

Post a Comment