I love it when Doctor Who leans on the fourth wall a bit, and the plot of 42 is gloriously self-aware. The idea of a story taking place in real-time is a good one, because it adds to the excitement and tension, as we experience the countdown in the same timeframe as the characters. This was such a big selling point that it seems odd not to make the effort to get it exactly right. It is so nearly perfect, but with one mistake, which could so easily have been corrected. Unfortunately the mistake is a rather obvious one, and comes so early in the episode that it undermines the whole premise of the 42 minute structure. Three and a half minutes into the episode there are 40 minutes until impact, but less than six minutes into the episode there are 34 minutes until impact, so we have not seen about 3 minutes of the time passing. From that point on the countdown remains (near enough) accurate. It’s not as if it should have been that difficult a thing to get right – you just make the computer voice doing the countdown the last thing you record, and make sure you edit it in at the right points with the right times being spoken.
Let’s get all the problems out of the way first, so we can concentrate on the good stuff. This does look like the cheap episode of the season, despite some impressive CGI shots of the spaceship falling towards the sun. Budgetary limitations prevented a scene with the Doctor space walking to rescue Martha, so the scene we are left with instead is a rather uninspiring compromise (oh, and I can’t stand the football speak: “Go on, my son!”). The episode also lacks a good monster, with a man in a red helmet failing to impress. Much better is the Doctor’s possession, which is one of those rare moments in which the Doctor is completely vulnerable, leaving Martha to save the day. Most of the crew are relatively forgettable and not especially likeable, so the episode really moves up a gear when first Martha and then the Doctor are in imminent danger, as we actually care what happens to them. And we get an amazing line of dialogue from the Doctor:
It’s burning me up. I can’t control it. If you don’t get rid of it, I could kill you. I could kill you all. I’m scared! I’m so scared!
This is a striking thing for the Doctor to say, because he almost never admits to being scared, apart from a very few memorable moments such as preceding his death in Planet of the Spiders. So if the Doctor says he is scared we know it’s a big deal, and what is fascinating here is that his fear is based on the possibility that he could harm other people, especially Martha. It is also very rare to hear the Doctor screaming in pain.
Martha’s phone calls to Francine are an interesting sub-plot. Not only do they fulfil the purpose of continuing the Mr Saxon story arc, but they also ground the episode in reality, performing the same function as Rose’s call home in The End of the World. Martha’s phone call from the escape pod to say goodbye to Francine is one of the highlights of the episode, especially poignant as she is being betrayed by her mother while she blurts out how much she loves her. This scene sticks in the mind, long after the gimmicky structure and the iffy monster have been forgotten.
So what is the moral of the story? What lesson should we take from this? It seems to be a repeat of a common fable in Doctor Who, showing the dangers of plundering a resource without thought for the natural order of things, but extending that to a cautionary tale about the dangers of using a fuel source before checking it is somehow bizarrely sentient seems like a stretch. The basic plot is virtually identical to Planet of Evil, but with an added level of silly, which is quite an achievement in itself.
No, the moral of the story is something quite different: a password security system that gives you one chance, and then effectively kills you if you get it wrong, is not a very good idea. RP
The view from across the pond:
For those astute readers of our blog, you may have noticed that this week we’ve been dealing with some of Doctor Who’s giant monsters. We explored two episodes featuring the Macra, then the Lazarus creature and now, to keep the spirit alive, 42. This is one of the biggest creatures in Doctor Who history, but it’s so big that the humans have to travel to it, rather than it chasing the humans. Unexpected! And as most of us should be thoroughly aware, the ultimate answer to life, the universe and everything is 42. Was it the answer to anything in Series 3? Nope, not a thing, but it was an interesting idea.
The pitch to the episode was that it would take place in real time. 42 minutes to survive, running 42 minutes for the episode. But that’s a dangerous move for television. Even season one of the TV show 24 failed to deliver on the timing because by default the camera has to jump back and forth between two or more sets of people. When it does that, are we to assume things are not happening at the same time for other players of the drama? So when we flip back between the Doctor and Martha, what is happening when? In other words, the show and the audience are experiencing 42 consecutive minutes but the characters are often overlapping. That automatically fails unless you put a countdown clock on the screen and it can show the same time in two different locations, but then you need more than 42 minutes for the episode. Otherwise you have the issue that Kiefer Sutherland goes through in 24, when you have to get from point A to B – it takes time. It’s been a long time since I saw the first season of 24 but I remember thinking at the time, if Sutherland left San Diego in episode 1, we probably should not see him in San Francisco later in the same episode; he should probably be in traffic for at least 2 episodes. But that wasn’t the case. So when the crew of the SS Pentallian have to go across the ship, Chris Chibnall better establish how long it takes to get from points A to B clearly, otherwise the 42 minute countdown fails on the runway.
Then there’s the silliness of the door-lock riddles. I love when you can’t cross the Bridge of Death without answering me these questions three, but you don’t design doors on any ship with the intent of keeping your own crew out. Especially when there could be an emergency. If anything, you have overrides in place to open the doors in the event of an emergency. It was like Chibnall wanted to give us a proper quest, but had no means of getting that point across. You know in digestion, if you eat a lot of sugar, you want fiber to help process it? It makes it more soluble. Same thing with a story: if you have an idea, you need the medium to carry it. The idea of these riddles doesn’t have a mode of telling that makes sense and that loses something greater than the more-or-less pitch of 42 minutes for the episode.
Complaints aside, 42 is a really good episode. It has the flaw of a bad sales pitch but that doesn’t hurt the episode in the grand scheme – if they never said it, who would have noticed? And the riddles are conveyed poorly, but there again, a minor part of the story. The meat of the story is actually really good. The crew of the SS Pentallian are being taken over and are killing one another because they are unwittingly hurting a sentient being. What enhances this story is that once the crew stop hurting the creature, the creature stops trying to hurt them. It’s not malicious, merely hurt and reacting to that pain. That’s good storytelling.
Another high point of the episode is the love between McDonnell and Korwin. As Roger rightly pointed out in Gridlock, being human is about compassion and redemption. 42 illustrates that beautifully as both die in each other’s arms, jettisoned out into space together. Then there’s the special effects. High praise should be given for a great effect which, in the grand scheme, is pretty minor. We’re not talking full body transformation like we saw with the werewolf of Tooth and Claw but simply eyes turning to blazing fire. But it’s done incredibly well and in conjunction with the voice, “burn with me” takes on terrifying meaning. The Doctor’s transformation is wonderfully done and Tennant sells it perfectly. The Doctor is in distress and it shows. (No, let’s not get into that song again… Stick with “Here comes the sun” for this story!)
I’m actually very fond of 42. It may not be the answer to life, the universe and everything as we had been promised, but it’s a solid piece of storytelling and has a real sense of jeopardy for the Doctor and Martha. And speaking of Martha, the Doctor is finally treating her well and actually seems to care for her quite a bit. If that’s the sort of writing we can expect from Chris Chibnall, the future of Doctor Who is in safe hands… ML
Read next in the Junkyard… Human Nature