Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Whotopia*

Before we start I'll put my hands up. I watched 'Utopia' in the near certainty that it would be
rubbish. I didn't want to: it's never good to experience anything with massive negative preconceptions already in place, after all. But I couldn't help myself. Russell T Davies is a perfectly competent writer (and seems like a lovely person as well), but to my mind he's an slightly above average ability hack** who has been elevated to the ranks of virtual auteur by solely because of the weakness of the current UK TV writing scene.

He can turn out page upon page of decent dialogue, hung upon a bare bones plot, all of which can be filmed easily enough using a team of decent actors and a solid director. He's rarely inspired and he repeats the same basic elements over and over again with little obvious imagination, but he can be relied upon to churn out scripts to demand which is a rarer trait, I believe, than you would think.

He's Terry Nation, basically (even down to using the same favourite names more than once). That's no slight on the man - I love Nation's work and would count season 1 of Survivors as my all time favourite single season of television. But it does mean that I tend to watch his episodes of Who in anticipation of 'much the same as last time'.

To be fair, Utopia doesn't actually disappoint in that respect. It features the utter lack of sparkle
which marks Rusty's far future societies. It's got Cap'n Jack in it, flirting with everyone. There's
various scientific bits which make no sense even in an in-story way. Scientific solutions go 'boink'.

And yet, for once it works.

It obviously helps that an actor of the stature of Derek Jacobi plays the Professor with a degree of unforced aplomb which is a delight to watch, but it would be an injustice not to give credit where it's due.

This Davies script is full of the kind of layered, intelligent writing that his fans have tried - with
little success - to claim for his earlier offerings. Maybe it's just me, maybe I was in a a better
frame of mind, but there was a charm in 'Utopia' which I've never found before in Rusty's work.

The swearing scene with the two youngsters was genuinely funny, for instance, and not laboured in the slightest. The revelation that YANA stood for You Are Not Alone had me high-fiving my son. Even Cap'n Jack made me laugh.

Ah, Cap'n Jack. Primarily a one-note pain in the arse in the Eccleston season and as rotten as most other things in the Torchwood spin-off, RTD does more with the character in this single episode than every other appearance combined. It helps that Barrowman (an actor sufficiently limited to make David Boreanaz look like Al Pacino) also unexpectedly raises his game, to the extent that it's not actually embarassing watching him on the same screen as a Tennant who continues from previous weeks at the absolute top of his game. The (horribly contrived, admittedly) scene in the radiation flooded reactor room is Barrowman's best acting performance to date, but the script at that point is so tight that it would have been a challenge to mess it up.

And it gets tighter still as Jacobi's hidden secret is revealed and Chanto melts his evil insides as she dies. "KIlled by an insect', 'As one door closes...', Davies' totally nails the Ainley Master and
Jacobi doesn't disappoint in breathing life into his words. That John Simm then chews the scenery with gusto might have struck a wrong note, but it's obviously intended to mirror Tennant's post-regeneration whirl, and it's fantastic that the Doctor now doesn't even know what the Master looks like. Hopefully the final two parts of the season will do more with such a promising set-up than piss it all away on some variation of the Doctor and the Master are brothers/lovers/father and son.

If I have one complaint it's the fact that yet again the Far Far Far Future looks so unimaginative. This week's crowd of extras comes from a Blakes 7 episode, rather than an Ikea catalogue, but really - you would think with the money and talent at work, we'd have come a little further away from 'Frontios'. But that, and more minor quibbles about overly convenient deadly power couplings and ships that can't be started from inside, is a moan for another day.

For today, Rusty is the Master.

* I nicked the title off of Simon, since i couldn't think of anything myself
** Not an insult, to be clear.

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7 Comments:

Blogger alienvoord said...

dude, have you even seen Queer as Folk and Second Coming?

7:01 pm  
Blogger SAF said...

A worthy review - despite half-inching my title ;) (but heck, it's only the heading everyone would use). I'd have to pretty much go along with your thoughts on it - only the YANA/You Are Not Alone bit had me groaning and shaking my head, and I was waiting for Jack to melt into a million bits and keep re-piecing himself back together in the radiation room :)

10:59 pm  
Blogger SK said...

I wonder if it was a deliberate homage to Nation, what with the big rocket and the quarry and the peculiarly Nationesque misunderstanding of how evolution works.

8:59 am  
Blogger Stuart Douglas said...

AV: "dude, have you even seen Queer as Folk and Second Coming?"

I've seen them both and quite liked Second Coming. It's got a weak ending and it's nowhere near as good as is claimed, but Eccleston is excellent in it and it starts very well. But it's no better than half a dozen other things I watched round the same time, and not a patch on several others.

QaF I saw one episode of and didn't like. Straight or gay, male or female, I'm not a big one for shows which start off with adults having fairly graphic sex with fourteeen year olds. (I sound like I should be writing into the Sunday Post complaining about medern telly, but there you go...)

I've also seen Bob and Rose (poor) and Casanova (rather good, but workmanlike only and with the single most clumsy joke in the history of telly).

The problem is, I think, that Rusty is a perfectly competent writer but no more. In terms of writing he's not even on a par with the likes of Paul Abbott or Steven Moffat, never mind the likes of Sorkin and Whedon that his more rabid fans try and claim. As a showrunner, Who is obviously bigger than either Shameless or Coupling, but I find it telling that *all* of the really great episodes of New Who have been written by those authors whom RTD wouldn't get to edit.

9:15 am  
Blogger Stuart Douglas said...

SK: "I wonder if it was a deliberate homage to Nation, what with the big rocket and the quarry and the peculiarly Nationesque misunderstanding of how evolution works."

That did cross my mind, and in my current good humour towards RTD I'd like to think it was true (really though, someone should have discussed travelling to the 'constellation of Utopia' and Utopia itself should have been renamed something more descriptive (with an 'us' suffix), just to make it wholly obvious.

9:18 am  
Blogger Whotopia said...

Interesting that you state that you 'nicked the title off of Simon, since i couldn't think of anything myself' as Whotopi is the name of my Doctor Who Website (www.whotopia.co.uk) which contains detailed information on this story + on all the others.

5:04 pm  
Blogger Stuart Douglas said...

Great minds think alike obviously :)

11:35 pm  

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