Monday, 1 April 2013

Review: Doctor Who 3.7: 42

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It's a very Red episode...
Doctor Who - Season 29, Episode Seven - 42
Written 21/2/13.

Me and ol' Chris Chibnall have had a rough time. My main frustration comes from his inconsistency as a writer - there are a number of his works (mainly outside of Doctor Who) that I really do enjoy for many reasons - usually to do with strong characterisations and well-executed concepts. And then there are his real fuck-ups: every episode he's written in the Moffat Era, for example. While I do sometimes respect him as a writer, I don't want him anywhere near Doctor Who and I was very worried when he wrote not only two episodes of the September Season in 2012, but also wrote pieces bookending it. Despite my anguish, I'm of the opinion that 42 is... not bad.
     The core concept is sound if fundamentally stupid - the Doctor and Martha arrive upon a ship destined to fall into an alien sun, with a real-time countdown timer punctuating every scene. The sun turns out to be sentient, and has infected members of the crew and sabotaged the ship due to the Captain's use of illegal tech to scrape out the sun's core. There's a point where The Doctor gets possessed, Martha gets stuck in an airlock - it's a bit of a run-around. The idea of a sentient sun may be fun but is fundamentally quite silly, as a sun is just Hydrogen fusing into Helium, and there's not enough complexity for even simple metabolic processes. That doesn't really affect the episode's impact, though. We have the big guns, here.
      And by big guns, I mean director Graeme Harper. Harper is one of the best directors the series has ever had, and directed two of my favourite Classic Stories (Caves of Androzani and Revelation of the Daleks). His sharp style and appropriation of the real-time element gives the episode a sense of constant action and tension that never really lets up, and is one of the episode's main saving graces. He takes what could have been rather bumpy bits in the script and turns them into great moments - my favourite of which is probably a moment of vacuum-induced silence as Martha's escape pod drifts away, The Doctor helpless. There's also a wonderfully primal scene when the Doctor is possessed, and Tennant's whimpering and screaming makes the whole affair seem more brutal than they're allowed to show.
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I tried finding a good pun. Settled on,
"Turn around, Bright Eyes!"
     If there are some downsides, its the guest cast. Michelle Collins' Captain is yet another person to add to the "annoying guest cast" list, as Chibnall takes the stereotype of strong sci-fi captain and throws it in the wrong direction, turning her into a delusional idiot who is constantly soppy and can't recognise that her husband is no longer there even when he's burnt two people to death. Also rather terrible that the only crew members who get outright killed by the sun-possessed zombies are the women - nice vote for gender equality there, Chibbers.
     42 doesn't have anything new to offer the world, but what it does have it manages to process and package in a way which is consistently entertaining. In terms of Chibnall's career, this is pretty middle-of-the-road - by no means the worst thing he's ever done, but not his ultimate high either. Taken on its own, the script is fairly average, and it's a mixture of outstanding direction from an unlikely source and the sheer conviction of its main players that carries it forward into quite an underrated experience.

Thanks.

NEXT WEEK: Paul Cornell returns with an adaptation of a book that features living scarecrows, creepy immortal schoolboys and David Tennant's best performance in anything, ever. It's Human Nature/The Family of Blood.

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