Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: Utopia

doctor who utopia review russell t davies time vortex tardis captain jack title sequence title card graeme harper

End of the universe and here you are. Indomitable, that’s the word. Indomitable!

Russell T Davies has long been one of my favourite Doctor Who writers – if not, indeed, my favourite.

In a way, of course, that makes a certain degree of sense; he was the architect of the vision of Doctor Who that I was first introduced to, and so in turn a lot of the things I love about Doctor Who are things that came from him. (Obviously over the years I’ve grown to love a lot of what Steven Moffat has brought to the show, and I’m sure the same will be true of Chibnall’s tenure – eventually I’m sure I’ll have an even more eclectic vision of the show, drawing from all sorts of different places. And then I’ll inflict it on you all, and you’ll all grow to love my version of it. Hopefully.)

Regardless, though, it’s Russell T Davies’ vision of Doctor Who that I first fell in love with. His book, The Writer’s Tale, is basically my bible – I’d attribute a lot of my desire to write to that book. Not solely to it, of course – it had been a longstanding ambition prior to that – but it solidified the desire in a much more meaningful way. (Steven Moffat said once that if you read the book and still want to be a writer, you probably will be. I hope he’s right!)

Of course, the book isn’t just personally inspiring in that way. It’s also a really great look at Russell T Davies’ writing process; how he approaches the scripts, the way he thinks about them, what he thinks is important. There’s a huge amount of it that’s instinctual; there’s an anecdote in there about Utopia, where Davies explains how he wrote the script in about three days, after weeks of delaying, and it all just slotted into place.

In a way, you can see that in Utopia itself. It moves along at great pace, and structurally, it’s… well, it almost entirely rejects a lot of the traditional structural rules. It’s doing a huge amount of lifting for the rest of the series, establishing lots of different ideas and concepts that are going to come into play for the next few episodes. It’s a collision of different set pieces and ideas, a lot of which don’t necessarily mesh together very well – one of the more obvious ones is the fact that, to introduce the Doctor’s hand, Martha needs to have been nosing around in Jack’s bag for some reason! Yet at the same time, they’re all remarkably well put together – every little detail is paid off down the line. One of the things that stood out to me, for example, was the introduction of the livewire used early on in one of Jack’s deaths, before using it again as the Master kills Chantho; it’s a subtle detail, but it really ties the piece together.

All of which is to say that I think Utopia is remarkable in displaying one of Russell T Davies’ greatest abilities as a writer – making it up as he goes along, improvising the hell out of it, and making it all work brilliantly. In a way it’s because he’s never really cared about simple plot mechanics; a lot of the reason why this hangs together so well is because of his attention to character and to theme. An episode like Utopia works so well in part because of its panache and its confidence – there’s a sheer, effortless skill on display here.

Utopia isn’t Davies’ best episode; it’s not my favourite of his episodes. It’s not even my favourite of this series, to be honest. But I think it might the one that I would point to were I to try and explain why I think he’s such a good writer.

doctor who utopia review graeme harper quarry conglomeration tenth doctor captain jack martha jones russell t davies john barrowman david tennant john simm

Of course, that’s a remarkably ‘me’ opening to write, focusing as it does on the script of the episode (and, characteristically, fawning over Russell T Davies). So I think it’s also worth focusing on another aspect of the episode, which is something I wouldn’t necessarily comment on – the direction. Utopia, of course, is directed by Graeme Harper – you can tell from his signature ‘shot through blurry thing’ trademark, and you can probably also tell from my description of such how poor I am at discussing visuals. Nonetheless, though, Harper is oft regarded as one of the best directors to have worked on Doctor Who, alongside the likes of Nick Hurran and Rachel Talalay; while I’m not sure this is an episode people would point to as his best, per se, it’s certainly an impressively directed piece.

On an idiosyncratic level, one reason why I really like the direction of Utopia is because it gives us – for my money, anyway – one of the best quarry planets of Doctor Who history. Really! Much as I know it is just a quarry at night, there’s a certain bleakness to it; it comes, I think, from just how dark it is. There’s a real feeling here that every light in the sky has gone out, and this is the end; it’s perhaps the most nihilistic night sky ever put to screen. The setting has a certain power to it, then, and it comes from how well directed these scenes are. This makes for a nice contrast against the refugee camps at the silo – that juxtaposition there, from the emptiness to the scenes bustling with life, really sells those lines about the human race being “indomitable”.

Another aspect of the episode that demonstrates how well directed it is is the mounting tension throughout. That can be quite difficult to pull off, really – and I suspect it might have been made more difficult given the less traditional style of Davies’ build up to the climax of the episode. But Harper acquits himself admirably – as you’d expect – and as such the episode is quite an effectively made, taut piece. There are some excellent chase scenes early on in the episode, but beyond that it’s a real master of tone; the confidence of Davies’ script can be seen translated to a similar confidence in the direction, with an easy, even effortless, conviction in how to handle each scene. There’s something quite alluring about that, and it gives the episode even greater strength as a drama.

doctor who utopia review the master professor yana derek jacobi kills chantho electric wire tardis graeme harper russell t davies

Of course, Utopia is one of those episodes where the cliffhanger entirely overshadows the rest of the episode – this is known as the one where the Master comes back.

It’s probably worth questioning, given that this is in part a personal history of my relationship with Doctor Who, whether or not I knew the Master was coming back. After all, every analysis of this episode – and indeed this series – basically works from the assumption that the entirety of the audience was, to some extent, aware the Master was coming back. That’s just what you do after the Daleks and the Cybermen, right? The surprise wasn’t his return, it’s the fact that he came back as Tony Blair. But then, those analyses are all written from the perspective of the fan audience – the type of person I am now, I suppose, who pays deeper attention to clues and foreshadowing and knows about the classic series. (Series 10 is totally going to bring back Susan. Obviously.) What would it have looked like to an 8-year-old obsessive?

Well, sadly this is one area where my memory is somewhat shakey. I would have known who the Master was at that point; I also remember an article from Doctor Who Adventures magazine hinting at a possible return from a Time Lord. I suspect that I would have cottoned on to who Yana was just before the actual reveal, or been left reeling after the line itself; it was probably quite an effective twist. Hmm.

Even so, Professor Yana is actually a pretty great character, and in a way provides an apt microcosm of just what makes the Master work at his best. Here, he’s a direct parallel to the Doctor – the kindly and self-sacrificing scientist, a genius trying to help others, even with his own companion in Chantho. The idea continues with John Simm’s portrayal, of course; the Master as a twisted mirror of the Doctor, specifically paired to that incarnation of the Doctor. (It’s why Missy works so well alongside the Twelfth Doctor – she’s a Master firmly for that Doctor – and why it’ll be so interesting to see the Twelfth Doctor alongside a Master who, in effect, ‘belongs’ to a prior incarnation.)

Ultimately, then, Utopia is a great piece of television. I’ve always loved this episode, really – I suspect I would have rewatched it far more often than the two episodes that accompany it. Hence the score I’m giving it – totally and utterly undeserved, really, apart from in the sense of my own personal enjoyment, and indeed deep respect for it. But what can I say? All these numbers are quite subjective anyway.

10/10

Related:

Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor Reviews

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