21st Century Doctor Who Reviews: 42


24. One of the mainstays of Noughties American TV and a resounding smash hit with viewers. I'll be brutally honest though. I've never seen an episode of 24: Not even one five-minute smidge.

Confession Number Two. I haven't seen the brand new series of 2018-style Doctor Who yet. If you've read my burblings on Now 7 elsewhere at my blog, my defence is right there. It's ironic that I'm writing about a Time Lord, given that there never seems to be enough time in my daily routine to settle down in front of the telly. Being a family man, I'm cooking, making up milk, tidying up, changing nappies, reading bedtime stories... The list goes on. Tuning into see Jodie Whittaker's Doctor will have to wait until the DVD boxset hits the shelves, so I can digest the stories at my leisure when I get the odd free hour.

The real litmus test will be to see how Pip & Jane scourge, Chris Chibnall is faring as the new big cheese. Looking at the news reports, he's already ripped up the rulebook by changing the Doctor's gender, switching the programme to Sunday evenings, and even disposing of the now-customary Christmas spesh.

It was quite a gamble for the Beeb to take on Chibnall, given that he comes with a fair bit of baggage. While he'd secured a hit with Broadchurch, in Doctor Who land, his track record was spotty at best. Matters aren't helped by memories of a teenage Chibnall huffily railing against the Bakers' efforts on creaky old 1980s daytime TV programme Open Air. While he couldn't have known it at the time, his pompous grumblings would ironically come back to haunt him, given that he would be on the receiving end of one or two fans' dissatisfaction with some of his creative decisions.

The other problem is that Chibnall's previous contributions to the Doctor Who world aren't exactly stellar. Torchwood episodes such as Countrycide and Cyberwoman aren't much cop, and the same goes for the terrible 42, an episode that relies on lots of shouting and little else. If I'm only going by the evidence of this particular clunker, it makes me wonder how on Skaro Chibnall got the gig of executive producer in the first place.

Returning to my original confession, the story's meant to be a take on 24, as a frantic spaceship crew do their best to avoid getting burnt to a crisp after heading into the sun. The tussle takes place in real time, as the SS Pentallian crew literally only have 42 minutes to avoid a horrible flamey death. During which, the Doctor mysteriously gets possessed by the sun, leading to some ridiculously overwrought screaming and shouting.

Chibnall's script for 42, while attempting to maintain some sort of threat and pace, falls notably short of expectations, instead relying on tried and tested clichés, boring, one-dimensional characters and awful dialogue. What's more, everything's so LOUD. It's a Brian Blessed wonderland tour, as characters run around the place yelling at the tops of their voices. Crisis point may be looming rapidly, but is that any reason for the relentless, non-stop racket? I made the mistake of watching this one on earphones, and all I can hear now is a high-pitched whistling sound - the sort of noise that's only audible to dogs.

A sure sign of this episode's failings is that even Graeme Harper can't add his usual magic touch to make it work. Harper is one of the most talented and imaginative directors around – not just in Doctor Who, but in the TV industry as whole. It's an indicator of the poor quality of Chibnall's script if even a director of Graeme Harper's calibre can't overcome its limitations to transform it into a work of art.

It's not for want of trying, though. Harper's reputation for zip and pace made him the obvious candidate for the breathless rush of 42. Characters run around what appears to be the set of the industrial zone in The Crystal Maze, as filmed in the local sauna. Harper's camera tricks and editing skills are still well up to scratch. He uses about one million camera switches every 10 seconds, adding to the fast pace. Not only that, the designs and special effects are very, very good. A special word too to the lighting, which successfully contrasts the grimy darkness of the run-down crate with the harsh reds, yellows and oranges of the threatening sun.

But despite Harper's best efforts, the story still fails to come alive. The story lacks tension, for one thing. The main baddie is a bloke who's come dressed as a cross between Boba Fett and Cyclops, while booming “BURN WITH ME!!” in a blockbuster movie announcer's voice. Quite why it keeps saying this phrase over and over again is a bit of a conundrum. It seems to be intended solely as a catchphrase for the schoolchildren in the playground on Monday morning and little else. On the up side though, the various deaths are well done, as the victims are reduced to scorched outlines. Abi Lerner's evidently been caught in the middle of doing some funky disco dancing.

However, a problem with the grisly death count is that it's impossible to give a damn about the characters: a crumpled list of boring stock clichés. The tough Ripley-esque leader. The Mr Nice Guy. The curmudgeonly get. The baldy White Van Man. The moaning grump. What's worse is that they are saddled with bad line after bad line. Take hapless minion Erina Lessak. For no good reason, she chooses to switch off Ashton's frantic warnings about Boba Cyclops, while mumbling “Please, kill me now!” in the most obvious fashion imaginable. I guess this is meant to be all post-modern and ironic, when in fact it's a rubbish, unrealistic line that's crowbarred into the script for no good reason.

Actually, rewind that back. 42 maybe contains one or two good lines in a script that's bursting at the seams with poorly written, unrealistic dialogue. Every hoary old cliché under the sun is tossed into the melting pot: “It's picking us off... one by one!!” “We must share the light!!” “I can't fight it!!” As a matter of disinterest, why does McDonnell call her husband by his surname exactly? My wife doesn't call me Bensalhia, that would sound daft, so why does McDonnell always bleat on about “Korwin” all the time? And why isn't she called Mrs Korwin?

Well, who knows – but then it's difficult to care about any of the crewmembers. As with some of the other stories this season, perfectly good actors are faced with an uphill battle in prying out any realism and subtlety from a script that affords no such opportunities. Unrealistic lines are said. Unlikely things are done. Both of which leave many of the cast with egg on face.

One of the most annoying elements of 42 is the way in which the characters don't behave like real people. A good example of this is when the crew attempt to get to the main computer through a series of locked doors. The doors however can only be opened by the crew playing their own version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? “Each door's trip code is the answer to a random question set by the crew,” explains Puppy Gallagher Brother, Riley Vashtee. “Nine tours back, we got drunk, thought 'em up”. Brilliant.

If Chibnall would have had his way with past glories, presumably in Pyramids Of Mars, the Doctor and Sarah should have had 45 seconds to remember a conveyor belt load of goodies in order to progress through the Martian catacombs. Or maybe Tegan and Nyssa should have thought of a likely answer to a question set from a survey of 100 people in order to make their way to the Xeraphin Sanctum. You get the idea.

This clumsy question setting is another example of blatant pop culture referencing, but it's also one of the worst in the new reboot. There's no credible reason for the SS Pentallian crew to come up with such a convoluted way of getting through to the main computer. Unlocking doors may be boring by comparison, but surely a less irritating and more imaginative solution could have been devised in the script? It's a forced attempt to drive the narrative forward, but it doesn't work.

Another annoying instance of this is when the Doctor has just succeeded in rescuing Martha. Having brought back her escape pod, the Doctor – for no good reason whatsoever – stands at the threshold of the ship like a big prawn staring directly at the sun for aeons. “It's ALIVE!” he intones over and over again. But why? He's a clever old Time Lord. Surely he'd have some inkling that staring at a big flamey sun is a very stupid thing to do? The episode's not quite over, there's about 15 minutes to go, so some extra conundrum is needed. But making the Doctor so blatantly oblivious to very obvious danger ends up making him look incredibly foolish.

Mind you, who needs brains when the watchwords of the day are loud and unsubtle? Bearing that in mind, this is a story that's tailor made for both the 10th Doctor and also Murray's Pompous Choir. Gold produces what's possibly one of the unloveliest music scores ever heard in Doctor Who: a murky clash of grungy indie guitars, farting orchestration and a pompous choir shrieking tunelessly at regular intervals. Far from adding to the tension, the distracting racket rapidly becomes an infernal nuisance.

Bring back Keff, all is forgiven.

Meanwhile, the 10th Doctor spends most of the last 15 minutes babbling uncontrollably, shouting and screaming at the top of his voice. Ten's penchant for manic screaming has already been witnessed (and heard - hoh, yes) in Evolution Of The Daleks, but in 42, the full impact of this ear-splitting yelling is felt like a devastating hurricane.

No sooner is the Doctor possessed by the entity from the sun, he's hollering and shrieking at the top of his voice. Presumably this is meant to emphasise how life-threatening the situation is, but it's all a bit too... ridiculous. Let's face it, the Doctor's been in more life-threatening scrapes than this. He's been tortured by countless fiends such as the Master, Sutekh and even the Dominators, and has never once felt the need to warn his companions of the regeneration process. He didn't need to resort to crybaby squawking when he was possessed by the Nucleus in The Invisible Enemy, so couldn't he have put himself into a trance when Martha put him into deep freeze? Instead, we're treated to close-ups of Tennant's great big wailing gob.

To be fair to Tennant, he actually does the screaming thing very well. The problem is that it's a bit too OTT for a routine threat which previous incarnations would have shrugged off. However, it does at least present the previously over-confident 10th Doctor in a more vulnerable light. Up until now, he's been running around while curiously impersonating Phil Daniels of Quadrophenia/EastEnders/Parklife fame.

OI!

But clearly by the end of the tale, the Doctor's confidence has been suitably rattled, and that end scene in the TARDIS is particularly well acted by Tennant, who successfully conveys the Doctor's recent traumatic experience. The final scene also emphasises what an asset Martha's become to the Doctor. During the crisis, she's able to think on her feet, not panic and help the crew to defeat the looming danger.

There's also that fantastic scene when the Doctor promises to save Martha as she drifts her way to apparent oblivion in the escape pod. Apart from anything else, it's an effective (and refreshing) contrast to the racket, because there's blissful silence (as the Doctor frantically mouths “I'll save you!” to the helpless Martha). Great acting again from Tennant, and also again from Freema, who's relishing her chance to take more of a centre stage to proceedings.

Unfortunately, Martha's mother is as sullen and rude as ever, although spookily, she's been ambushed by a snooty official at the episode's conclusion. Oooh, the Saxon subplot's starting to gain speed.

Which can't come fast enough after the 42 debacle. It's meaningless, shallow nonsense bellowed at the top of its voice. The real time gimmick is a nice idea, but Chibnall's pedestrian script, clunky plotting and dialogue blow the principle to atoms. Loud, obnoxious and hollow, 42 fails to catch alight.

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