Tuesday, June 19, 2007

"This new regeneration of yours - kind of cheeky."

Well, everybody's up and pointed out that the monsters in this week's Who were lifted straight out of Mad Max, even the director, so why not just say it again? But so what if the story was thin and rudimentary, so what if the minor characters were disposable? Utopia wasn't about telling a story, it was about setting up the next two episodes and the big finale. And it did this to the tune of... probably 6 or 7 out of 10. Gridlockish in its preference of grand myth-building set pieces and quirky character/dialogue moments over sustained narrative content.

Some of that myth-building didn't work so well, and I'm thinking specifically here of the "You are not alone"/Yana thing. Two faults: it made no sense within the context of the story (could've just left it as a wink and a nod to the fans at home and gotten away with it), and it was hammered home with gross unsubtlety. Then I pick up today's Radio Times and find them proving that "Mister Saxon" actually is "Master no. six", although you have to fudge it a bit (and typically, poor old Gordon Tipple who appeared in shadow in the TV Movie pre-credits doesn't get a look in). What galls isn't that online fan theories are being proven right - it's that it's the really cheesy theories that are being proven right.

Let's move right along to the Master himself. I have a beef with the Master, and it's basically the same as my beef with the Daleks. "We need a villain for this story." "Oh, let's wheel out the Master again, he hasn't had his yearly dusting-off yet. And besides, 'everybody knows he's the Doctor's greatest enemy', chiz chiz." (Edit #1: And let me just make clear, I'm talking Old Who here. Old Who worked that whole nemesis schtick into the ground. New Who is allowed to try it once, and we'll see how it goes. I can only applaud RTD's restraint in waiting three years to do it.)

The Master was a corny rent-a-villain even in the first year he showed up, when they shoe-horned him into every single Who story of 1971, and yet there was actually a point to him back then. As anyone who's read a Who reference work will know, the Buddhism-loving producer brought in this destructive personification of the Doctor's id in order to set up a finger-cymbal-tinging revelatory showdown in Jon Pertwee's final story, a plan that fell through when Roger Delgado sadly died between seasons. And so the Master just disappeared for a while, a loose end for later producers to bring back whenever they were short of a cliched cackling megalomaniac with no credible motive to drive that week's story.

Not that I don't enjoy Delgado's suavity or Ainley's hammy purring now and then, you understand. Sometimes I even enjoy Dalek stories. But it's just too easy, with any recurring villain, to hang a story solely off their reappearance rather than tell a good story that happens to have them in it, and that way mediocrity lies. It's a little worrying, therefore, to watch an episode of New Who that's pretty much hung off the reintroduction of the Master. Now I'm prepared to keep an open mind for the next two weeks because there's every reason to suppose that Russell T Davies will find something interesting and new to do with the Master the first time he uses him (it's the second and subsequent times I'd worry about), because it's the season finale and I have faith in RTD to pull it out of the bag, and because John Simm shows promise in the role.

Positive things now. Derek Jacobi was wonderful as lovely old Professor Yana. Thing is, I do largely associate him with roles of the "lovely old" variety (Claudius, Brother Cadfael), so I was a bit unsure of him as the Master. He handled the transition between the two very well, though. His humanoid weevil assistant was good too - I'm prepared to let the "Chan, tho" stuff go on the basis that it's a cultural etiquette thing. John Simm certainly looks like he'll have fun with the part over the next couple of episodes. Quick fannish moment - it's been said that the Doctor's regenerations can be affected by whatever's around him beforehand. (Edit #2: I was pretty sure this was said explicitly in the new series, possibly in the Children in Need skit or else in New Earth. But I don't have a copy of New Earth owing to it being not very good, and I haven't yet had time to check the skit on Youtube (Bonus Edit: Now I have, and it isn't there, dammit.), so I don't absolutely definitely know. If it wasn't said outright in the series, it should've been, 'cos it's a great fan theory that's been doing the rounds for some considerable time.) So Doctor Tennant is more like his Cockernee companion than Doctor Eccles. Does it also explain the Fourth Doctor's alien, skittish mind that the Third Doctor spent his final hour in a room with a giant megalomaniac spider? So here we see the Master regenerate inside the Doctor's TARDIS, and blow me if he isn't acting a lot more Doctorish.

All things considered, I wouldn't call this one of the great episodes in its own right, but it makes the two-part finale look highly appetising. Excellent ending.


Ben said...

Every point seconded - thought it must be said that even Jacobi couldn't quite pull off the atrocious post-turning-evil dialogue he got lumbered with.

So - Daleks at the end of series 1, cybes at the end of series 2, Master at the end of 3 ... Professor Zaroff for 4, anyone?

John Toon said...

Yes... "Shot by a girl - how inappropriate!" That certainly didn't help matters. Thing is, that's another problem I've had with the Master hitherto - people seem compelled to write the most appallingly cod "evil" dialogue for him. At least with Master Tyler ("I bumped my head and woke up at the end of the universe with my real personality in a pocket-watch. Am I dreaming, in a coma or the ultimate embodiment of evil?") it looks like they're going to turn him into a kind of fun maniac. Love that thumbs-up moment in the trailer for next week.

John Toon said...

I've just read a lovely theory that the Master disguised himself as the kind of person the Doctor used to be (i.e. the kind of thing some fans were expecting to see when the show came back) - more mature character actor, Victorian/Edwardian clothing, cod dialogue, novelty alien companion. Which adds another level to him being pissed off to find out that the Doctor is now "young and strong" (and cheeky), and changing into something similar.

I think this fits the evidence quite nicely. He always had a gigantic case of Doctor envy, after all.

Siskoid said...

I'm sorry John, but WHEN did Doctor 10 tell Rose regeneration was affected by his surroundings? I missed that bit. Help in spotting it much appreciated.

John Toon said...

I think it was in the five-minute 'Children in Need' scene between series 1 and 2. I'm pretty sure, anyway.