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Commentary: Doctor Who, Time Lords and Utopia

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“Utopia”, the most recent episode of the revived Doctor Who, resurrected one of the Doctor’s most formidable foes and was the opening episode in a three-part arc that looks set to shake up the entire Who-niverse and unravel a number of the plot developments of the latest series. Spoilers and discussion follow, so stop reading now if you want to avoid either.

It’s about time the Master showed up again. After all, within the space of less than 30 episodes, Russell T. Davies managed to run the Daleks into the ground, somehow transforming them from the most menacing aliens in the galaxy into an overused and tedious pest: a race of incompetent squids in power armor, shrilly hyperventilating in nearly every episode (and that’s when Davies doesn’t have them going on and on about their “feelings”). The Master, on the other hand, is the Doctor’s antithesis, contrasting the heroic qualities of our time traveling hero with a character who — while sharing the Doctor’s intellect, powers and background — has chosen to work as a malevolent force. He’s the only foe who can play the Doctor’s own game.

But my first impression is that Russell T. Davies has dropped the ball on yet another of the Doctor’s classic enemies. Theoretically, Derek Jacobi would be an exquisite choice to play the Master: he’s a respected Shakespearean actor with considerable gravitas. But for the majority of “Utopia” — incarnated as a benevolent professor who doesn’t realize he’s a Time Lord — Jacobi isn’t given much to work with, giving the overall impression that he stroked off at the retirement home and somehow wandered on to a film set. Things get delicious when Derek Jacobi becomes the Master and is allowed to leer, snarl and grimace. But just at that point where I was lapping up his Mephisophelean performance and relishing a Jacobi Master to come, an anthropomorphic mantis shoots jacob and he regenerates into actor John Simm.

To be fair, John Simm hasn’t really been given more than 60 seconds of screen time to impress. But my initial impression isn’t that Simm is a bad actor, just that Davies’ vision of the Master is as questionable as many of his decisions (such as sexualizing the alien and asexual Doctor). The Master is supposed to be an exquisitely hateful, charismatic and intelligent character: on the other hand, Simm;s portrayal is that of a petulant Puck, sarcastically shrieking “Bye bye!” at the Doctor as he zooms off in the TARDIS. For some reason, I expect a little bit more dignity out of my evil, immortal, time-traveling Time Lords.

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