Two weeks ago, writer Chris Chibnall presented “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship,” an episode which I felt started poorly but became steadily more interesting and enjoyable as it went along. Regrettably, the reverse is the case with his second episode of the season, “The Power of Three.” The first half is captivating, full of intriguing mysteries and great character moments, but when it comes time to resolve the plot, the story simply falls to pieces.
The most important aspect of this episode is its focus on the relationship between the Doctor (Matt Smith) and his friends Amy (Karen Gillan) and Rory (Arthur Darvill). Having traveled with him in the TARDIS for nearly two years, at the end of last year’s “The God Complex”, the Doctor deposited them back on Earth, giving them a chance to make their own lives apart from him. But he still turns up on their doorstep every so often to whisk them away on an adventure, and this episode opens with Amy and Rory realizing that they will need to make a choice between “real life” and “Doctor life.” The catalyst for this choice will be what Amy’s opening voiceover calls “the year of the slow invasion—when the Doctor came to stay.”
As I have remarked before, Chris Chibnall is clearly a fan of the Jon Pertwee era of the classic series. His previous stories have drawn heavily on the Silurian tales of that time, and here he creates a story with a similar feel to many in Pertwee’s first three years (1970 to 1972), when the Doctor was mostly on present-day Earth, assisting the UNIT military organisation in fighting off a succession of alien invasions of the planet (or at least, England). The form that this particular invasion takes is wholly original, however—overnight, millions of small, identical, featureless cubes materialize all over the world. No one has any idea where they came from, or what they are for. They are a complete mystery, and defy all attempts at analysis. As months pass in which the cubes do absolutely nothing, they simply become an accepted part of everyone’s lives—people start sticking Post-It notes on them, using them as paperweights, and so on.
In a throwback to the style of the Earth invasion stories seen in the era of former showrunner Russell T Davies, we see montages of newsreader footage to show the world-wide scale of the phenomenon, interspersed with amusing celebrity cameos—in this case, from Professor Brian Cox and Sir Alan Sugar (Britain’s version of Donald Trump). One of those earlier invasion stories—the rather straightforward two-parter “The Sontaran Stratagem” and “The Poison Sky”—was helmed by director Douglas Mackinnon back in 2008. Here, he gets the chance to be more visually tricky, in keeping with the heightened directorial style of the show under current showrunner Steven Moffat—this episode contains several slickly edited montages, lots of swooping, speeded up camera moves around people, and inventive touches such as indicating the passing of time by inserting month names quirkily into the scene rather than as straightforward captions.
The Doctor soon turns up, and uses Amy and Rory’s house as a base while he investigates the cubes. The first hint of tension between them comes as Rory goes off to his job at a local hospital, much to the Doctor’s surprise (“Of course I’ve got a job. What do you think we do when we’re not with you?” “I’d imagined mostly kissing…”). Further discussion is forestalled by the arrival of UNIT troops (whose code names like “Trap One” are a nice callback to the classic series), who have detected the Doctor’s presence. They are led by a capable, no-nonsense woman named Kate Stewart (Jemma Redgrave), who quickly enlists the Doctor’s help. In a lovely touch for long-time fans, she turns out to be the daughter of the Doctor’s old friend Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, played by the late Nicholas Courtney (whose death in early 2011 prompted a touching reference to his character in “The Wedding of River Song”).
Another welcome return in this story is for Mark Williams as Rory’s father Brian. Now well acquainted with the Doctor after the events of “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship,” he enthusiastically joins in the adventure, happily reeling off a string of possibilities for what the purpose of the cubes might be. His patient, methodical approach to investigating the cubes (“Brian’s log, day 67”) forms a hilarious counterpoint to the Doctor slowly being driven mad by his failure to crack the problem within a few days. We saw in 2010’s “Vincent and the Doctor” how the Doctor lacks patience with the ordinary passing of time, and here there’s a great comedy sequence as the Doctor tries anything to keep himself busy—and manages it for all of one hour.
The Doctor decides he has to get away for a while (“Quick jaunt, restore sanity”), and the first real conflict occurs as Rory declines to leave what the Doctor disparages as his “little job.” (“It’s not little, it’s important to me. Look, what you do isn’t all there is.”) The acting from all the principals is excellent throughout the episode, and especially here; Karen Gillan is superb at showing Amy’s real discomfort at the argument, looking resolutely away from both of them and not wanting to get involved. But their trajectory away from the Doctor continues—Amy commits to being a bridesmaid at a friend’s wedding, while Rory agrees to work full-time at the hospital.
Rory: “So, the Doctor’s God knows where, the cubes aren’t doing anything at all… Did real life just get started?”
Amy: “I like it.”
Rory: “So do I.”
Meanwhile, the mystery of the cubes deepens as various seemingly random plot elements crop up—a spooky child observing events in the hospital, and patients being abducted by a pair of nurses who are actually monsters in human form, with surgical masks that conceal a cube-shaped hole in place of a mouth. Unfortunately, neither of these will ever be properly explained, which is surprising given that there was certainly time to do so; at just over forty minutes long (not counting the end credits and “Next Time” trailer), this episode is the shortest stand-alone story of the entire new Who series. (In fact, given that all of the stories in the classic series were told over multiple episodes, it’s fair to say that “The Power of Three” is the briefest story Doctor Who has ever told.)
Really, the story of the strange cubes simply provides a thread that ties together several independent scenes (or short stories) charting the changes in the relationship of the Doctor to Amy and Rory. Another inserted story begins as the Doctor interrupts Amy and Rory’s party to celebrate their wedding anniversary and spirits them away. In another quick burst of “Doctor life,” they get to celebrate their anniversary at the Savoy hotel in 1890, get caught up in a Zygon invasion, and then Amy somehow accidentally marries Henry VIII. It’s also possible that the events of “A Town Called Mercy” take place during this period of traveling, given the Doctor’s remark in that episode about Rory leaving his phone charger in Henry VIII’s ensuite, and Amy saying at the end about wanting to get back before their friends start noticing them aging. When they do finally get back to their party (having been away for seven weeks), Brian notices their changed clothes, and presses the Doctor on what happens to the people who travel with him.
The Doctor: “Some left me, some got left behind, and some—not many, but… some died. Not them, Brian. Never them.”
This rather sombre confession seems to signal that the Doctor has recognized he can’t drag Amy and Rory around the universe with him anymore. He surprises Amy by asking if he can stay with her and Rory, admitting frankly that “I miss you.”
Suddenly the cubes start activating, examining and probing the capabilities and defences of the humans near them. With many people injured, Rory is called in to work, and takes Brian with him to the hospital. Meanwhile, the Doctor and Amy are summoned to meet with Kate Stewart at UNIT’s base beneath the Tower of London (as seen in David Tennant’s first story “The Christmas Invasion”). He discovers that there are several locations around the world that appear to be controlling the cubes, but before any action can be taken against them, the cubes all shut down again.
The emotional high point of the episode comes as Amy and the Doctor find a quiet place to have a heartfelt discussion about her and Rory’s growing desire to stop their adventuring with him. Karen Gillan and Matt Smith make the most of the great material they are given here, as the show once again throws a spotlight onto the Doctor’s relationship with his companions. When Amy tells the Doctor about how she and Rory have been making a life for themselves here and that “the traveling is starting to feel like running away,” the Doctor lets his guard down with a speech (beautifully delivered by Smith) that is reminiscent of the first really memorable moment in the revived series back in 2005—Christopher Eccleston’s “turn of the Earth” speech in the opening episode, “Rose.”
The Doctor: “That’s not what it is.”
Amy: “Oh come on, look at you. Four days on a lounge and you go crazy.”
The Doctor: “I’m not running away… This is one corner, of one country, in one continent, on one planet that’s a corner of a galaxy that’s a corner of a universe that is forever growing and shrinking and creating and destroying and never remaining the same for a single millisecond, and there is so much, so much to see, Amy. Because it goes, so fast. I’m not running away from things, I’m running to them—before they flare and fade forever.”
Possibly the best work Chris Chibnall ever did during his stint as head writer on Torchwood was the episode “Fragments,” the penultimate episode of that show’s second season. He took the various scraps of back-story for the main characters that had been floating around over the previous two years and wove them into a compelling collection of vignettes that deepened the characters considerably. So too here, he combines the speech above with the observation, first expressed by David Tennant’s Doctor in “School Reunion”, that the Doctor’s friendships with his human companions must always be transitory (“You can spend the rest of your life with me, but I can’t spend the rest of mine with you.”). It’s clear that the Doctor already knows how the Ponds’ time with him ends: “One day, soon maybe, you’ll stop. I’ve known for a while.” When Amy, in a slightly brittle manner, asks him why then he keeps coming back for them, his reply shows the new angle that Chibnall has come up with:
The Doctor: “Because you were the first. The first face this face saw. You’re seared onto my hearts, Amelia Pond… I’m running to you, and Rory, before you… fade from me.”
The idea that the Doctor would imprint on the first person he encounters after the trauma of regeneration, and find it hard to let that person go, is so fitting that I’m amazed in retrospect that no one seems to have thought of it before. (For one thing, it also provides a neat explanation for why David Tennant’s Doctor found it so hard to move on from the loss of Rose Tyler.) The scene comes to an end on a lovely moment of calm, with Amy resting her head on the Doctor’s shoulder. Cleverly, the Doctor’s line to Amy—“You always get what you want”—leads us back into the main story, as it triggers a sudden realization about why the cubes shut down again. Unfortunately, at this point we’re only a little over halfway through the episode, and it’s mostly downhill from here.
Having gained the information they needed to launch an assault, the cubes reactivate, stealing electrical power and using it to cause a wave of heart failures around the world. The Doctor is attacked, but manages to stay on his feet thanks to his non-human nature (i.e. his two hearts). Meanwhile, more arbitrary elements are introduced to keep the story moving forwards, as Brian gets abducted by the “nurses” and taken through a dimensional portal which—by a coincidence which is incredibly convenient for the plot—just happens to be disguised as a goods lift in the very hospital Rory works in. Rory manages to follow after them, and finds himself in a spaceship in orbit.
The Doctor and Amy arrive at the hospital, trying to track down the portal. In an “action” sequence that is all but incoherent, the Doctor discovers and deactivates the android child in passing (meaning it had no real effect on the plot whatever), and Amy restores his failing heart with a spot of defibrillation only slightly more convincing than her CPR in last year’s “The Curse of the Black Spot”. The contrast with the earlier, deeply felt scenes is extreme, as Amy falls back into generic companion mode and Matt Smith has nothing but the Doctor’s trademark surface wackiness to work with.
Amy and the Doctor soon find their way onto the spaceship—one of seven connected to Earth through dimensional wormholes—and the explanations start coming as the Doctor confronts the occupant, a member of “the Shakri.” These are apparently some powerful race that the Doctor’s people think of as semi-mythical bogeymen—“the pest controllers of the universe,” as the Doctor describes them. They speak of themselves as in service to something called “the Tally,” and they have decided that the human species must be wiped out before it can expand into space. But given that we have never heard so much as a hint of their existence before, the effect is rather like that in the 1987 story “The Greatest Show in the Galaxy,” which sprang equally unexplained and unforeseen super-beings (the “Gods of Ragnarok”) on the audience at a late stage in order to raise the stakes.
It’s a great pity that the originality of the “invasion of the very small cubes” (to use the Doctor’s phrase) turns out to have such an uninspiring reason behind it. It reminded me of the even worse way the Patrick Troughton story “The Mind Robber” presented a fantastically imaginative scenario involving a land where fictional characters come to life, before revealing that it was the cover for just another boring invasion of Earth. The most interesting thing about the confrontation scenes is watching Steven Berkoff—an actor of stature in every sense—generate effortless menace in such an underwritten role. The script gives him almost nothing, but thanks to good costume and make-up design, and his own deep-voiced, very controlled performance, Berkoff somehow conjures up an air of danger about the Shakri.
After a few rather facile assertions from the Doctor about the good qualities of humanity, the Shakri simply disappears—it was only an automated holographic interface (“like a talking propaganda poster”), and the Doctor is left to deal with the cubes unhindered. In a frankly lazy plot resolution, it takes literally no more than a few waves of the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver to end the invasion. All those cardiac arrests that loomed so large earlier are somehow reversed with no further ill effects. I was particularly annoyed by the blatantly recycled music cue played over the sequences of the world returning to normal. This piece has been used several times over the past two years, always associated with emotional moments in Amy’s personal story; it seemed very inappropriate to press it into use as generic “happy ending” music.
Fortunately, after that low point, the episode recovers to end well, first with an enjoyable farewell scene between the Doctor and Kate (and I hope we get to see her again someday), and then with a quiet dinner scene with the Ponds. When he goes to leave, the Doctor no longer urges Amy and Rory to come with him, but it’s Brian who points out that they are finding it difficult to give him up, and pushes them to go with the Doctor one more time. In a lovely touch, the Doctor offers to take him as well, but Brian refuses in his understated way (“Someone’s got to water the plants”).
And so Amy and Rory take off with the Doctor again, although Amy’s final voiceover line about “cubed” meaning “the power of three” seemed like a very forced non sequitur, an attempt to justify the surging music over the shot of the three of them entering the TARDIS together for the last time. I actually did appreciate that moment, but it was because of behind-the-scenes knowledge—this episode was in fact recorded after the next one, and that final shot was Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill’s last work on Doctor Who. It’s a pity that it comes at the end of an episode that has many good points, but (to use the Doctor’s phrase) flared, and then faded.
Next Week: The final adventure for Amy and Rory, and the return of River Song, as “The Angels Take Manhattan.”
Classic Who DVD Recommendation of the Week: For a look at how the classic series handled the present-day alien invasion scenario, try “The Claws of Axos,” starring Jon Pertwee and Katy Manning, along with Nicholas Courtney as Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart.
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