Saturday, 14 September 2013


This has much in common with The Lazarus Experiment in that I sort of expected it to be rather middling and was surprised how good it actually was. In some ways they actually feel like a two-parter: although the setting and plot changes, there's a very strong continuing framework built around the development of Martha's relationship with the Doctor, and Francine's growing Saxon-fuelled anxiety. Far from being bogged down with doing too much, 42 works very well, helped by the strong structure and frenetic pace of the real time format. It feels natural and normal that Martha must juggle her family life with the here and now of falling into an alien sun and that's a tremendous achievement: it is exactly this sort of balancing act that made those early episodes of Series One so effective.

At the heart of 42 is a rock-solid SF parable: humans, through greed and selfishness, damage the natural world with dreadful consequences. It might as well be the Exxon Valdez as the SS Pentallian, except that in SF the repercussions tend to be of the guilty-humans-get-incinerated-by-angry-star-being variety rather than innocent-wildlife-suffers-and-guilty-corporation-spends-20-years-in-legal-battles-to-reduce-their-fine (yes, I wikied that, but see for yourself, it's gobsmacking). This is why we need SF parables - reality is neither satisfying, nor fits easily into a drama/adventure format.

The real time structure isn't a gimmick either. When people suggest using the TARDIS to escape from an episode we often hear the Doctor say "No, we can't, we're part of events now!". Without further unwieldy explanation it never really feels like anything other than a deadlock seal, a convenient get-out clause. It's not uttered at all in 42, but for once it might be convincing. As soon as they step onto the Pentallian, it really does feel as if they are enmeshed in the situation, as if they had fallen into a fast-flowing river or landed on a runaway train. To make matters worse (or better) there are two distinctly uncomfortable lurches, firstly when Martha's escape pod is fired from the stricken ship, and secondly when the Doctor succumbs to the star's blazing personality. Of course we know everything is going to be okay. Everything is always going to be okay. But such a sudden turn of events pulls the story further away from its expected trajectory and makes us gasp, wondering how things will be brought back together. They are great moments in this episode that raise the tension even further.

And whilst these short-term considerations are being dealt with, the story glances sideways at Francine and Saxon's minions, making us think further ahead. It's clever because the audience has to absorb both the immediate danger and the lurking future threat of the Saxon arc. Now we have reached series three and are into more familiar territory, the boys are beginning to have memories of these episodes. Their emphasis is changing because they know roughly what is going to happen: they remember the Master and the Medusa Cascade. Whilst they are enjoying the individual stories, they really want to see how it all fits together, how the different series arcs work and how they combine to tell one enormously long story. Increasingly, it is moments like these that they are waiting for.

As a result, no score from William. Chris is still eager to hold forth though and he gave it a nine. He talked about the scariness of the Doctor being taken over and, very perspicaciously, pointed out how effective Martha is ("really useful" he said, which is not something you can say about all companions). She really is great - earnest, insightful, determined and full of wonder for the new things she encounters, all the while sat mournfully in the Doctor's blind spot.


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