« "Here Comes The Sun" | Main | Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun »

May 20, 2007

Good Day Sunshine

Last year’s two-parter The Impossible Planet and The Satan Pit was not one of the most successful instalments of new Doctor Who in terms of viewing figures. But it did seem to go down very well with reviewers, particularly those within fandom, and was a story with which the production team themselves appeared very pleased. Perhaps, in that context, it’s no surprise that in 42 we were given an episode so similar to that story in so many ways.

Indeed, some of the many similarities were a little eyebrow-raising, to say the least. We have a small spaceship crew confined to one very industrial-looking setting. We have a desperate commanding officer trying to keep them all together and get them out of their plight. Instead of a mysterious life form at the heart of a black hole we have a mysterious life form at the heart of a sun, but we still lose access to the TARDIS – the use of which could have saved everyone’s trouble within five minutes – at the very start of the episode.

The ‘real time’ conceit may be a bit of a hoary old cliché by now, and indeed one Doctor Who itself has already pretty much done with less fanfare in The End of the World, but it was still an interesting hook upon which to hang the episode.

Having said all of that, I actually felt that 42 was a bit more successful than Matt Jones’s two-parter, and a very enjoyable episode in its own right. For one thing, the pace seemed better – I liked The Impossible Planet and The Satan Pit, but they did seem to flag a little in places, whereas 42 was pretty much exactly right, bar perhaps integrating the Doctor and Martha with the rest of the crew a touch too rapidly at the beginning. The ‘real time’ conceit may be a bit of a hoary old cliché by now, and indeed one Doctor Who itself has already pretty much done with less fanfare in The End of the World, but it was still an interesting hook upon which to hang the episode.

The End of the World also had the much-debated Galaxy Quest­-style fans sequence, and you do have to wonder whether the twenty-eight password-sealed doors that the crew had to get through with their pub quiz trivia questions here really served any function other than to impede the progress of the characters and heighten the drama during an emergency. I know Riley had a line about them being a precaution in the event of a hi-jack, but I don’t think Chibnall did quite enough to justify it. However, as it ended up giving us the Doctor’s lines about “recreational mathematics” and an excuse for Martha’s phone calls home, I suppose he just about gets away with it.

The rest of Chibnall’s writing seemed pretty confident and assured, and I don’t know whether it was he or Davies who decided to add the sinister Saxon bits to Mrs Jones’s segments – probably Davies – but they served as an intriguing increase to the enigma of this year’s ‘arc’. An unexpected one, too – I had assumed this episode would stand completely alone, as locked off and isolated as the crew of the spaceship upon which it was set, but evidently not.

As it ended up giving us the Doctor’s lines about “recreational mathematics” and an excuse for Martha’s phone calls home, I suppose he just about gets away with it.

One aspect of the script that did pull me up short and make me wonder was the small moment when the Doctor is on the outside in the space suit attempting to activate the process to remagnetise the escape pod dock and pull the pod back in. No, it wasn’t so much the idea that such a system would be put in such a stupidly inaccessible place – although now I think of it, that was a bit strange – it was Scannell’s sudden encouragement to him over the radio. He’d been so pessimistic and cynical about everything up to this point, why was he suddenly so encouraging? Just stuck me as a tad odd, really.

Graeme Harper’s name attached to a Doctor Who story is more often than not an indicator of good quality, so it was very nice to see him back again on the new series, and from the look of things on the associated Confidential episode he’s still as energetic and enthusiastic as ever about his work on the programme. I have to admit that I am not usually one to pick up on either good or bad direction unless it’s so far either way as to really smack you around the face, but I did really like some of Harper’s touches here. Standing out was the silence that accompanied the escape pod drifting away from the ship as the Doctor shouted soundlessly to Martha that he was going to save her – a terrific piece of direction that seemed quite different to anything else we’ve seen since Doctor Who’s return. I also liked the splashes of red across the deep blue lighting of the escape pod interior as Martha and Riley thought they were drifting to their deaths, and McDonnell and Korwin’s balletic floating to their own demise near the end of the episode.

McDonnell’s casting had slightly concerned me when it was announced that she was to be played by Michelle Collins, as it’s so difficult to disassociate her from the character she played in EastEnders for all those years, Cindy Beale. Cindy was an emotional cripple who was frankly weird at times in her limited range of responses and actions, and despite Collins having acted in a great many dramas for the BBC and ITV since Cindy was unceremoniously given an off-screen death in the soap opera, Collins played the part for so long that actress and character are forever indelibly linked.

McDonnell’s casting had slightly concerned me when it was announced that she was to be played by Michelle Collins, as it’s so difficult to disassociate her from the character she played in EastEnders for all those years, Cindy Beale.

Collins managed to overcome such audience prejudices and preconceptions quite successfully though, I thought. She gave McDonnell a toughness that you could see was inspired by the likes of Ripley in the Alien films, but also a more vulnerable, emotional side in her relationship with her husband and her reaction to his possession by the sun creatures that made her sacrifice at the end all the more effective.

Full marks must also go to the two survivors of the ship’s crew, Anthony Flanagan as Scannell and William Ash as Riley. Flanagan is a very familiar face to most television drama viewers these days from his regular role in the first three years of Paul Abbott’s Shameless, and also played the killer in last year’s one-off Cracker revival. I hadn’t actually heard about his casting before seeing the episode and was quite surprised when I recognised him – I thought that his career was on such an upward trajectory at the moment that a comparatively minor guest role in Doctor Who would have been a bit of a comedown for him. It’s nice to see that such talented and successful actors want to be involved in the series at such a level, and that the programme has the power to attract such talent.

I’m not as familiar with the previous work of William Ash, but I thought he was very good as Riley, making him seem a very realistic character. His scenes with Martha in the escape pod were some of the highlights of the episode, and it’s a sign of a good performance that even when delivering the somewhat corny and clichéd lines about having fallen out with his family he never made it seem too melodramatic and played it pitch perfect.

I assumed for some reason they were car horns blaring on the street outside her flat, but they turned out to be part of the incidental music.

Murray Gold’s score was good – not being a great one for judging the quality of music it’s hard to be any more specific than that, but only one moment really jarred. It was at the end, as we cut back to Martha’s mother on the phone when Martha has hung up, and we hear the sound of horns. I assumed for some reason they were car horns blaring on the street outside her flat, but they turned out to be part of the incidental music.

Quibbles aside, I found this to be one of the best episodes so far of this series, and the first one since Gridlock that I’ve watched again after its initial broadcast. It seems that Doctor Who is the better for its two-week break, so let’s hope the adaptation of Human Nature which begins next week keeps the quality on an upward level.

Comments

Stu:

You say "Martha drifting towards the sun in the space craft (which incidentally might be one of the best moments in the series, even if to a degree it too was inspired by the Soderbergh version of Solaris)."

It illustrates the strength of these Nu-Who episodes that the production design is so good that favourable comparisons to fantastic Hollywood movies such as Soderbergh's Solaris can be made.

That image of Martha, tapping on the glass as the pod departs, is such a strong one that it was one of the few images chosen for inclusion in both of the red button BBCi trailers (the eps 1 to 13 trailer - "when two worlds collide", and the eps 7 to 13 trailer - "coming up").

The Murray Gold theme that scores both those trailers is great - I recogised it in Gridlock as it appeared over the escape from the Macra - and it appeared on this episode too, as the Doctor tries to save Martha with his spacewalk. (A few weeks ago I imagined that it would be called "Macra attack!" on the CD sleevenotes, but I wonder now what that theme is called?)

Doctor Who these days looks great, sounds great - and Chris Chibnall made sure all this effort over the sight and the sound was building upon a great script.

Sorry Paul!

I'm tired and didn't notice I was commenting on the wrong review.

Paul:

You say "Standing out was the silence that accompanied the escape pod drifting away from the ship as the Doctor shouted soundlessly to Martha that he was going to save her – a terrific piece of direction that seemed quite different to anything else we’ve seen since Doctor Who’s return."

Yes! This was the brilliant accompanying image to the one I mentioned above (in the comment intended for Stu's review.)

You are right to highlight that as this was a great image too.

I'm off for a rest now as I am too tired to post comments properly (obviously!)

Cheers.

I would like to ask, and forgive me if I haven't had the 'eureka!' moment with this...but why was it called '42'...?

Nevermind, I'm finally clued in...42nd Century, 42 minutes to resolve the 'plunging into the sun' problem. Right. Possible tribute to 24 as well, yeah?

One more Damon - a Douglas Adams reference, too.

7:42 is when the BBC are scheduling the next episode... ;-)

See, the Douglas Adams reference was the one I thought of first, thought that was quite cheeky! But it turned out differently.

The Doctor should've remembered to bring his towel.

Well, I could be trite and say that 42 refers to Chibnails IQ (yuk yuk yuk), but actually I think you'll find that 42 seconds was the average amount of time this episode could go without contradicting itself or dropping a bollock. How many "the fuck?" moments did you spot? Let's see..

There were the door passwords, devised by the crew whilst drunk but consisting of 20th century pop trivia and mathematics so complicated that only the Doctor can answer (not exactly "what's your mother’s maiden name?" is it?). Then there was the moment when Tenth hangs out the side of the ship in a rubber space suit and isn't instantly incinerated by the sun, but nobody thinks of using the suit to get to the TARDIS. Then we have the pod retrieval controls inexplicably mounted outside the ship, the Statis tube which doesn't so much suspend your animation as simply freeze you to death (hey, I've got one of them in my kitchen!), Tenth getting his indignant yelling quota in by screaming at Captain Cindy Beale for mining the sun and bringing up the life form when all he had to do was look at the sun to be infected. Oh, and when your rescuers offer you a lift and you've just dumped all your fuel, don't bother accepting, even if you've got the total horn for one of them. Just assume that someone else will be along to rescue you shortly.

However, I will give plaudits to 42 for one thing. It has the best damn 'frantic keypad pressing' scene ever. If you really want your audience on the edge of their seats and connecting with your heroes, have one of them pressing furiously at a keypad (preferably wall-mounted) whilst screaming "I think I'm beating him!". Alas, I really believed that Beardy crew member was beating him, but I guess Evil Possessed crew member just wanted it more.

Still, never mind. It all looked fab, didn't it? And that's what counts.

Maff - I've got to hold off on judgement on Tennant shouting at Captain Beale, as I'm not exactly sure what stress being possessed by a solar life form puts on a normally easy-going temperament.

And it wasn't so much for her bringing the lifeform on board was it? It was more "you should've scanned the sun for life before collecting solar particles for fuel, so this is all your fault." Again, wtf Doc? Who (besides you) thinks of scanning a STAR for life?

I do like the medical stasis pod that's seemingly designed to literally freeze you in a condition you wouldn't normally survive. "First do no harm" my arse.

John Nor: I agree with your comments above.

I saw "Sunshine" the other day, and while it was visually stunning, I found my interest waning as the movie progressed towards its climax.

I also found myself thinking "meh...I think I enjoyed Impossible Planet/Satan Pit more than this"...I mean wtf how crazy is that? we are at the point now where Dr Who is directly comparable to big sci-fi blockbusters. who ever would have thought?

Salem: "And it wasn't so much for her bringing the lifeform on board was it? It was more "you should've scanned the sun for life before collecting solar particles for fuel, so this is all your fault." Again, wtf Doc? Who (besides you) thinks of scanning a STAR for life?"

Agree absolutely; and even if it's standard practice on Gallifrey to scan suns for life, Martha's snittiness towards Cindy seemed totally misplaced: "you've caused enough trouble!" - yeah like she'd have thought of it!!!

Well, both the Doctor and Martha were pretty pressured and frantic at the time.

You know...just a little hot under the collar at that point. A bit steamed. A bit...(gets pulled off-stage by hook)

The comments to this entry are closed.

Categories
Doctor Who: Series One
Doctor Who: Series Two
Doctor Who: Series Three
Torchwood: Series One
Torchwood: Series Two
The Sarah Jane Adventures: Series One
The Eighth Doctor BBC7 Audios
The Eighth Doctor Novels
The Tenth Doctor Novels
Stripped Down Series 1
Stripped Down Series 2
Stripped Down Series 3
Stripped Down Series 4
Stripped Down Series 5
Stripped Down Series 6