24, 52, 42... Who has all the same ideas?

(The following post will surely contain spoilers for the most recent Doctor Who episode, "42".)

42 was Doctor Who's take on 24's realtime gimmick. Where 24 does 24 episodes in 24 "real time" hours, and where the recent comics series 52 published a weekly issue for 52 weeks, Who put a 42-minute countdown in the episode and respected it to the second. I checked. With my watch. That's just the kind of anal geek I am.

Now, the whole point of making the clock a character in any film or television show is to create suspense. 24 certainly popularized it, but I might cite a number of movie moments, my favorite being Barefoot Gen's use of clocks and calendars to increase the tension, since you know the bomb is fated to drop on Hiroshima at X time. Heck, even that stopwatch in 60 Minutes is unerving. It also works for 42, creating a sense of urgency throughout, but I think the episode succeeds by also managing some quieter moments, such as with Martha in the escape pod.
But it's still a gimmick, isn't it? A technical feat taking center stage, while the plot settles for being run-of-the-mill (your classic run around corridors while people are being possessed/killed by some unknown creature). Which is fine as long as the character moments are there, as I've said before. And they are. Possibly the best Martha episode yet, managing that tricky juggling act between adventure hero and damsel in distress. The guest characters are very human with nary a false note, and the Doctor has his moments too, though the gimmick forces him to rush and shout a lot.
The main issue troubling fans seems to be that the episode outright rips off 24. But you know what? That's what Doctor Who has always done. When we watch classic Who today, we don't often realize that it was copying stuff that was popular in its day. We tout the Hinchcliffe/Holmes era as producing some of the very best of Who, but they're mostly riffs on Hammer horror films. The 2nd Doctor's dive into Victoriana came on the heels of a popular Dickensien drama. Pertwee's UNIT stories... shall we dig up James Bond and all the spy programmes of the time?

On his blog, author/expert Lawrence Miles likened Doctor Who to "the Morecambe and Wise Show with monsters", which I guess is a sort of variety show they have/had in the UK (I'd give you the link, except Miles deletes his reviews of/rants about Doctor Who episodes within days of posting them). The point being that Who was in part designed to be a sort of variety showcase for the whole family. Its spot in schedule, its place in the UK's consciousness, its need to appeal to every demographic, has led it to be many things. I can't stand it when fans say "Doctor Who shouldn't be about X", because it always leads to the same question: "Which Doctor Who are you talking about?" As a bit of comedy, a bit of action, a bit of satire, a monster to frighten the kids, a girl for the dads, etc. all wrapped into one, that's how Who can be a "variety showcase".
Now, Miles pans "42" for being boring SF, which Doctor Who shouldn't be (see my question above). Basically, he says "42" straightlaces Doctor Who by being what people think it is: An SF series. He holds up "Love & Monsters" as the perfect example of proper Who, with its knowing comedy, askew point of view, musical numbers, etc. And I agree. I love L&M. But I disagree that 42 (or The Impossible Planet, also mentioned) are any less "showcasy" than L&M. First, if you take Who as a series rather than singling out episodes, they're using SF in SOME stories, but not all of them. It's part of a showcase over time. And then there's the idea of ripping off other shows or films. A variety show might easily parody a show and include its style within the parameters of its format. I wouldn't call 42 a parody, but it is the same kind of lift as the reality TV stuff in Bad Wolf, only with Doctor Who tropes (a bit of SF, a bit of the mundane, a bit of comedy, a bit of emotionality, a pretty girl, some nice effects).

I often find myself looking at my DVD collection and imagining the TARDIS arriving in any one of them. It can go anywhere, it can do anything. The Abyss? Elizabeth? Groundhog Day? It's not even a matter of using the right Doctor.

Other thoughts on 42:
-The Saxon subplot is proceeding well. Love the idea of Martha's mum allowing him to wiretap her phone, surveillance that also reminds one of 24. I wonder if they're using Time Lord technology or if it's hopeless to trace such a call.
-Go on Martha, call your lifeline!
-The Ghost of Rose: Finally gone, purged during that long trailer two weeks ago, it seems. Well, until Captain Jack mentions her at least.
-Scene I could have done without: That first girl who gets killed should have seen it coming, cuz I sure did. It's the only scene I really felt was clichéed.
-Favorite line: "Anytime you want to unerve me, feel free."

And feel free to leave a comment, as always!

5 comments:

Doctor Mi said...

42 alludes to many things in SF.
Any Douglas Adams fan knows this is the Answer to life, the universe and everything.

Of course 42 is the mirror of 24.

From a practical point of view, 42 minutes is the amount of content in an hour of TV, the rest being commercials.
The recent decision from the CRTC will permit (in 2009) for general broadcasters to put in as much commercial time as possible. Thus the show "This Hour Has 22 Minutes" may be stretched to an actual full hour.

Yikes!

Siskoid said...

When I first saw 42 on the schedule, I thought it was going to be a Hitchhiker's reference, but no.

And I thought a Doctor Who episode might run 42 minutes, but they leave room before and after the countdown.

Steve Flanagan said...

Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise: British comedy double act. At their peak in the 1970s, about half the population of the UK watched each of their Christmas specials. Noted for attracting the highest calibre guests imaginable (Lawrence Olivier, André Previn, Vanessa Redgrave ...) and insulting them in amusing fashion.

As was normal for sketch- and stand-up- based comedy in those days, their TV shows did have a variety element, with singers performing musical numbers and such like - but often Eric and Ernie would turn up and subvert them.

Seek out the "Best of" DVDs of their TV show (even though they were selected by Ernie after Eric's death and over-emphasise his own, less funny, bits); avoid the three films they made.

BTW, "42" ran for about 46 minutes, for the reason given by Siskoid.

TonPo said...

I really liked this episode, and its obvious allusions to the illusion of real-time storytelling. Also, while the concept of celestial bodies as living beings is not by any means a new one, it's still one that hasn't been done to death yet. It's the kind of idea that's perfect for SF, in that it's just chock full of social commentary potential, and one that can fit multiple contexts.

I actually thought "The Lazarus Experiment" was when Martha really began to come into her own, but this episode made a great deal of progress in further defining her character.

Also, I like that they took care of the cell-phone/TARDIS key plot beats in one episode, since those proved to be excellent devices in moving past episodes' plots along.

Siskoid said...

The point that M&W is a send-up is a good one. Doctor Who has always been something of a send-up.

I mean, it's a time travel show where the time machine is a police telephone box. The main character can and has been played by more actors than your average soap opera character. A tin dog? Teaching Yourself Tibetan? Yetis in the loo? The butch posturing of the Brigadier? Celery on your lapel? Killer dustbins?

And new Who has knowingly gone for it. Love & Monsters is a send-up of the show and its fans. We've had Big Brother, Weakest Link, Extreme Make-Over, plastic surgery, Britney Spears as classical composer, diva Shakespeare, a gridlocked highway to hell, and winks at Doctor Who tradition itself at every turn.

 

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