Sunday, 16 February 2014

Clichés On A Spaceship

Doctor Who
Series Three, Episode Seven

Ho hum.  Another episode that won't frighten the horses.  Workmanlike is the word for this one, or to coin a phrase: Chris Chibnall in the house!

42 is by no means his worst.  (That's still Series One of Torchwood, which is rumoured to be the source of all worldwide misery. [Citation needed.])  But it's got many of his hallmarks.  Hokey dialogue, over-familiar plot elements and a general lack of spark.  He's not a great ideas man.

The TARDIS responds to a distress call, and lands on a ship hurtling towards a sun.  For once, the Doctor suggests something sensible: pile everyone into the TARDIS and go.  Unfortunately he's parked in the room where all the heat gets vented.  So, it's a race to restart the engines, all while a mysteriously infected crewman picks them off, one by one.

The TARDIS is supposed to be intelligent.
Why would it park in the most dangerous room on board?
You may have noticed a few problems there.  First, the entire plot hinges on a massively stupid contrivance.  Why the hell would you vent heat into a room?  Do not vents, by their very nature, tend to face outwards?  And how come it only occurs to the Doctor to use The Most Massively Obvious Solution To All Plots when it's not going to work?

Second, while it's a novel idea to make an episode a literal race-against-time, and there's (possibly?) some mileage left in a serial killer in a confined space, is it a good idea to do both?  Oh no, we're hurtling towards a sun and there's no escape, but hang on, let's also worry about a killer on the loose?  The presence of two threats makes them both seem like less.  This episode should be almost unbearably tense, but instead, despite the efforts of the talking clock, it dawdles by.  Things don't seem to get any worse and bizarrely, the ship doesn't get any hotter as the episode progresses, rendering the "42 minutes" idea oddly moot.  No wonder they threw in a masked killer.  It stops the crew getting bored.  (Funnily enough, the movie Sunshine came out shortly after this aired, did exactly the same thing [with an identically-named spaceship, the unbelievably-obvious Icarus, until Doctor Who changed theirs], and it still didn't work.  D'oh!)

Third, that "picking us off, one by one" thing isn't just a trope: it's dialogue from this episode.  You'll also find "What is this, an interrogation?", "I don't know how much longer I can last!", plus that old standard, "It's alive!"  And where characters aren't dutifully reciting clichés, they often sound stilted or just plain weird.  Too many names (particularly surnames) crop up in the dialogue for it to sound like real speech.  "Scannell, tell him, Korwin is not a killer!"  Urgh.  And let's not forget the bit where a crewman, who's avoiding a murderer on a ship hurtling towards a sun, pauses to whinge about having some work to do.  Obviously it's meant to sound like the-sort-of-thing-people-say, but who'd complain about that, at a time like this?  (The supporting cast, incidentally, never feel notably three-dimensional.  Michelle Collins doesn't remotely convince as the ship's grizzled captain, or as the wife of the possessed killer.  She keeps calling him by his surname, the same as the rest of them.  How romantic.)

A lot of it is just plain tired.  What about that infected crewman?  I've seen "mysterious person picks off crew as ship hurtles to its doom" in movies (Event Horizon, even Alien to an extent) and telly (Star Trek: Voyager, probably others), but also closer to home.  How well do you remember The Impossible Planet?  Possessed crewmen, Doctor/companion separation, realisation that home is long gone – we've definitely been here before.  (There's even a couple of music cues re-used from it.)  As for the menacing mantra of "Burn with me", that's a not-too-imaginative echo of "Are you my mummy?", and the revelation at the end (that the captain stole her fuel from a living sun) is about as Star Trek as Doctor Who has ever got.

"Kill me now", followed by death.
Yes, we see what you did there.
And yet, despite all this, there's quite a few things that work about 42.  None of it's Best Episode Ever material, but there are definitely plus points.

Firstly, the Doctor has stopped treating Martha like an unrequested Ofsted inspector.  He's given her a phone that'll call anywhere (bit boring, but at least it means he likes her), and generally seems to get along with her, and trust her, to an extent which he hasn't since her first episode.  (A moment where he comes close to telling her about regeneration certainly stuck in my mind afterwards.)  They took their time getting here, but at least they did it in the end.  It's a sprightly, fun performance from David Tennant, and although I'm not convinced his possession at the end would really be enough to reduce him to a quivering wreck, it's a good work-out for his acting muscles.

Secondly, there are some good ideas in the plot.  The ship's under total lock-down (I've no idea why wouldn't the alien sun want to make it easy to release the fuel?), and all the doors are sealed with pop quiz questions.  That's a fun, believable concept, and even better, it allows the Doctor to apply a little knowledge.  It's not much, but the scene where he briefly rattles off something mathematical about "Happy primes" makes him seem genuinely intelligent.  No shortcuts, no handwaving, he just actually knows stuff for once.  More of this, please.  (He still fits in another bit of pop culture savvy, which once again drags the Tenth Doctor down to our level, but then I can believe the Doctor would find the Beatles interesting.  Who wouldn't?)

Thirdly, there's a pretty great scene in here that's no-really-I-mean-it well executed.  Martha and Riley (a character whose name I just had to look up) are running from an infected crewman, and end up in an escape pod.  Mr Infected hits the release button, and the Doctor is forced to look on as the pod detaches and floats away with Martha (and Riley) in it.  In an editing masterstroke, there is no music here.  There's barely any sound at all, and it's an incredibly powerful moment because of it.  You see what happens if you tell Murray Gold that there's a time and a place?

Fourthly, Martha calls home.  Not a new phenomenon, and not even the first time that Martha has realised that if she dies, her family won't find out about it.  (That was Gridlock.)  But it's a nice piece of juxtaposition against Martha's impending probable-death, just as her earlier call (to find out who had the most #1s, Elvis or the Beatles) is amusingly frustrating in amongst a race-against-time.  ("Hang on, the mouse is unplugged."  "AAAARRRRGH!")  We're "treated" to more of Martha's mum being psychotically mistrusful, but at least she's got Mr Saxon's entourage pouring poison in her ears by way of an excuse.  (Quite what they hope to gain from tracing the phone call, which they appear to be doing, I've no idea.)  And hey, at least she's quite nice to Martha as well.

"Keep her talking.  We've got it narrowed down to... space."
Fifthly (okay, it's more like fourth-and-a-half-ly), Martha's pretty great.  Not so much the scene where the Doctor gives her a TARDIS key, and she cups her hands like it's all she's ever wanted in the universe give her some credit, guys but her scenes with Riley resonate, and how nice is that little kiss with him at the end?  A real moment of not-quite-romance, the sort of thing that happens when people escape from dire situations.  Not a big or important bit, but Martha seems like a bona fide grown-up in it.  Elsewhere she's as smart, capable and fun as ever.  Give me an M!  Give me an A!  Give me an R...

Lastly, and this is a really little one: no sonic screwdriver!  And what a blessed relief.  Think how boring the Doctor's life-or-death struggle to flip a switch would have been, if he could just point and click.  But no, this way, it's exciting.  This is exactly what's wrong with the sonic screwdriver.

And that's about it.  42 isn't brilliant, and you've heard almost all of it before, but surprised as I am to say this, I quite enjoyed it.  Maybe it's the Doctor and Martha's relationship, or just the Doctor and Martha being pretty diverting in it, or the fact that I've got Daleks In Manhattan fresh in my mind and surely nothing could be worse, but for all its done-to-death ideas it works pretty well.  Does what it says on the tin, and a dash extra.


  1. Hear hear!

    Although I take umbrage with your casual dimissal of 'Sunshine' (I really enjoyed it), I agree with you pretty much wholeheartedly here. The comments about the Doctor actually demonstrating some intellect here and having to forego the use of the Sonic Screwdriver are spot on - this is Tennant at his most likable this season so far (with the possible exceptions of Smith and Jones and Gridlock, anyway). And Martha is phenomenal again - especially her scenes in the escape pod. That was some pretty dramatic stuff there, and you're right - the silence as the pod drifts away is a master-stroke. I think Graeme Harper's direction throughout this episode is pretty great - and I love the dirty, greasy aesthetic of the ship - it makes this episode (with its forebear The Impossible Planet/The Satan Code) one of the more gritty, Star Wars-y settings in Doctor Who. Love it. But you're right - story-wise, this is about as Star TREK-y as it gets. I don't mind though :)

    No comment on the fact that episode's central conceit is a direct homage to the 'exciting' US political intrigue/counter-terrorism series 24? I personally can't disconnect the scenes with Francine and her minders from that in my mind. And that certainly builds into the series finales. I'm not sure they quite pulled it off though - the episode is brimming with strange sci-fi ideas as it is, the political undercurrent kind of gets a bit lost in the mix.

    Overall, I quite enjoy this one - yeah, the dialogue is a bit clunky at times and some of the obstacles are a bit contrived, but I think it's a pretty solidly entertaining story, albeit one that gets overshadowed by what comes next...

  2. I did notice the 24 comparison, but it didn't bother me much. Other things have done it - movies like Nick Of Time and Snake Eyes. It's just a gimmick. Shame it doesn't add anything!

    I'm well aware of Sunshine's popularity; I was surprised to not enjoy it, since I love Trainspotting and 28 Days Later. Honestly, the "serial killer in space" second act pretty much lost my interest. I may see it again some day, though. Who knows. :)