Doctor Who complete reviews: 42
|REVIEWS - DOCTOR WHO|
Great visual effects can't support a derivative turkey of a story...
24. One of the mainstays of Noughties American TV and a resounding smash hit with viewers. I'll be brutally honest though – I've never seen an episode of 24: Not even one five-minute smidge. Jeez, Bensalhia, call yourself a TV reviewer?
In my defence, there's only so many in the hours in the day and just not enough time to sit in front of action-packed, frantic melées. However, I'd heard enough about the show to recognise that Doctor Who was gearing up to provide its own take on the show with an episode called 42. Ha! See how they did that? They just swapped the two and the four around to create a title of sheer genius.
Sarcasm's the last trick in the bag for any self-respecting reviewer, but nevertheless I'm inclined to use such cheap tricks when commenting on this episode. It happens to be written by Pip And Jane Baker scourge, Chris Chibnall, a man who once appeared on creaky old 1980s daytime TV programme Open Air, to grind the Bakers' efforts down to powder in just a couple of intakes of breath. So you can almost picture the Bakers huddled around their telly in May 2007 to hope and pray that Chibnall's maiden Who story would be as poor as a beggar who'd come last in a begging competition.
"It's a Brian Blessed paradise, as characters run around yelling at the tops of their voices"
Well, revenge is a dish best served cold, since they got their wish with the spectacularly bad 42, an episode that relies on lots of shouting and little else. The story's meant to be a very obvious take on 24, as a frantic spaceship crew do their best to avoid getting burnt to a crisp after heading into the sun. The tussle all takes place in real time, and so the SS Pentallian crew literally only have 42 minutes to avoid a horrible flamey death. During which, The Doctor mysteriously gets possessed by the sun, leading to some ridiculously overwrought screaming and shouting.
The writing was on the wall anyway, since Chibnall had contributed some truly wretched episodes of Torchwood, the one with the Cyberwoman and the awful Countrycide fiasco – both stories managed to be clunky, clichéd and in pretty poor taste. Keeping up the grand tradition, Chibnall's script for 42, while attempting to maintain some sort of threat and pace, falls notably short of expectations. Instead, it falls back on tried and untrustworthy clichés, boring, one-dimensional characters and some truly dreadful lines. What's more, everything's so bloody LOUD. It's a Brian Blessed paradise, as characters run around yelling at the tops of their voices. OK, so crisis point is looming rapidly, but is that any reason for the non-stop racket? Even if you watched this story on mute, you'd still probably be able to be deafened by the relentless bellowing.
What's surprising is the fact that Graeme Harper's responsible for bringing all this balderdash to the screen. Now Harper's one of the most talented and imaginative directors around – not just in Doctor Who, but in the TV industry as whole. So it's telling as to how bad Chibnall's script is that he can't weave his usual magic to transform it into a work of art. Admittedly, he's good at getting the fast pace down to a tee, as the characters run around what appears to be the set of the industrial zone in The Crystal Maze, as filmed in the local sauna. Harper uses about one million camera switches every 10 seconds, adding to the fast pace, so his camera trickery and editing skills are still well up to scratch. Not only that, but the designs and special effects are very, very good. A special word too to the lighting, which successfully contrasts the grimy darkness of the run-down crate with the harsh reds, yellows and oranges of the threatening sun.
"A key problem with the grisly death count is that it's impossible to give a damn about the characters"
But despite all this breathless rush, the story still fails to come alive. There's no real tension in the script – the main baddie seems to be a bloke who's come dressed as a cross between Boba Fett and Cyclops, while booming “BURN WITH ME!!” in a blockbuster movie announcer's voice. Quite why it keeps saying this phrase over and over again is a bit of a conundrum, since it seems to be intended solely as a catchphrase for the schoolchildren in the playground on Monday morning and little else. Admittedly, the various deaths are well done, as the victims are reduced to scorched outlines – Abi Lerner's evidently in the middle of doing some funky disco dancing, if her outline's anything to go by.
However, a key problem with the grisly death count is that it's impossible to give a damn about the characters. Put it this way, you'd probably get more realistic character development by browsing through the Mr Men books. It's the same old list of boring stock cliches: The tough Ripley-esque leader. The Mr Nice Guy. The curmudgeonly bastard. The baldy White Van Man. The moaning grump. They're all saddled with crap line after crap line: take butch minion Erina Lessak – apparently played by XTC's Andy Partridge impersonating Sharleen Spiteri from Texas. For no good reason, she chooses to switch off Ashton's frantic warnings about Boba Cyclops, while mumbling “Please, kill me now!” in the most wooden fashion imaginable. I guess this is meant to be all post-modern and ironic, when in fact it's just a rubbish, unrealistic line that's just crowbarred into the script for no good reason. Actually, I take that back. There's maybe one or two good lines crowbarred into a script that's full of rubbish, unrealistic dialogue. 42 is groaning at the seams with every hoary old cliché under the sun: “It's picking us off... one by one!!” “We must share the light!!” “I can't fight it!!” And just as a matter of disinterest, why does McDonnell call her husband by his surname exactly? My wife doesn't call me Bensalhia, that would sound daft, so why does McDonnell always bleat on about “Korwin” all the time? And why isn't she called Mrs Korwin?
"Normally, Graeme Harper's the master of astute casting decisions, but for some reason, he's having an off day in this episode"
Well, who knows – but then it's difficult to care about such a useless leader. Or any of the other crewmembers for that matter. Normally, Graeme Harper's the master of astute casting decisions, but for some reason, he's having an off day in this episode. The performances are generally lacklustre at best and Michelle Collins at worst. The character of McDonnell, stereotyped as she may be, was just crying out for an actress who could deliver some no-nonsense gravitas and just a little bit of convincing authority. Collins contributes neither of these key requirements, instead relying on wooden delivery, ineffectual slouching and as a bonus, that trademark habit she used to have in EastEnders for brushing that lank bit of hair back behind her ear. Elsewhere, none of the supporting grunts stand out – Rebecca Oldfield's one-note performance as Erina grates on the nerves as does Anthony Flanagan's furious scowling as Scannell. Without a batch of interesting, well-acted characters, the story's inevitably going to look a bit sparse.
What's just as irritating is the bit in which the characters need to get to the main computer through a series of locked doors. The doors however can only be opened by playing a game of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? “Each door's trip code is the answer to a random question set by the crew,” explains Puppy Gallagher Brother, Riley Vashtee. “Nine tours back, we got drunk, thought 'em up”. Brilliant. So presumably in Pyramids Of Mars, The Doctor and Sarah should have had 45 minutes to remember a conveyor belt load of goodies in order to progress through the Martian catacombs. Or maybe Teabag and Nyssa should have thought of a likely answer to a question set from a survey of 100 people in order to make their way to the Xeraphin Sanctum. Yeah, you get the idea. Once again, another example of blatant pop culture referencing, but this is the worst example in the new reboot, since there's no credible reason for the SS Pentallian crew to come up with such a convoluted way of getting through to the main computer. OK, so just unlocking doors may be boring by comparison, but surely a less irritating and more imaginative problem could have been devised in the script?
So with the watchwords of the day being loud and unsubtle, this is a story that's tailor made for both the 10th Doctor and also Murray's Pompous Choir. Murray Gold produces what's possibly one of the unloveliest music scores ever heard in Doctor Who, casually alternating between instructing his orchestra to play while jumping up and down on a giant trampoline, and ordering his pompous choir to shriek tunelessly at regular intervals. Far from adding to the tension, it just adds to the distracting racket and rapidly becomes an infernal nuisance. Another good bit of evidence to prove that choirs are the work of the devil.
And if you didn't know better, then you'd swear that the 10th Doctor's been possessed by the devil, given that he spends most of the last 20 minutes shouting and screaming at the top of his voice. We'd seen the embryonic stages of Ten's penchant for screaming like a woman in Evolution Of The Daleks, but in 42, the full impact of the Tennant Tantrum is felt like a devastating hurricane. No sooner is The Doctor possessed by the entity from the sun, he's yelling and shrieking at the top of his voice. Presumably this is meant to emphasise how life-threatening the situation is, but it's all just a bit too... ridiculous. Let's face it, The Doctor's been in more life-threatening scrapes than this. He's been tortured by countless fiends such as The Master, Sutekh or even the rubbish Dominators, but the sun entity just seems a bit of a weak opponent. It's certainly not reason enough to tell Martha that he could regenerate in order to banish the invader from his body. He certainly didn't need to resort to crybaby squawking when he was possessed by the Nucleus in The Invisible Enemy. So couldn't he have put himself into a trance when Martha put him into deep freeze? No, of course not. Instead, we get what seems like five whole minutes of a close-up of Tennant's great big wailing gob.
"In the story's favour, it does at least present the previously over-confident Tenth Doctor in a more vulnerable light."
OK, to be fair to Tennant, he actually does the screaming thing very well. It's just a bit too OTT for such a routine threat which previous incarnations would have shrugged off without a second's thought. But in the story's favour, it does at least present the previously over-confident Tenth Doctor in a more vulnerable light. Up until now, he's been running around and curiously impersonating Phil Daniels of Quadrophenia/EastEnders/Parklife fame. I almost expect Tennant to start barking “'Ave a cuppa tea!” in the middle of his mental tussle with the entity from the sun. But clearly by the end of the tale, his confidence has been suitably rattled, and that end scene in the TARDIS is particularly well acted by Tennant, who successfully conveys The Doctor's recent traumatic experience. Well, traumatic-ish.
The final scene also emphasises what an asset Martha's now becoming to The Doctor. During the crisis, she's able to think on her feet, not panic and help the crew to defeat the looming danger. There's also that fantastic scene when The Doctor promises to save Martha as she drifts her way to apparent oblivion in the escape pod. Apart from anything else, it's a hugely effective (and refreshing) contrast to the racket, because there's blissful silence (as The Doctor frantically mouths “I'll save you!” to the helpless Martha). Great acting again from Tennant, and also again from Freema, who's relishing her chance to take more of a centre stage to proceedings. Unfortunately, Martha's mother is still just as much of a grumpy witch, although spookily, she's been ambushed by a bland Hollyoaks she-dummy by the episode's conclusion. Oooh, the Saxon subplot's starting to gain speed.
Which can't come fast enough after the 42 debacle. It's a classic case of saying meaningless, shallow nonsense in a very loud voice – much like your average Come Dine With Me contestant. It's a nice idea in principle, but Chibnall's pedestrian script, threat and dialogue blow the whole principle to atoms. Despite all the running around, there's no sense of threat whatsoever, and with such a duff bunch of crewmembers, it's not easy to give a damn about their plight. Loud, shrill and hollow, 42 fails to catch alight. Wow, Pip and Jane must have broken open the champagne after this episode first aired.
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