Doctor Who 3.11 "Utopia"

Written by: Russell T Davies

Directed by: Graeme Harper

Rating:

A trip to the end of the universe (what, no Milliways?) is just a distraction from “Utopia”‘s main purpose; to set up the two-part series finale and say hello to a pair of old Who alumni. Of all the episodes since Doctor Who’s 2005 return, this is without doubt the most minimally plotted, but thanks to a barnstorming final 15 minutes and a generous dose of revelations, it leaves you with a massive grin on your face – until you contemplate waiting an entire seven days for next Saturday’s outing.

The end of time is a miserable place that shares the aesthetic of old Who’s ubiquitous quarry planets. As pointy-toothed refugees from the Mad Max set (the Futurekind) hassle the last humans in the universe, kindly scientist Professor Yana (an excellent Derek Jacobi) is putting the finishing touches to a rocket bound for “utopia”. And that really is it. Over the course of an infuriatingly slight story, we see hints of a nearly extinct insectoid civilisation (represented by Yana’s blue assistant, Chantho) and simmering tensions between man- and Future- kind, but nothing that resembles a genuine Who plot.

So why the four stars? “Utopia” is all about the bigger picture, an episode more concerned with expanding Who lore than providing a standalone chunk of Saturday night TV – and in that respect Russell T Davies really hits this one out of the park.

Captain Jack Harkness, the first of the two aforementioned returnees to the Who-niverse, is back in the cocky, womanising action man mode we missed so much in Torchwood, and is rewarded with more backstory than an entire series of the Who spin-off could muster. Seems he’s spent the past 138 years trapped on Earth, contemplating his new-found immunity to death and waiting for the Doctor to materialise (it’s no wonder he was always miserable hanging around with Gwen, Owen, Ianto and Tosh).

But there’s more to Jack than just 21st century angst. The sight of Harkness running through Cardiff Bay to hitch a ride on the TARDIS prompts the Doctor to hit the ignition switch – the sequence doesn’t quite fit the continuity of Torchwood’s closing seconds but we’ll not quibble about that here – and it’s immediately clear that something’s not quite right. Not much scares the Doctor, but apparently Jack does: “You’re a fixed point in time and space, you’re a fact. That’s never meant to happen. Even the TARDIS reacted against you, tried to shake you off. Came all the way to the end of the universe just to get rid of you.” So that’s why they left him behind at the end of series one…

Come the final credits, however, the arrival of an old foe makes sure you’ve almost forgotten Jack was there at all. Hindsight makes it easy to say an actor of Derek Jacobi’s calibre was never likely to play a non-descript, benign scientist (he’s certainly a step up from Eric Roberts), but Professor Yana’s metamorphosis into that most famous of renegade Time Lords proves a Master-class (sorry) in handling a major reveal. First it’s the sound of drums rattling around his brain; then the recognition of objects from his Time Lord past; and then the identity-masking watch that Martha recognises from “Human Nature”/”The Family of Blood”, reawakening long-forgotten memories and that Roger Delgado laugh. It’s a sequence of events destined to be played back and discussed for years.

The instant Yana (You Are Not Alone – geddit?) looks inside the watch, Jacobi is transformed; the face is the same, but the eyes overflow with evil, adding extra gravitas to his triumphant “I. Am. The. Master!” His subsequent regeneration into a gleefully maniacal John Simm (“I know that voice,” says Martha, ominously) and escape in the TARDIS sets up the series closer we’ve been anticipating all these weeks. With the Doctor, Martha and Jack trapped millions of years from home and the Master on the loose, this is the kind of cliffhanger Who was made for. Not a great episode in the traditional sense, but as the first part of a trilogy (The Fellowship of Doctor Who?) it makes you tingle all over. Vote Saxon? See you at the polls next week…

Best line:
“Anyway, why don’t we stop and have a nice little chat where I tell you all my plans and you can work out a way to stop me. I don’t think.”

Richard Edwards