“Everything on this ship is so cheap!”
-That’s not something I would have drawn attention to, in-joke or not!
After two weeks wait, the anticipation was almost too much. The long-vaunted real time episode of Doctor Who! All set on a spaceship plunging into the sun! How could this not be brilliant? Oh, wait… “by Chris Chibnall”. So much for that, then.
All right, it’s true that I have a pre-existing prejudice against Mr Chibnall, for writing all the worst episodes of Torchwood, and being generally in charge of that show’s style and storylines. He it was, after all, who gave us the immortal line “when was the last time you came so hard you forgot where you were?”, not so much a chat-up line as a direct quote from some very cheesy porn. However, he also wrote a pretty good episode of Life on Mars, and where Doctor Who‘s concerned I’m always prepared to put aside these prejudices and give the artist a chance. After all, I loathe Peter Kay and Catherine Tate, both of whom were very good in the show!
So I tried to put my anti-Chibnall feeling aside and hoped to see a good episode. After all, the premise was interesting, and I’d heard some good things about it. Sadly, my leniency was wasted on the author, who produced a script that could most charitably be described as “average”.
To be fair, it was well-executed. The direction, by veteran Graeme Harper, was tense and visually imaginative. I particularly liked the exchange of shots between the Doctor and Martha as the latter was blasted into space in an escape pod. And the recurring countdown clock, while an obvious lift from 24, nevertheless worked well to heighten the tension.
Some of the effects were pretty good, too. The boiling, amorphous surface of the sun was convincing enough to be terrifying as Martha’s pod plunged towards it; though it has to be said, the ship itself was rather variably rendered. In some shots it looked terrifically detailed, but in others it was simply cartoony.
No, the real problem here was the script. For a start, the exact – and I do mean exact – same plot has been done before, and better, in 1976’s Planet of Evil. Think about it – living planet is exploited by ruthless humans who nick bits of it for a fuel source, said planet then captures humans’ spaceship and starts dragging it back to certain doom, while the crew are menaced by one of their own who has become infected with the planet’s substance and can kill gruesomely with a glance. OK, I’ll grant you that your average modern Who viewer may well be unaware of this, but there’s still no excuse for such wholesale theft – even Russell’s not that blatant!
Then there were the characters. Much like in Torchwood, they were either as flimsy as cardboard or thoroughly unlikeable. We never really learned anything about Lerner or Erina, the first two victims, and third victim Ashton fared little better. We learned he was some kind of engineer, anyway. And Scannell, who actually made it through to the end in a high body-count story, wasn’t given any kind of character at all -it wasn’t even clear what he did on the ship!
Michelle Collins put in a game performance as Captain McDonnell, but the character really didn’t have much going for her. She could have been sympathetic in spite of being responsible for the whole situation – pleading ignorance and all – or she could have been a more out and out bad guy. Instead, we got a character written as a kind of third rate Ripley, self-serving, incapable, prone to sudden fits of hysterical emotion. More than once I found myself wondering what kind of loon would have put her in charge of a spacecraft in the first place. Presumably the writer thought we’d be moved by her “epic” self-sacrifice in the name of love, as she plunged herself and her possessed husband into the fires of the living sun as some kind of quest for redemption. The trouble was, she’d already established herself as a cod Sigourney Weaver, so I just found myself remembering the strangely similar but far more powerful climax to Alien 3.
And did she really have to be married to another guy on the ship? That kind of relationship in that kind of environment is usually a bad idea, but the main problem for me was that I knew Michelle Collins from Eastenders. Every time she finished a scene on an emotional cliffhanger, her lower lip trembling as she contemplated the futility of the situation, I expected the familar drumbeat of the soap’s closing theme to thunder in! I should stress, though, that this is nobody’s fault but my own.
And the actual plot! The pub quiz idea was quite a nice one, as Martha and Riley (the only likeable one in the crew) raced to open more doors than Mystery Science Theater‘s Satellite of Love. But it led nowhere, and just made me ponder the sci-fi cliche of a very long ship in which the middle bit doesn’t actually seem to serve any purpose (see 2001, Event Horizon, The Black Hole etc). The struggle for control of the escape pod was quite well-realised, but seemed a little illogical. But all that paled into insignificance before the sheer, mind-warping absurdity of the scene in which the Doctor has to go outside the ship to reactivate the magnet that would recapture the pod. Leaving aside the issue of how strong the magnet would have to be, you’re still left with the question: what the bloody hell are those controls doing on the outside of the ship? How could anyone who needed them actually get to them? Russell commented in Confidential that it was necessary for the plot that the Doctor should “expose himself to the sun” (fnarr, fnarr). Fine, but why not come up with a convincing reason for him to do so, instead of a sub Four to Doomsday space walk with as much logic behind it as that reset button behind the deadly whirring fans in Russell’s own End of the World? It was the worst kind of illogical, unnecessary set piece.
David Tennant was as good as usual, really controlling his performance. There were no hysterical outbursts, no hugging, and he never once said that he was sorry. He did say “allons-y”, though, which I rather hoped he’d got out of his system. And his speech about humanity’s ruthless greed and self-interest seemed rather at odds with a lot of his “isn’t humanity great?” moments from last year! He put on a good show of being genuinely frightened when possessed by the sun-stuff, but this just made me recall similar bits in The Invisible Enemy.
Martha at least got a lot to do this week. She’s been threatening to become a stereotypical captive, ankle twisting companion of late, so it was refreshing to see her acting to solve the situation with the Doctor incapacitated in a hastily repainted MRI machine (which never once looked like anything else). Her authoritative commands to the crew resolved everything, though the solution of dumping the fuel actually negated any need for the Captain’s “dramatic” self-sacrifice. After all, dumping the fuel cured the Doctor, so it would presumably have cured her husband, and anyone else infected.
I was a little irritated to see Martha given a Time Lord enhanced mobile phone just like Rose’s, but it was at least put to good use, plotwise. It was good to see Martha phoning her mum when stuck in the pod and certain of her own demise (though if it were Torchwood, she’d have been too busy shagging the cute young bloke stuck in there with her). But the main reason for the slightly jarring sequences set on contemporary Earth was to enhance the ongoing Mr Saxon plotline. It was a nice directorial touch as the camera pulled out from Martha’s mum to reveal some sinister government spooks standing behind her, who seemed to be multiplying between scenes! This plot’s being handled well, starting off low-key and becoming more significant in later stories. Far better than the constant name-dropping of Torchwood last year.
Overall, I’d have to say 42 was a very poor script executed rather well. Kudos to Graeme Harper for some good direction, but Chris Chibnall, please try and get some original ideas! And remember – Alien was twenty-eight years ago, and that style’s getting a little dated now! Still, roll on next week and an adaptation of my favourite New Adventure from the 90s, Human Nature. Half of me hopes it’ll be brilliant, half of me dreads that they’ll mess it up!