Friday, August 17, 2007

“Burn with me”: Doctor Who














Like last week’s ‘The Lazarus Experiment’, ‘42’ is another straightforward one-off slice of entertainment which also acts as a transition between the opening chunk of season three and the later, better, final chunk which brings all the strands of the story together for a gut-busting last five episodes (I’m excluding ‘Blink’, another standalone offering, although it is no less deserving of praise than the other five episodes to come). Upon re-viewing ‘42’, it doesn’t hold up as well as one might hope, but it’s still a decently gripping story.

Upon picking up a distress signal, the Doctor and Martha arrive on the S.S. Pentallian, one of those old buckets that looks like it’s one loose screw away from falling to pieces. Loose screws are the last of the crew’s worries though – the ship is hurtling towards a sun with only 42 minutes before impact. The real-time aspect is lovingly ‘borrowed’ from 24, with the similar title an apparent nod to this link. It also lends the story a nice intensity, although despite writer Chris Chibnall’s efforts it’s not quite as tense as it sounds. The race-against-time aspect is actually fairly formulaic, if still diverting. Instead it’s the quieter moments that make ‘42’ memorable.

All of these quieter moments revolve around Martha – perhaps surprisingly, ‘42’ gives Freema Agyeman her best chance to shine so far. First there is a clever sequence where Martha and crewmember Riley have to open a series of doors by answering questions set by a previous crew. I personally enjoyed the low-tech nature of these scenes, and wish the sequence had gone on longer. One baffling question also leads Martha to call her mother (the Doctor has given her phone universal roaming), and the two of them proceed to have a petty mother-daughter argument which contrasts amusingly with everything else about the episode. Later on, when Martha believes she is about to die, the two talk again. This second conversation is undoubtedly the best scene of the episode, an emotionally charged and sharply written interchange which plays on the things both characters don’t know – Francine is unaware of the severity of her daughter’s situation, while Martha doesn’t realise that her mother is letting a mysterious woman listen in on their call.

Martha also shares a brief romance with Riley, albeit one mostly motivated by their being thrown together in a small capsule while hurtling towards their deaths. However the two have genuine chemistry, and their kiss near the end of the episode is a disarmingly sweet moment. Throughout all of this, Agyeman is just fantastic. Her Martha is truly a force of nature, and Agyeman sells this with her heartbreaking and overwhelmingly human portrayal. A couple other choice moments: her desperation as the escape pod drifts from the ship, and her scenes with a possessed Doctor where she tries to assure him that he won’t die.

Admittedly I’m focusing on the things I liked more about ‘42’. The actual thrust of the plot, concerning a murderous entity that has overtaken one of the crewmembers and is picking them off one by one, is entertaining enough but becomes boring upon repeat viewings. There’s also some tacked on silliness about the planet being “alive” and seeking vengeance against the humans who mined it. While this basic premise works well enough as an episode, Chibnall handles it in a disappointingly by-the-numbers fashion.

Yet whenever there’s one scene that feels a little dull, another is always on the way to liven up the proceedings, whether it’s Martha on her own or her interactions with the Doctor. There’s also a fantastic penultimate scene in which the Doctor appears momentarily lost in his own thoughts, before snapping out of it and suggesting where they should be off to for their next adventure. Once again the disappointment at his refusal to talk to her is evident in Martha’s face. The Doctor half makes up for it by giving her a TARDIS key, but he comes across like one of those boyfriends who believe grand gestures will make up for a complete lack of personal intimacy. It’s a subtle but poignant scene that sums up why it’s worth wading through Who’s occasional tendencies towards sci-fi daftness. And I haven’t even mentioned the very last scene, containing yet another elusive reference to the mysterious “Mr Saxon”. They sure know how to keep us wanting.

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