...a blog by Richard Flowers

Monday, May 21, 2007

Day 2330: DOCTOR WHO: 42


Did you know that 42 is NOT a Happy Number? No? Well, daddy and I used the Wibbly Wobbly Web to look Happy Numbers up after tonight’s Doctor Who and discovered that EVERY number will either turn into a “1” or a “4” when you do the “take the sum of the squares of their integers and repeat thing”. Once you get to a “4” you get stuck in a LOOP so you never get to “1”.

42 goes 4x4 plus 2x2 equals 16 plus 4 equals 20; 20 goes 2x2 plus 0x0 equals 4 plus 0 equals 4.

So 42 is NOT happy.

Fortunately, this episode was! Not quite everyone DIES!

Here is what Daddy Richard thought about it:
I recently heard a particularly excellent definition of what Doctor Who should be. It was Phil Collinson on “Doctor Who Confidential” following “Daleks in Manhattan”, and clearly shows why he’s producer and I’m not. He said: “Doctor Who should be about showing us different worlds.”

So if “42” has a weakness, it is that it’s not showing us worlds that are particularly new, at least not in the context of the series. CGI space vehicle threatened with roasting by the sun? Check out “The End of the World”. Grimy, industrial-looking future with working-class heroes struggling to get by? See “The Impossible Planet”. Possessed monster with nifty line in catch phrase? “Are you my mummy?”

In fact there’s really quite a lot of “The End of the World” in here, not just the (very excellent) computer models, but the new and darker riff on the phone call to mum at home, which I shall return to in a moment, and the Tomb Raider-esque tasks needed to reach the “save the day” button. Not so much the pub quiz against time – which was rather lovely and very Doctor Who with its mix of pop culture and recreational mathematics (yes, Millennium and I learned something) – but who on Earth sticks the “emergency re-magnetise” lever in a box on the outside of the airlock? Actually, Alex very nicely post-factor-justified it by suggesting that it is a part of the escape pod mechanism and you might need to manually turn it off.

That’s not to say that “42” doesn’t do those things again very well. And the race against time, the ticking down of the timer, is a new element that does subtly raise it.

Yes all right, it’s lifted straight from “24” but Doctor Who is always borrowing/homaging other stories, series and genres.

You don’t need to know that it’s “The Mummy” to enjoy “Tomb of the Cybermen”; you don’t need to be familiar with Fu Manchu or Sherlock Holmes to find “The Talons of Weng-Chiang” a ripping yarn; you don’t need to know the conventions of Agatha Christie mysteries to appreciate the fine manners of “Black Orchid”. Doctor Who is often at its best when beg, borrow or stealing from other popular sources. The basic ideas of how these stories work, their memes if you like, infiltrate our understanding of the world, particularly the fictional world, and enrich it. A literate writer will take popular new ideas, or reimagined old ideas, and work them into his story to bring out something altogether better. When Russell T Davies speaks of starting this story with a spaceship falling towards a sun and thinking that it needed something just a little bit more, you have to wonder if the ticking clock wasn’t his contribution.

And for Doctor Who, a series that is so much about time, it only seems surprising that they haven’t essayed a story in real time before.

The physical realisation of the SS Pentallion (and that, in passing, is a nod to “Revenge of the Cybermen”) was really good. Fantastically good – both inside and out, with plaudits due to Ed Thomas and his design team as well as to the good folk of The Mill and their computers. The use of the colour palette, all of those crimsons and scarlets, paints the ship with fire inside as well as out. People will certainly remember this one as the one that was “red”.

The use of a genuine industrial location – a former paper mill – to give a sense of scale and depth to the ship’s long corridors is inspired. It certainly makes a set like – say – the freighter from “Earthshock” look like something shot in a studio. (Even if the Stasis Tube was rather obviously a repaint of the MRI scanner from “Smith and Jones”.)

The monsters too were actually pretty good. Conceptually anyway. Goodness knows how that’s supposed to work in a world where real physics applies – the body’s oxygen turning to hydrogen? I don’t think so! You could at least have said it was the water content separating into hydrogen and oxygen. But even then, they can’t really be containing super-heated plasma inside them: the ship might have magic heat shields but their human bodies don’t.

On the other hand, as a concept at least, they were really rather creepy, and it touches on the third season’s ongoing theme of human DNA and bodily transformation. And, okay, the thing with the welders’ masks and shooting fire from the eyes is a steal from the X-Men.

Actually, Alex and I both thought straight off that the aliens’ motivation was going to be only to get back to the sun where they lived and it would be all a very “Star Trek”-like comedy of misunderstandings. So, it was rather refreshing that actually the aliens were on a crazy revenge kick. That’s a much more dark and dirty story, but its also much more Doctor Who than the “can’t we all just get along” shtick that Star Trek does when it’s at its most preachy, trying to be all “I.D.I.C”.

Of course there’s a great big debt to the “Alien” as well: not just the cobbled together space ship, with the monster picking off the small crew one by one, but also strong female lead who takes the fight to the enemy and finishes by blasting it out of an airlock (“Aliens”) / sacrificing herself (“Alien3”). There was much talk on Confidential of her doing this out of love for what was left of her husband, but to me it spoke of atonement and revenge: atoning for her own mistake and revenge on the thing that had killed her husband. And in that way it, for me, it made the story more successful as it reflected the aliens’ own motivation.

The episode however is built around two towering tour-de-force performances from David Tennant and Freema Agyeman, as the Doctor and Martha’s relationship deepens – he fixes her phone, she gets the key to his home – and both of them have to confront new levels of fear.

For Martha, this concerns family, the realisation – which she has not had before – that she could die and her family would never know. This prompts her to reach out to her mother, to make that phone call, and – in a brave piece of story telling – it doesn’t work: she can’t make the connection she wants, make her mum understand because it’s too much to explain in a call. How real is that, when we all find it hard to tell our families how much we love them because of all the mundane and everyday stuff that gets in the way. And how badly wrong this has gone we are shown when we see that mum Francine has betrayed daughter Martha to Mr Saxon’s agent, another one with a delightfully X-Files credit: the Sinister Woman.

And the Doctor too is shown to be vulnerable and scared, probably for the first time since Christopher Eccleston stepped down, and here David Tennant takes the chance to show that he is a worthy successor. Also interesting was the way he clearly trampled it down into his unconscious at the end. Way to go into denial, Doctor; at least your ninth self was getting over his damage.

The nature of the Doctor’s fear seems less to be that he might shortly die and more that he might himself turn into a monster. As it happens, I once wrote a story for the eighth Doctor (people with flaming eyes and set in deep space, no less, Alex insists on pointing out) focussing on the idea that his greatest fear might be that he could have ended up possessed by the Master had the events of New Year’s Eve 1999 gone another way. It’s a very Nietzschean idea: stare too long into the Abyss and it stares into you; he who would fight with monsters risks becoming one. And it ties into the Christmas story “The Runaway Bride” where Donna warned the Doctor that he needed someone to stop him going too far.

“What if the Doctor turned evil” is certainly a question worth thinking about this season.

The appearance of Sinister Woman and her phone-tapping goons, unexpectedly in what we thought would be a stand-alone episode, continues to evolve the series story arc. There’s going to be a payoff for these events; and Martha’s family, Francine most likely, are going to end up paying. Mrs Jones betrayal of her daughter – even though she has Martha’s interests at heart – looks like making her doomed. She’s betrayed Martha and the Doctor in a way that Jackie Tyler never would: she’s allowed someone to get to them through her.

And we learn that where Francine Jones is, it is Election Day. This leaves us questioning even further what exactly is the time frame of events on Earth. How much time has passed since the day of “Smith and Jones” and the day after of “The Lazarus Experiment”? For that matter, since Sinister Woman seems to appear between one phone call and the next, how much time passes for Francine between those calls? Or is Sinister Woman camped out in her sitting room all the time? And is “The Runaway Bride” in the past or the future relative to this election? My guess would be the future – since the tank commander in “The Runaway Bride” reported orders from Mr Saxon, surely he must be Prime Minister at that time, yet if we haven’t had the election yet… well, I begin to worry about just who might be the winner at the end of this season.

Finally, I’m going to mention the writer: it was Torchwood’s Chris Chibnall. Given how I’ve criticised his Torchwood efforts, obviously I was particularly nervous that this was going to be, er, a bit dire. But it isn’t. Like his episodes of “Life on Mars”, in fact it’s quite good. I suspect that he’s just a lot better when there’s someone there to check his workings, make him raise his game or frankly just stand over him with a big stick and say “It’s lovely… now do it again and this time do it right!”

It’s actually quite a – dare I say it – grown-up script. The idea of being possessed by a monster that burns you up from the inside out is likely to be more scary to older children compared with the previous episode’s big CGI monster. And the themes that are developed are more mature ideas about love of family; it’s not just Martha but also Captain McDonnell who loves her husband even if he’s now a killer zombie, and Crewman Riley who has always been alone. I’m sure you can guess where I’m going with this: this is the sort of thing that Torchwood ought to be doing. I think this shows just how far ahead of the game Doctor Who really is.

Mind you, traditional Doctor Who fans will probably just be pleased to see a return of the limited cast in a base under siege and Hinchcliffe era body horror.

Next time… we return to classic New Adventures territory so they’d better not get this one wrong. Scary scarecrows and the Family of Blood are after the Doctor’s “Human Nature”.


James Graham (Quaequam Blog!) said...

I was annoyed by the 'election day' reference. What kind of a freak - outside my inner circle of political geeks that is - would talk about 'election day' like it was a special, stand out day? Wouldn't it have been more normal to say "Thursday - you know, election day!" If it is election day, then it MUST be Thursday, as any fule no.


Ryan said...

I thought exactly the same thing as James when they said "election day". Nobody calls it that (well except us lot)

Millennium Dome said...

In fairness to Mrs Jones, she DOES have three goons from Mr Saxon's political party giving her HARD STARES when she is saying this!

It may be PREYING on her mind!

Daddy Alex adds: "asking what day it is is such a bizarre thing to do that Mrs Jones may have assumed that Martha was asking 'what is special about today?' "