I prefer to think of "42" as homage. The setup is rather obvious: "Alien," one of the all-time great horror films and science fiction classics, featured seven people trapped aboard a starship with a killer alien they accidentally picked up. Substitute an impending crash for the alien nasty, and what you have is a taut little thriller of the kind that "Doctor Who" has rarely done in its three-year history since the show's modern return. Which is surprising, because the one-shot episodes the show's featured have largely been there to further ongoing plotlines ("Boom Town," "The Long Game") or spirited romps that meet varying degrees of success ("Love and Monsters," "Gridlock" or "Fear Me" if you really want to get down to the "all you need is love" aspect). The homage doesn't end there, either -- forget, for a moment, the bonk-you-over-the-head dues paid to "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" in the title, and the play on both the name of and plotting of the series "24".
In "42" we have what may be the season's first real moments of genuine terror. (The Judoon weren't really menacing, the Macra were just a bit creepy, the Lazarus beast a bit laughable and, well, the Daleks were never scary this year.) Surprising, then, that it doesn't come from an alien menace -- instead, it's a 42-minute play on real-time as the Doctor and Martha are literally stuck beyond any hope of rescue. (It's a plot device used before, at the onset of "The Impossible Planet," but why quibble?) That leaves our heroes to become very involved, very quickly, in the story.
And there is a story, despite the fact that I've heard varying comments suggesting that there isn't. It's not a particularly complex story, granted, but "Doctor Who" doesn't need to be -- the presentation of a problem, and the Doctor's journey to the solution, is what got us through much of the show's first twenty-six years. The Doctor's problem is how to save this ship and, and the same time, retrieve his TARDIS. And, eventually, to rescue Martha, who's trapped in an escape pod with a rather nice young man she finds a few moments to flirt with. Substitute Martha for any number of companions in days long gone and it could be your standard "Doctor Who" episode.
What sets "42" apart from the others in this similar mould is that it doesn't let up; it keeps going when you'd expect to catch your breath. The reason why the ship is in this predicament is explained fully; in fact, most everything is pretty much explained to satisfaction, barring the quibble of how Martha and Riley survive the elements in your basic tin can with a window that's hovering within the corona of a star and how, oh how, they manage to be yanked back to the ship (not to mention, why the method for doing so is on the OUTSIDE!) Yes, it's a silly moment, but no "Doctor Who" serial is without its flaws...
Director Graeme Harper is unusually gifted at making a serial look 'lived in' and he is on rare form with "42". It always feels like a spaceship, hollow and booming and largely empty. Harper adds a gorgeous canvas of reds, yellows and oranges that bring the heat of the star to bear on the cast and their surroundings. While I was not a fan of some of writer Chris Chibnall's earlier work in the genre (the meat-eater episode of "Torchwood" was just plain yukky), he does a terrific job presenting a crew at the end of their ropes, and the Doctor and Martha's dialogue are by now quite familiar. I must also mention the bits with the mobile phone -- presented like Chekhov's gun, in that if it's featured at the start of the episode, it must be used in the episode. It presents a rather nice segue into the continuing storyline this year concerning Mr. Saxon...
All in all, "42" is a treat -- a moment of interstellar science fiction on a starship doomed to disaster. (Who'd have thought in this day and age of mostly Earth-bound "Doctor Who"... ?) It's nice to get David Tennant and Freema Agyeman into space, even for a brief interlude, with the kinds of stories I've been aching to see. Destined to be known as a filler, it's in fact a rare little gem.
Against all the odds, Chris Chibnall, writer of three and a half very bad Torchwood episodes, writes a blinder. There's little original about '42': a doomed spaceship plunges towards a sun whilst the crew desperately try to save themselves and a mysterious alien presence hunts them down one by one. What makes it work is the titular gimmick, as the episode unfolds in real time, and veteran Doctor Who director Graeme Harper exploits the frenetic pace to astonishing effect. The cast is superb, with former EastEnders star Michelle Collins proving the biggest surprise, and they all put in sweaty and frantic performances. The episode looks great too, from the sunlight bursting from behind the eyes of those possessed, and the rusty, dirt-streaked ship a far cry from the brightly lit gleaming white interiors of the eighties. But this isn't what really surprised me about the episode.
Most of the new series episodes I've liked have been those that have remained truest to the spirit of the classic series and succeeded in spite of the trappings that I associate negatively with Russell T. Davies' Doctor Who. It helps considerably that Chibnall uses a throwaway line to render the Davies ex Machina useless early on, but this doesn't change the astonishing fact that he uses all of the other key ingredients of the new series and it actually *works*. We get pop culture references, but they serve a purpose, as Martha and Riley struggle to crack a series of security questions drunkenly chosen by the crew in the past. We get a judgemental Doctor filled with self-righteous condemnation of the humans and a tendency to portentously declare his refusal to lose a companion, but it also works firstly because David Tennant puts in possibly his best performance in the series thus far. We also get nods to this year's ongoing story arc, and therein lies the biggest surprise of all: integrating the "Mister Saxon" subplot into the series more prominently than was done with the Bad Wolf/Torchwood references previously is proving to be a striking success, as the Doctor is drawn further and further into a trap that he's currently blissfully unaware of. More strikingly, it is inserted into '42' by a contrivance that I thought I never wanted to see again, as the Doctor gives Martha's mobile "universal roaming".
Tying the series to Earth via Rose's ghastly mother felt to me like a squandering of the series' potential, rooting it in real life purely to appeal the stupider members of the audience who won't watch anything that doesn't in some crushingly obvious way reflect their lives. Since Martha has joined, we've only seen her reunited with her family in 'The Lazarus Experiment' and there, as here, we see them serving a more interesting purpose as the mysterious Mister Saxon tries to use them to get at the Doctor via his companion. It's an interesting approach, and it helps here that Martha's desire to 'phone her mum is entirely convincing on both occasions, first to ask her to search the internet for the answer to one of the life-saving questions, and more memorably because she thinks she's going to die. If I was stuck in an escape pod with a hunky young man who's not had sex in ages and is clearly up for it and knew I only had minutes to live, I'd probably think of some other way to spend my remaining time on this mortal coil than phoning my mother, but nonetheless it is an entirely believable reaction. Indeed, most of the emotion on display here works well, avoiding the soap opera leanings of previous episodes largely thanks to Harper's direction: the sight of the Doctor mouthing "I'll save you" through the window as Martha drifts slowly away could have been cloying, but Harper leaves it silent, so we don't get Murray Gold's syrupy musical nonsense telling us how to feel in the most overblown way imaginable. And having Kath appeal to the spirit of her husband inside the monster that he's become is one of the oldest clich?s in science fiction, but Harper's direction, Chibnall's script, and the actors' performance make her sacrifice seem like fitting redemption rather than predictable rot.
The two regulars are, incidentally, very good here. I've already mentioned Tennant, and having demonstrated hammy tendencies in the past, here he avoids the temptation so that the Doctor's agony when possessed by the sentient sun is utterly convincing, especially when he cries out that he's terrified. Freema Agyeman is also very good again, and it's refreshing to see that when faced with death she doesn't start regretting that she hasn't shagged the Doctor, she decides to say goodbye to her mum. She also kisses ??? just before she leaves and tells him he's hot, which pleasingly creates the impression that she's generally looking for a boyfriend rather than specifically obsessing over the Doctor like Rose did. And in that context, her previous musings on whether or not he ever really notices her seem far more acceptable.
Overall, '42' is a great episode, and great in ways that I wouldn't have anticipated. It also proves that Chris Chibnall can write decent, solid episodes when he's not allowed to fill them with juvenile and gratuitous sex, which is something he really ought to learn from.
Last year's two-parter The Impossible Planet and The Satan Pit was not one of the most successful instalments of new Doctor Who in terms of viewing figures. But it did seem to go down very well with reviewers, particularly those within fandom, and was a story with which the production team themselves appeared very pleased. Perhaps, in that context, it's no surprise that in 42 we were given an episode so similar to that story in so many ways.
Indeed, some of the many similarities were a little eyebrow-raising, to say the least. We have a small spaceship crew confined to one very industrial-looking setting. We have a desperate commanding officer trying to keep them all together and get them out of their plight. Instead of a mysterious life form at the heart of a black hole we have a mysterious life form at the heart of a sun, but we still lose access to the TARDIS -- the use of which could have saved everyone's trouble within five minutes -- at the very start of the episode.
Having said all of that, I actually felt that 42 was a bit more successful than Matt Jones's two-parter, and a very enjoyable episode in its own right. For one thing, the pace seemed better -- I liked The Impossible Planet and The Satan Pit, but they did seem to flag a little in places, whereas 42 was pretty much exactly right, bar perhaps integrating the Doctor and Martha with the rest of the crew a touch too rapidly at the beginning. The 'real time' conceit may be a bit of a hoary old clich? by now, and indeed one Doctor Who itself has already pretty much done with less fanfare in The End of the World, but it was still an interesting hook upon which to hang the episode.
The End of the World also had the much-debated Galaxy Quest-style fans sequence, and you do have to wonder whether the twenty-eight password-sealed doors that the crew had to get through with their pub quiz trivia questions here really served any function other than to impede the progress of the characters and heighten the drama during an emergency. I know Riley had a line about them being a precaution in the event of a hi-jack, but I don't think Chibnall did quite enough to justify it. However, as it ended up giving us the Doctor's lines about "recreational mathematics" and an excuse for Martha's phone calls home, I suppose he just about gets away with it.
The rest of Chibnall's writing seemed pretty confident and assured, and I don't know whether it was he or Davies who decided to add the sinister Saxon bits to Mrs Jones's segments -- probably Davies -- but they served as an intriguing increase to the enigma of this year's 'arc'. An unexpected one, too -- I had assumed this episode would stand completely alone, as locked off and isolated as the crew of the spaceship upon which it was set, but evidently not.
One aspect of the script that did pull me up short and make me wonder was the small moment when the Doctor is on the outside in the space suit attempting to activate the process to remagnetise the escape pod dock and pull the pod back in. No, it wasn't so much the idea that such a system would be put in such a stupidly inaccessible place -- although now I think of it, that was a bit strange -- it was Scannell's sudden encouragement to him over the radio. He'd been so pessimistic and cynical about everything up to this point, why was he suddenly so encouraging? Just stuck me as a tad odd, really.
Graeme Harper's name attached to a Doctor Who story is more often than not an indicator of good quality, so it was very nice to see him back again on the new series, and from the look of things on the associated Confidential episode he's still as energetic and enthusiastic as ever about his work on the programme. I have to admit that I am not usually one to pick up on either good or bad direction unless it's so far either way as to really smack you around the face, but I did really like some of Harper's touches here. Standing out was the silence that accompanied the escape pod drifting away from the ship as the Doctor shouted soundlessly to Martha that he was going to save her -- a terrific piece of direction that seemed quite different to anything else we've seen since Doctor Who's return. I also liked the splashes of red across the deep blue lighting of the escape pod interior as Martha and Riley thought they were drifting to their deaths, and McDonnell and Korwin's balletic floating to their own demise near the end of the episode.
McDonnell's casting had slightly concerned me when it was announced that she was to be played by Michelle Collins, as it's so difficult to disassociate her from the character she played in EastEnders for all those years, Cindy Beale. Cindy was an emotional cripple who was frankly weird at times in her limited range of responses and actions, and despite Collins having acted in a great many dramas for the BBC and ITV since Cindy was unceremoniously given an off-screen death in the soap opera, Collins played the part for so long that actress and character are forever indelibly linked.
Collins managed to overcome such audience prejudices and preconceptions quite successfully though, I thought. She gave McDonnell a toughness that you could see was inspired by the likes of Ripley in the Alien films, but also a more vulnerable, emotional side in her relationship with her husband and her reaction to his possession by the sun creatures that made her sacrifice at the end all the more effective.
Full marks must also go to the two survivors of the ship's crew, Anthony Flanagan as Scannell and William Ash as Riley. Flanagan is a very familiar face to most television drama viewers these days from his regular role in the first three years of Paul Abbott's Shameless, and also played the killer in last year's one-off Cracker revival. I hadn't actually heard about his casting before seeing the episode and was quite surprised when I recognised him -- I thought that his career was on such an upward trajectory at the moment that a comparatively minor guest role in Doctor Who would have been a bit of a comedown for him. It's nice to see that such talented and successful actors want to be involved in the series at such a level, and that the programme has the power to attract such talent.
I'm not as familiar with the previous work of William Ash, but I thought he was very good as Riley, making him seem a very realistic character. His scenes with Martha in the escape pod were some of the highlights of the episode, and it's a sign of a good performance that even when delivering the somewhat corny and clich?d lines about having fallen out with his family he never made it seem too melodramatic and played it pitch perfect.
Murray Gold's score was good -- not being a great one for judging the quality of music it's hard to be any more specific than that, but only one moment really jarred. It was at the end, as we cut back to Martha's mother on the phone when Martha has hung up, and we hear the sound of horns. I assumed for some reason they were car horns blaring on the street outside her flat, but they turned out to be part of the incidental music.
Quibbles aside, I found this to be one of the best episodes so far of this series, and the first one since Gridlock that I've watched again after its initial broadcast. It seems that Doctor Who is the better for its two-week break, so let's hope the adaptation of Human Nature which begins next week keeps the quality on an upward level.
One of the better gap-fillers of the past three seasons, 42 is really a paler version of last year's seasonal peak, The Impossible Planet. It lacks the latter's detail and scenario, and characterisations, hinting at a reprise of the same supernatural menace, but rather strangely taking a sidestep away and avoiding being the Snakedance to Impossible's Kinda. This is a bit confusing as not only does 42 very much look like Impossible Planet, simply re-alligning the latter episode's scenario of a space station hurtling towards a black hole with an equally sweaty spaceship hurtling towards a distant sun, but the menacing 'burn with me' catchphrase also mirrors uncannily the 'don't turn round' chiller of Impossible Planet's Sutekh-esque invisible menace. But this time, instead of a disturbingly tattooed possessed crew member with red eyes, we have various possessees donning 2001-style space helmets and opening visors sporadically to emit leathel sun-rays on the victims. We also again have subtle allusions to Sutekh of the classic Pyramids of Mars with one of the possessed killing a crew member by clutching their face while smoke steams out seemingly from his hands.
Mostly this episode was well done, looked good, and served its purpose - that purpose being to my mind to simply plug a gap between stronger episodes (assuming Human Nature is going to live up to our expectations that is, which I think it will). This episode really only serves a purpose in its own right at showing the Doctor in an unusually powerless position, thus emphasizing his mortal vulnerability to fly in the face of the 'lonely God/immortal wanderer' spin of the new series so far. The Doctor is after all mortal, in spite of his Timelord makeup; he can only regenerate 12 times as all older fans know, so no harm in showing for once how he can sometimes be out of his depth and actually have to rely on a lesser mortal, ie his companion, to get him out of the fix. The scenes in which the Doctor is possessed and clearly in severe pain and distress are very well handled here, though I feel go overboard, and are not to my mind suitable for children to watch. I think 42 pushed out the boat of horror just a little too far, and I personally think this is because it had to, as the episode itself is weak and rather empty. The karmic element is refreshing (also slightly reminiscent of the incomparably deeper and more compelling Kinda of the Davison era), and was actually a nice little philosophical and moral twist to the episode. One might look on this as a comment on man's abuse of his environment, of the sun, and of nuclear energy.
42's script lacked generally, though was, broadly-speaking, adequate for what it was trying to do. The characters had little room to develop, with Michelle Collins's rather blanched portrayal being redemed ultimately only by her attoning self-sacrifice.
The script slipped up badly in places, especially with the ludicrous 'Come on my son!' from the Doctor as he struggled to save the day in possibly his most excrutiatingly desperate setting yet - so, very bad scripting there. The silly question about who had the most number ones, the Beatles or Elvis, was initially treated quite well with the crew member reading it pronouncing Beatles as Be-atles and referring to the subject as classical music. But having the Doctor brainstorming for the answer as if in a surreal pub quiz, and remembering the recent Elvis remix, was frankly embarrassing.
The scene in the escape pod provided the token 'still moment' in the adrenalin-pumping episode, but really served no purpose except to attempt some depth with Martha, and rather jarred with the real time pace of the rest of the story.
I'm assuming the crisis endured by the Doctor in this particularly trying episode is to lead in to his subsequent need to seek a new, quieter life and identity in the upcoming two-parter, so in this sense 42 has a place in the season. But frankly any past incarnation put through the same amount of pain as the 10th is in this episode would have inevitably regenerated (remember the 3rd Doctor's draining by the crystal on Metabelis in Planet of Spiders and the 5th's ravaging by spectrox in Caves of Androzani?).
All in all an acceptable episode, well-executed but ultimately rather limp and unsatisfying. A missed opportunity I think, as if you are going to duplicate a previous episode so obviously (ie Impossible Planet) you may as well make some sort of sequal and further develop the original through it. Instead we had what feels like a bit of a repeat session, but with a less satisfying plot. Nevertheless, 42 is still poles apart from the first two episodes of the season, both of which are still inexplicably lauded by many reviewers on this site - (I will simply never understand the appeal of The Shakespeare Code, which is to my mind the worst episode so far this season, and the biggest jingoistic sell out of new Who so far).
42 = 5/10.
Something different for Doctor Who, a "realtime" epsiode. My dad asked what that meant when he read it in his TV guide. So we knew we were in for something of a rollercoaster ride.
The Doctor and Martha answer a distress call and find themselves aboard a space ship which is crippled and headed for collision with a sun. Later it becomes clear that the sun, or something in its corona is alive and in illegally scooping up the star's energy for their engines the crew have sucked up the "heart" of the entity into thier ship....and understandably the creature is not overly happy about this!
One of the crew is taken over by the entity, whcih proceeds to take its revenge by picking off the crew one by one. Wearing a rather creepy face mask, every time it lifts the visor it shines what looks like sunlight onto its victim who is incinerated.
The Doctor and Martha of course have 42 minutes to save the day, which they do by finally realising what has happened and dumping the contents of the fuel chambers back into the area they scooped it from.
I liked the concept of a different kind of entity/lifeform. Its not entirely original but its unusual, a better idea perhaps than the Isolus from last year's "Fear Her".
Martha as a character came into her own when she was separated from the Doctor and trapped into an escape pod with a crew member. In that scene she earned her stripes as a top class character, companion and Freema is undisputably an excellent actress. The pod slowly, agonisingly moves away...and Martha bangs on the window asking for help, while the Doctor says "I'll save you" but of course neither can hear the other.
The tention is built up skillfully, something to do I think with Graeme Harper's direction and Chris Chibnal's script. At times this had a similar feel to "The Satan Pit", perhaps because of the claustrophobic space ship setting. The resolution was satisfactory, and we were finally treated to the poignant moment where the Doctor gives Martha the TARDIS key as a "frequent flier" bonus.
Then, the final scene...where Mrs Jones is clearly helping Mr Saxon track down the Doctor. Of course she believes Saxon is doing good, and is worried about her daughter. That was all done well. the Saxon references and the Jones family are being handled better than Torchwood and the Tylers generally were in 2005/6.
Overall I enjoyed, but it seems this series is stuck in fourth gear and unable to go up into top. Rather fourth than second, however.
The inner core of "42," Chris Chibnall's seventh episode of this year's season, is all about the current state of uncertainty in British politics as Tony Blair gets ready this summer to leave No. 10. The current worldwide mistrust of politicians and total dissatisfaction with the war in Iraq, so evident on the streets of London these days, is clear in this episode's scenes where it is revealed that Mrs. Jones is cooperating with intelligence agents from a political party who is out to destroy the Doctor. They are wiretapping her mobile phone conversations with her daughter. One of these conversations involves Martha calling up her mother fearing that this will be their last phone conversation, as her space pod is being sucked into the gravitational pull of a living sun. The scene painfully reminds us of the countless mobile exchanges that occurred at the World Trade Center on September 11 when parents and children professed their love for one another for the last time. The fact that during Martha and her mum's conversations the UK is in the middle of Election Day makes the political implications of this episode crystal clear.
The episode's numerical title is apt as well in these days when the body count in Iraq keeps rising and the number of years of involvement in the war flies as out of control as the space craft where the TARDIS has landed. Thankfully, the fact that the number 42 is a magical mystical number for The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and also the age when Elvis Presley died brings the episode back to the world of entertainment. Politics aside, Mr. Chibnall has not forgotten that Dr. Who is not didactic Brechtian epic theater, and his "42" is one of the most entertaining shows of the season, a non-stop rollercoaster ride the likes of which we have not had this season.
Even though the episode's world is rooted in the ethos of Post-Modernism, with quotes and references to various contemporary novels, shows, and movies, the inner core of "42" goes back to Western Civilization's earliest "textbook" on how to write fiction: the Poetics of Aristotle, and in particular, the Aristotelian unities of time which this episode maintains. The entire episode is a race to the finish in which the main characters try to save one another before the clock runs out. In its own post-modern way, "42" also shares much in common with "Life Time" a 1979 M*A*S*H episode, dramatized in real time, where a very visible on-screen clock counts down the minutes that show the plight of a soldier who will suffer permanent injury or death if he isn't treated in the episode's 20 minutes. Back in its heyday that M*A*S*H episode was a television landmark. "42" is not out to make history, it just wants to use one of the oldest tricks in the book and get us to engage in some real-time nail biting.
The juicier parts of "42" are the postmodern moments that make us smile with a sense of artistic recognition. For instance, the moment when the Doctor looks intensely at a living organism in outer space and utters Dr. Frankenstein's immortal lines from the Universal 1931 classic: "It's alive! It's alive!" This wonderful moment happens while the crew of a ship in distress is being systematically eliminated, one by one, by an alien force that has managed to creep onboard; the members of the crew, and the ship itself being sufficiently reminiscent of James Cameron's world in the film Aliens for us to recognize its homage. Michelle Collins, looking a little older and a little wiser from her EastEnders days, makes a great Sigourney Weaver-like character -- complete with sexy tank top. It's great to see Ms. Collins back on TV after her stint on the West End musical Daddy Cool. Towards the conclusion of this episode there is an illusion to one of last year's great films. When the Sinister Woman, dressed in black, who has been wiretapping away phone conversations throughout, takes Martha's mother's mobile phone after she has finished talking with her daughter, she asks mum the following: "Have you voted?... Mr. Saxon will be very grateful." Mr. Saxon's name is as British as they come. Is "42" promising to offer us, in the upcoming weeks, an Orwellian look at a Britain that will soon start rounding up its aliens, as in Alfonso Cuar?n's brilliant Children of Men? The promise of a look at a modern xenophobic British dystopia is certainly an engrossing proposition for the current series to explore given the modern state of world politics and Britain's own unique problems with immigration.
The visual landscape of "42" is one of the stars of the show. The episode is all about sweat and steam, all photographed by Ernie Vincze, BSC in dominant reds and greens that juxtapose each other like deadly acids. Certainly one of the best looking shows of the season, its cinematography equals or surpasses many current theatrical films.
The episode also features the Doctor in distress -- always a problem, because if he can't save us who can! Luckily, Martha Jones, a doctor herself, comes to the rescue and manages to increase her importance as one of the most resourceful companions in the history of the series. We also get to experience what can surely be called Time Lord jealousy, as the Doctor is certainly not amused after he realizes that Martha's cup of emotions are running over when it comes to Riley, a member of the crew with whom she got stuck inside a escape pod. At the end of the show, Riley and Martha share an erstwhile kiss, which potentially complicates her relationship with the Doctor even more. Martha's comment after the kiss: "Well done, very hot," is one of the many references to heat through the clever script. My particular favorite, though, is when the Doctor mentions one of George Harrison's finest songs "Here Comes the Sun" from the album "Abbey Road" as the ship where they are trapped continues to spin out of control towards their certain burning death.
"42" concludes with the sense that all is right with the universe once more. More importantly, the relationship between Martha and the Doctor seems to be on the right track once they both reach the relative safety of the TARDIS. The Doctor has shown us that at times he can be "human," but he has also realized that Martha's fling with Riley is all part of human nature. We will see more "Human Nature" at play next week.