I’m of two minds when it comes to this episode. On the one hand, it’s a pretty strong action runaround with some great visuals and an inventive enemy. On the other hand, the security system that prevents access to the secondary control room is stupid beyond words, as is the escape pod control box on the freaking hull of the ship! And have I mentioned how much I despise the “call anywhere, anytime” cell phone?
The Doctor and Martha land on a spaceship in the future that they quickly discover is forty-two minutes away from plunging into a star, making this episode one that takes place almost in real time. All due credit to the actors and director Graeme Harper for keeping the action and intensity going throughout the story, as the mystery is uncovered and sinister beings who appear to be former crew members stalk and kill the crew one by one before they can repair the engines and escape. The episode almost never slows down, but given the urgency of the situation the crew find themselves in, that’s absolutely appropriate.
The ship is grimy and dirty and industrial in appearance, as are the crew. There are no gleaming white futuristic corridors here. Nor do the crew wear uniforms. Given that they’re all no doubt very hot since they’re so close to a star, their sweaty and grimy appearance makes sense and has the air of credibility. I’m not quite sure that I buy the locations as a spaceship interior on their own, but the constant exterior shots of the ship help to sustain the illusion. So the ship and crew and environment all work well enough.
The plot is also solid and interesting, if somewhat derivative of “Planet of Evil” and not nearly as strong as that serial’s climax. This particular ship and her crew have indulged in an illegal operation to obtain fuel from a local star by scooping part of the solar matter into the fuel system. Unknown to them, the star in question is sentient, and doesn’t take kindly to having parts of itself ripped away, so it begins not only dragging the ship towards it, but also possesses first one crew member and then another to kill off the crew from within and prevent them from repairing their ship and escaping. And if not for the arrival and intervention of the Doctor and Martha, it would have worked. The crew of the freighter would have doomed themselves.
What doesn’t work is the contrived nature of the security system that seals off the secondary control room. 30-something doors, all sealed until the proper question is answered. Each door has a different question, and each one offers a one-time chance to get the answer right, or else the door is stuck for good. Does the stupidity of this system really need to be explained? Suppose the one guy who has the answers is injured or lost, or suppose a sweaty nervous crewman slips while typing in an answer and blows it? Then what? All chance of ever getting through the door is gone. And it’s not just one security door, but over thirty? All credibility is lost as Martha phones her mother back on 21st century Earth to get one of the answers. It’s blatantly obvious that this particular obstacle was dreamed up solely for the highly implausible dramatic possibilities it presented, and to make sure the episode ran to length by making sure the crew don’t regain control of the ship too soon.
I find that all the little emotional moments between crew members and between Martha and Riley don’t really work either. The sheer breakneck pace of the episode doesn’t give us time to get to know the crew, and so their trials and fears don’t rest on any foundation other than “crewman x is afraid” or “captain y has lost her husband to the sun”. All very sad in theory, but not in practice, because the crew are ciphers. They’re unknowns. And enough with all the hero-worship of the Doctor! Martha and Riley talk about finding someone to believe in, and Martha discusses the Doctor like he’s some kind of deity. Enough is enough.
What also does not work is the manner in which the Doctor retrieves a detached escape pod that holds Martha and one of the crewmen as they drift towards the sun. Even if I buy that remagnetizing the pod has an attraction strong enough to overcome the gravitational attraction of the sun (and there are some lines to try and paper over this, but I just don’t believe the explanation), why in blazes are the controls on the outside of the ship? And not only on the outside, but so far from the door that they can barely be reached? What idiot designed this spaceship anyway? It’s all designed to be very dramatic so that the Doctor can look heroic and rescue Martha despite impossible odds, but it’s just so implausible, it’s stupid. I’m sorry, there’s no other word for it. The actors and effects crew give it their all in an attempt to make it dramatic and heart-wrenching, but the scene lacks credibility.
From the ridiculous to the sublime, or something like that… the Doctor looks at the sun and realizes the truth as it enters his body in much the same way that it possessed the two crew members. This is the payoff for having the Doctor at the airlock looking out into space, and David Tennant really excels himself here as he convincingly appears to panic and to be in extreme pain. It’s rare that the Doctor admits to fear, but that is very much the case here. Martha shows her mettle as she gives it her all in an attempt to save the ship and the Doctor’s life. In fact I’d have to say that the last 10 minutes of the episode are the most credible and enjoyable part of the story, because I actually care about what happens to the Doctor and Martha, and because Tennant’s performance makes you believe the torment he’s going through. I’m emotionally invested in their plight.
In the end, 42 is fun, dramatic and at times tense, but it’s let down by some awful plot contrivances that just don’t pass muster. I like the episode, but it is a letdown.