I feel like I want to break the format, as is my wont. My rewatch didn’t give me many episode-specific bullet points to work with, but it has stirred up some more general thoughts that I would like to jot down.
My memories of Series 3 are that it starts well, goes to utter shit in the middle, then becomes brilliant for the final six episodes. So far I’ve discovered that it does indeed start well, but time seems to have exaggerated how bad the middle few episodes are. Once again, I’ve discovered that a story I thought I hated is actually not awful, just a bit dull.
Maybe I’ve mellowed with age, or maybe my recent Torchwood binge has reminded me of something I’ve always known: that even an average episode of Doctor Who is significantly more entertaining than most other things. Originally, I think my disappointment with 42 was exacerbated by the extra week’s wait, with the series split in twain by Eurovision. The aforementioned mid-series trailer really had me excited for the second half, plus I was looking forward to seeing a story play out in real time, but 42 doesn’t live up to the promise of either, so I dismissed it as being shit and barely gave it a second thought for ten years.
So I was surprised to find I wasn’t hating it during the rewatch, although I wasn’t particularly enjoying it either. The real time thing is mostly a gimmick – it turns out that 42 minutes is more or less exactly the amount of time it takes to unlock all those doors and turn on the auxiliary engines, so everything else that happens is basically just a series of skits to keep us entertained while we wait for the process to be completed.
But that seems like a facetious criticism, because you could boil pretty much any episode, or indeed any work of fiction, down to those terms if you wanted to. The key is whether the content is successful enough to distract you from noticing the narrative framework it’s hung upon.
However, the main things keeping me distracted were constantly mishearing the infected crew member’s name as “Corbyn”, trying to remember whether Elvis or The Beatles had more number ones before the characters did, and how incongruous it was that the computer voice was giving countdown updates at completely random intervals at the end of each scene. It would have been more satisfying, and a more impressive feat of writing, if the scenes had been structured around the countdown (ie. the scene changing every x minutes), rather than just inserting the countdowns higgledy-piggledy.
And this brings me on to what’s really on my mind: the writer who missed that chance to do something really impressive was Chris Chibnall. Forget Torchwood, that was a grand mess on so many levels, it’s his Doctor Who track record that worries me about his forthcoming tenure as showrunner. I’ll obviously be re-assessing as I go, but I’m pretty sure that as things stand he’s yet to write an episode that hasn’t been run-of-the-mill. A dull episode of Doctor Who is a rare thing indeed, and he’s written several. I sincerely hope I’m wrong, but from my point of view, the show is being handed over to a man who, at his best, is yet to match the quality of RTD or Moff at their worst. The show may well continue to be good, but I can’t see where that extra bit of magic to make it brilliant is going to come from.
Sigh. I’m getting ahead of myself. Back to the matter at hand, and the plus side is that the most successful part of the episode was the continuing conspiracy surrounding Martha’s mum and Mr Saxon. I think at the time I felt that the new companion’s family ought to occupy the same place in my heart as Rose’s did, but now I appreciate that this would be retreading old ground. It’s so much more interesting to have a potential traitor in the camp, and this story arc is ramping up much more dramatically than the previous two. Bring on the brilliant bit of the series…