Sunday, May 20, 2007

Doctor Who - 42

One of the great things about the new Doctor Who series is that if you miss an episode, you can always catch it later as they're being repeated all the time. I was, however, a little surprised to tune in to catch the new episode, only to find that they were showing a condensed edition of The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit instead ... but then I looked closer and realised that some of the cast were different and there weren't any Ood around, so reasoned that it had to be a different story. But even so ... isolated group of humans in danger of being sucked into a space event, a mysterious power taking over characters and making them speak catchphrases and making their eyes glow with light, the TARDIS cut off from the Doctor, the day saved by the Doctor's companion ... Add to this a dirty/grimy sub-Alien feel to it all, some rubbish science and loads of CGI and the whole feeling of the story was of something very familiar that we had seen before.

The sense of deja vu does not stop there though. Here's a question: which Doctor Who story features the Doctor picking up a distress call and arriving to find a group of characters trying to harness a power source. One of them becomes infected by a creature composed of that power and their eyes glow white as they start killing off the other crewmembers one by one. Meanwhile, in trying to escape, a spaceship is dragged back to its doom because some of the power source is still on board and it must be ejected to escape, and the Doctor's companion is nearly fired into space along the way ...

Answer at the end.

So, for 42, the problems are manifest from the start. There's an almost overwhelming sense of familiarity about it which is not good. Little things like the Doctor fixing Martha's phone so she can phone home (shades of The End of the World). Also the whole element of being too close to the sun is the same as in The End of the World.

So the Doctor finds that he's cut off from the TARDIS for no good reason - something to do with the heat in that area rising too high, but why not in the rest of the ship as well? The spaceship is falling into a sun, the engines have been sabotaged and the auxillery engines are at the other end of the ship, past 29 locked and password protected doors. Cue Martha and Riley on a mission to open the doors. Whoever set these random password questions is a nutter though. The only reason you'd want to open them is to get to the other engine room ... and yet it's the equivalent of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire to do so. Whatever year this is, how are they supposed to know who had the most pre-download Number Ones out of Elvis or the Beatles! It's lucky Martha has her phone, but who does she call? Her useless mother. If it was me, then my mum would be the last person I'd ask about a question like that (and not only because she doesn't have the Internet). Surely Martha has other far more net-savvy friends. And then there's the later question of what Riley's favourite colour is! They are all doomed I tell you.

So while Martha is off answering questions and opening doors, the Doctor and the others are faced with the possessed figure of Korwin - husband of McDonnell. Now don't get me started on the casting of the, frankly, useless Michelle Collins as McDonnell. The woman has no presence, no authority, was totally unbelievable, and was simply walked all over by the rest of the cast who were uniformly superb. In script terms, why does she call her husband 'Korwin' when we learn from the end credits that his first name is 'Hal' - and why are their second names different anyway? Sheesh. There is no discernable plot though, as Korwin works his way through the crew, killing two of them by blasting them to ash with his glowing eyes, and transferring his 'infection' to a third.

But the question is, why is this alien entity bothering? In less than half an hour all the crew will be killed when the ship crashes into the sun, so why bother possessing people and then getting them to kill the rest? Then there's the question of the escape pods ... they have escape pods ... so why is the crew still on board at all? And why are the escape pods apparently down this corridor of locked doors? That's handy in the event of a problem.

But then whoever designed this spaceship was a raving loony anyway. Who in their right mind puts buttons and levers on the outside of the fuselage which will return an escape pod launched in error? Never mind as to why the auxilliary engines are so hard to get to, and why the fuel could not be ejected from the main engine room. I was reminded of the scene in The End of the World (again) where the Doctor has to get past a row of spinning fans to pull a switch. The same design madness at work.

Then there's the question of the size of the ship. From outside it looks like it's large - maybe half a mile long? I guess Martha is therefore a marathon sprinter to get from one end to the other in about a minute. And we won't go into the totally variable lengths of time it takes other characters to get from one part of the ship to another.

So there's lots of running around, people being killed, the Doctor doing a heroic spacewalk to save Martha (despite the fact that there is no way that magnetism would be strong enough to reclaim the pod and return it when up against the gravitational pull of a sun), and finally McDonnell doing the honourable thing and putting us out of the misery of her abysmal acting by shooting herself and Korwin into space where they can hug and fall into the sun together (more shades of The Impossible Planet). But even more questions: in The End of the World, just the light of the Sun was enough to scorch the walls and vapourise anything it touched, but here, even though they are 10 minutes from impact and getting closer every second, the light does nothing. Even the Doctor is able to spacewalk without even breaking a sweat, and McDonnell's body should have been burnt to a crisp in a nanosecond the moment she opened the outer door. But then maybe this living sun isn't as hot as the Earth's Sun. Yeah. Right.

The Doctor realises that the sun is alive and is possessed by the creature. He is then able to tell Martha that they will be saved if they jettison the stolen fuel with the sun particles in ... well if that's all it took, then why did the sun creature go to all the trouble of meting out personal and nasty revenge on the crew? It's just going to let them all go is it? And lo and behold it does. Or when the fuel is dumped, the engines start working ... or something. It's all a little unclear.
Overall, 42 was a story with so much potential, all wasted in a runaround based on a familiar plot and a series of very familiar set pieces. It just makes no sense at all. Compounded with the first major casting mis-step of the ineffectual Collins in the lead role, 42 just doesn't work.

There are some kudos to pass out though. First to David Tennant who makes playing the Doctor seem just so effortless. His performance when possessed was nothing short of brilliant, he managed to set the right levels of tension and angst and was supremely watchable. Such a shame that the production team didn't play a double blinder on the viewers and actually have him regenerate into John Simm mid way through ... now that would have been magnificent ...

Other praise to the rest of the cast who were very convincing. Martha was just the right side of annoying, and the others were all believable and watchable (with the sole exception of you know who). Martha's mum was still pretty annoying though, and there's the undercurrent about her having her phone tapped by mysterious colleagues of Mr Saxon, who, for whatever reason seems to be after the Doctor. I know this is setting things up for later on, and thankfully it's less sledgehammer than the 'Torchwood' arc last year so I forgive it.

Oh, and the Doctor Who story I was describing above was actually Planet of Evil from way back in 1975 ...

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

I thought this episode was awful.
Dreadful acting, the story was too 'in yer face' and the added on scary line "burn with me" was pretty rubbish as well. However was this episode made for me, if I'd had seen this in 1982 as a 14 year old I probably would have loved it!

Abu Yair said...

I downloaded this episode overnight and watched it this afternoon. Modern technology is amazing! When I first moved out to this part of the world I was entirely cut off from the latest broadcasts in Britain.

I agree with you entirely that this was a real clanger. Superbly produced, mostly well-acted, but what a ridiculous story! The similarity to The Impossible Planet/Satan's Pit was heightened for me by the fact that I only watched that story for the first time last week. I wasn't particularly fond of that either - a Pseudo-religious version of Alien with a touch of The Moonbase/Ice Warriors thrown in.

For me, 42 had all the worst characteristics of the present series: the "cool" references to popular culture, starting with the Hitch-Hiker's title. A lot of running and shouting. A dash of alien possession. A goodly mix of male and female characters (missing the ethnic mix a bit this time). To cap it all, we witness the fastest love affair in TV history - the character finds his soul mate in a woman whom he's known for all of three quarters of an hour.

Oh, and of course, the moral. Greed is wicked. Very profound. Go and mine a sun for its energy without asking and you're likely to be scorched by a big bad fire-monster.

It seems to me that Doctor Who is really losing its way. I think back to the classic stories that I found the most meaningful, and find nothing of them reflected in the present series. Would Russell T. Davies have allowed Terry Nation to preach his anti-pacifist message of The Daleks? Would he have allowed the time to develop the moral web of The Silurians? Or the great suspense of The Web of Fear?

In Russell T. Davies's world, human beings are reduced to action cyphers, while human emotion is brought into harsh relief for instant message. Perhaps this is the right ingredient for the age of the Instant Messenger. But I find the motives suspect, and I similarly find something worrying about a man for whom earning a living and raising a family are not a meaningful pursuit (see the end of Love & Monsters).

In short, I am growing increasingly disappointed with this series as it goes on. Too many gimmicks and not enough good story-telling. I sincerely hope that some new writers will be brought on board who have a slightly different perspective on the world.

Colin W said...

when I first started to read your review I thought 'David's being a bit unfair - I didn't think 42 was that bad'.
But as usual by the end of your review I have to admit you had a point (well quite a lot of points actually).

Also what were the mysterious agents of Mr Saxon up to? It looked as though the woman was trying to trace the call as she indicated to Martha's mum to keep the conversation going. That should be interesting as Martha was calling from the future and half the universe away!
But then if all of the rumors that are flying around about Mr Saxon (and who he is) are true I suppose he could possess the technology to do that.

Richard Little said...

I fully agree with your analysis of 42. It struck me that it was more to set us up for what was to come. The team have done well to bring back Dr Who, so they can be fogiven the odd blooper. David Tennant is giving great performaces despite this, which is at least pleasing.

Congratulations on your new job.

kopicbloodaxe said...

As ever, your comments are spot on. I hadn't thought about it that much having suspended disbelief at the sound of the first diddly-dum. The only thing that grated with me at the time was the notion of an entire sun being a living being. Why not just have a race of plasma creatures that live on the surface? They could view the 'plasma scoop' as being a hostile act and decide to wage war on the agressor until 'captives' are released. Much more believable, IMHO.

The constant pointless 'out of time' pop references also annoy me. Elvis? Beatles? You might as well ask Joe Public in 21st century Britain who sold most sheet music in the 19th century.

But at the end of the day, this is Doctor Who and we love it despite the faults!

Paul said...

Ah, but do we?

I'm not sure I do anymore. New Doctor Who is all about style over substance. There have been a couple of occasions where the light shines through (Empty Child/Parting of the Ways/Impossible Planet)but generally its all forgettable.

New Doctor Who seems to be revelling far too much in the fact that a British TV show finally has access to decent special effects and is chucking them down our throats at every possible opportunity - at the expense of good characterisation and story-telling.

The acting and direction is fine, the music has its moments and, as we all know, it looks fabulous. But isn't it all just a bit vacuous? Yes, old Doctor Who had more than its fair share of clangers, but it had more imagination, took more risks and was more entertaining on its shoestring budget and ridiculously tight deadlines than anything I've seen in the new series so far. (this one was Planet of Evil, Evolution of the Daleks was Evil of the Daleks and Tooth & Claw was Horror of Fang Rock - DWs Greatest Hits anyone...?)

I so DESPERATELY want to love New Doctor Who. Lets face it, its what fans have been after for years! But I've ultimately felt disappointed with almost all of it. Perhaps 16 years of expectation was just too much for the new show to ever live up to?

Oh, and I completely missed the Hitch-hikers Guide reference. I thought it was a particularly unsubtle attempt to invert "24", as they had 42 minutes to solve the mystery. Another pointless pop culture piece of bobbins... :-(

Anonymous said...

You hit the nail on the head! I was prepared for this as the TORCHWOOD stories by Chibnall were also empty and just going from plot point one to plot point two and so on and so on. The main reason this was bad though was that there was no characterization. Why do we care about these characters on the ship? Just because they're there? I don't know why he keeps being hired to write scripts. Very dissapointing.

-Erik Engman