42 in Perspective
Patrick Kavanagh-Sproull and James Stanley on the Series 3 episode.
42, in retrospective, is a classic. Claustrophobic, tense, with major character development from the two leads, it stands as one of the underrated gems of Series Three. The story extracted elements of Douglas Adams’ work: the title being directly pulled from Adams’ alleged answer to ‘the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything’. Chris Chibnall, notable writer of Torchwood and currently airing drama, Broadchurch penned 42 and used time to his advantage, creating a hot and taut situation for the Doctor and his assistant. I feel 42 is clinically underrated and that it deserves more respect, for it is one of the most tight and scary episodes of Doctor Who ever produced.
“Forty-two minutes until we crash into the sun.”
The premise of 42 is surprisingly elementary, and given the restrictions Chibnall was placed under, he managed to cobble together a tightly-plotted episode. The idea of a group of freighters in space, crashing into a distant sun was a typical science fiction conception, yet Chris Chibnall led his audience through multiple twists and turns, creating a villain out of a star. Of course, there had to be a humanoid malfeasant, this was Ashton and Korwin, but the idea that the sun was a sentient being, capable of feeling pain, was genius. Admittedly the notion is a tad recycled in the world of sci-fi but still when executed here, is brilliant.
42 was a relieving return to the world of science fiction; the two previous stories: Daleks in Manhattan/Evolution of the Daleks and The Lazarus Experiment were Earth-based dramas with off-worlders posing a threat to humanity. Solar-infected monsters and a runaround on a spaceship was just what viewers wanted.
“Burn with me. Burn with me.”
While the Torajii Sun isn’t the most pertinent element of 42 to praise, it’s certainly something that must be addressed. When you have a spaceship filled with narrow, dimly lit corridors, it’s always nice to have some form of monster stalking them, preferably a humanoid one, so their attacks can be more surprising, which is why I think it was wise to use the Sun instead of bringing back the Ood (the original species the Sun was going to possess). Plus, I think it would’ve been a bit too Satan Pit-y, but I digress.
The first action of the Sun is instilling its essence in Korwin, which causes him to get up to all sorts of mischief, then begin to writhe in agony, which is great (no, I’m not a masochist; hold your horses), as it’s not often that we see humans being subjected to physical pain in a torturous form. Korwin is eventually overpowered and sent to sleep, but once his fingers start to move again, you know that trouble’s on the way.
The next time Korwin gets up, he’s been completely possessed, proceeding to kill Abi Lerner, while repeatedly uttering the phrase, “burn with me” in a gruff, deep, monotone voice, which, while not exactly original, is rather unnerving to hear when coming from a prototypical human form. The method by which he kills Abi is also fairly chilling; roasting her until all that’s left is a black silhouette of her body made from charred ash. Plus, if you’ve ever been burnt by something/yourself before, as most people have, you can get a perspective of how much that would hurt.
A few moments later, Korwin puts on a futuristic welding mask so he can keep his eyes open without scorching everything in front of him, and goes on to pick off more of the crew members and, to make sure the humans don’t succeed, infects Ashton with some sun particles, allowing the Sun’s essence to overwhelm him, too. In the end, Ashton’s possessed form is taken out by the crew, and McDonnell sacrifices herself to destroy Korwin’s body by ejecting them both out of the spaceship, into the Sun’s cold… wait… warm embrace. Somehow, the shot of Korwin and his wife falling to certain doom is quite romantic.
Some may find the concept of a living sun silly, but I, however, have always had a fondness for stories, Doctor Who or otherwise, that give an [interesting] non-sentient object a mind of its own, as long as the vast majority of the rest of the story is sound, which, in this case, holds true.
“Humans! You grab whatever’s nearest and bleed it dry. You should have scanned!”
Do you know the main reason as to why stories such as Utopia, Midnight, The Waters of Mars, The Fires of Pompeii and Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead are fan favorites? No? Okay, I’ll tell you: because the Doctor was challenged as a character in them, facing situations he’d never faced before, which, especially during David Tennant’s tenure, is a rare thing to witness. 42 bases itself around this premise as well; it just isn’t given credit for it.
You probably think I’m going to harp on about the ‘real time’ aspect and how that influences the Doctor’s actions for this entire section, right? Wrong. While the ‘real time’ is a very effective way of creating tension, the episode really gets going when the Doctor goes to save Martha. The sheer determination you can see in the Doctor’s face as he’s about to step out of the spaceship is simply magnificent, and what follows even more so. Seeing the Doctor’s physical abilities being challenged as he is reaching for the button to bring the escape pod back is extremely refreshing, and, as before, the determination David Tennant manages to convey is stellar.
Once the Doctor is infected by the Torajii, it gets even better. It’s harrowing to seeing the Doctor being dragged along by Martha, all of his astonishing abilities rendering null. Once Martha gets him to the Medical-Thing-That’s-Just-A-Repainted-MRI-Prop (MTTJARMRIP), another refreshing decision comes into play: making the Doctor scared. The Doctor is always the person who gets everyone else, the frightened ones, through the crisis, so to see him not only scared, but terrified to the point of weeping, is stupendous. He’s also in true physical pain here, too, which is just lovely.
When the MTTJARMRIP is forced to shut down, the Doctor falls to the floor, still in constant agony, still scared, and still fighting the sun particles inside of him, as his physical abilities are stretched yet again through having to crawl along the floor, hoping to find Martha. Seeing the man who regularly gives grand monologues and smites abhorrent creatures turned into a blind, groveling thing is hard to watch, and that’s good thing, especially in the case of the Tenth Doctor.
Once the Sun becomes too strong to resist, the Doctor opens his eyes, revealing the blank, gleaming stare of the Sun, which is genuinely frightening to see on his face when combined with all of that sweat and rage, but not quite as chilling as the, “Burn with me, Martha!” that is heard seconds later all around the ship. Luckily, the overwhelmed Doctor is never able to get to Martha, as all of the sun particles present on the ship, including those inside him, are released not long after he is possessed. The hard breathing and the wide-eyed stare he exhibits as the sun particles leave him sum up the whole affair; he wasn’t expecting such a horrifying experience at all, physically or mentally.
The Doctor determined, physically challenged, scared, turned evil, and facing a situation he hasn’t faced before in the space of fifteen minutes. And it’s not mishandled/rushed in any way. More of this, please, Matt Smith Era.
“By the way, you’ll need this. Frequent flyer’s privilege.”
Martha Jones was one of the most maligned companions of revived Doctor Who. When Freema Agyeman was in the role, she wasn’t loved as much as Rose, and this is partly because Freema followed Billie [Piper]; one of the most adored assistants since Sarah Jane Smith. Russell T Davies encapsulated his feelings about Billie’s departure and wrote them into the Tenth Doctor’s dialogue: it hit him hard that she was gone and still didn’t get over it until just after Martha left, as did the Doctor. She was a missed opportunity: a young doctor from Earth that in the face of danger (i.e. shenanigans on the Moon) protected those around before herself. When Martha met this madman that had advanced knowledge of space and time, she grabbed onto his arm and accompanied him on multiple adventures. She fell in love him gradually (this was highlighted most in Human Nature/The Family of Blood, my second favorite story of Martha’s) but he absentmindedly rejected her. 42 is my favorite episode to feature Martha, down to the Doctor’s acknowledged care for her. When Martha is jettisoned from the S.S. Pentallian, the Doctor is physically distraught, terrified of losing his new friend. Once retrieved, Martha and the Doctor were back together… and that moment was Martha Jones at her highest.
Both of us recommend that you re-watch 42 sometime, considering the things we’ve said in this article, then perhaps you’ll realize what an underrated gem it is. If, even after a re-watch, you still find it thoroughly mediocre, we hope you can at least see where we’re coming from with our arguments. Oh, and those of you who have always seen it as fantastic, you’re our favorites!