Aired 19 May 2007
The threat of a ticking clock is an excellent means of raising tension in an episode- television’s 24 proving how action-packed and sustaining that premise can be- and Doctor Who takes a stab at that format with the intriguing ’42.’
The scripting falls to Chris Chibnall here as he makes his Doctor Who debut after writing a couple of Torchwood tales that were met with mixed reviews. Unsurprisingly, 42 is very well-paced as the threat looms large, but it gets manages to get so caught up in its pacing that it fails to explore its supporting cast and setting well enough to truly create an immersive experience. Fortunately, the adept use of frantically changing camera angles, superb special effects, and some astounding set design and lighting choices help to elevate the immersion and splendour even within the confines of the space station.
The danger that the enemy- eerily personified as a member of the crew wearing a welding mask- poses is made abundantly clear, and the mounting death count of the crew members as they are burned and reduced to ash is quite effective. The issue is that it’s tough to really care about these deaths because no time is spent getting to know the characters beyond typical cliches. Worse yet, the actors seem to realize this to some extent, and oftentimes the stilted script is verbalized with a stilted delivery. It’s not always the case, and there are certainly some intriguing concepts and interesting lines scattered throughout, but the crew of the ship simply fails to capture and bring out an engaging sense of reality. McDonnell, in particular, is a character who needs to carry weight and authority in her leadership role, but Michelle Collins instead plays her as a very relaxed and almost care-free individual who just can’t meet the tension of the situation. Anthony Flanagan Scannell and Rebecca Oldield’s Erina are similarly just a little off and flat.
There are some gaps in logic as well that artificially increase the tension. The need to get to the central computer through a series of locked doors is a tried and true technique, but the addition of locks that display a question- each of which only one person aboard the ship knows- is a concept that may sound good on paper but is fraught with flaws in execution. It allows some popular culture references that are sure to engage the interest of younger viewers, but ultimately this does nothing to enhance the script.
What does work well is the possession of the Doctor by some entity related to the nearby Sun. Oftentimes the Doctor and his physiology are immune to things that affect others, but here David Tennant is able to put on full display a Doctor in pain and agony. He’s certainly been in more overtly dangerous situations before while facing capture or torture at the hands of menacing and imposing figures, but the pain he goes through because of a mostly invisible enemy is shocking to behold. It’s difficult to say that the story doe a stellar job of building up the threat of this presence before it takes over the Doctor, but all bets are off when he mentions deep freezing and even regenerating himself to rid himself of it. Considering how confident and sometimes arrogant the Tenth Doctor has been in some of his previous adventures, seeing him in a more vulnerable and fragile environment is refreshing, and Tennant does a great job bringing out this side of his character.
’42’ also does well with Martha, emphasizing how strong of a companion and genuinely useful she can be. One scene between the Doctor and Martha particularly stands out with excellent acting and emotion from both, a moment of temporary silence as the Doctor simply mouths that he will save her as she drifts off into space in an escape pod.
The ultimate resolution regarding the entity is not new or novel by any means, and it seems unlikely that the Doctor would miss considering the concept of a living being, but it still ties events together nicely with the purpose of the ship mentioned earlier. The ongoing Saxon subplot started back in ‘The Runaway Bride’ is slowly building, but the addition of Martha’s mother to that subplot also isn’t an altogether surprising twist. Surely there will be some big payoff at the end of the series, but for now it’s just an average addendum to a story filled with intrigue and strong moments that ultimately fails to deliver on its potential.