Starting with “Smith and Jones“, nearly every episode of Doctor Who’s third season puts the Doctor and Martha Jones under intense pressure to save the day in some form or another – giving these adventures a fast, calculated pace – and “42” is one of the most quintessential examples of that trend. “42” is the writing debut of Chris Chibnall, Torchwood’s head writer and Doctor Who’s third showrunner after Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat, and the premise for his first episode feels very fitting. Every showrunner has their own set of tropes and obsessions that they keep coming back to. Russell loved his class commentary and family drama, Steven loved bootstrap paradoxes and dark fairy tale themes, and Chris Chibnall has a bit of an obsession with countdowns.
Most of the episodes he’s written so far have some sort of dramatic time limit in them. “The Hungry Earth” has the threat of our heroes being buried alive underground within twenty minutes because of Ambrose’s stupidity. The TARDIS crew only have an hour to save some animals in “Dinosaurs On A Spaceship” before they get blown up by missiles. The Doctor worries about what deadly cubes will do to people once they count down to zero in “The Power Of Three“. In “The Woman Who Fell To Earth”, the Doctor has to save herself and her friends from micro-bombs implanted inside them that will explode at any moment. In “The Ghost Monument”, the Doctor and her friends only have two days to find the TARDIS or else they’ll be stranded on a desert planet forever. In “The Tsuranga Conundrum”, the Doctor has to worry about a contaminated spaceship being destroyed by its superiors after three unanswered calls. And in “The Battle Of Ranskoor Av Kolos”, the Doctor races to return some stolen planets back to their proper orbits within ten minutes before they’re destroyed. So in retrospect, the urgent time limit in “42” really does establish one of Chris’ main gimmicks when it comes to his Doctor Who stories, and it also turns out to be one of his better episodes.
The title is a cheeky example of Doctor Who leaning on the fourth wall, stating that the Doctor and Martha literally only have until the end of this episode to save themselves and a crew of space travelers from plunging into a star, with a countdown framing device appearing periodically. “42” is also “24” flipped, a reference to the action series this episode was modeled after, along with a nod to “Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy”. Another example of “42” establishing Chris Chibnall’s writing style is the heavy emphasis on technobabble in this adventure. A lot of the dialogue in the script is the Doctor, Martha and the crew members shouting orders at each other, exchanging crucial plot-relevant information about the future and how the ship works at a super fast rate, given the pressure they’re under. It’s an exciting process to watch and follow, but there are also times when receiving all that information at once almost becomes a bit overwhelming. Genre-wise, this episode is meant to be a mash-up between your typical race against time thriller, and an old school slasher film, since, on top of their already pressing solar problem, the Doctor and Martha are also trapped onboard the ship with a killer zombie.
Answering a distress call in space, the Tenth Doctor (David Tennant) quickly steps in to run some damage control and help the doomed crew members with what little time they have left. He does his very best to keep everyone safe, but he’s also fascinated and bewildered by the things that don’t add up about their predicament, suspecting the captain might be lying to him. Things get very intense for our heroes when poor Martha gets jettisoned into space in an escape pod, while the Doctor can only watch on helplessly, yelling at each other across the empty, silent vacuum. Like in “Gridlock“, the Doctor immediately sets out to rescue her, showing there are no limits to what he will do to save a friend. Except while the Doctor’s quest in “Gridlock” was done more out of a sense of moral obligation, since they barely knew each other at that point, the Doctor and Martha have bonded a lot more and become closer friends by now, so this mission has a lot more personal urgency behind it.
After “The Lazarus Experiment” officially cemented the Doctor and Martha’s friendship, “42” serves as a testament to how strong it is on both ends, since it not only pushes them to their physical limits to get the job done, it also puts both of them in a place of real despair and forces them to put their absolute trust in each other. Because right after the Doctor saves Martha, things get even worse when he gets possessed by the antagonist of this episode. As you would expect from Ten – who’s always been characterized as a very righteous, outspoken Doctor – he is appalled and enraged at what the humans have done to bring the star’s wrath upon them. But more than that, he’s absolutely terrified that at any moment, he’ll lose control and the god-like celestial body that has a death grip on him will use him as a weapon to kill Martha and the remaining crew members. Considering the Doctor is both stronger than them and a whole lot smarter than them, they wouldn’t stand a chance.
Ten tries his best to fight it off, but he basically gets tortured as the sun consumes his mind and body, and then he’s subjected to horrific hypothermia to try to get rid of it. Eventually, it reaches the point where he actually expects to regenerate, spending the last third of this episode in agony. The Doctor has had so much practice keeping a handle on his emotions to project confidence, it’s always very jarring and effective to see those rare occasions when he completely loses control and freaks the fuck out – like that time Nine realized he was locked in a room with a Dalek. We’ve rarely ever seen the Tenth Doctor be this scared and vulnerable, but it’s more than justified considering the mental hell he’s subjected to, and it gives us some more great acting from David.
“42” kicks off a heavy writing trend that I really appreciate in the latter half of Series 3: taking the Doctor out of the equation to raise the stakes of an adventure. The Doctor is a walking encyclopedia of knowledge, a man with many skills, and a pillar of strength and wisdom in the show. Ten’s very first episode, “The Christmas Invasion“, made it clear that it’s a lot harder to beat the villains or even survive without the Doctor around to help you, so the second half of Series 3 makes a habit of taking him out of the picture so the other heroes will have to stand on their own two feet more. He can’t save Martha and company from the Family of Blood because his soul’s trapped inside a fob watch, he can’t save Sally and Larry from the Weeping Angels because he’s decades away from them, and he spends the last part of the finale as the Master’s prisoner. In the case of “42”, it’s ultimately up to Martha to save the day and repay the favor the Doctor did her, saving his life. Ten is clearly traumatized by his ordeal afterwards, but he decides to bottle up his scars and move right along. It’s not a healthy decision by any means, but it’s Ten’s established pattern of behavior for dealing with his problems.
Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman) is pretty stoked about being an official companion now, gaining her own TARDIS key and her own superphone, and she tries to help out the best she can. Building on “The Lazarus Experiment”, Martha’s subplot dives into some Jones family drama. Martha loves her family, but things have been strained and dysfunctional between them for a long time, and she’s been just as hurt by the separation as the others. She’s felt the pressure, she’s simply kept those feelings bottled up inside to try to keep the peace between everyone else. She realized in the last episode that she likes having some space from them. She likes having her own thing with the Doctor, separate from them, so she lies to them. She tries to keep her life at home and her travels with the Doctor compartmentalized so she won’t have to deal with her family’s divorce drama anymore and her mother won’t intrude, which unknowingly feeds Francine’s suspicions.
This is a really interesting examination of Martha’s character, because up until now, aside from liking the Doctor a bit more than she should, Russell hasn’t given her a major character flaw. When Martha is once again confronted with her own mortality, with the Doctor being her only hope at the moment, she doesn’t regret the choices that led her here: they were her own to make and she knew the risks. She only regrets the possibility that she’ll hurt her family, and she doesn’t want to die on bad terms with her mom, so she tries to say goodbye, freaking Francine out even more. In the end, Martha still decides not to be honest with her about what she’s up to, which she’ll regret dearly down the line. During the climax, the Doctor’s life comes to rest in Martha’s hands, as she tries to console him and operate on him to remove a solar parasite. And when that doesn’t work, she runs across a big old spaceship with only minutes to spare to save everyone onboard, becoming the hero of the hour. With every passing episode, the Doctor and Martha prove to be quite the badass duo, who will always come through for each other in a pinch.
Chris Chibnall manages to pull off a surprising twist with the episode’s antagonists: dead crew members who are possessed by some force and driven to sabotage the ship’s systems so everyone else onboard will die. The Doctor spends a long time trying to figure out what brought on the wrath of these creatures, and it turns out the star they’re about to crash into is alive – a sentient, sapient creature. The ship’s crew critically wounded it by illegally mining it’s core for cheap fuel, and now it’s lashing out in pain and anger, trying to kill them all for revenge. The humans couldn’t have foreseen this turn of events, since a living star is impossible and the sort of thing that would only ever happen in this show, but there’s definitely an environmental message in there about how often mother nature pays the price when she’s carelessly exploited by greedy, ignorant humans. At the end of the day, the sun is never defeated, and the problem is solved by giving it what it wants: some form of justice.
The one who’s the most responsible for this ordeal is Captain McDonnell, a stern, secretive woman who the Doctor finds himself having to consult with numerous times. Katherine’s husband is one of the first ones killed, and the one the sun uses the most to kill the others, so she spends most of this episode feeling worried about Korwin. Her loyalty to her husband nearly gets her and the others killed several times, and she seems to undergo the seven stages of grief, refusing to accept that he’s really gone and even bargaining with him to come back. There’s a palatable amount of human drama with Katherine’s subplot: her short-sighted crime winds up costing her her crew and her lover. It’s not until the Doctor confronts her, screaming at her, and Martha coldly rejects her that Katherine takes responsibility for what her actions have caused and later receives a redemptive death scene, where she ejects Korwin and herself into space to protect the rest of her crew.
The rest of the ship’s crew aren’t characterized as much, since most of them are your textbook red-shirts who exist to be cannon fodder (including a hilarious example where one of them gets axed while they’re bitching about how hard their job is). However, two of them do stand out, the first of which is Scannell, Katherine’s stubborn, hotheaded, belligerent second-in-command. As the captain’s grief for her husband grows, making her irrational, Scannell increasingly becomes the voice of reason, keeping her steady and focused, and by the end, he grows to gain respect for the Doctor and Martha. The other notable one is Riley, a personable, dependable bloke, and the crew’s technician who’s very knowledgeable about the inner workings of the ship, so he’s the one who’s put in charge of solving the world’s most high stakes game of trivia. Riley and Martha almost die in space, comforting each other the whole time, and they bond over their difficult families, so by the end of this episode, Riley has come to fancy her (Martha’s dude magnet status still persists) and she hints there was a bit of attraction there in return, giving him a goodbye kiss. I’m not gonna lie, if the circumstances were different, I’d ship them.
Lastly, Martha’s mom, Francine, is thoroughly rattled in this episode, since Martha repeatedly calls her, sending her mixed messages. Between the blatant lies, the dying screams of a murdered woman, and Martha talking to her in tears on the verge of death, Francine’s belief that her daughter is in way over her head, running off with a predator, is only strengthened – and she’s already reporting to Mr. Harold Saxon, who grows shiftier and shiftier by the episode. It’s tragic watching this subplot unfold in retrospect, knowing what’s coming for them, but Martha and Francine have both set their course now; this is the last time we’ll see Martha’s family until “The Sound Of Drums“, when everything gets shot to hell.
“42” is directed by Grahame Harper, the same man who handled the “Rise Of The Cybermen” two-parter last series, and here, he demonstrates why he’s one of the best directors from the RTD era by relying on a wide variety of storytelling perspectives for “42” – like wide shots, extreme close-ups, low-angle shots, long tracking shots, quick cutaways – all of which are aided by some razor-sharp cuts from the show’s editors (who have really stepped up their game this season with the faster-paced episodes they’re handling). “42” is one of the most visually striking episodes from the RTD era. The special effects the Mill did for the living sun – burning in space as a giant, blinding ball of gas and nuclear energy – have aged surprisingly well after twelve years, giving the impression that a good chunk of the season’s budget was spent on this episode.
And beyond that, the overall lighting and color scheme of the episode is very stunning and distinctive: every scene has deep shaded reds, fiery oranges, dark contemplative blues, and blaring whites, all of which contrast each other throughout the episode in the grungy, steampunk setting of the S.S. Pentallian. Lastly, Murray Gold writes one of his best scores of the season for “42”, relying a lot on underlying synth, electric guitars and foreboding choirs. “All the Strange, Strange Creatures“, the main action-adventure theme of Series 3, reaches its peak during “42” and it never sounds better than it does in this episode. Murray weaves together a choral version of it filled with pounding percussion, howling vocals and pulsing synth that dominates the last act of the episode as the Doctor and Martha start to run out of precious time. The coda also has the first hints of “The Master Vainglorious”: as we get closer and closer to the finale, we get a bit of foreshadowing with the drumbeat of a certain villain.
Chris Chibnall’s first Doctor Who episode turns out to be one of his best – containing many of Series 3’s best elements when it comes to both plotting and characterization – and like “Gridlock”, “42” is one of the highlights of the season for me.
* “Forty-two minutes until what?” “Forty-two minutes until we crash into the sun”.
* Even though “42” is positioned right at the halfway point of Series 3, it’s also the last ‘normal’ adventure we see Ten and Martha have. David Tennant spends most of “Human Nature” portraying a lead character who is not the Doctor; Ten and Martha are barely present in “Blink“, since it’s a Doctor-lite episode; and “Utopia” turns out to be the first part of a three-part finale, the first of its kind in NuWho. Throughout the entire second half of the season, Doctor Who gets very experimental and has fun subverting the show’s usual status quo.
* “Oh, we’re in the Torajii system. Lovely. You’re a long way from home, Martha. Half a universe away” “Yeah. Feels it”.
* “Oh, listen to you. Defeated before you’ve even started. Where’s your Dunkirk spirit?”
* “And Martha, be careful, there may be something else onboard this ship” “Any time you want to unnerve me, feel free” “Will do, thanks”.
* “Mum, please, not now. I need you to look something up on the internet!” “Do it yourself. You’ve got a computer” “Oh, just do it, will you?! Please” Well, that tantrum was hilariously awkward.
* “Whatever you say, boss. Go there, come back, fetch this, carry these, make drinks, sweep up. Please, kill me now” Okay, honey. Korwin can arrange that.
* “Doctor, I know every inch of this ship. I know every detail of my crew’s lives. There is nothing special” “Then why is this thing so interested in you?” “I wish I knew” Katherine, you lying bitch.
* Rest in peace, Ashton the bald dude. You barely had any lines, but you were pretty hot.
* “The wonderful world of space travel. The prettier it looks, the more likely it is to kill you”.
* “Yeah, well, that’s families” “What about you?” “Full works. Mum, Dad, Dad’s girlfriend, brother, sister. No silence there. So much noise”.
* So how did Katherine keep Ashton pinned down in the med-chamber long enough to freeze him without also freezing off her own hand that was shoved in there?
* “Doctor, will you listen! They’re too far away. It’s too late” “Scannell, I’m not going to lose her!”
* “Come on, come on! Go on, my son!”
* “It’s alive. It’s alive… It’s alive!”
* “What do you mean? How can a sun be alive? Why is he saying that?” “Because it’s living in me. Humans! You grab whatever’s nearest and bleed it dry! YOU SHOULD HAVE SCANNED!” Yowza, David.
* “What’s your favorite color?” “Purple. Or did I say orange?” “COME ON!”
* I see one of the lessons Martha learned from “Smith And Jones” stuck: when in doubt, always check the manual.
* “Burn with me, burn with me, Martha!”
* “”Sun particles in the fuel. Get rid of them. Do it! NOW!!!” Yowza, Freema went all in on that line.