Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: The End of Time Part Two

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I wonder what I’d be, without you.

This was perfect.

It isn’t perfect, of course, but it was: the best episode of Doctor Who is always the last episode I watched. It was the best episode of Doctor Who a decade ago, and, for a little while, it was the best episode of Doctor Who again today.

At about ten past eight on New Year’s Day 2010, David Tennant became an actor again. He went to Hollywood, and didn’t find much success there; he came back to television, and did. David Tennant elevated an above-average coastal crime drama into must see television; David Tennant was one of the best parts of a nominal comic book adaptation already much better than its peers; David Tennant is going to be in a Channel 4 crime drama we’ll all have forgotten about by the time he’s in the ITV true crime drama we’ll all have forgotten about by the end of the year. But before all that, he wasn’t an actor. It’s not that David Tennant didn’t exist – he did, in magazine articles and Doctor Who Confidential and on the news and little trivia details about stage names and Pet Shop Boys – but rather that David Tennant was a distant afterthought, far less immediately material by dint of being genuinely real.

David Tennant is not a perfect actor. He is a very good actor, but he’s not a perfect actor; there is actually perhaps an argument to be made that he’s the weakest actor of the five who have played the part he’s most famous for since 2005, although at a certain point that’s just splitting hairs. He is very good at being charming; he is extremely good at making meaningless exposition entertaining (a skill not very many actors have, but any would need to be the Doctor). But David Tennant is not especially good at playing angry. Well, no, he is – it’s just that’s he’s very good at a very particular type of anger, of overt, immediate flashes of temper. For the most part, David Tennant doesn’t do subtle gradations: it’s a raised voice, a contorted expression, wild eyes. He does it very well, and he stays in that niche. (Admittedly, having said that, The End of Time Part Two is perhaps actually one of few places where he is very good at a subtler, rising anger.) That’s obvious watching, say, The Idiot’s Lantern in 2016; less so in 2006.

Except, he wasn’t an actor in 2009, nor had he been for a few years at that point. David Tennant was the Doctor – just the Doctor. For all that Christopher Eccleston existed, or Paul McGann existed, or Peter Cushing existed, or Tom Baker in The Hand of Fear existed, David Tennant was the Doctor. It’s not a question of acting or of craft or of performance – it simply was.

He was perfect. And he was perfect again, today, for about an hour and fifteen minutes. The best episode of Doctor Who is always the last episode I watched.

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Russell T Davies is not a perfect writer either.

He is a very good writer, though. In the years since he left Doctor Who, he’s written some of my favourite television, full stop. I loved Cucumber, with all its idiosyncrasies and eccentricities, probably the most personal piece of drama I’d ever seen when I watched it. A Very English Scandal was brilliant, one of my favourite television programmes of 2018. Years and Years, too, found its way onto my end-of-year best of list. It felt vital and current and so entirely in tune with the zeitgeist, a perfect expression of a very 2019 set of anxieties. Some of it was amongst Davies’ best work – the fourth episode is perhaps one of the most impactful things he’s ever written. But it also wasn’t perfect, its ending, perhaps, a little overly simplistic. It’s difficult to write a story about a world falling into fascism, and then write a solution to that, because, well, we don’t have a solution to that at the moment – and it certainly isn’t going to be “if only people knew the full extent of what was happening”, because, well, we more or less do.

But that’s an adult criticism of an adult drama. If the moment-to-moment plot mechanics of Doctor Who don’t entirely make sense, well, to be honest I’m not entirely sure how much I would’ve noticed that a decade ago… but even then, I’m not sure how much I would’ve cared. Davies’ emphasis was a writer was never about those plot-based details, but instead on stories that made emotional sense. (You can see the same style in Years of Years, although there perhaps that strength of Davies’ becomes something of a flaw.) Because Doctor Who was the first television drama I really engaged with outside of cartoons, I’m similarly minded; I’m generally a lot less inclined to worry about plot mechanics as I am character and theme.

Which is to say, I suppose: the final montage is perfect. It’s not, obviously – even outside of the unfortunate racial implications of Martha and Mickey’s marriage, that whole scene is just a bit rubbish – but it is, actually, too. I’m not sure there’s really any way that this iteration of Doctor Who could end, and it genuinely doesn’t feel, to me at least, smug or egregious or self-satisfied. It’s exactly the goodbye the series warranted. Watching it, it’s perfect.

In 2009, this was perfect. And The End of Time Part Two was perfect again, today, for about an hour and fifteen minutes. The best episode of Doctor Who is always the last episode I watched.

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That, I suppose, is always where this was headed. If Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor was about the gap between Alex, the ten-ish-year-old watching Doctor Who, and Alex a decade later, now demonstrably a weighty intellectual and accomplished television critic (hahaha), then that’s the point in the end – there isn’t a gap at all. Sure, we all change, all through our lives, and that’s okay, so long as we remember the people we used to be.

But more to the point, the conclusion isn’t “this was perfect a decade ago”, although it was. The point is that it can still be perfect today. Not above critique, no, because if nothing else, that takes the fun out of it. The two approaches can and do exist alongside one another: I love it, and that’s why it’s worth criticising it, worth engaging with it. Doctor Who is perfect because of its flaws, despite its flaws, inseparably from its flaws. Sometimes it’s genuinely awful, and worthy of real, targeted critique – again, I’m reminded of The Idiot’s Lantern – but it is, I think, quite easy to reconcile that with a love of it, and an enjoyment of it. And, in fact, a very current enjoyment of it: even if it isn’t always very good, the best episode of Doctor Who is still the last episode I watched.

It feels, admittedly, like an almost entirely unnecessary point to make. It should be, really – the idea that you can love something wholeheartedly, yet still criticise it in turn, feels immediately quite intuitive. But it’s worth restating anyway, I suppose, particularly considering what the more mainstream view of these things is, or is becoming: that you’re not a real fan if you ever criticise something. But, well, that’s just silly. And that’s what this has always been about. Doctor Who is perfect because I loved it when I was ten, it’s perfect because I love it now, and it’s perfect because it’s imperfect, because I can review it and criticise it and find it wanting, and love it all the same.

Thus it ends, as it must. Doctor, I let you go. Sontarans perverting the course of human history. We’re all stories in the end, so make it a good one. You were fantastic, and so was I.

I don’t want you to go. But, well, you never really did.

10/10

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Collateral is an intimate drama fascinated by individuals and sceptical of institutions

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What’s interesting about Collateral, of course, is that it’s very pointedly not a whodunnit. It spends very little time dwelling on questions of the murder’s identity, revealing this roughly halfway through the second episode; instead, Collateral unfolds from both directions, focused on questions of how and why rather than who. At each turn, the show avoids leaning into any simplistic formulae – it’s consistently something more interesting.

I went back and forth a lot over whether or not that title needed a comma after “drama”. Still not sure. Also, come to think of it, the inclusion of “intimate” full stop. I suspect I’ve come to overuse that word.

Anyway, here’s a piece on a show I really really enjoyed, but no one has really seemed to be talking about much. It also, entertainingly, fairly neatly highlights the problems with how I’ve broken down the television genres on the blog, given that this is tagged as a “crime drama” and I open the piece by talking about all the ways it’s not exactly that.

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Trauma was a haunting meditation on destructive grief

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This death is at the heart of Trauma; as a programme, it’s fascinated by death and its impact, depicting an almost eschatological collapse of the status quo. This manifests through Trauma’s examination of both Dan Bowker (John Simm) and Jon Allerton (Adrian Lester), as parent and surgeon are forced to confront this death and how it changes them. There’s a compelling bond between them, as a grieving man latches onto the last human face who told him everything would be okay, the relationship quickly deteriorating as he searches for someone to blame. 

In a sense, certain similarities can be drawn between this and writer Mike Bartlett’s previous work on Doctor Foster, another drama focused on a spiralling disintegration of its lead character’s life; what sets Trauma apart, however, is how dedicated it is to exploring dual perspectives. There’s a real nuance and subtlety to Trauma, a measured approach to character work that doesn’t betray any of the ambiguity it allows.

In hindsight, that’s quite the pretentious title. But hey. I was pretty pleased with the article in the end. There’s one bit that isn’t quite right – a line of analysis that I don’t think exactly goes anywhere – but on the whole, a largely good article.

I really loved this show, and I was quite surprised to find that it wasn’t super well received generally. The explanation, as ever, is that I was right and they were all wrong. (More seriously, I think that a lot of the reason why people didn’t respond to this show so well is that they didn’t quite get why John Simm’s character became so fixated on Adrian Lester’s – admittedly, you can then argue about how well the show justified that, but still.)

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: Last of the Time Lords

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Will it stop, Doctor? The drumming? Will it stop?

John Simm’s Master is terrifying.

There is, I think, quite a widespread school of thought that essentially argues the opposite; he’s too camp, too erratic, just a little too crazy to pose any meaningful threat. Certainly, the Scissor Sisters scene at the beginning no doubt contributes to this – I’ve always loved it – but honestly, looking beyond that, I struggle to understand why he still retains that reputation.

For me, the key to all of this is Alexandra Moen’s performance as Lucy Saxon; it’s subtle and nuanced in some really clever ways – arguably, despite only a very small part, she’s one of the standout aspects of the episode. Moen plays the character essentially as disassociating the whole time; it’s not just nihilism in the face of seeing the end of the universe, rather a response to trauma. It’s clear in turn what this is; indeed, it’s rather explicit, when one sees the scars and bruising on Lucy’s face, but you can see how it informs Moen’s performance across the whole piece. (One detail I particularly liked was in the way she held herself; flinching when the Master punches the Doctor, for example.) It’s subtle, but it’s there – the Master is abusing her.

And so, beneath all the mania, there’s a real and genuine veneer of brutality to the Master. Yes, that’s clear enough from the violence associated with the character – killing Tom Milligan, the fear in the eyes of the people when he walks among them, references to the horrors of the past year. Yet it’s never more effectively illustrated than by Lucy (although, of course, by extension the Jones family) and her response to him. The rest of it is just theatrics, really; this is a far more intimate, uglier sort of evil, and one that surely can’t be separated from the character at large.

Naturally, it’s also worth commenting on Simm’s performance too – much like last week, he’s fantastic. Better, in fact; he’s given a lot more material to work with and dig into here. The Master unleashed, rather than a separate side of Harold Saxon. It’s even more evident here just how obsessed with the Doctor he is; everything that motivates him derives from his envy, his jealousy, and above all else, a want for the Doctor’s attention. That’s what it all comes down to, really – that’s all it ever does. In a way it’s almost childish; a fit of pique, just trying to get a rise out of him. From working with the Toclafane to his pursuit of Martha, from creating a new Gallifrey to having a wife – it’s all about the Doctor.

That’s why the character works as well as he does – more than anything, there’s a crystal clear motivation for the Master. However, it’s a far more layered and, indeed, human one that we’ve seen in previous years; the Daleks may want to destroy reality, but the Master has a far more mundane motivation than that. It’s an obsession – a love, a lust, a need. More than that, there are moments when you get the impression the Doctor feels the same; it’s why he forgives him for it all, in the end. The Doctor and the Master, as characters together, are defined by that relationship; they work best when, as in the modern series, that aspect is placed at the forefront of their dynamic. Last of the Time Lords does a fantastic job of establishing that, and indeed acts as the basis for all the Master’s subsequent appearances in Doctor Who. It’s absolutely perfectly pitched.

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Much as I love this episode, there is admittedly a slight problem to contend with.

The ending doesn’t make even the slightest bit of sense. Nor does the middle, exactly. Really just the last third, basically.

To recap, for those of you who don’t recall: Martha, brought upon the Valiant to be executed in front of the Doctor and her family, starts to laugh. It turns out that she wasn’t travelling the world trying to assemble a weapon to kill the Master – she was actually spreading the story of the Doctor, inspiring people, and giving them hope. More than hope – an instruction. Everyone, all at once, think of the Doctor. When they did, the collective belief and psychic power, contained and amplified by the Archangel network, was enough to briefly give the Doctor telekinetic powers and restore him to youth once more. From there, it’s a relatively simple case of destroying the paradox machine, and thus reversing the effects of the last year, up to the point the paradox began – the Master’s reign of terror is undone.

So. Let’s unpack this a little.

The latter half of this is basically fine; for all the complaints of an undo button, it’s worth noting that the events still happened for our characters. The emotional impact remains intact, going on to provide the basis of Martha’s reason to leave the TARDIS, and giving us a particularly powerful scene with Adjoa Andoh. In that regard, there’s little issue – it’s the other, rather more notorious, aspect that I struggle with.

A lot of the criticism directed at this episode focuses on the fact that, when it comes down to it, what basically happens is the faith, trust and pixie dust (or somesuch – if they want to be really derisive, it’s the power of love) lets the Doctor float around (fairy Doctor, space Jesus Doctor, magic Doctor – all terms we’ve come to know and love) and thus save the day. Often the word deus ex machina is bandied around. Now, these critiques aren’t wrong, per se, but I somewhat suspect they’re missing the point a little bit. Yes, it’s a bit nonsensical – but it’s not the first time, and it certainly wasn’t the last time either. Certainly, you can argue that it’s a classic Doctor Who resolution, leaving the villain hoisted by his own petard, his downfall engineered by turning his own advantage against him.

It’s not the plot mechanics of this that bother me – yes, they’re nonsense. But they also don’t bother me. No, the trouble is that I’m not convinced this makes any thematic sense. If we’re to take this story, broadly speaking, as being about Martha stepping up and taking control over her life, what relevance does this have? Even if you’re reading it as being about the Master and the Doctor’s relationship, it begs the question – what’s the significance? (Well, I’m sure you could spin something out of it, but I suspect that might be stretching it too far.)

There’s no easy fix, really. It would have been better, I think, to simply leave the Doctor ‘aged’ rather than ‘ancient’; while the idea is nice, taking David Tennant out of the equation was a mistake. (Though, equally, it’s worth noting that it’s not actually as obtrusive as you’d think – it prompts the narrative to focus moreso on Martha, which is nice.) Equally, I also think that in and of itself, the moment of unity would have been better if everyone was thinking of Martha, rather than the Doctor; the episode would be more obviously about her, her story, and her own ability and worth.

Though that doesn’t really solve the plot mechanics. Maybe everyone thinking of Martha could give her laser eyes? I don’t know.

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Of course, speaking of Martha, this is very much her finest hour – the episode that does, at last, stand aside and give her centre stage. It’s a defining moment for Martha in the same respect that The Parting of the Ways is for Rose, or Turn Left is for Donna, or perhaps… actually, I’m struggling to pick more obvious ones for our later companions. Suggestions to the usual address.

In any case, yes – this is Martha’s moment in the limelight. Even before her departure scene, it’s all about her autonomy; proving to herself, and indeed the audience if they have any final reservations, that she is good. There’s something quite harrowing about what she goes through, really – the year of hell, and all of the trauma it entailed. Certainly, I think what Martha did is in fact far more impressive than absorbing the Time Vortex, which is in effect just an impulsive risk; this was sustained difficulty and conscious choice across a year. It speaks not only to Martha’s dedication but the strength of character that she possessed that she’s able to go through that; it would have been particularly interesting, I think, had she stayed on as a companion for another year to explore how that would have affected her.

Further, Martha’s departure – well, it really is very well written. I’m reminded of Russell T Davies describing a scene in one of his soap operas, where he had two characters breaking up without ever saying “break up” or words to that effect – it’s a similar principle in effect here. A lot of the understanding is carried by the performances; the dialogue is direct but understated. It’s one of the stronger companion exits, I think, and I’d like to see more in a similar vein – not under similar circumstances, exactly, but a mutual acknowledgement that things have come to an end. If not a happy ending, per se, certainly the chance at one.

I’m still not entirely happy with Martha’s overall arc; in many cases, it was outright damaging to the character. Strong though this episode is, both for the character and as a conclusion to the arc, I can’t help but feel like it’s too little too late – we should have had a scene like this much longer ago. I don’t want to pre-empt myself particularly – next week I’m going to do an overall series retrospective, in which I will no doubt have much to say about Martha’s storyline – but there’s something quite disappointing about how the character was treated overall. Much as I consider this a standout moment for her, there’s perhaps some questions worth asking about why her moment in the limelight is also, essentially, as the Doctor’s hypeman – it all comes down to an obsession with him.

(Oh, there’s a thought – is that the unifying thread of the episode, a fixation on the Doctor? The Master, Martha, and the people united by the Archangel Network? Certainly, that makes them thematically relevant, and starts to bring the episode together more cohesively… but I’m not sure what the point would be. Perhaps something to ruminate on for next week.)

It’s difficult, then, to grade this episode. In terms of my own enjoyment, I know what I want to give it; when I consider my own critical perspective, there are certain aspects of the episode I can’t quite justify. A high mark would be given in spite of rather than with respect to these aspects. But ultimately, I think I know which would win out.

I watched this episode twice today, in preparation for this review – immediately replaying it after it finished the first time. That’s not what I usually do (though perhaps I should, since this review was much better than previous ones) – I just enjoyed the episode that much. With that in mind, then…

10/10

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: The Sound of Drums

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I looked down upon my new dominion as Master of all, and I thought it good.

What strikes me about this episode is quite how fraught it is.

In part that’s because it’s grounded, in a way that previous finales haven’t necessarily been. Bad Wolf drew its strength from the juxtaposition of the mundane and the terrifying with those brilliant game shows; Army of Ghosts, while it began based in the everyday, soon worked its way into the conspiracy theories and aliens more at home in the sci-fi genre.

Here, though, it’s different. The episode is, as I’ve said, grounded; the fight is against politicians, the police, CCTV cameras. There are no Daleks or Cybermen to speak of. Yes, there are certainly fantasy elements to it, and the ‘realism’ is far from the focus of the episode – but, for a time, our main trio are labelled as domestic terrorists and forced on the run.

From that comes a certain powerlessness to our characters, in a way we haven’t quite seen before – understandable, given that the villain is the Prime Minister. There’s a certain level of authority there we’ve not exactly seen to a villain so far; when the Doctor, Martha and Jack are driven to the streets and hide in the dark, it feels significant. There’s a deconstruction of their entire position – the narrative collapse is put into effect.

It’s because of course, at this point – rather unlike the previous finales – the ‘bad guys’, as it were, have already won. The Master is the Prime Minister. Martha’s family has been arrested and her house destroyed. There is no help coming. There’s a real tension to this, and it makes the episode all the more effective.

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One of the big things that works about this episode is John Simm’s Master.

I touched on this a little last week, and I suspect I’ll expand upon it again tomorrow, but the Master here is perfectly pitched to work alongside Tennant’s Doctor. There really is a sense that the pair are equal and opposite in every way; Simm’s own manic behaviour mimicking Tennant’s inclination towards the same, but also the slick control and charm. They work together fantastically; the phone conversation in the middle of the episode is one of my favourite interactions between the Doctor and the Master ever, and it’s played perfectly by John Simm. Despite everything, despite the fact that the Master holds far greater power than the Doctor, he plays it with a real vulnerability – one that really underscores the depth of feeling, of love and of lust, that’s shared between the two men.

It’s because of that that Simm playing against Capaldi tomorrow is quite so interesting a concept – in a sense, there’s a lot of the same promise that a multi-Doctor special offers. There will, I assume, be a certain frisson resulting from it – a juxtaposition of the two styles and characterisations, particularly when throwing Missy into the mix.

Indeed, over the past few weeks I’ve been saying that Capaldi and Gomez are perhaps the best Doctor/Master pair we’ve ever had, but I’m inclined to qualify that once again. Because the dynamic between Tennant and Simm is fascinating, really; it’s absolutely the right way to pitch the two characters for the show at this point, both diegetically and extradiegetically. It grows not just from the Time War and that personal isolation the two characters have, but there’s a real feeling of emotional depth and weight to the pair here. Certainly, the backstory and motivation presented for the Master is controversial amongst some circles; personally speaking, I’ve always liked it. For better or worse, it grounds the Master in a certain means of storytelling that puts emotion at the forefront – he’s not quite a pantomime villain anymore.

(Yes, I know, the obvious response is to point to any of the scenes where the Master is over the top or camp and say “really, that’s not a pantomime villain?” – but I think that’s missing the point slightly. Those moments of humour underscore the insanity of it; you’re not losing the pantomime aspect, but rather adjusting it, presenting it in a different light alongside the more serious moments.)

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In a way though, and one that’s not often commented on, this is quite a pivotal episode for Martha. Obviously, we know, with the benefit of history, what’s going to happen next week – but taken on its own, you can see that a lot of the groundwork was established this week to make that work.

She gets a rough time of it again here. There’s no arguing against that. Her home, and presumably the majority of her possessions, are destroyed. Her family is kidnapped. Also, there’s the end of the world, and the fact that she’s left to deal with it pretty much alone. (Actually, what’s Martha’s job situation like? Does she still have her position at the hospital? That might be an issue.) Of course she gets the worst of it – Martha is grounded in a way that Jack and the Doctor aren’t, so a story that’s as fundamentally grounded as this one is will naturally affect her far more deeply. It’s her world in a far more manifest sense than it is theirs, and it shows across the story.

But for the first time though, Martha more obviously takes a stand and directly argues back. There’s a steel to her, and a steel to her frustration; the character is in a much different place to earlier points in the series. Even as recently as Human Nature, one suspects that she would have taken a lot of the instructions given to her – here, though, contextualised around her family, Martha refuses to.

It makes sense, of course; the personal stakes give Martha a reason to take more direct control. However, I do wonder if this highlights a broader issue with the series as a whole – that Martha, effectively sidelined by her own unrequited love arc, didn’t really get the opportunity to exercise her own autonomy enough. It’s an ongoing truism of the show that the companion never listens to the Doctor – but I’m struggling to think of any particular occasion when Martha does ignore the Doctor? That might just be a personal lapse, but I think the overarching point stands. I do like Martha, and I don’t want to pre-empt myself too much when it comes to the overall series commentary, but I worry that this moment standing out only serves to underscore how limited her role has been so far.

Ultimately, though, I do really enjoy this episode. It’s another strong one – much like Utopia, and indeed I’ve always been particularly fond of this trilogy. It’s nice to be able to look back on it and to feel justified in that; it’s not actually the rubbish it’s oft criticised to be. (I’m worried for next week, to be honest; one moment in particular gets a lot of criticism, and I hope it doesn’t let me down.)

In the end, though, I quite enjoyed this one.

9/10

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: Utopia

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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.

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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.

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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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