Utopia began the first true three-part story (equivalent to a six-parter in Classic Who) of the New Who era. Beginning in Cardiff, it would re-unite Doctor Who with the world of Torchwood that had been spawned since the Ninth Doctor abandoned Captain Jack Harkness on the Game Station. It would take us to the very end of the universe as we know it. It would begin a journey that would finally give new girl Martha Jones a chance to get over her pining love for the Doctor, realise there were more important things and earn her companion-stripes by saving the world.
For all that, once the story has kicked off with Captain Jack clinging to the outside of the Tardis all the way through the vortex – as the Doctor says, ‘it’s very him’ – things do go a little bit silly and light on the details that should perhaps underpin the spectacle. Futurekind, a kind of regressive, savage tribe of flesh-eaters who may or may not be what humans are destined to evolve into if they don’t reach Utopia (given the events of subsequent episodes, we’re going to say not), seem to be there to provide a couple of chase scenes and get our heroes from A-B in a big hurry, and add a kind of apocalyptic hurry to the events of the episode’s end. The history of Chantho’s people remains largely a mystery, though it seems they were the locals until the humans moved in – rather suggesting the humans annihilated them, given Chantho’s singularity in the story, and throwing quite an odd-tasting light on her adoration of the Professor at the end of the universe. And that idea itself – that they’re at the end of the universe, with nothing but death and blackness to look forward to unless they reach Utopia – seems bizarre, a triumph of chirpy optimism over the realities of physics: the last survivors at the ‘end’ of the universe will most likely be congregating somewhere towards the point of the original Big Bang, if the encroaching blackness is to be taken seriously as a threat. That would mean there’s nowhere to actually go – certainly not in a rickety rocket held together with spit and string and shoelaces.
But to insist on garish reality is to miss the point spectacularly – as Professor Yana candidly admits, the signal for which they’re aiming may be nothing, may be everything, but either way ‘it’s worth a look, don’t you think?’ That’s the point of Utopia – you never quite know whether what you’re watching something worthwhile or hopeless, but at the very least, it’s the spirit of hope that keeps everything in motion. And if hope is what survives of the human spirit till the end of time, it’s really not a bad legacy at all.
But there’s more to Utopia than hope, of course. There’s Derek Jacobi as Professor Yana, Hartnelling it up for all he’s worth – and he’s worth really rather a lot. He’s the lynchpin in a story that has several threads – the man who built the rocket to give humanity hope of somewhere to go, a genius to match the Doctor’s own, a savior, and a spectacular positive force, holding off the blackness and the drumming in his head.
The irony being of course, he, like the hope of Utopia, is a fiction, a nothing, a lie. If there’s a fundamental point at the heart of Utopia, it’s that things and people have no inherent value – but that in being there, and choosing an optimistic path, they can deliver value beyond themselves. Yana may be a fictional construct, but while he exists, while he works to give the human race hope and to stave off the drumming in his head, the good he does is by no means artificial: it brings purpose and aspiration to the last human beings alive. When the drumming overwhelms him and he opens up his watch, the good Professor Yana is the first of the Master’s new kills, the savior nailed into nothingness by the emergence of the serpent inside. The idea of Utopia seems to be inherently ridiculous to the reborn Master, the hope he inspired nothing but a laughable idiocy. And, as we go on to find out, the hope for humankind is a lie, turned ultimately into the perverse and genocidal paradox of the Toclafane. But the story’s actually a parable of approach, and choice. Choose hope and good things can happen even in the darkest of hours. Choose hopelessness, choose to manifest the Master, and all that comes is bitterness, destruction and disappointment.
There is a genuine case of redemption in Utopia too – coming in one of the quietest moments in the story, when Jack is repairing a system that it should be impossible to repair, the Doctor makes peace with Jack ‘the impossible thing,’ the unkillable man he became thanks to the actions of Rose the Bad Wolf. It’s a touching, candid moment that shed new light on both men, while setting up a reconciliation and a future in which the two will be more able to work together again.
But the pacing of the story means that despite scenes of excellence and quiet between Yana and the Doctor, and between the Doctor and Jack, we’re actually egging on the moment of destruction. From the time we start hearing the drums in Yana’s head, with their half-heard, at-first-indistinct voices shouting over them, we get a sense of what and who Yana is, and such is the nature of humanity that we want him to fall. We like Professor Yana, he seems like he could be a great friend of the Doctor’s – but we know that’s not the truth, and we know the revelation of that truth is inevitable. And when it comes, setting the seal on the whole Chameleon Arch invention that brought Human Nature to the screen earlier that season, it is glorious. Dark, and horrible and inevitable, but glorious – The Master…Reeeeeboooooorn shows why you should always entrust the best baddies to the best actors, Jacobi’s eyes turning blank and empty, then contemptuous and filled with rage and fury as the Master sweeps away the infantile fantasy of Yana as a good man – killing his friend, letting in the Futurekind, condemning anyone left on the planet to death and planning his escape in the Doctor’s Tardis. It’s a truly masterful five minutes that only serve to highlight how nuanced the performance of the last forty minutes has been. If you don’t know the ending in advance, it makes you thrill to see the Jacobi Master and hope the casting sticks for years.
And then – wallop. Bang. One last shot, one act of redemption from Chantho, and the Jacobi Master is stolen from us immediately. It’s a moment of bizarre bravura and mixed emotions – just as we begin to relish the idea of a Jacobi Master terrorizing time and space with those eyes and that voice, he’s gone, but what comes next is, better, more exciting, more ‘right’ somehow, because John Simm blows the doors off his first five minutes in the role and reinstates the Master in the Pertwee-Delgado mold of an Anti-Doctor, as he matches Tennant moment for movement and note for note, then leaves our heroes in the kind of impossible lurch from which only an impossible ‘…and this is how we escaped from that!’ beginning to the next episode will suffice to extricate them – which is presumably why that’s exactly what we got at the start of The Sound of Drums.
Utopia has its moments that shouldn’t be examined too closely for fear of Taking Doctor Who Too Seriously. If you let them flow by you like star systems into the void, it’s still, nine years on, one of the most thrilling, intensely-paced hours of modern Who there is, driven along endlessly by the sound of the drums in Professor Yana’s head. It’s a story of hope in adversity, the falseness of those hopes in the face of undeniable reality, but their value nonetheless. And it’s a story that clearly shows us two contrasting ways to be, and recommends the better path, while all the while driving us on as an audience that loves the way of the Dark Side. It both has its allegorical cake and eats it, and we’re right there gulping down every morsel of its mad, layered, superbly played joy.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk