In a distant galaxy, a spaceship hurtles out of control towards a boiling sun with the Doctor and Martha trapped on board. They've only got 42 minutes to uncover the saboteurs, but, with a mysterious force starting to possess the ship's crew, the Doctor is running out of time.
We all do it.
If something we're watching on the telly fails to grab our attention or fails to sustain its grasp on our attention, then our thoughts start to wander. And anything can surface from the murk of the sub- or indeed semi- conscious. But there's a reasonable likelihood that while it will be at first glance unrelated to the blather trotting across your screen, further consideration will establish some disturbing links.
Such a process was triggered in my mind when watching 42 . While the concept grabbed me prior to the roll of the opening titles (and so I felt predisposed to like this tale) the realisation was a case study in dropping the ball.
And so, my mind wandered.
Am I alone in wondering why (at least in my experience) there is a definite relationship between the expression beloved by all medical professionals, "professional detachment" and another familiar phrase "callous indifference" in as much as the behaviour that is licensed by the former label tends to (within the NHS) bear worrying resemblance to the latter. This perspective is based on my experiences at several London hospitals over the past few years and the relevance to the Whoniverse is, while tenuous, worth considering because it struck me then and now as symptomatic of the "us and them" (or bunker) mindset associated with professionals.
Media folk (journalists, PR, directors, actors, etc.) apparently fall under the header "professional" (although how that definition may be bottomed-out in terms that will mean something to persons outside show biz eludes me). I've worked with a wide range of professional persons over the years (primarily consultants of one sort or another) and a leitmotif of the tribe is that they tend to struggle to connect with persons outside their social set - white, middle-class folk, Oxbridge/public school educated - and this mindset is reinforced by the community in which they work. Law and medicine are the familiar examples of introverted working cultures but the media world is just as important as either of them in terms of its cultural impact and yet it does not appear to face the call for accountability associated with the big two. OK, it's no surprise that British media is based on a very white, prosperous, middle class and essentially insular perspective but what could be the implications/consequences of a socially-narrow group of people controlling the sources of information of a profoundly multi-cultural, socially complex nation? Beats me, kids.
But one clear thought burbled to the forefront of my mind as 42 trolled along on its merry perfunctory way: do British media folk make "popular" programmes (game shows, reality freak parades, cop and medic stuff, etc, you know, the formulaic hack work which passes for a programme schedule these days) because they understand their mass audiences or because they do not and so pursue the lowest common denominator, given that it is the safest bet when faced with the drive to placate advertisers and an audience with which they have nothing in common?
The history of modern telly teaches us that a bottom line culture tends to foster horses arses; and you know what comes out of a horses arse. And it hardly requires much in the way of quality control, I suspect.
The proclamations of TV weekly listings are based on the vocabulary of mediocrity; puff pieces defining the talents of the talentless and the genius of hacks. Salesmen with no genuine interest in or relationship with the majority of their customers. They forget that we are not here for them but rather they are here for us: that should be the nature of entertainment but we all know such is rarely the case. The vindication of modern crud TV is that people want to see it - audience figures -- but how many people do you know who watch the full range of electronic excrescence slopping about the airways? And how are the audience figures verified? The recent competition phone-in scandal(s) do not inspire confidence in telly management. The essentially closed media world (LA PR bods used to refer to non-media types, i.e. us, as 'civilians') as captured to unintentionally comic effect in the Evening Standards' (newspaper) Friday colour supplement 'society profiles' (think "Happy Shopper Tatler", all you non-Londoners) tends to inspire such cynical thoughts. Given the costs associated with prime-time advertising slots, one wonders if anyone may have succumbed to temptation and told prospective advertisers what they want to hear rather than the truth in order to get some mug to buy a slot. Has this ever happened? Who knows? And he's not telling.
How many of us command the phenomenal salaries associated with 'name' media personnel? Do such people really have much more than a vague abstract sense of how the majority of the population live? What do you call an entertainer with no capacity or apparent inclination to entertain? And yet, such are our entertainers and opinion makers. The best entertainers are original thinkers with a respect for their audience and a willingness to engage based on empathy. It's a funny old world but very few of us are in the privileged position to enjoy the punch line.
What has all this rambling to do with DOCTOR WHO? Everything. Think of it as a philosophical mise en scene, an attempt to hang up a back-drop of social context, a casual musing on the modern world, or the ramblings of an old man, confused by the lack of a relationship between cause and effect. Based on the perspective, "Does good telly surface in the current climate due to programme management policy or in spite of it?" That's an essay question. Write on both sides of the paper. Marks will be given for neatness.
42 is not that bad, of course. It is not "bad" at all when set against the rest of that evening's schedule. It's just 'ordinary' when set against the quality benchmark set by RTD. Everything about it is familiar . The ship is essentially one long corridor that is a familiar DOCTOR WHO in-joke, for instance. The telling a story in real time concept (popularised by the American drama series, 24 ) could have benefited from an on-screen clock, running to heighten the sense of urgency: too gimmicky? Maybe; but then so is the episode concept.
29 password-sealed doors: why so many? Opening them is based on POP QUIZ answers and that is a neat bit of satire, bearing in mind that the dreary THE PEOPLE'S QUIZ and the morally bankrupt NATIONAL LOTTERY bracket the episode.
But, man, this show looks great : the sets and props are fabulous; the visual FX are movie-quality (loved the sun visual and the escape pod sequence was stunning but the glowing eye FX are real standouts).
It also sounds great. The music offers a convincing underscore: pounding, dramatic symphonic sweeps during Martha's rescue and brooding, low-key for menace.
Michelle Collins: more stunt casting, this time via EASTENDERS . But she's not at all bad and losing her husband to an alien take-over is a definite QUATERMASS nod. Her sacrifice at the end is a nice touch: instead of being punished by the ticked-off alien as usual.
Freema is wonderful in the escape-pod sequence: she tries her best to keep it together as she calls her mum to in all probability say goodbye as she faces death. When the pod is jettisoned, it's a genuinely tense moment (but the keyboard battle goes on too long.). William Ash makes a convincing, likeable Vashtee: his "I never found anyone worth believing in" is a great set-up for the Doctors' heroism.
Some of the dialogue also stuck with me but there's not much here worthy of note. "42 minutes until we crash into the sun" is a line aimed squarely at a teaser. "I love a good stasis chamber!", from the Doctor. When the Doctor is taken over, he signals that things are really bad when he comments about the possibility that he may have to regenerate:
THE DOCTOR: There's this thing that happens when I'm about to die.
The "Universal Roaming" fix to Martha's cell was a bit too cute for my taste but it enabled us to enjoy the banter with her mum while the crisis on the ship goes from bad to worse to terminal (and it sets up more of the Mr Saxon story with Elize du Toit as a 'woman-in-black'). Indeed, it serves as a set up for the final scene when the Doctor gives Martha her own TARDIS key; now you KNOW that this relationship is a major step-up in turning the Doctor's connection with his companions into something human.
My attention perked up during the 'next episode' teaser.
And then sank without trace at the promo for the NATIONAL LOTTERY.
There's always the OFF button. But £135 per annum (TV Licence) for the use of an OFF button strikes me as pricey.