|Seriously? That's how they drew me in Scream of the Shalka?|
It’s June 16th, 2007. Rihanna and Jay-Z remain at number one with “Umbrella,” with Calvin Harris, Enrique Iglesias, Timbaland, and Hellogoodbye also charting. In news, the US Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals rules that the government cannot actually detain people indefinitely as enemy combatants. Chinua Achebe wins the Man Brooker prize. Zimbabwe announces that it will take and redivide the land of all remaining white farmers in the country, and Bernie Ahem is reelected as Taoiseach of Ireland.
While on television The Sopranos ends. Oh, and Doctor Who airs Utopia, arguably the first part of its three-part season finale. Or it’s a standalone story before a two-part finale. There are debates to be had. For our purpose, obviously, we’re doing a separate entry on Utopia. But then, we did separate entries on An Unearthly Child and 100,000 BC. The threshold for one entry or two is what makes the most sense from an essay-writing perspective. Utopia has a bunch of themes that are present but tangental in The Sound of Drums/Last of the Time Lords, and vice versa. So while talking about Utopia on its own requires referring forward more than sometimes, it still makes more essay sense, and really, I care a lot more about that than I do about the “what counts as a story” game. Though we may bring the “what counts as a story” game up later. Just for fun.
Utopia is possibly the bleakest number Davies ever wrote. It is, of course, not about Utopia - a concept we learn does not even exist. Rather it is about that most enduring feature of utopia: the snake in the garden. Or so it seems at first blush. But this is not merely about an individual snake. Yes, in amidst the apparently heartwarming story of indomitable is the Master, who seems at first blush to be the most sympathetic of characters. The Master is, in this rendition, treated as the image of the Bad Seed - the inherently evil figure for whom redemption is simply impossible. And so kind-hearted Professor Yana has, within him, a void. An evil heart that will someday inevitably be released, to the ruin of everyone around him. This is the vision of utopia - its absolute and horrific collapse in the face of the irreducible phenomenon of evil.
What makes this staggeringly pessimistic is its position at the end of the universe. It’s one thing to make bleak statements about how people screw everything up. That borders on the banal. It’s quite another to position this as the ultimate fate of humanity. Utopia sets up a choice between the joyously eternal nature of humanity and the idea of an inevitable moral rot, and ultimately embraces the latter. All of humanity’s dreams and hopes come crashing down, and there is only dark and cold and the cackling madness of the serpent. This final sting in the trap, confirmed in Last of the Time Lords, is horrific in a way Davies has never really managed before, nor will he ever again. Not quite like this. Torchwood may have suggested death as the one wondrous space that cannot be crossed over. It and The Satan Pit may have suggested an indifferent universe underpinned by cosmic horror.
But that is nothing compared to this terror. The possibility that it is all for nothing. That no matter what, it will all fall down. And not because of some comfortingly external force. Not the heat death of the universe or age or the inevitability of death, but the fact that there is evil in humanity. This is set up well before the end-of-season twist in the presence of the Futurekind - the supposed final form of humanity that lurks within the outpost. It’s not that there is only cold and darkness in every direction, but that no matter where we turn we will succumb to some sort of evil. Whether our final form be the Futurekind or the Toclafane, the result is the same: our complete corruption.
In this regard the scene between the Doctor and Jack has more teeth than you’d expect. It is not merely that Jack is a fixed point in time, but that he is a fact. This seems on one level like a basic restatement of Doctor Who’s ethos. The worst possible thing is certainty and fixity. Facts defy mercury, and the fact that Jack has become an immutable and absolute entity makes him viscerally abhorrent to both the Doctor and the TARDIS. And while the Doctor ultimately caves and accepts Jack, it’s not entirely clear that he is right to do so. (Tellingly, Jack is still ambiguously and troublingly linked to Torchwood, itself a symbol of a different sort of certainty and rot.)
Back in the Ghost Light entry I suggested two views of history: the lens and the rhizome. In the lens, whatever happens is ultimately bounded by two absolute points: beginning and end. Whereas in the rhizome, history is a messy, tangled process that is actually reasonably well described as “timey wimey.” Doctor Who, I suggested, is on the face of it more naturally allied with the rhizome. But here we have history that is firmly a lens, progressing towards an absolute and fixed collapse. This is why the prospect of Jack as a fact is so horrific: because it’s the same process that allows the creation of an absolute point of end and collapse for the world.
Everything within this story would have been all right if evil were not a fact. If evil were just one possibility that we might rise above or avert, if it were one line or path within the rhizome, then the ending of Utopia would no longer be an inevitable tragedy. It is only the way that the story positions evil as a fact that damns it. This is the dangerous power of facts - of setting anything outside the realm of what mercury can touch. That’s why not even the Time Lords touch the end of the universe. For all their embrace of a life of ordered calm, this is too awful even for them. Their worldview may depend on the lens, but the material reality of the lens is too awful to contemplate.
Ah yes, the Time Lords. Who do, in their way, make a return here. Because, of course, the lens is defined by two absolute points. It is not merely that everything progresses towards a definite end, but that everything emerges from a definite origin. And by putting the Time Lords on display the Doctor re-acquires a definite origin. These two developments are inextricable from each other. (Tellingly, next episode the Master becomes the occasion for our first sight of Gallifrey itself.) It is, in the end, the desire to resolve things that causes problems. Indeed, it’s the act of prying into Professor Yana’s history and trying to answer the question of where he came from that causes everything to go wrong. Martha seeks to identify and know the origin, and in doing so damns the universe.
This gets at the other thing that’s interesting in Utopia. The inescapable rot at the heart of all things is tied inexorably to Doctor Who fandom. Much of the episode plays with the tension of the inevitable reveal of the Master. To a sizable part of the audience this reveal was inevitable. Even if they hadn’t heard the rumors, there was a sort of inevitability to the setup. If you do the Daleks one year and the Cybermen the next, the Master is simply what’s next. And so once Yana is introduced and linked to the mystery of the pounding drums the eventual revelation is essentially inevitable. And so the evil isn’t simply the Master, but the knowledge that enables the Master. Note in particular how we have callbacks to the classic series here - a cackle of Ainley and a clip of Delgado. Perhaps most obviously, the drumming the Master hears is blatantly the bass line of the theme music. The evil is fundamentally linked to the past of Doctor Who, and knowledge of that past (and indeed, desire for that past) is causal in its inevitable emergence. In this regard the “one story or two” debate is oddly apropos, because it’s exactly the sort of engagement that the episode twists into the emergence of the Master.
Interestingly, this sort of engagement - the savvy, trope-based reading of Doctor Who - was the subject of the last episode, and became the hallmark of Moffat’s vision of the series. In this regard, it is the narrative logic of Blink that causes the Master’s release. The same textual pleasures that Moffat embraces are the ones that render the emergence of the Master inevitable. The Master, of course, is ultimately the undoing of Tennant’s Doctor, and so in this regard the Moffat era, having set out its principles, proceeds to unleash the force that brings about its own start conditions.
Because this is the real horror of the Master. For all that he is the inevitable darkness at the heart of all things, the Doctor visibly treats him as a form of promise. The Doctor is consistently ambivalent about the business of actually stopping the Master. The reasons for this are all sensible character reasons - the Master is the only person who can meaningfully alleviate the Doctor’s loneliness - but even as that emerges from character traits, there’s a secondary aspect to it. The Doctor desires his point of origin - the mass of continuity that defines where he came from. He desires, in effect, to be Doctor Who. Which, of course, he does. The program is run by longstanding fanboys who are, quite rightly, pleased as punch to have made Doctor Who the biggest show on television. Tennant himself is a massive fan. The desire to return to the continuity is tangible. But within the context of Utopia it’s been bent into a trap - the point of origin creates the point of cataclysmic ending.
And, of course, in the final moments we see the real problem. The Master starts in his most anodyne form - a leering old man who, while solidly menacing and played with gleeful panache is, let’s face it, not the most threatening thing the Doctor has ever encountered. Jacobi’s Master is consciously modeled on Hartnell’s Doctor, at least in physical appearance, further tying him to the past. But once he’s unleashed and near-trivially dispatched, by a comedy insect at that, he quickly remakes himself into something altogether more unnerving: a version of the Master that’s been updated to match the series. Not content to remain in the pleasant bunting of the past, the Master promptly throws all the standard tropes out the window and acts quickly and decisively to kill the Doctor, leaving him in a thoroughly bad setup. So much of what we expect from the Master is absent here. He actively declines to explain any baroque plan (indeed, he doesn’t really have one at this juncture). He doesn’t display any sort of desire to gloat over the Doctor. He just nicks the TARDIS and runs off, putting the Doctor on the desperate back foot.
And so we plunge into another narrative collapse - in many ways the most thoroughly and deeply worked one of Davies’s tenure thus far. This is not merely a threat to the narrative, but a threat that emerges out of it. (In this regard the Master is a surprisingly close cousin to the Weeping Angels) The line between the narrative and what threatens it is obscure at best, and may not even exist. Avoiding a narrative collapse is difficult enough when the threat comes from outside of the narrative. Doing so when it comes from the fabric of the narrative itself, on the other hand, may well be impossible. There’s a terrifying magnitude to the threat in this instance that we’ve never really seen before. And more to the point, if we look at the full nature of what happens in Utopia, informed by the revelation of what happens to the last of humanity, there is a terrifying absoluteness to it. After nearly two seasons of flirting with the theme that the series is arrogant and presumptuous, suddenly it seems to take seriously the possibility that Doctor Who deserves to die.