Wednesday, 30 November 2016


Chapter The 36th, an old one by the new guy.

Answering a distress call, the Doctor and Martha arrive on a spaceship populated by ex-soap actors, the S.S. Pentallian, that is hurtling towards a star. They get separated from the TARDIS, and have to work out a way to help the crew get the Pentallian's drive working again, but they only have precisely the length of time that a Doctor Who episode lasts to do it. As if that premise wasn't quite enough, the star is also possessing members of the crew and turning them into homicidal killing machines with a scary catchphrase, "Burn With Me". The Doctor survives being possessed himself; Martha survives doing a space pub quiz, and being jettisoned away from the ship in a pod, 2001-stylee. The Doctor works out that the star is a living being, and when the captain had earlier nicked a bit of it to use for fuel, that made it all angry. The captain (her off Eastenders years ago) sacrifices herself; the rest of the star fuel is given back, and the survivors (him from Shameless, and him from Waterloo Road) wave goodbye to the TARDIS travellers and presumably have a lot of explaining to do when they get rescued...

It took so long to work our way through the episodes of City of Death, I'd resolved to watch and blog the next story quickly. As it happens, the rest of the family had an early night last Sunday, so I popped on the DVD and watched it with a beer, just me on my lonesome - but not that bad a way to spend 45 minutes, all told, if you're a fan of Doctor Who. Or beer. Or both.

First-time round:
I first saw this on its initial BBC broadcast in 2007. No particularly interesting anecdotes about it; the Better Half and I would have watched it together, probably live rather than timeshifted as we only had the one child who was still young and would likely have been asleep well before it went out. I remember being interested to see writer Chris Chibnall’s take on Doctor Who; probably, I was quite apprehensive too – it wasn’t that long after the broadcast of Torchwood season 1 for which he was the main writer and which was... variable to say the least! My only other memory is that 42 was shown after a week with no Who, as it had been taken off for Eurovision. The trailer at the end of the previous story, The Lazarus Experiment, contained scenes from the whole of the second half of the 2007 season. Doubtless there were a few people disappointed when watching that they didn’t get scarecrows and Captain Jack aboard the  Pentallian.

In the tone meetings at the start of production for each new Doctor Who story, they used to - maybe, they still do - specify a single word to sum up the feel of that story. I should think the word for 42 was 'sweaty'. The overall impression is of a lot of grimy, perspiring people running down industrial corridors, stopping for a bit of breathless chat, then running again. With the red spacesuit making an appearance, and Graeme Harper directing too, it strikes me as somewhat of a prototype for The Waters of Mars, but not quite as good. No comedy robot, though: curse or blessing? You decide.

Is 42 doomed to forever be seen as a rehearsal for something better to come? (Or a rehash of something that did it better first, if you're a big fan of The Satan Pit, which also played in a similar sandbox?) The idea is sound: do a Doctor Who in real time, with the clock ticking. It's just not as exciting overall as you'd expect for that concept. It's maybe because the crew are a colourless bunch. Only Riley and McDonnell get material enough to sink their teeth into, and Michelle Collins as the latter plays it so flat. Everyone else blurs into one, really - which is a particular waste of Anthony Flanagan's talents. Maybe it would have been better to dispense with the monster of the week - brave, I know - and just done a purer story of crew versus the external conflicts of machine breakdown and the hazards of space.

The main cast fare better than the guests. This is around the beginning of David Tennant's imperial phase, which subsequently didn't stop even after he left the role. Most of the more annoying mannerisms from his first year are under control, and he struts around being heroic while Murry Gold's strident 'All The Strange Strange Creatures' booms out. He also gets to do a bit of vulnerable acting too, when the Doctor gets infected by the star thing, and it works well. Freema as Martha is good here too; she got the short stick, generally: of the three of RTD's companion actresses she has the least interesting character arc, but here she is natural and has a great little scene in the pod, and some nice material on the phone with her mum. Those little bits of the Saxon arc are intriguing and unobtrusive and don't weigh things down.

The only slightly silly bits for me (I can just about ignore the implausibly powerful magnetic power the Doctor gets the ship to emit in order to save Martha in the pod) are the scenes with the computer asking various trivial questions in order to let people through the ship. Actually, these were probably more horrific to me than silly. I'm someone who can come a cropper when he finds out sometime in the forgetful past he's been forced to set a security question online somewhere, and can often find myself wondering exactly what the answer is to a poser like "Where were you born?". Did I put Wembley, or Brent, or London, or some combination of the above? Is it case sensitive? If there was no 'Forgot Password?' button on that bulkhead, I'd definitely have been toast by the time 42 minutes elapsed.

Overall, then, it's a decent mid-season episode: nothing to knock one's socks off, but solid enough entertainment. I doubt the brief given to Chris Chibnall asked for anything more; but, it does therefore give no clues to how he might attempt to thrill us when he takes over running the show in 2018.

There’s the obvious Douglas Adams connection (42 was a significant number in his most famous work); there’s a spaceship in both stories, and an alien creature masquerading as something else (a Count in City of Death, a star in 42).

Deeper Thoughts: 
It's all wide open until his stories air. It's still more than a year away, but we'll soon have a new showrunner for Doctor Who. Steven Moffat has been running things a long time, and he had a significant role in his predecessor's time in the job too. By the time Chris Chibnall, writer of 42, takes over in 2018, it will be another series and two Christmas specials further on. The Moffat era will feel like it's been going on forever. And because of his visibility and consistency throughout Doctor Who from 2005 to 2009, writing a big story every year, there was a good idea in everyone's head about what the Moff’s take on Who would be like when he took over. It might not have been a completely accurate idea, but let's face it: he's being doing it for so long now, he's probably done every single one of people's preconceived ideas and many more by now.

Chibnall however is much more of a mystery.  He's written four Doctor Who stories, one of them a two parter: five episodes. Almost as much as Moffat had when he took over, but they have been in very different eras and had very different tones. As a scribe for hire, maybe he's very good at fitting in with the prevailing style. Maybe he's been given differing levels of freedom at different times. But 42 is worlds apart from the Silurian two-parter he wrote for Matt Smith's first year, and both are very different again from the linked but not quite a two parter episodes he did later in Smith's tenure.

If you look at his other work, even his other work just in Doctor Who spin-offs, there are a lot of different Chibnalls out there. Which will we get? The showrunner of Torchwood series 1, or Torchwood series 2? The writer of Broadchurch series 1, or - heaven help us - Broadchurch series 2? It's probably just wishful thinking, because I like them, but I think the best hint is those latest two episodes he wrote in 2012 – Dinosaurs on a Spaceship and The Power of Three. These are the stories which to my mind served the characters of Amy and Rory best; even in the hands of their creator Moffat, they never come across as real people.  I’m aware that this is intentional: when we meet members of Amy’s family in the finale of her first season, they come over as characters from a dark fairy tale, rather than people you could ever actually meet. Her parents are called Augustus and Tabetha Pond – documentary realism is clearly not being attempted. Moffat’s first year followed swiftly after Russell T Davies’s more kitchen sink estate approach and was a nice counterpoint, but I don’t think it was as effective for the drama.

It’s only really in Chibnall’s work - particularly those last two scripts but also in the extra-curriculars Pond Life and P.S. - that I fully care what happens to Amy and Rory. Amy has to deal with a space-time crack that has done weird things to the universe – so what?! Amy has to juggle her home life with a secret life travelling in time? Now I’m interested. Chibnall also introduced Brian Williams, a family member for Rory, a grounding force that makes the action real and relevant, and someone who lifts every scene he’s in. Will Chibnall’s reign see more of this approach? Or will he surprise us with something else again?

Other questions beg too: will Capaldi stick around? It would be great to see a leading man continue into the era of a new production team to see how that changes things; hell, it would be good just to have someone stick around in the role for more than three seasons and a bit. If not, will Pearl Mackie stick around as Bill to provide continuity? Will Moffat ever write for the show again as a hired hand? Will RTD ever be tempted back? Which new writers with Chibnall bring in? The most important question of all, though, is how soon into the Chibnall era will it be before someone slags off the writing online, linking to the clip of Chris on viewer's feedback show Open Air in 1986, slagging off the writing of Doctor Who's Trial of a Timelord season? My guess is approximately five minutes into episode one.

In Summary:

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