Chris Chibnall has come in for a lot of flack since he scripted the absolute worst episode of Torchwood. The title Cyberwoman sends a shiver down many a spine even after all these months. It is difficult to defend the very nadir of what was at best a patchily successful series but it is worth remembering that much of what was wrong with Cyberwoman (the high heels; the flinching from barbecue sauce, deadly to Cyberwomen of course) were failures in the design or direction rather than faults in the script. Chibnall's other Torchwood scripts were good and his two Life on Mars episodes ranked among the best.
Where does all that leave 42, Chibnall's first crack at Doctor Who? Like some of the scripts mentioned above many of the elements of 42 are derived from other works; the setting strongly echoes last years Impossible Planet, there are similarities to The Planet of Evil, the realtime element of 24 (although Who previously borrowed that conceit with less fuss in The End of the World during series one), and yes it is possible to say that the elements of possession, sentient suns and spinning into the heart of a cosmological disaster have all been used before. However some excellent performances - especially from the stupendous Mr Tennant, and the supertight direction of Uber-Whooey Graeme Harper mean that what you end up with is an edge of the seat thriller putting the Doctor at the greatest risk he has yet seen and laying grim portents for the series finale.
The plot device of the ship being sucked into the sun exists to fuel the real time concept - a tried and tested method of generating pace and tension which is resoundingly successful here.
In order to save everyone Martha and Riley must get from one side of the ship to the other. Unfortunately there are an awful lot of sealed doors in the way. Incidentally these doors are 'deadlock sealed' thus rendering the sonic screwdriver of limited use once again. It's good to see the production team take even little criticisms on board. To get through these seals you have to enter the right code but instead of numeric or maths problems the alarm codes rely on general knowledge. This leads to a great comic moment as the Doctor tries to remember who had more number ones pre-download out of the Beatles and Elvis. Mundane trivia becomes a matter of life and death in the race across the crippled ship.
Martha's conversations with her Mother take us back to the present day to further foreshadow the inevitable showdown between the Doctor and the mysterious Mr Saxon. As black suited cronies listen in on Martha's conversation we can once again reflect on how very well prepared Mr Saxon is for the Doctor's arrival.
Martha's mother continues to be a source of concern. The character seems to have a strange attitude towards parenting and you must wonder why she would agree to her phone being tapped. She has been convinced of the danger that the Doctor represents very easily and her behaviour is suspect. It's almost as if she had been hypnotised. Adjoa Andoh gives a much better performance in her brief scenes here than she did in The Lazarus Experiment.
Of the guest cast Anthony Flanagan gives us a very down-to-earth spaceman. The crew of the Pentallian are more similar to oil riggers or builders than space adventurers which shows us that even blasting through space in the future will seem mundane. Michelle Collins' performance as the Captain is satisfactory, if a little undynamic. William Ash as Riley is an engaging foil for Martha to bounce her emotional turmoil off, not to mention a little love interest for Martha.
David Tennant gives another extraordinary performance in 42. Something that Christopher Eccleston commented on about playing the Doctor was that it is difficult to play a character that doesn't change or grow. He is the same every week and can't really vary from that established character. I wonder what he would have made of the Doctor being frightened when possessed by the sun, or of what's to befall him in the next episode Human Nature, or his love affair with Madame De Pompadour, or the heartbreak of losing Rose. The point Eccleston was making is true and yet the series seems to find many ways to challenge that static character of the Doctor. David Tennant's Doctor does change, he does develop and he definitely does suffer. In 42 he struggles terribly to control himself while under the influence of the Sun and there is little more frightening than seeing our hero scared.
This episode has buckets of pace and is visually stunning. The jeopardy that the Doctor finds himself in and the constant countdown to the ship crashing into the sun add to the urgency and gravity of the situation. The real standout moment comes as Martha's rings tap against the escape pod window as she drifts away through the vacuum of space and towards a toasty death in the sun.
In the final analysis it doesn't really matter if a story borrows elements from preceding episodes if it provides forty two minutes of exciting, colourful and emotional television like 42. Series three, having had a stronger opening than it's predecessors, suffered a little wobble with Evolution of the Daleks. As enjoyable as The Lazarus Experiment was it somehow wasn't enough to set things right. 42 does a much better job and with Paul Cornell's adaptation of his beautiful novel Human Nature next up and Captain Jack and Mr Saxon waiting just over the horizon series three may just end up being the best yet.