Doctor Who: “42”

doctor who 42

My local college television station used to run Tom Baker-era Doctor Who stories on Friday nights. I’m a fan and so I would often slip over to my bedroom (which is upstairs, the only place we get decent antennae reception) and watch them. My wife is also a fan and so she would eventually come up and join me. My daughter was maybe six or seven at the time and so she would follow my wife. The daughter never really got into those old classic stories, but she would sit and play with her dolls while we watched.

For unknown reasons the local station played Tom Baker-era Doctor Who and nothing but Tom Baker-era Doctor Who. They would start with his first story, “Robot” and run them through in sequential order ending with his last story “Logopolis,” at which point they’d start them all over again. Eventually, we got tired of just watching Tom and we began watching some of our favorite NuWho stories. Then that turned into us starting at the beginning of the new series and working our way through every story chronologically, then once we were finished we’d start again. I think we are now in our third run-through.

What started as a bit of a lark, me watching Tom Baker whenever I remembered he was on, became a full-fledged tradition. Now, every single Friday night we go upstairs and watch Doctor Who. So, I thought it would be fun if I started writing about the episodes as we watched them. I’d like to promise that this will become a weekly feature, but I’ve made too many promises in the past and broken so many of them that I’ll just say I’ll write them as often as I find it enjoyable to do so.

As most of you know by now, after watching Doctor Who I go downstairs and watch a horror movie on Friday nights. Since I’m already writing that weekly post I’ll be moving Doctor Who to another day, probably Saturdays. Unless Saturdays wind up being filled with family activities at which point I’ll move it to another day.

I won’t be making my family start at the very beginning so I’ll start this series with the episodes we watched last night, “42: the seventh episode of the third season. It was written by Chris Chibnall, who was at the time the head writer for Torchwood a Doctor Who spin-off series, and would become the showrunner for Doctor Who starting with its eleventh series. This was his first time writing for Doctor Who and it feels very much in tune with his time as showrunner. There are a lot of interesting elements going on in the episode, it gets a tad bit sentimental, and it never quite coheres into a cohesive whole.

The story finds The Doctor (David Tennant) and his companion Martha (Freema Agyeman) landing on the spaceship SS Pentallian which is currently on a crash course with the sun (not our sun, but the sun in a distant system). It will do so in 42 minutes (hence the episode, which is also the episode’s run time and a cute reference to Douglas Adams – who was a writer for the classic series).

The small crew explains that the ship’s engines mysteriously shut down just before The Doctor and Martha arrived. They hurry to the engine room and find it has been completely destroyed – sabotaged by somebody who knew what they were doing. There is an auxiliary engine room, but to get to it they will have to pass through 30 deadlocked doors which can only be opened by answering a series of questions. Questions which were thought up by a drunken crew, many of whom are no longer aboard. Martha and Riley(William Ash) set themselves to opening the doors.

Meanwhile, The Doctor tries to find out who sabotaged the engine controls. Before he gets far they are alerted that crew member Korwin has taken ill with a body temperature on the extreme rise. Soon enough he begins hunting down the crew member one by one while asking them to “burn with me” just before he burns them to ash with his glowing eyes.

So, Martha must get to the auxiliary engine rooms before the ship crashes into the sun and The Doctor must find out what has happened to Korwin and stop him from killing everyone.

At some point, Korwin finds Marth and Riley who quickly lock themselves into an escape pod. Korwin (or whatever is possessing him) jettisons the escape pod sending them straight toward the sun. Riley assumes they are doomed while Martha believes The Doctor will save them (spoiler alert: he does). While stuck in the pod the two characters have a bit of a heart-to-heart and then Martha calls her mother to tell her she loves her.

The Doctor saves them, figures out who, or what has happened to Korwin, and saves the day.

If I were to rate this episode is would get something like a C+ or a B-. It isn’t bad, and there are some things I quite like, but as a whole, it does nothing special to really make it interesting. The Doctor and his companions often find themselves stuck on a ship headed to its doom, or a space station on an isolated moon, or some such thing. Since The Doctor is able to travel through time and space the series necessarily need him to land in places that aren’t Earth (famously he does have an awful lot of adventures in Cardiff, Wales, as that’s where the series is produced). But budget-wise it is difficult to create an alien landscape-looking set for which the characters to act upon. So, we wind up with a lot of generic-looking spaceships.

This interior of the ship in “42” looks an awful lot like the interior of the ship in “The Satan Pit” and it will look a lot like the interiors of various ships the show will place The Doctor in future episodes. Whereas in Classic Who the interiors of ships were usually well lit bright, and sometimes colorful, here the set design takes its cue from Alien (1979) with bland steel walls, generic instruments, and dark lighting.

I do love the idea of the characters having to answer pub-quick-style questions in order to turn on the engines. The script has some fun with this making Martha call her mum to look up who has the most #1 hits – The Beatles or Elvis – and getting The Doctor to look smart by being the only one to recognize a series of numbers are happy primes. But then the episodes just basically drop the idea. I fully expect there to be some questions that were personal to a crew member who was no longer there. That could have created some interesting tension.

The main plot is interesting, although it does bear a surprising resemblance to Danny Boyle’s 2007 film Sunshine (both were released that year which is weird). I won’t spoil the ending but I did enjoy the reason that Korwin and others were possessed. Overall it works perfectly well, but it doesn’t have that special something to make it excellent. Again this pretty much sums up my feelings on Chibnall’s run as showrunner.

And that’s it. That’s my review. I really do like the idea of reviewing each episode as we watch them. Really I like the idea of having reviews of every Doctor Who story ever. But like I said we’ll see how it goes. It will take me some time to figure out how I want to do these reviews. With television episodes, you can either do a complete recap – breaking down everything that happens in the plot which makes it full of spoilers while also discussing what you liked and didn’t like – or you can do something a little more generic which doesn’t spoil the plot but gives an overall opinion of it. I suspect I’ll do something in the middle as I did here. Where I discuss a lot of the plot, but maybe not in minute detail.

Again, we’ll just have to see.