Image courtesy the BBC.
The latest Doctor Who episode, 42, does not address big issues. It’s not about life, the universe and everything. It’s not about gimmicks, either. Although the Doctor has precisely 42 minutes to save the ship, the story is not told in real time. Just like The Lazarus Experiment, the tale is not ambitious, but it achieves what it sets out to do. Indeed, it achieves what it sets out to do, and then some. And unlike The Lazarus Experiment, there are excellent character touches throughout all the mayhem.
Be warned that this review contains spoilers, so if you don’t want to be spoiled, please look away.
With the Doctor no longer taking Martha on “one more trip”, he honours her elevation to companion by rigging up her cellphone just as he did to Rose’s phone in The End of the World (Martha, fortunately, doesn’t clue into this; or, if she does, she’s too delighted by the prospect of no more long distance charges, ever, to mind). But before Martha can make use of her new toy, the TARDIS detects a distress signal, and the Doctor smashes the TARDIS on board a rust-bucket of a vessel. In short order, the Doctor and Martha are separated from their ship, and confronted with a crew who, though they have no idea who the Doctor and Martha are and how they got there, have bigger things on their mind. The ship is diving headlong towards a sun, the engines have been sabotaged, the whole place is in lockdown, and the heat shields are failing. The Doctor has 42 minutes to prevent disaster, but the decaying orbit isn’t the only thing to worry about. A hot, hot parasite is on board, making the work of the crew that much more impossible.
Author Chris Chibnall is a newcomer to Doctor Who, but he has already gathered an impressive portfolio, including the time travel police drama Life on Mars and four episodes of the Doctor Who spinoff series Torchwood. Those four episodes were something of a mixed bag (especially the laughable Cyberwoman), but one thing Chris Chibnall demonstrates is an ability to write action. In 42, he surpasses himself with a taut script that only rarely lets the audience get a breather. You’ll see spacewalks in the corona of a sun, a classic struggle of humans under siege from an alien menace, and all sorts of other things that will butter your popcorn.
Chibnall bolsters that script with some excellent characterizations. Captain McDonnell (played by Michelle Collins) is especially a highlight — a no-nonsense leader who is still momentarily overwhelmed by the fact that her husband has been consumed by a solar parasite, and yet manages to pull it all together in one remarkable performance. There are little moments throughout this script that allow you to get to know these characters, and to care for them, so that when they meet their inevitable fate, it matters. Again, McDonnell’s death scene is really well done; an absolute showstopper of character, story and direction. My jaw dropped.
Director Graeme Harper shines, here, too. Once the most popular director of the classic Doctor Who series, Harper’s much heralded return to the series last year came off as a minor disappointment after he found himself matched and then some by the calibre of directors Russell T. Davies had been hiring, but with Chris Chibnall’s script in hand, Harper shows what he can do, and there are many moments which are entirely his call that make the jaw drop, including the pure silence as Martha’s escape pod detaches from the ship.
And then we have the Doctor and Martha, who go through a roller-coaster of emotions. That rigged-up cellphone gets used three times as Martha initially calls her mother for some research assistance, then to say goodbye, and then to assure her that everything is all right. One has to feel for Martha’s mother, even if she’s decided to turn to Mr. Saxon to figure out what the heck is going on.
My friend Cameron, who loves this episode, points out that 42 and Smith and Jones highlight the subtle differences between Martha and Rose. Whereas Roes had emotional intelligence, Martha’s got booksmarts. In Smith and Jones, when the Doctor tells Martha to activate the X-Ray machine and she doesn’t know how, the first thing she does is go for the operating manual, whereas Rose would push any button that looked promising. When asked who had more number one hits, Elvis or the Beatles, Martha calls for help, whereas Rose would have accepted the 50-50 odds and gone on a hunch. Well, Francine is to Jackie as Martha is to Rose. In Aliens of London, Jackie does the first thing that comes to mind when she thinks the Doctor is a threat: she calls the first available help line and blurts out her worries. Francine’s approach is far more methodical, involving Saxon’s Men in Black.
The Doctor has some strong moments as well, and more than just playing action hero. When the Doctor gets infected by the solar parasite, he confides (albeit at the top of his lungs — give the guy a break, he was probably in great pain) to Martha that he’s scared. When has the Doctor ever done that before? And it provoked a debate between Erin and myself about what he was scared about. Was it dying, or was it being taken over and used to kill? In the end, we both leaned heavily towards the latter. When the Doctor succumbs to the parasite in the final moments, it is a really terrifying moment.
Martha really does shine in this episode, and it’s no accident that the Doctor hands her a copy of the TARDIS key at the end of it. I get the sense that he has been humbled by his experience, and perhaps Martha’s lighthearted quip stung him a little more than she realized.
If I can fault this script at all, it’s only that it isn’t very ambitious. This may be more the result of it coming after The Lazarus Experiment than anything else, but at first glance 42 felt a little like The Impossible Planet-lite. Not that this is an insult. The story keeps you on the edge of your seat, offers you some solid characters to care about, and holds together as the plot threads are all wrapped up with no contrivances that I could see. Really, I enjoyed all of what Chris Chibnall offered, but I wanted more.
But more may come, as the writing staff continues to play out the Mr. Saxon story. Meanwhile, the next episode is a two-parter: Paul Cornell’s Human Nature, which should be a very interesting entry into the canon indeed.
- When Martha calls home and her mother desperately invites her over for dinner, Martha asks what day it is. “Election Day”, her mother replies. Now, this is an interesting clue. This implies that Mr. Saxon is about to win a free hand in parliament, but we cannot say that this is the election which has brought him to power. Consider: we’ve already seen Mr. Saxon working with Men in Black; we’ve already seen him order the army to shoot down alien spaceships. He’s already in charge; so what is this election about? Unless, Mr. Saxon came up through the government, took power as an interim prime minister after Harriet Jones was forced to resign, and this election is to confirm what is essentially true.
- I’ve been wondering if Murray Gold is double booked, as I’ve been hearing various themes repeated this season from previous seasons, and to somewhat jarring effect. I couldn’t recall any outstanding new music in Evolution of the Daleks and a number of stings from The Impossible Planet get reused here (which contributed to my original assessment of this story as The Impossible Planet-lite). However, on second listening, I did catch a pounding electric guitar score to Martha’s initial race for the front of the ship, and I suspect that I may have been corrupted by listening to Murray Gold’s excellent soundtrack album over and over again.
- The BBC website features a text prologue for 42, for anybody interested.