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42 ★★★★

Michelle Collins plays a space captain in Chris Chibnall's edgy thriller set in real time

Published: Tuesday, 15th October 2013 at 3:07 pm

Story 184

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Series 3 – Episode 7

“That sun is alive. A living organism. They scooped out its heart, used it for fuel and now it’s screaming!” – the Doctor

Storyline
The Doctor and Martha answer a distress call from the SS Pentallian, a cargo ship plunging towards a sun with only 42 minutes until impact. The flight controls are wrecked and there are 29 password-protected doors to the auxiliary control room. The Doctor realises that the star is a living force and has possessed a crew member, urging him to incinerate his colleagues, intoning the phrase: “Burn with me!” When Martha is jettisoned in an escape pod towards the sun, the Doctor risks his life to save her and becomes infected by the solar entity himself…

First UK transmission
Saturday 19 May 2007

Production
January–March 2007. Main location: St Regis Paper Company, Caldicot, Monmouthshire. Studio: Upper Boat Studios, Treforest, Pontypridd.

Cast
The Doctor – David Tennant
Martha Jones – Freema Agyeman
Kath McDonnell – Michelle Collins
Francine Jones – Adjoa Andoh
Riley Vashtee – William Ash
Orin Scannell – Anthony Flanagan
Hal Korwin – Matthew Chambers
Dev Ashton – Gary Powell
Abi Lerner – Vinette Robinson
Erina Lessak – Rebecca Oldfield
Sinister woman – Elize du Toit

Crew
Writer – Chris Chibnall
Director – Graeme Harper
Designer – Edward Thomas
Incidental music – Murray Gold
Producer – Phil Collinson
Executive producers – Russell T Davies, Julie Gardner

RT review by Patrick Mulkern (published 19 May 2022)
Be afraid. Chris Chibnall is in the building. The man who would, a decade later, become one of Doctor Who’s shakier showrunners began his credited association with the series here. In 2007, with the success of his ITV chiller Broadchurch still some way in the future, he was chiefly known, if at all, for BBC1’s rural drama Born and Bred (2002–2005), more recently for overseeing the resoundingly dismal Torchwood, and – this will ever haunt him – appearing on daytime telly in 1986 to diss Who writers Pip and Jane Baker to their faces for their “boring” and “clichéd” efforts in The Trial of a Time Lord.

This is Chibnall’s Doctor Who entrée and while he certainly rattles through a few clichés himself and it’s fraught with problems, he makes a pretty good fist of it, and 42 is never once boring.

As with many writers of this period, he was handed the setting and key ideas from exec Russell T Davies, even the 42-minute told-in-real-time premise, which mimicked 24, the US thriller huge at that time, neatly transposing its title. Chibnall delivers a fast set-up, the immediate peril of the SS Pentallian having a countdown of 42 minutes until it crashes into a sun, with inconveniently wrecked controls and 29 password-sealed bulkheads between the crew and the auxiliary control room. Oh, and the heat shields are failing…

Science is the victim in this piece. The laws of physics have always been flouted in Doctor Who – that’s a given – but sometimes the flouting causes more credibility-straining than usual. How does anyone, even in the future, mine the heart of a sun or, as the Doctor puts it, “strip its surface for cheap fuel”? How could any vessel – failing heat shields or no – possibly fly anywhere near to a sun without it and its occupants being incinerated. Certainly long before impact in 42 minutes. How can they possibly escape the sun’s gravity? How can the Doctor survive being outside the ship for one second, and activate a rusty magnetising device that has a stronger force on a distant escape pod than the gravitational pull of a star? One could argue that we don’t know the consistency and properties of this star, which is said to be “alive”, but even so…

42 closely resembles the 1975 Tom Baker story Planet of Evil (a ship being inexorably drawn back to a world until it jettisons alien matter, while on board a possessed spaceman with blazing eyes goes on a toasting spree). It’s also the Alien scenario again, with the crew of a scuzzy freighter being picked off one by one by a terrifying force, and this lot seem to exist in the same space/time as the folk in The Impossible Planet. I prefer the personnel in this. Better characterised. Better cast.

I like Michelle Collins’s spirited performance as Kath McDonnell, even if she is no one’s idea of a spaceship captain. But then nor were Beryl Reid in Earthshock or Milton Johns in The Android Invasion. Or even William Hartnell in An Unearthly Child, come to that. Casting against type pulls focus. Riley (William Ash) is the standout member of McDonnell’s crew, partly because he survives to the end but also because he dovetails with Martha in extremis and we have time to get a proper sense of the man he is. Vinette Robinson is also notable as medical officer Abi Lerner because she would return to the series 11 years later as Rosa Parks.

The production design and lighting are superb. A freezing derelict papermill in January is convincingly transformed into one of the most roasting cargo ships on record, a grungy vessel with jets of steam, dry ice, bathed in flaming red and yellow light, with bands of green here and there, and blue in the escape pod. It’s primary but very effective. Smeared in baby oil, the cast look grotty and sweaty, despite filming in winter.

David Tennant gabbles the gobbledegook, as is his wont, but is excellent in the urgency of many sequences: when he mouths “I’ll save you!” silently to Martha as she floats towards death in an escape pod… His desperate mission outside the ship... And his possession by the alien star, his struggle to resist its influence, and the agony he endures purging it from his system. In other hands such frantic moments could fall flat or scream ludicrous, but the conviction of the actors and the razor-sharp direction of old pro Graeme Harper sell it all completely.

If this episode is anyone’s, though, it is Freema Agyeman’s. Martha is often overlooked in the shadow of Rose and Donna, but she’s resourceful, determined, grown-up, heroic. Her presumed last phone call to her spiky mum Francine (back in her cosy London semi) is piercingly emotional because Agyeman remains controlled as the tears fall. But Martha’s terror is also palpable as she and Riley plunge towards the star – she at last lets out a wonderful, satisfying “companion scream” – but just as evident are her faith in the Doctor and her joy when he finally saves her life. To end, she plants a kiss on Riley’s lips with the parting shot: “Very hot!” But it’s Martha who’s smoking.

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In 2007, RT spoke to Michelle Collins about her involvement in 42.

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