British film and television shows featuring a spaceship colliding into a sun are like buses; you wait ages for one, and then two come along at once.
And the Who must be kicking itself that it’s happened. 42 was probably the best-looking, most sumptuous and visually saturated episode they’ve ever made, by a country mile.
But coming hot on the heels of Sunshine, it was bound to look like a disappointment. It still managed to be so sunsoaked it could be an Ambre Solaire ad. The sun looked stunning, the billowing steamclouds down convincingly claustrophobic corridors were awesome. But in the face of a big-budget movie it’s a clear visual second.
The plot also wasn’t a million miles from the later, ropier section of Sunshine, with a psychopath picking off the crew to steer the ship into/away from the sun (delete as appropriate). But this is the really surprising bit – Doctor Who was the one with the atmosphere.
Piling on the genius conceit of the pub quiz door passwords, the genuine menace of the psycho sun killer and the clever multiplication of the threat as the episode developed should have made a messy disaster. Instead, it was so evenly paced and well threaded together that it never missed a trick.
Take Martha’s out-of-area calls home (there’s someone who should be happy roaming charges are being capped). The shoehorned-in family element virtually always feels bolted on in the hands of anyone but the T Davies.
Instead, Martha packed in some real emotion to her deceitful mother, whilst simultaneously getting close with a spaceman on their way to burning death. Squeeze in some Saxon and the Doctor’s heroics, and that’s some tidy plot put together. How the heck this was sprung from the pen of a Torchwood writer is beyond me.
Cindy Beale also made an excellent action heroine who was largely willing to go hunting for her murderous husband she still loved. Leaving aside the dramatics and letting her just get on with acting the ballsy lady she specialised in was smart.
Indeed, creating character-led parts instead of trying to make us care about bit-parters, a usual problem that can otherwise leave it feeling like Casualty in Space, let it be a truly tense episode.
I really thought that after the Ood, who were really too busy carrying Mathmos light fittings to be menacing, space was a frontier too far for the programme. 42 managed to not only prove that theory wrong, it even managed to do so on most of the same ground that the Satan Pit episodes covered.
I think the reviews so far this series have shown my opinion to be quickly swayed. But given the trailers, it certainly looks like it may have levelled into decency from here to the end.