“42” – Series 3, Episode 7, Story 184 – Written by Chris Chibnall; Directed by Graeme Harper – A distress call sends the Doctor and Martha to a space station that’s falling into a star and they get separated from the TARDIS, and a crew member gets possessed and starts killing people an- wait, didn’t we pretty much do this last season? Yeah, pretty much. But this time it’s a little better. Because It’s One Episode Instead Of Two, Satan Doesn’t Show Up, And It’s Martha Instead Of Rose.
42 is one of the best “Run Around Shouting” episodes of DOCTOR WHO. Set in real time (hence the title), 42 sees Martha and the Doctor running around solving problems like mad in the efforts to save the ship and themselves from falling into a star, which would totally hurt and stuff.
The episode doesn’t spend much time setting things up; there’s a quick bit with the Doctor giving Martha’s phone the Universal Roaming feature, then the distress call, then the landing, then separation, then problem, and then we get right to the solving within a few minutes. There’s a blistering pace that’s enhanced by the rising heat temperatures. You can really feel the physical danger this time around; where THE IMPOSSIBLE PLANET and THE SATAN PIT allowed a slower build-up and then a ticking clock finish, 42 literally has the clock ticking from the word go.
Everyone is under pressure and it’s a great follow-up to THE LAZARUS EXPERIMENT, where Martha got all pouty when the Doctor was ready to move on without her. Both there and here there’s a real life or death situation that she’s got to face and Martha proves herself more than capable. The show does, unfortunately, give her one of those situations where she has to rely on the Doctor to save her, but for the most part Martha is every bit as involved in the saving-the-day business as anyone else on board the ship.
When they’re split, Martha helps crewman Riley get the security deadlocks open. Each of the thirty doors has a security question that only the crew knows the answers to, but they made the questions up one night while completely hammered, so it’s not as easy as one might think, especially with the ticking clock. One question asks who had the most number one hits, the Beatles or Elvis, and Martha ends up using the universal roaming-enhanced phone to call her mum. Mrs. Jones just wants to talk about how she doesn’t trust the Doctor, but Martha just wants the answer to the question.
The sequence really speaks to the economy and utility of Chibnall’s script – Francine wants to talk about the Doctor, but Martha just wants the info, and she can’t say, “Look, mum, I need it because I’m about to fall into the sun, so hurry your ass up and get online.” This takes the tension of one situation and increases the tension in another situation, which ends up allowing the whole falling-into-the-sun bit to seem not-so-bad in comparison for a moment or two. Later, when Martha phones back to apologize, Francine keeps pushing her about the Doctor and there’s serious looking analyst types sitting behind her. It’s not a big scene but it does that slow, subplot build thing really well.
The mystery that surrounds their plunge is that one of the crewmen is all, “Burn with me,” to everyone and when he opens his eyes, he roasts you alive. So it’s like Cyclops, except with fire instead of ruby awesomeness. A bunch of people die and/or get infected, including the Doctor. We learn that the ship was stealing matter from the star to serve as fuel and the star ends up being a living creature out to get back its stolen parts. It’s the cool kind of imaginative sci-fi plot twist that this season has done so well. Living star? Yeah, why not? It doesn’t get in the way of the character stuff and it feels familiar enough to resonate and is different enough to not seem old.
None of this is revolutionary, but dang it’s well put together. Completely riveting and fast-paced, 42 is like a trip down a fantastic water slide. Pretty much the entire episode is set inside, and Graeme Harper (who worked on the old series in addition to the relaunch) is right at home here, providing competent, professional direction that doesn’t try to trick up the action.
As the episode is ending, the Doctor caps the episode by giving Martha a TARDIS key, and it serves as a wonderful nexus moment for the audience, thinking of the arc to get from her introduction to now, and the promise of what’s to come.