“I don’t know how much longer I can last!”
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Of all the series one Torchwood eps that are heinous (and that’s most of them), Chris Chibnall’s are without doubt the barrel-bottom-scraping worst. No surprise, then, that our hearts weren’t exactly going pit-a-pat when “by Chris Chibnall” appeared on screen at the beginning of 42. So did he win us over?
After we’d seen it, we decided that although there are some important things wrong with 42, compared to the Torchwood stuff, it’s gold. All told, we thought, it could have been a lot worse.
Then we thought about it a bit more. What was it about it that made us think that it was okayish? After scratching our heads, idly zooming our radio-controlled Daleks back and forth and humming a bit, we got it: it’s because it’s a copy of one of our favourite stories, The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit.
It’s only a fifth carbon, of course. The things that made the Satan double so exceptional, like the gobsmackingly chilling possession scenes, the uncomfortable implications of a slave race and the inquiries into the nature of the universe, are missing. But the basics are there. The ship falling into a lethal object. Something possessing the crew and offing them. The Doctor’s companion separated from him in a lethal-object-oriented vehicle. Not to mention the factor that invariably gets a big tick from us: it’s not set on boring, mundane, unimaginative old Earth.
And although it’s a bit lacking in the imagination department, it’s pretty well done. Graeme Harper effortlessly demonstrates that he’s still got it: the pacy, punchy direction is probably the best thing about it. The guest cast, including an enjoyably cast against type Michelle Collins, are great. Martha’s excellent as usual: the scenes in the escape pod run dangerously close to tipping over into goopy, but Martha’s straightforwardness holds it together, both with Ash and with her mum. And the Doctor manages for once to get into a screaming rant and make it work. If you’re not looking for innovation, sense or scientific coherence, it’s an entertaining runaround.
Trouble is, we are. Looking for innovation, that is. And sense. Scientific coherence we’re willing to cut a little slack, but arrant scientific stupidity isn’t good enough.
We’ve already touched on the lack of innovation, but the Impossible Planet-alikeness isn’t by any means all of it. There’s gobs of Robots Of Death in here, and more than a hint of Alien, too. One of us exhorted the monster: “Go on! Pick ‘em off one by one!”, and as it dutifully complied, Michelle Collins actually said “It’s picking us off one by one!”. Too good.
The sentient sun’s presented with a big ta-daa, although that’s not original, either. But by far the tiredest part is the clichéd green theme about rapacious humans selfishly grubbing up resources. We know. We’re bad. (When we’re not being the most wonderful creatures in the universe, that is.)
What else? Well, there’s the oh-so-popular just-like-24-only-it’s-42 playing out in real time. It’s not a bad idea in itself, but it’s hopelessly mismanaged. Why bother setting a clock ticking when for most of the allotted span everyone behaves as if they’ve got all the time in the world? You’d think an imminent and messy collision with a sun would have a somewhat galvanising effect, but no, at the beginning everyone’s got time to stand around quipping. Then one of the crew’s a bit poorly, and they start running tests. Tests! When in less than 40 minutes the poorliness is going to be universal if everyone doesn’t get their hands to the pump! Later, Expendable Crewperson starts muttering under her breath: you’d think it’d be an impending fiery death she’s on about, but no, it’s having to make the tea. Sense of urgency or what?
Even freezing the Doctor takes second place to a lot of hanging around chatting about how OK everything’s going to be, with pauses for icily castigating the Captain. (Our theory is that Martha is filibustering about putting the Doctor in the freezer because she doesn’t know which buttons to push. Luckily for her, given that she rejects the help of the only person in the room not currently possessed who actually knows how to work the thing, the controls must have telepathic instructions, because once she actually gets round to it she’s tap-tapping away like a pro.) What’s more, the whole point of the ticking clock is that they’re getting closer and closer to the sun, right? So how come it doesn’t seem to make any difference? Even when the heat shields are down to 5% it doesn’t seem to, you know, melt anything. They could be in a holding pattern for all the impact it makes. (Maybe it’s down to the room they’re using – yes, inside the ship – to vent the heat into. Uh-huh. They seem to have a mania for internal heat venting on the Doctor Who production team – they did the same thing in The Long Game. At least that time they had an excuse that it was for a monster’s sauna. Here, it’s just a feeble-beyond-belief excuse for a TARDIS trap.)
If you’re going to use a ticking clock, use it: 42 minutes till death means no time for jokes, no time for ruminations on the guilt of your past, no time for anything except fast-paced, pulse-pounding action. Anything else is another kind of story altogether.
So we’ve got a sun that doesn’t seem to get any hotter no matter how far you stretch your toes out and no matter how many klaxons go off. What else? How about an escape pod with no internal controls or ability to navigate? How about a magnet that effortlessly overcomes the gravity of a sun? How about a magnet that effortlessly overcomes the gravity of a sun at viciously high temperatures? (Magnets stop magneting above their Curie point. Sigh. Maybe it’s a special futuristic magnet.)
A ticking clock that only ticks occasionally, a bunch of scientific stupidity, a tired green theme and an even tireder plot about people being offed one by one. But none of those things are at the top of our hit list. The thing we really, really hate about 42 is what it does with the Doctor.
Taking over the Doctor and the Doctor being scared are, other than the Doctor voluntarily turning evil, the biggest weapons you can pull out of your armoury. The former should be used sparingly, and the latter, we would argue, should never be used at all. Chris Chibnall thinks he’s concocted a situation dire enough to make the Doctor whimper: we say he’s giving himself just a little too much credit. The Doctor has faced down Dalek armies and wiped out entire civilisations. He’s seen people he cares about die, and he’s died himself. And after all that, he’s frightened by a creature that can’t even manage to dispatch one dinky little ship? We seriously do not think so. We’d be insulted on the Doctor’s behalf if we weren’t too busy laughing at the idea.
It looks OK on the surface. Don’t stop to think about it even a little bit and it almost holds together.
MORAL: Before you help yourself, ask. Someone might be using it.
Pub quiz door security? Seems totally likely to us. Some of us work in IT, after all, and we can tell you that that’s one of the more intelligent security systems we’ve seen.
If the Doctor can stand the direct heat of the sun to flip the magnet switch, how come he can’t get inside the (giggle) venting room to get to the TARDIS which would solve all their problems?
SILENCE IS GOLDEN (IF ONLY)
The music is, if anything, even more whoopy and intrusive than usual here (the moment of silence as the pod drifts away is, as well as being stunningly effective, a blessed relief.) When the computer announced “Impact in 1:06” (why was it announcing times so randomly, anyway?), one of us remarked: “Let’s hope that impact is on Murray’s skull”. Not that we’re advocating violence, of course. But we’d sure like to get in a few determined thwacks on Mr Gold with a feather pillow.
Aren’t Martha’s cupped hands receiving the benediction of the key from above a bit over the top? Sorry, still not buying that lonely God stuff.
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