By Ross RuedigerIf "Blink" was the perfect standalone episode of Doctor Who, then "Utopia" is just the opposite. To get what's going on here, one must be well versed in the lore of the new series, otherwise the entire affair will seem a jumbled mess. Familiarity with the old series is either a huge bonus or a detriment, depending on how willing you are to accept some bold Who revisionism. "Utopia" is also the unbilled Part One of Season Three's three-part finale. Get onboard now or forego watching the rest of the season until DVD.
The Doctor: "You two! We're at the end of universe, right? Right at the edge of knowledge itself and you're busy...blogging!"
The pre-credits sequence is so ridiculously over the top, one wonders if the rest of the episode is going to be something to be taken even remotely seriously. The TARDIS returns to Cardiff to refuel at the Rift. A figure outside runs toward the time machine. Martha (Freema Agyemen) asks the Doctor (David Tennant) about the earthquake in Cardiff a few years ago and wonders if he had anything to do with it. He references Season One's "Boom Town":
The Doctor: "Bit of trouble with the Slitheen. A long time ago—a lifetime. I was a different man back then."
The running man is revealed to be none other than Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman). He screams at the TARDIS as well as to the operator inside. The Doctor looks at the TARDIS scanner and upon seeing Jack oddly decides it's time to get outta Dodge. No time for reunions here! But Jack's been waiting a looong time for this chance and rather than give up, he jumps directly onto the TARDIS exterior, clinging to it as if for dear life. Inside the controls explode and the machine kicks into overdrive, heading for the furthest point in time it can reach, the year 100 trillion—a silly number that punctuates the improbability of the sequence, as does the Doctor's assertion that they're headed for "the end of the universe". As if all that isn't enough, Jack's still hanging onto the TARDIS as it makes its speedy getaway through the time/space vortex.
On the planet Malcassairo some mutant rejects from The Road Warrior are continually at odds with the remnants of the human race. There is a third species present in the form of one individual, Chantho (Chipo Chung)—an insectlike alien female who is the sole survivor of Malcassairo's indigenous population. Chantho is the assistant to Professor Yana (Derek Jacobi), an addled, grandfatherly scientist who suffers from a periodic pounding of the head. He works to aid the humans in reaching Utopia via a rocket—although exactly where or what Utopia is, is about as nebulous as its name implies. Yana and Chantho don't seem entirely certain this pipe dream is ever gonna happen, but in the interest of keeping morale high amongst a race that's nearly extinct, they perpetuate the notion of ongoing success.
The TARDIS arrives on Malcassairo and upon the Doctor and Martha exiting the ship, they see Jack laying on the ground, seemingly next door to death. The Doctor is again curiously non-plussed and about all he can offer up to Jack's inert form is a half-hearted utterance of his stock apology, "I'm sorry". Jack springs back to life, healthy as a horse and immediately flirting with Martha. There's a swinging of dicks between the two men.
Jack: (suspiciously) "Doctor?"
The Doctor: "Captain."
Jack: "Good to see you."
The Doctor: "And you. Same as ever—although...have you had work done?"
Jack: "You can talk!"
If you've been watching Torchwood, Jack's inability to die will come as no surprise. If you're strictly a Who viewer, writer Russell T Davies brings you up to speed in a matter of minutes as the trio carry on a lively conversation covering everything from Jack's escape from the Game Station, his immortality, how he got to present-day Earth and gratuitous Rose Tyler chit-chat (much to the annoyance of Martha, who doesn't care for the revelation that she was blond). After a run-in with the vicious mutants, the trio eventually ends up at the compound safeguarding the humans. Professor Yana is overjoyed to meet the Doctor, as perhaps this man of science can help him with the Utopia project. Martha finds a kindred spirit in Chantho (a very Rose Tyler thing to do) and Jack sticks his fingers in all the pies (ahem...).
Jack: "So what about those things outside—the Beastie Boys. What are they?"
Yana: "We call them the Futurekind, which is a myth in itself, but it's feared they are what we will become...unless we reach Utopia."
The Doctor: "And Utopia is?"
Yana: "Well every human knows of Utopia! Where have you been?"
The Doctor: "I'm a bit of a hermit."
Yana: "A hermit? With friends?"
The Doctor: "Hermits United. We meet up every ten years and swap stories about caves. It's good fun—for a hermit."
There's an amount of skillfully written and played technobabble that goes on for a good fifteen minutes or so as the ins and outs and complexities and snafus of Utopia are explained and explored. The scene between Jack and the Doctor discussing the significance of Jack's immortality and how Rose was responsible for it is one of the great Doctor Who moments because it weaves together numerous dangling threads from both Who & Torchwood and says so much about the ideology of Davies' Whoniverse. Their conversation could only exist and make sense within the confines of this show.
Throughout the escalating madness, Yana's brain farts become increasingly intense...and upon first seeing the blue police box, his internalized reaction indicates that a certain bodily excrement is about to hit a certain spinning device designed to facilitate the movement of air. The tension builds as words like TARDIS and Dalek have debilitating effects on Yana. The Utopia project seems to be gaining a positive momentum when all of a sudden Davies plays a card I never saw coming, even though—for an old school fan like me—everything else was plainly written on the wall: Yana possesses a fob watch identical to the one used by the Doctor to rewrite his biology in "Human Nature"—a watch Yana's owned his entire life yet has never opened.
"Utopia" shifts into "Holy Shit!" mode and the entire affair is an adrenaline rush. Martha runs to tell the Doctor about the watch. He snaps and tears into her, basically saying, "Don't fuck with me, lady!" The Doctor is sideswiped by the name "Yana" and recalls the final words of the Face of Boe from "Gridlock": You Are Not Alone. (Back when that scene played it had a pedestrian vibe, but here it is redeemed.) As Yana opens the watch, the transformation begins and a Time Lord is reborn: The Master.
If new Who is all you know, then the Master as a character means nothing to you, although the fact that he's a Time Lord should be a big payoff. He's the Moriarty to the Doctor's Sherlock Holmes and they've periodically locked horns over the years since the character was first introduced in 1971's "Terror of the Autons". Jacobi's transformation into pure evil is chilling. He proceeds to shut down the compound's defenses allowing the Futurekind to attack, sabotage the Utopia project, and electrocute a terrified Chantho when she pulls a gun on him.
The Master: "Now I can say I was provoked! Did you never think all those years standing beside me to ask about that watch? Never!? Did you never once think—not ever—that you could set me free?"
Chantho: (trembling) "Chan. I'm sorry. Tho. Chan. I'm so sorry—"
The Master: "And you, with your Chan and your Tho driving me insane!"
But Chantho summons up enough energy before dying to put an end to this horrible creature who looks exactly like the man she'd secretly loved for so many years. The Doctor, Jack and Martha enter as the dying Master jumps inside the TARDIS—which he locks from the inside! (The simplicity of this never before seen mechanism is a fanboy's wet dream.) The Doctor pleads from outside, begging his enemy for a meeting of minds. Inside, the Master regenerates—like any sensible dying Time Lord would do—and is reborn yet again into a much younger, far more energetic Time Lord played by John Simm (Life on Mars). He taunts the Doctor, steals the TARDIS and whisks himself away leaving the trio stranded to face the oncoming threat of the Futurekind.
For an episode that initially looked to be the filler before the season finale, "Utopia" delivers some stellar goods.
Ross Ruediger is a San Antonio-based critic and columnist, a contributor to The House Next Door, and publisher of The Rued Morgue.
NEXT WEEK: The identity of the mysterious Harold Saxon is finally revealed (although it doesn't take rocket science to figure it out at this point) in "The Sound of Drums".
Classic Who DVD Recommendation of the Week: I've quietly recommended Master stories numerous times in this season's recap series. Now check out "Survival", which was actually the last story of the classic series. It featured the Master as well as evil cat people long before "New Earth" came along.