Tony’s about to fall into the sun.
Don’t all rush at once, will you?
Every now and again, and surprisingly often in the David Tennant era, Doctor Who does ‘concept album.’
Midnight was the concept album of ‘invisible monster.’ Human Nature/The Family of Blood was the concept album of ‘The Doctor’s actually human,’ (inspired of course by Paul Cornell’s Seventh Doctor novel). 42, the first Doctor Who script by Chris ‘The Man Who Would Be Showrunner’ Chibnall, is the concept of ‘real-time Doctor Who.’ It’s the closest we would ever get to Russell T Davies’ recurring nightmare – LIVE Doctor Who.
If you’re going to tell a whole Doctor Who story in real time, the 41 minutes of the episodes corresponding to the 41 in-story minutes, you’re going to want to do a couple of things. You’re going to want the countdown to represent a clear and present danger that you don’t have to spend too much time explaining. And then, perversely enough, you’re going to want something to fill up the minutes between you and the solution.
Chibnall gives us a straightforward premise - the SS Pentallian is caught in the gravitational pull of a sun. In 42 minutes its shields will fail and its dry roasting time for the crew of hapless humans. Job #1, done. What do we do for the other 41 minutes?
Chibnall, aware of his responsibilities, chooses to make the SS Pentallian true to the rough, grimy sci-fi that we’d seen in The Impossible Planet and The Satan Pit. He makes the ship’s computer freak out and lock all the doors. Result: shedload of doors to unlock – that’ll keep us occupied for 40 minutes. Put the kettle on, Chris, this is too easy.
Of course, in Doctor Who, one thing is perennially true – problems are as easy or difficult to solve as the runtime demands. The SS Perntallian’s doorfest, in another setting, wouldn’t be deadlocked, and a weave of the sonic would open the lot of them, taking, at most, a minute of runtime. But this is a Chibnally gritfest, so beggar that for a game of sonics. These are proper complicated doors, which take two people and a pub quiz to open, so that takes care of a crew member and a companion for the length of the episode.
That’s the thing about 42. Subject it to the slightest critical appraisal and its plot-planning shows through. To keep every other cast member busy while Martha and ‘Cynical Crewman Number 1’ – or Riley Vashtee as he’s called here – spend the episode opening doors, there’s The Thing. It’s never given a name as such, it’s just a Thing, that ‘infects’ one crew member and then another, turning them into heat-ray-eyeballing killing machines, to hunt down the rest of the crew, and to make them ‘burn with me.’
In some ways, 42’s a vampire-thriller, the heat-people having the ability simply to kill or to make more of themselves, depending what they deem to be necessary at the time. It also takes the typical ‘base under siege’ concept – frightened people with something hunting them and no escape route -and slaps a big ticking clock on it, in a way that there always is, but which is rarely foregrounded.
Along the way, to give Chibnall his credit, he deals with a number of issues – how come the Pentallian’s drifted close enough to the sun to be trapped by its gravity in the first place? How honest are the crew? - while also giving us at least a stab at some characterisation and character-dynamics, for all most of them never really come across as especially believable. In fact, shortly after you watch it, you’re having to look them up online to remember any of their names, which is particularly unfortunate as Chibnall invest the solution of his ‘falling into a fiery ball of death’ plotline in the emotional love-connection between two of them, and the gesture of self-sacrificing redemption of Captain Kath…(looks briefly up online) McDonnell.
Here’s the thing though. You can be as cynical as you like about the plotting-by-numbers or the button-pressing characterisation, but 42 works. It punches you in the pre-credits sequence and runs away, and from there right to the end, you’re running after it, from one deck of the Pentallian to the next, through one slowly-opening door to the next, avoiding the Monster-of-the-week with their heatstroke-eyes and their identifiable welder’s-mask of death (because, be fair, the action figure would have been rubbish otherwise), to the love story and McDonnell’s redemption, because it has enough fundamental Who in its DNA to more or less drag you along. The setup is explained quickly, there are obstacles and killer creatures and the Doctor gets to be both dweeby-clever and action-heroic. Meanwhile the still fairly new companion gets to be locked up and shot towards the sun, to consider her actions in running away with a total stranger, to express an already-formed crush-faith in our Time Lord Extraordinaire, and, for the most part, to ‘save him back.’ There’s running, there’s shouting, there’s recreational maths and a pop quiz. Going right back to The Dead Planet, there’s a bloke who gets a crush on the companion, and she has to let him down before stepping back in the box. People scream, people die, the Doctor saves the day in (in this case) the very nick of time.
It's interesting to rewatch 42 as we progress through Series 10, because it epitomises and reminds us of the thing that’s lacking in that languid (not to say turgid) series – pace. Yes, if it’s ONLY pace you’re relying on to get you through the 42 minutes of the episode, it would be exhausting, and no, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the slower route that Series 10 is taking. But rewatch 42 today and you’ll be amazed how much adrenaline it splatters across your screen, at the end of which you feel like you could go for a jog or eat a salad or do your own recreational maths or stranger-snogging. 42 is base-under-siege, bog-basic Doctor Who that makes you feel good. You might not care when any of the crew die, but you feel like you’ve had an adventure, and seen a hero and his friend save the day. And that’s pure Doctor Who, through and through.