Season 3 Episode 7 — peak David Tennant era Doctor Who. What lessons can we learn from a spaceship hurtling toward the centre of the sun?
First things first: Looking back at this ‘kids show’ now, sixteen years after first broadcast as a seasoned (I’d like to think) cinephile, I’d just like to say how expertly made Doctor Who episode 42 truly is.
Situated deep in peak David Tennant era (I doubt there’s anyone amongst us who’s not a fan), the episode is just fantastic: the editing is edgy and frenetic; the acting is remarkably convincing; and the pacing is perfectly on-point, superbly combining the slow and sentimental with the rapid and racy. At its heart, Doctor Who really isn’t a kid’s show…
The beauty of Doctor Who is in its intended audience. A British cultural favourite, the 2005 reboot was intended not just for kids, but for the parents of those children, who themselves would most likely have been fans in their youth. And thus, for this double-edged audience, the requirement of the writing team (led by Russell T Davies) was a need to embed subtle, mature, and insightful themes within the wider schema of kids sci-fi.
Like this, across the show, we see many issues that are made understandable on two different levels for both kids and adults, which harks back to a point I made in my review of Mike Judge’s 2006 film Idiocracy (see Movies that Matter: Idiocracy (2006)) that within ‘low-brow’ artworks we can find depth also — only if we look deeply enough.
“That sun needs our care and protection just like any other living thing”
In 42, we see a space cargo-ship hurtling towards the Sun and a crew which has been illegally mining that very Sun for fuel. As a result, they are facing fatal consequences. There is crew tension; the ship’s captain has been scooping energy off of the sun’s surface for fusion, which is against the law. It is up to the Doctor and Martha to save the day.
But as they dig deeper, finally arriving at the cusp of victory, they find that the Sun wants to take its own, conscious revenge. It is alive, something the humans can’t quite understand but the extraordinarily intelligent Doctor can, and the lesson is to treat it like any other living being. “That Sun needs care and protection,” says the Doctor at the end, “just like any other living thing”.
However, even if the Sun’s not ‘alive’, can we use it in any way we want? It seems part of the problem in our approach to the planet is in our attitude, rooted in Abrahamic belief that we are masters over the planet, in a divinely ordained position to use it as we please.
Perhaps what we need is a more Eastern or pagan or 60s countercultural approach. We are a part of the planet, just like everything else, and we have no God-given right over its resources due to our exalted intelligence. Just look at the damage we have caused — clearly, we’re not so intelligent after all.
42 is pessimistic about our species in thousands of years’ time. For starters, they don’t know who the Beatles are… But more seriously, there’s still wage exploitation, there’s still woeful working conditions, and guess what — we’re still wreaking havoc on the environment. Now, more than ever, it seems that Hegel was right when he said: “The only thing that we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history.”
Maybe it’s time to change that?