“42” seems to have a few elements working against it: It’s highly reminiscent of “The Impossible Planet”/“The Satan Pit” from Season Two. It coincidentally echoes the movie (which was released some time after this was scripted & shot). It spews rapid-fire technobabble that’s nearly impossible to keep up with. Yet it’s got a massive positive: Its real-time countdown gives it an entertaining, gut-wrenching urgency, so the negatives don’t really matter.
I’ve viewed the episode three times now, but I’m not even going to pretend I understand half of the goings-on—it unfolds at a breakneck pace (accompanied by some great work from composer Murray Gold), and much of it seems designed only to keep the roller coaster on the track. Despite its seeming complexity, isn’t it really a pretty simple piece? The TARDIS materializes onboard a cargo ship plummeting toward a sun. The Doctor, Martha and the ship’s crew have 42 minutes to avert the disaster, whilst also staving off a couple of infected crewmembers (including the captain’s husband), who’ve been turned into space zombies uttering the battle cry, “Burn with me”.
In the midst of the frenetic tale, Martha (Freema Agyeman) manages to spend a few minutes with her mother Francine (Adjoa Andoh). Thanks to the Doctor upgrading her cellphone to “Universal Roaming” status (just like he did for Rose), Martha’s now able to call home whenever the mood takes her. What Martha doesn’t know is that the shady government goons employed by Mr. Saxon are listening in on the calls—and Francine’s invited them to do so from her living room. Again, this woman’s a far cry from Jackie Tyler, who’d rather have gone to prison than sell out her daughter.
Martha also manages to make some time with one of the crewmembers, Riley (William Ash) and the episode’s strongest sequence begins with the pair being jettisoned off the ship in an escape capsule. “42” is loud, but suddenly the sound and music cuts off altogether as the Doctor screams at Martha from the ship, and she looks back at him from the capsule. The silence of space is given a fantastic nod here as he repeatedly mouths to her, “I’ll save you!”—from Martha’s POV it’s just dead quiet. Martha’s faith in the Doctor is put to the test here. She wants to believe that he will save her, but the entire scenario looks pretty bleak, especially when you’re hurtling into a sun.
The Doctor of course does save her, but not without an immense amount of testing of his physical endurance. He’s forced to don a space suit and climb out onto the ship’s exterior. It’s a thrilling sequence that seems as if it couldn’t possibly get any more intense—but it does, when the Doctor, too, becomes infected. David Tennant’s at the top of his game here and I think I’ve said before that there’s just something about seeing the Doctor in unbearable pain that always gets to me. His cries of “I’m scared. I’m so scared” are genuinely unnerving and when he begins babbling to Martha about the possibility of this “process” he might go through if he dies, you almost wonder if he will. Any story that tests the Doctor’s resolve to this degree gets high marks from me.
The sun is actually a living organism, which should please fans who tire of the bipedal alien of the week. Coupled with the revelation that the entire scenario was Captain McDonnell’s (Michelle Collins) fault makes for an innovative finale and her self-sacrifice, while deliriously over the top, is a fitting exit for the character who didn’t want to go on living anyway with her husband’s blood on her hands. Last season I often complained about the deus ex machina resolutions of many of the episodes. There seems to be much less of that this season. Even if the resolutions aren’t always 100% sound, it feels as if the writing team is trying harder to tell good stories and not assume viewers will eat up any ending thrown out there as long as there are plenty of monsters and ’splosions along the way.
Any TV episode is better without commercials, but “42” is one piece of television that must be severely hampered by words from our sponsor. (I’ve only seen it without interruption—hopefully somebody will chime in and talk about the Sci Fi broadcast.) The title’s clever spin on the series 24 demands that it play out in real time and network pimping of fast food chains can only hurt the manner in which the piece is constructed and plays out. It’s also a great companion piece to last week’s “The Lazarus Experiment”. They have a major yin and yang thing going on. Together they squarely occupy the middle of the season and it’s this sort of episodic pairing that makes Doctor Who so unique. If one were experiencing the series for the first time through these two episodes, it’d be tough to believe they’re part of the same series, much less the same story arc.
Ross Ruediger is a San Antonio-based critic and columnist, a contributor to The House Next Door, and publisher of The Rued Morgue.
NEXT WEEK: Season Three hits its final stretch with deadly scarecrows, creepy aliens and the Doctor’s discovery of what it means to be human in “Human Nature”. (Don’t miss this one, kids!)
Classic Who DVD Recommendation of the Week: Pick up where last week’s recommendation left off—see Tom Baker regenerate into Peter Davison in “Logopolis”...the story that taught the teenage me all about entropy.