Underrated Gems of Doctor Who: 42
Last year, The Digital Fix revisited five episodes from the new series of Doctor Who which have received a lukewarm reception from fans and critics, and presented an alternative view in the spirit of positive appraisal. Given the show’s widespread popularity and diversity of viewership, any episode will be received variously by different people, but each story covered by TDF had its fair share of redeeming features.
Take a look back at:
Now, we return to the world of Doctor Who criticism with a different intention: boosting the profile of episodes which, although not badly reviewed, we believe to be cases of Doctor Who at its very best. These are the underrated gems: highly entertaining, intelligently structured or thematically rich episodes that deserve far more praise than usually given.
Find out why Hell Bent and The Wedding of River Song are underrated gems of Doctor Who. Our third and final instalment covers the series three episode 42.
I loved 42 when it was first broadcast. Although it’s perhaps overshadowed by the brilliance of latter episodes in the series – Blink, Utopia and so on – my adolescent self deemed it a superb example of the show at its most gripping, and a great way to spend forty-two (okay, in reality forty-five) minutes. Plus, it’s all topped off with a keenly felt pro-conservation and anti-exploitation message.
The wonderful world of space travel. The prettier it looks, the more likely it is to kill you.
Upon a re-watch of the episode, what stands out is how fast-paced and atmospheric it is. Writer Chris Chibnall wastes no time in throwing the Doctor and Martha headlong into the midst of real and immediate danger, presenting a setup that is classic Doctor Who in the best ways: the Doctor and companion are trapped on a spaceship in mortal peril while a menacing alien entity stalks the corridors, making its way through a cast of expendable supporting characters.
Although the episode doesn’t strictly play out in real time, the forty-two-minutes-until-we-die premise is genuinely thrilling. The crew’s attempt to fire up the ship’s engines and avoid drifting into a nearby sun is a literal race against time – there’s a timer counting down to zero and everything – and forcing Martha and another crew member to sequentially work their way through 29 pub quiz questions on route to the bridge is a neat crux on which to hang dollops of dramatic tension.
There’s atmosphere aplenty, with steam and sweat everywhere, and you absolutely feel the heat of the ship pressing in on the characters. The internal bodily transformation endured by those consumed by the alien entity proves extremely effective. Murray Gold’s score pulses and vibrates, barely letting up – until, abruptly, everything screeches to a halt for the scene where Martha, trapped inside an escape pod, drifts helplessly away from the ship towards the sun. The Doctor’s silent but fierce call through the ship’s viewing window that he’ll save her – another moment of iconic Tenth Doctor heroism – instantly makes it the episode’s standout scene.
Talk about dumbing down. Don’t they teach recreational mathematics anymore?
Although not Chris Chibnall’s first contribution to the Doctor Who universe – his scripts for the first series of Torchwood were broadcast first – 42 marks his first and only script for the Tenth Doctor. Chibnall’s writing of the Doctor embodies all the swashbuckling charm and intelligence of this incarnation, buoyed by a performance from David Tennant that literally bounces with energy. The episode also has one of those sequences that absolutely terrifies – namely when the Doctor himself is taken over and it’s up to Martha and to save him for once. (A quick shout out to Martha, a thoroughly underrated companion who saves the Doctor on numerous occasions with little recognition!)
42 might not be wholly original in terms of content – a spaceship under siege, the TARDIS lost and a countdown to doom are all fairly rote ideas – but it nevertheless showcases one of the best uses of the three-quarters-of-an-hour format the show has produced. 42 provides everything you could ask for in a mid-series episode, and is also an impressive Doctor Who debut for future showrunner Chris Chibnall.