The word “utopia” was coined by Sir Thomas More in 1516, but the concept goes right back to Plato’s Republic. The likelihood is that the idea existed long before that, as it would seem to be basic human nature to strive for some kind of a perfect society. But utopias are tricky things, because they tend to be subtractive in some way, seeking the removal of things from society that are deemed inferior or undesirable. This is most commonly money, but utopias in their most insidious forms are classist or racist or both. Apart from More’s Utopia, the one that would come to mind for most people would probably be A Modern Utopia, by H.G. Wells, which is an important precursor to several Doctor Who stories, with its parallel Earth containing a duplicate of every human. It is ruled over by a nobility called the Samurai, which hints at Wells’s wider views about how to create a utopia. In fact, Wells is a massively problematic figure, as we will look at in more detail when we get to Timelash, and his first exploration of utopia is actually in his work of non-fiction that predates A Modern Utopia, the book he called “the keystone to the main arch” of his work: Anticipations. And it’s horribly racist, the one occasion where Wells really goes big with his eugenicist beliefs. So when Doctor Who approaches a topic such as utopias, it needs to do so in a more careful way than you might realise, and there was only one way to go with it: through the lens of a dystopia.
The meaning of “utopia” has narrowed considerably since More’s Utopia, and certainly since its Greek origins as a “not-place”. The literal translation is key to how Russell T. Davies’s Utopia works, because it originally meant a non-existent society described in detail. Inherent to the idea of a utopia, before it was twisted around by racists and class supremacists like Wells, was the promise of somewhere that could never actually exist. Davies’s Utopia here is a cruel belief system to give hope to those who have none, in probably the most bleak episode of Doctor Who ever written. This is the end of the universe, and it is dark and frightening and the last of humanity is deluding itself.
Utopias are closely linked to paradises, both of which are fundamentally beyond the reach of the living, but in different ways. In the Old Testament, our original paradise/utopia is the Garden of Eden, which is the starting point for Davies’s dystopia, with the Master as the serpent and the fob watch as the forbidden fruit. And the use of the fob watch as a Chekhov’s gun from Human Nature is stunningly clever. By now we are quite used to clues being dropped throughout the season in preparation for the finale, but for the biggest of those to have its origins in a Wilderness years book brings it gloriously out of left-field.
Appropriately for an episode that explores the idea of a utopia, we have a strong theme of discrimination. Most notably, Jack calls the Doctor out on his sci-fi equivalent of homophobia:
DOCTOR: That’s why I left you behind. It’s not easy even just looking at you, Jack, because you’re wrong.
DOCTOR: You are. I can’t help it. I’m a Time Lord. It’s instinct. It’s in my guts. 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. Flew all the way to the end of the universe just to get rid of you.
JACK: So what you’re saying is that you’re, er, prejudiced?
DOCTOR: I never thought of it like that.
JACK: Shame on you.
But also the Master packs sexism and sci-fi-racism into just one line: “killed by an insect… a girl… how inappropriate.” And of course the Master is being set up here exactly as we would expect him to be set up: as a mirror to the Doctor, but pre-regeneration he is a twisted mirror to a Classic series Doctor, most obviously Hartnell. There is a strong attempt to root this in the Classic series, on both sides of the mirror, with the old Masters’ voices, and the Doctor’s “indomitable” reference. Then the Master regenerates and suddenly all that gets breathtakingly subverted.
In the lead up to that moment, a couple of important things are established. Firstly, the Master’s evil-doing credentials are firmly established when he turns on Chantho, who has been built up throughout the episode as probably the most gentle, adorable alien character we have ever seen. Secondly, he displays the contradiction at the heart of the character, with this line:
Now I can say I was provoked.
…which makes no sense at all, unless we immediately embrace the ambiguity of a man who commits the most horrendous acts, but also seeks approval. That line gets overlooked, but it’s an ingenious piece of foreshadowing.
The moment of regeneration is a perversion of all that is familiar to anyone who has watched Doctor Who for more than a couple of years at this point. It is remarkably rare to see anyone other than the Doctor regenerate on screen, with the Master only ever being a body-snatcher and Romana going through her change off-screen, like somebody trying on clothes in a fitting room. And the Master screams, his face contorting with pain, until he is reborn as a new Master, one that is once again designed to be a dark mirror to the specific version of the Doctor we have at the moment. The classic is thrown off and the new is embraced.
Anyway. Why don’t we stop and have a nice little chat while I tell you all my plans and you can work out a way to stop me, I don’t think!
…because that would have been the Classic Master, and this is the New Master, leaving the Doctor to die, and beginning his adventures by stealing the TARDIS, and then heading off to interfere in human history, just like the Doctor did all those years ago. The Master has never been so frightening, and he is born from the tragic dystopia at the end of the universe. RP
The view from across the pond:
Utopia is the first of a three-part finale to Series 3 of the rebooted Doctor Who. Atypically, it can be viewed as its own story because the events take place in a distant future, far from the Earth we know. It introduces us to Sir Derek Jacobi’s Professor Yana and the dark secret that even he does not know. And we encounter the latest addition to the Doctor Who menagerie, the Futurekind. Like the zombies of The Walking Dead, the “Futurekind” are like set design, background. They are there to provide a threat and give people a reason to run, but Utopia is not about the cannibals that hunt humans any more than The Walking Dead is about the zombies. This is a character piece: it’s a look at the Doctor and how he relates to Jack and the prejudice that he has developed against him. It looks at the kindly man who is Yana and the Hyde personality lurking beneath his Jekyll. It looks at what happens when the Doctor realizes he’s not the last of his kind and the one member of his own race who still lives is the last he’d ever want to encounter. It looks at how Martha understands the culture of her new friend and it foresees a time at the end of the universe when mankind holds onto that one emotion that defines us better than all the others: hope.
Once established that the Futurekind are not really what the episode is about, Russell T. Davies is able to delve into these characters in greater detail. We learn that the Doctor was aware of what Rose did by bringing Jack back to life and explains why he was so quick to run away. The Doctor is a flawed hero but comes to face with that when talking to Jack. It’s not a proud moment for him, but he realizes it and accepts it, and above all, seems to grow beyond it. Thanks to the chameleon arch being introduced earlier in the season, we see how the wonderful Professor Yana is actually harboring a dark alter ego. In an amazing display of cinematic genius, we hear Roger Delgado’s voice echoing back from The Daemons as the evil is released and Yana becomes the Master. The Doctor’s reaction to Martha is frightening but it’s nothing by comparison to what happens when the Master leaves the Doctor, Jack and Martha to their fates at the teeth of the Futurekind. It was an amazing cliffhanger that Freema actually said was terrifying to film. And let’s not forget, the Master regenerating with that blood curdling scream only to be played by the simply awesome John Simm… Genuinely classic material.
And, although it’s played for laughs, one scene does irk me about the human need to alter another’s culture for themselves. When Chantho explains to Martha that everything has to start with Chan and end with Tho, Martha convinces her not to do it, for a giggle! What’s worse is that Chantho accepts. But that’s part of Chantho’s culture and it is slightly offensive that she changes it for Martha’s sake just to get a laugh, like making a child say a vulgarity just for a giggle. But I’m being a stickler over nothing. I’ll show my respect for her people, just to be considerate!
The fact is that I do have one actual complaint about this episode. When the Doctor, Jack and Martha are in the control room, Martha is telling the Doctor about Yana and the pocket watch. She says, “Think of what the Face of Boe says…” Considering the revelation that is coming to us in just two episodes, since Jack was in the room with them, the camera should have panned to him to show a look of confusion. It didn’t have to be much, but something to indicate that he heard what she said, and didn’t understand it; that’s all it would have taken. Because if Russell T. Davies knew anything, it was how to surprise us with words. Yana ends up being an acronym for Boe’s last words: You Are Not Alone, and Jack ends up being the Face of Boe, so far in the future that even the Doctor doesn’t recognize him. All wonderful revelations that made for an incredible episode, and this wasn’t even the season finale! In fact, that was only just beginning.
Even as the stars go dark, humanity hopes for something else, some special utopia that they can find happiness and prosperity. If that isn’t human, I don’t know what is, but more than that, it shows the tremendously positive outlook that has permeated Doctor Who since its earliest days. ML
Read next in the Junkyard… Last of the Time Lords