|Sparkle with me.|
It’s May 19th, 2007. McFly are at number one with “Baby’s Coming Back/Transylvania.” Akon, Linkin Park, the Manic Street Preachers, and Scootch, the latter with “Flying the Flag (For You),” their suitably disastrous entry in Eurovision 2007, which also explains why we have two weeks of news to cover. The Kerguelen Plateau, a sunken island off of Antarctica that used to be a part of India, is discovered. So is the largest supernova ever. Tony Blair announces that he’ll step down in June, finally clearing the way for Gordon Brown. Nicolas Sarkozy becomes President of France. And Chelsea defeat Manchester United 1-0 in the FA Cup final, the first game played in the new Wembley Stadium.
On television, meanwhile, 42. On one level, this is the most straightforwardly sensible matching of brief and writer imaginable. Take the writer who did the big action scripts of Torchwood and match him with the pastiche of a big dumb American action show. And on the other, there’s a level on which this script falls agonizingly short of its promise.
For all the hate Chibnall gets, his Doctor Who work on the whole isn’t all that bad. The Power of Three is marvelous until the ending. Dinosaurs on a Spaceship is exactly what an episode with that title should be. The Silurian two-parter flounders, yes, but that’s actually the only time he turns in a story that just doesn’t quite work on a storytelling level. Because 42 does exactly what it sets out to do – it’s an efficient action piece that pulls off the actually fairly difficult “real time” structure. It hangs together logically, sets up its conclusion well at the start, and while it has a few ideas that deserve to euphemistically be called bizarre when what we really mean is “mind-wrenchingly illogical,” this is Doctor Who, and if it doesn’t do a sequence of doors sealed by an evil pub quiz then really, what show will?
And there are moments of the story that are quite good. Putting the Doctor through this sort of wringer is absolutely marvelous – his screaming and saying that he’s scared is genuinely unsettling in a way the series hasn’t really managed since Sutekh’s dominating of Tom Baker. Martha’s attempt to make a last call to her mother, where they talk at cross purposes, is wonderfully heartbreaking. “Burn with me” isn’t quite “are you my mummy,” but you can still properly freak someone out with it.
Most obviously, of course, it’s directed by Graham Harper, so we get a ton of interesting camera angles and well-executed visuals. The scene of the Doctor and Martha staring out the windows at each other as the escape pod separates is an absolutely phenomenally shot scene. “The Doctor and the companion get separated” is one of the absolute oldest and most bog-standard tricks in Doctor Who, and under Davies there’s been a particular focus on stressing the physical distance between them (The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit, Gridlock, and, of course, Doomsday), but the shot of them physically receding from each other, watching each other drift away, and trying desperately to communicate across the silent void is absolutely breathtaking.
Sure, there are some flaws – the ship’s crew is forgettable. It’s hard to sketch a cast that size in one episode, but Chibnall doesn’t really give it much at all. Perhaps most gallingly, the final a-ha goes to the Doctor when, given everything leading up to it, it blatantly should have gone to Martha, who’s more than clever enough to figure out “dump the sun particles back to the sun.” But these are small objections.
No, the real problem is that the episode exists. This is, to say the least, an inscrutable decision. Sure, Doctor Who doing its own contorted version of an existing television show is standard operating procedure. After three “remake oddball story types from forgotten eras” stories in a row, it’s actually kind of a relief to see Doctor Who go back to mining new territory. But, well, look, why exactly is Doctor Who doing a remake of an infamously racist American show overseen by people who party with Rush Limbaugh?
To be clear, my objection is manifestly not that Doctor Who is taking on 24. That’s delightful, especially given the observation that reversing the digits both gives you roughly the episode length and a Douglas Adams joke. The problem is that this episode is nowhere near as brilliant as its premise and title suggest. Doctor Who inverting 24 to get to a Douglas Adams joke is a brilliant idea that shouldn’t be wasted on a straight remake of 24. Instead we get an interesting technical exercise – a game of “is it possible to do a Doctor Who story where…” in which all that can really be said at the end is “yes, it is. What’s next week?”
There’s an annoying lack of any sense of Doctor Who in this. It’s just another action episode – the fourth big sloppy action episode in a row. Sure, Daleks in Manhattan/Evolution of the Daleks also had a sudden revival of the show’s educational mandate, but it was still the kiddie monster two-parter. Yes, fine, Doctor Who can do action reasonably well, especially on its new souped up budget, but all we’ve got here is “we can do action with a writerly trick too.”
Where this becomes really annoying is when you consider what the alternatives could have been. Because the real trick here wasn’t to do a real-time action piece with Doctor Who, it was to do what the title promises and give us the Douglas Adams version of 24. There’s no era of Doctor Who where the high point is its well-done action stories. No, not even Earthshock, which, if it’s to be called brilliant, gets that honor for Beryl Reed and some plot twists, not because it was actually any good at doing a big explody action movie.
Sure, in the new series it can do competent action, but the fact remains – at every stage in Doctor Who’s history, what it’s really been absolutely best at is dialogue-heavy science fiction that’s high on wit and cleverness. I mean, if we’re going to remind everybody of the fact that Douglas Adams wrote for Doctor Who once, perhaps we should also recall that Adams’s best script, widely and correctly considered one of the all-time best Doctor Who stories, period, was City of Death, a story that amounted to a bunch of excuses to get Julian Glover and Tom Baker to explain a pleasantly farcical plot to each other, and where the tendency for Doctor Who stories to resolve through action sequences is aggressively lampshaded.
Put another way, can you imagine if Davies had given this brief to Gareth Roberts? (Or Steven Moffat, who’s obviously suited to it, although he got his own version of “do the technically tricksy one” this season. And that was already him taking it because he had to pull out of the opening two-parter, apparently because Jekyll was taking up too much time. Which is surely true, but equally, good lord did he trade a two-parter that wasn’t in his wheelhouse for something that was.) If this were, instead of forty-five minutes of running through corridors a little faster than usual, then, you know, there would be something like a reason to it.
And it’s not like it’s hard to do something like this. I mean, coming up with talk-heavy reasons to have a ticking clock over the entire episode just isn’t that hard. But instead we have an episode where, on the commentary, Davies and Chibnall chortle gleefully about how they have the longest effects shot in Doctor Who history to show the ship falling into the sun. Those with a mind towards history might recall that this is exactly the logic that led to such classics as The Power of Kroll.
Inasmuch as hubris has been one of the driving themes of Doctor Who of late, this is, quite frankly, the sort of story that explains why. The only point of this is to show off. That’s an accusation that can be leveled against other stories this season, and showing off isn’t necessarily a problem, but what you really can’t get away with is showing off and hitting more or less adequate. It’s not, in the end, that there’s anything wrong with 42. It’s that there isn’t even trying to be anything particularly right with it.
It will not escape notice that this has not been a particularly great stretch of episodes for the series. Indeed, you’re on pretty solid ground if you want to suggest that this marks the end of more or less the worst stretch of four episodes in the new series. There may be people who identify another stretch they like less, but nobody’s going to suggest it’s an unreasonable suggestion. And it’s worth asking what went wrong.
One reasonable claim would be that the pressures of attempting this, Torchwood, and The Sarah Jane Adventures all at more or less the same time overwhelmed the production team. Certainly three series is an awful lot to be running at once, and the fact that this was just about the worst blip in quality is something of a relief. Another is that the series was slightly rudderless at this point. It hadn’t just lost Rose, it had lost its entire supporting cast. A third is the observations from last post about Martha’s frailties as a character, although, equally, the fact that she’s the companion for the five weeks that are effectively the new series’ nadir probably don’t help her either.
Tat Wood, in the final essay of About Time 7, quotes former Marvel UK editor Neil Tennant’s concept of the imperial phase – a moment when a cultural icon like a pop group is bulletproof and effectively immune to criticism. Wood suggests this phase covered the first two seasons of the new series, hence his suggestion that 2006 was the new series’ annus mirabilis. Theres a certain logic to it, and the follow-up observation is that Season Three marks the point where that invulnerability faltered. It was obviously not the end – the series’ popular peak is, in fact, firmly still ahead of it. But between the misfires of the season finale and this stretch, the sense that Doctor Who could do no wrong shattered. This is, in many ways, ironic – in many ways the problem with Season Three is just that it ran its four turkeys one after another, while Season Two had the sense to space them out. On the whole, there’s a sound argument to be made that Season Three has the higher average quality.
Nevertheless, this marks the first extended run where one could describe the series as kind of crappy and not have anyone disagree with you too loudly. Sure, there are other stretches that attract lots of criticism, but here we have four episodes that it’s hard to find many defenders of. And this marks an important shift. The new series had its detractors roughly from before it was announced, but its obvious success always made those arguments hard to refute. After this the arguments that the show had gone off the rails stuck around a little longer and a little louder. Doctor Who could, in fact, do wrong.
This isn’t a major problem. Sure, it may be hard to find much objection to the idea that this is the worst run of four, but equally, there’s probably not a run of three episodes that get such a decisive consensus of love for them as the next three. This is obviously not some major blow to the series’ future. But it is the end of the imperial phase, and the point where the possibility that it could all go to hell in a handbasket again starts being a mildly present fear. 42 may be the one of the four with the least responsibility for that. But it’s still damning that, in many ways, the fact that it marks that transition is the most interesting thing about it.