Series 3, Story 7 (Overall Series Story #188)
|Image via Unrepetant Geek Girl|
If you've been reading these posts of mine, you may noticed a recurrent theme of "Dangit. Sandifer, or Graham, has already written the shit out of how to write about DW," but this is one I think Sandifer gets a bit wrong; and, if Graham's written about this story, I haven't seen it. So, let's roll up our sleeves and see if "42" can be redeemed ...
Hubris and missed opportunity are the core of Sandifer's argument against this story. He's onto something, he almost always is, but is it really fair to take "42" to task for not being a Douglas Adams-style take on 24? Sure, I'd like to see that, but not everything with the number 42 in the title should have be an homage to Adams, even if it would've been a brilliant nod to Adams's time with the series and shown admirable ambition.
The real knock here is that the baddie has to be written dumb for the structure to work. "Burn with me," is dark and menacing, but "Put back what you took," would've saved everyone a bunch of precious time. When the entire premise of an episode leans on something be dumber than it needs to be, that's a structural problem which, when all is revealed, retroactively reveals what had been a taut thriller as merely a story stretched thin.
And yet, that flaw doesn't feel as fatal -- perhaps because it only becomes apparent after you've enjoyed the build up, unlike the baffling actions of all the folks in attendance at Lazarus's soiree in the previous story. Even though it's true, as virtually everyone points out, the crew of the ship are largely undistinguished, to the point of being null nodes in a few cases, they're not actively terrible either. The Captain is at least OK, and the bloke Martha gets trapped in the escape pod with is sympathetic. (He is smitten with Martha, which is -- of course -- exactly the expected and correct reaction to meeting a brave, charismatic, intelligent, personable, not-to-mention-gorgeous young woman, if you're an unattached young person who fancies women.) If the structurally and aesthetically similar "The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit" weren't still fresh in mind when "42" came along to cover the same ground somewhat less successfully, I suspect initial critical reaction wouldn't have been so unfavorable to this iteration of the premise.
|Image via The Warden's Walk|
Why am I inclined towards forgiveness in this instance when I banged on "TLE" so hard? Well, I suppose, ironically, it's the other 'flaw' Sandifer identified: its hubris.
24 is execrable -- a prolonged ode to the utility of torture produced for a television network that cheerleads for the practice. (Now, I have to admit, I stopped watching regularly when the cougar came along, but it's such a cultural touchstone I kept reading about it and periodically checked in -- though not for the most recent revival. I'll take my lumps if it reversed course somewhere along the way and made it clear torture is only ever the depraved practiced of regime that has forsaken justice. I'm reasonably confident if such a thing had happened it would've made headlines that even a head-down Doctor Who obsessive like myself would've caught wind of.)
Any show with a moral better than 'let's dehumanize one another' that is willing to say, "Sure, we can do 24. Allons-y!" may be showing off, but -- in case I wasn't clear -- f*ck 24. This episode could've been 42 minutes out of couch sitting, "The Power of Three"-style, and it would have had the high ground over 24.
But, it's not couch-sitting, it's the Doctor saying: "Are you certain nothing happened to provoke this? Nobody's working on anything secret? Because it's vital that you tell me." He needs the truth to solve the problem. He's asking for honesty. He knows something's up, that this crew did something -- and really the illegal fusion scoop should've tipped him off sooner -- but, he finally gets at the truth when he gets a good look at the star. (After a truly harrowing separation scene that's brilliantly shot and executed.) He does the work and, ultimately,can guide Martha to the resolution. Without torturing anybody. Even though lives were at stake.
Let that sink in for a moment. He needs the information to save lives, including his own, and more importantly to him, Martha's. He needs the information, he knows the Captain has it -- even if he doesn't come out and say it, he asks because he knows -- he knows and we viewers know from how she bobs and weaves around the questions, that the Captain is hiding something. He needs the truth but it never occurs to him to waterboard anybody for it. This is a pure instance of Ten being a man who never would.
This isn't only Doctor Who saying we can do 24, this is Doctor Who saying we're better than 24 because we know torture is wrong.
Hubris? Maybe. But, it's true.