TV EYE: Doctor Who, Week 7: “42”

After a two week break (and the living hell that was Eurovision), we now return you to your scheduled programme. Fear the spoilers…

Expect the unexpected often seems to be the watchword with New Who– at least in terms of when the quality finally comes along. I’d been watching ’42’ approach in the schedules with a certain degree of foreboding, knowing that the name on the writing credits was Chris Chibnall– the man responsible for most of the truly appalling moments of Torchwood (The smoke-shagger? The glam-disco Cyberwoman? The welsh Cannibals? The pig-faced Demon? All his…). Even with Who legend Graeme Harper directing, I couldn’t get excited (after all Harper wasn’t been able to rescue the appalling ending of last year’s Cyberman two-parter). Expectations were pretty damn low, so colour me amazed that ’42’ turned out to be the strongest and most consistent episode of the Third Season so far, an entertaining and surprisingly hard-edged bit of pulp storytelling that acheived almost everything it set out to do.

I say ‘almost’, because the one thing 42 wasn’t was original in any way. It may have been Who’s first dabble in the world of real-time storytelling (with the episode cutting a few corners, but mostly keeping to the rigid structure of the countdown, and the title being an ironic nod to the similarly countdown-driven ’24’ rather then the suspected Douglas Adams in-joke), but in no way could it disguise that it’s essentially The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit Redux, serving up another efficient but innovation-free pastiche of Alien/Event Horizon-style horror (with a visual style ripped from Terminator 2, and the odd sight of Cindy from Eastenders doing a Sarah Connor). From the design of the spacecraft to the plot-device used to seal the Doctor off from the TARDIS, it’s far too similar both in tone and execution, with even the Doctor’s space-suit looking like they’d only slightly redressed the costume from last year’s story. It’s not the first time that Who has done this– back in the Seventies, The Sea Devils was essentially a remake of The Silurians, while in 1988, we managed to get two versions of the same story– Remembrance of the Daleks and Silver Nemesis– within three weeks of each other. It is, however, another sign of the show becoming dangerously formulaic, harming Who’s ability to go anywhere and do anything, as well as adding another ‘mini-genre’ to the cycle of stories we seem destined to get every season now.

It’s a pity that the episode is afflicted with a certain sense of ‘been there, done that’, as it gets so many things right, and arguably does a better job of acknowledging its references than last year’s two-parter by compressing itself down into one episode, and telling a coherent story that doesn’t rely on ridiculous deux-ex-machina get-out clauses. The performances are largely good, with the pace of the plot not allowing for too much of the rambling speeches that made ‘Evolution of the Daleks’ so painful to watch, and Tennant rises to the occasion once again here, being more confidant and genuinely Doctor-ish than he’s ever been before (I could even almost forgive the football-style “Come on, my son!”). Most of the humour melded with the storytelling well, and even the talk between Martha and the crewmember in the escape pod stayed on the right side of maudlin sentimentality. Plus, we had one of the most effective and spellbinding moments in New Who, as the Doctor watched the escape pod tumbling away from the ship, and the usually bombastic music instead switched to almost complete silence, a rare sign of restraint from the usually gob-smackingly annoying Murray Gold.

Let’s not think about the science, the magnetism of the escape pods, or the fact that the ship would have started exploding long before it got near hitting the sun’s surface– there was plenty in tonight’s Who that gave me the genuine thrill of watching them push the darker horror elements of the show. Doctor Who should be capable of being hard-edged and genuinely scary– and while I’d rather they hadn’t gone for the shallow and manipulative strategy of killing off the two cute female crew members first, there were scenes tonight that rivalled the first season’s climax for sheer “Oh my god, they’re actually going to DO that!” amazement, especially Michelle Collins and her possessed husband taking the one-way trip out of the airlock. On top of all of this, there was the audacious and utterly bizarre development that Martha’s mother is now co-operating with the gang of spooky MI5-style government enforcers to the extent of them tapping her phone- and while I’m not crazy about that plotline, it’s nice to see them pulling out some original touches. All in all, ’42’ was a surprisingly fun watch, and certainly a gigantic step up from the low of ‘Evolution of the Daleks’ and the problems of ‘The Lazarus Experiment’. It might be wise for them to declare a moratorium on the ‘Claustrophobic Horror’ genre of Who episodes, however, as going for another one next year would simply be getting ridiculous…

Next Episode: An adaptation of mid-nineties Who novel ‘Human Nature’, Jessica Stevenson in a frock, and– by the looks of the teaser– an awful lot of David Tennant screaming…

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