Over the next few weeks, I’m going to review season one of Torchwood. It’s not gonna be pretty. It’s not that there aren’t good episodes in there. There are.
But still, it does eventually improve in the second season and then goes and makes a pure masterpiece for the third season. Outside of Children of Earth, I don’t think it ever really lived up to its potential, and in fact usually falls short by a wide margin, and I find it incredibly frustrating for that reason. But I still kinda like it overall, even though I don’t like the vast majority of individual episodes. So before I tear it a new one, rest assured, if I survive the experience of re-experiencing the horrors of Cyberwoman, I will one day get around to saying good things about that show.
And that includes Chris Chibnall, who was the lead writer for the first two seasons and was consequently not only responsible for a large portion of what went so wrong (though some of the blame also has to go to Torchwood often bringing out the worst in Russell T. Davies), but wrote some of the worst episodes, including the aforementioned Cyberwoman. He’s also an intelligent, clever, imaginative writer at his best who, late in the second season, wrote two of the best episodes of that show. But it’s going to be a long, long, long time before I actually get around to that, so to at least partially balance out the wave of vicious criticism (read: smart-aleck mockery from a so-far failed writer) about to be unleashed, I thought I’d review something he wrote that I actually like. 42 is a good, enjoyable episode of Doctor Who that shows a genuine love for the show and does a few things spectacularly right that Davies’ era doesn’t always pull off. It does still have its flaws, but even those are vastly overstated.
Probably the most common flaw 42 is accused of is that it’s too derivative of the previous season’s The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit. After all, both involve the Doctor and companion separated from the TARDIS, both involving the crew being possessed and then killed off, and both involve not being set on Earth.
Of all the things to accuse 42 of, this is probably the most ridiculous if you watch the classic series. After all, The Impossible Planet is itself just a variation on the old Hinchcliffe-style “gothic horror story where the Doctor fights a godlike villain” with the added twist of being separated from the TARDIS, which shows up in nearly every Hartnell story of the first two seasons. The Impossible Planet has many qualities, but it’s every bit as derivative of previous Who stories as 42.
Which really isn’t a major problem – Doctor Who usually relies on standard sci-fi tropes itself. It’s what you do with those tropes that matters, and while Chibnall uses a few too many standard ideas, he throws them together in a fast-paced, action-packed story with a couple of real dramatic punches.
Most of the reason this feels derivative specifically of Impossible Planet - even though it only uses a couple of the same ordinary tropes - is that Who under RTD is so obsessively Earth-based that this is only the second time in three seasons that the Doctor, an alien with a machine that can take him anywhere in time and space, has actually had an adventure not on or in the immediate vicinity of Earth (or New Earth, which, frankly, is pretty Earthish). So the fact that it uses some of the same tropes as the only other one like it so far makes it stick out a little more.
The downside of this is an odd lack of imagination in a lot of the stories. Not that there aren't inspired stories, but there are an awful lot of Evil TV Sets and similarly uninspired ideas. At this point, in Season 3, the better episodes have been Giant Evil Spider Sits Around and Pretends to be Menacing, Space Rhinos on the Moon, and Traffic Jam in the Future. And while those are perfectly fine ideas in themselves, they're a little underwhelming in a show that was doing Brains With Eyestalks back in 1964 on an off-day. Too many RTD-era episodes are oddly forgettable and mediocre despite having good production values, great directors, and a solid group of writers, including at least a couple of geniuses. (to be fair, the back half of Season 3 totally rectifies this) And a lot of it comes down to a lack of ambition and too few interesting ideas barely filling 45 minutes.
(Moffat's era more often has the opposite problem - too many ideas for 45 minutes, but as much as I've been frustrated with that, I've gotta be honest, I really prefer that between the two.)
Chibnall, however, finds a good balance of ideas for an episode: a setting that's interesting and unusual but not overly complicated; a supporting cast large enough to have a decent body count, but small enough to develop them (which is actually a mixed bag, but it's at least the right number); a couple of terrific set-pieces in the second half of a well-paced story; and one spectacular concept, saved for the last ten minutes.
The set-up is simple - the Doctor and Martha land on a ship that's out of control and hurtling toward a star. Its shields will give out in 42 minutes. Which would be enough of a problem if there wasn't a horrific entity possessing the crew and killing them off.
The best thing about Chibnall's script is its ability to raise the stakes. The central gimmick -the story happens more or less in real time, with the 42 minute time limit for the characters paralleling the length of the episode - forces the story to be efficient and puts the stakes in a solid context. The supporting characters start dying off pretty quickly, keeping the threat of death near.
But it's the two centerpiece scenes that really drive home the intensity. The first is a scene where Martha is ejected into space in a tiny escape pod... directly toward the same sun the main ship is hurtling toward. In the midst of a loud, rousing episode, the sound suddenly cuts to a minimum as Martha suddenly gets a chance to realize that she really is about to die. She calls her mother and has a deeply emotional conversation while trying desperately not to get emotional. By dealing with the threat of death so directly and emotionally, the meaning of the episode grows exponentially.
(The entire subplot about Martha's family basically flops around and fails throughout the entirety of Season 3, but for this one scene, it works brilliantly, contrasting her mother's genuine concern with her attempts to get Martha to give real information to the mysterious people she's letting listen in.)
While making the companions actually think about the possibility of dying is probably something that should be done a little more often (not every episode or anything, but occasionally doesn't hurt), Chibnall's most effective trick to raise the tension is something Doctor Who can only do very rarely: he has the Doctor fail to defeat the antagonist and become completely scared... but only after the Doctor confesses that he's terrified. These two things together are the most frightening trick the show can pull.
And Chibnall does manage to earn the right to actually pull out that one. The antagonistic creature possessing the crew is actually the sun itself, which is alive. It's possessing and killing the crew because their ship was killing it by extracting its fuel. That's a compelling twist in itself, but Chibnall's approach to the crew, and particularly the captian (played by Michelle Collins) - they're a desperate, working-class group illegally scooping energy from the star simply to survive. And in their efforts to be undetected, they didn't scan for life because who would scan for life on a star?
This is a brilliant addition of complexity - neither side is really the hero or the villain. Both sides are simply trying to survive. And between the complex writing and the sheer stunning idea of a living star, it earns the right to possess the Doctor. And it's an absolutely brilliant scene, showing what an astounding actor David Tennant is.
Which isn't to say the script is perfect or anywhere near it. First, the characterization of the Doctor is largely off. His dialogue sounds more like "generic hero" than the Doctor. In particular, when he's outside the ship trying to save Martha, he almost gives up and says he can't do it, and has to be encouraged onward by one of the humans inside. It's jarringly unDoctorish. And Chibnall gives the Doctor one of his ever more tiresome RTD-era tirades about how humans are alternately the greatest species ever to exist and the lowest form of self-serving idiots. Yes, Tennant is brilliant and covers it as well as he can, but it's still a problem.
And while Chibnall has enough time to develop the small crew of the ship, he never actually does. The captain is well-written and has a good last scene, but the rest are generic and interchangeable. Even in the midst of that wonderful scene in the escape pod with Martha, Riley still isn't actually developed. At the end, when she says goodbye to him, the only difference between him and the other survivor is that he looks slightly different.
His dialogue is uneven in general. There are good exchanges here and there, but most of the dialogue is forgettable. And while it's not necessarily a major problem that he uses the ol' "alien killing off the crew one by one" device, it doesn't smooth things over to have a character actually say, "He's killing us off one by one!"
And yet it pretty much gets away with flaws that should have left it forgotten because it pulls out one of Doctor Who's secret weapons: Graeme Harper. Harper proves he's still Who's greatest director, giving the episode such intensity, energy, and drama that he actually plows right over the flaws, reducing them to minor quibbles. He makes the "monster" - just a guy with a welding mask - a genuine force of terror. He gets Murray Gold to deliver one of his best scores of the season, highlighted by a deeply effective use of synthesizers. (frustratingly, Gold's music for the episode doesn't show up on the CD.) Harper makes the most of every image and idea and gets superb performances from every actor. And you can feel the heat. If the next two stories - Human Nature and Blink - weren't so spectacularly brilliant and the three-part finale so memorable (however debatable its actual qualities), 42 would probably be remembered as one of the highlights of the season.
Which isn't to say the flaws aren't there. And the thing is, those flaws all seem pretty easily fixable. Give the supporting characters some personality on the page, cut a couple of the weaker lines, and make the Doctor's dialogue more Doctorish. Really, this is one rewrite away from a terrific script.
And that, actually, is pretty defining for Chibnall. He's got a lot of good ideas and genuine talent. But like Terry Nation, he desperately needs two thing: a script editor to get him fixing the flaws and a director who can make the most of his ideas, because his scripts tend to feel like pretty good first drafts, not polished final drafts. And on Torchwood, he's the lead writer. So all the things that get smoothed out in rewrites - weak characters, inconsistencies, plot holes - don't get noticed. And while they get pretty serviceable directors in the first season, they let a lot of major mistakes fly.
On Doctor Who, he's got a fantastic group of collaborators to cover for him. On Torchwood, he's kinda the whole show. And it's a mess of a show.
But 42 shows that he can write good TV. And even on Torchwood, sometimes he does.
* * * ½
- One more good thing Chibnall does - he doesn't spend more than minimal time with the crew disbelieving the Doctor. It's just long enough to be credible, but not enough to slow down the story or make them seem unintelligent.
- His lack of subtlety - the characters actually saying the tropes out loud, for instance - is another major problem. (and again, the sort of thing that gets smoothed out in good rewrites) But there's one awesomely not-subtle moment that's nicely effective - the annoyed crew member grumbling sarcastically, "Please, kill me now," right before actually getting killed.
- The effects are just absolutely awesome in this one. I mean, the sun actually looks pretty much like what you'd expect a living star to look like. And this came out right around the same time as Danny Boyle's spectacular Sunshine, and it looks just fine right next to it.