Sunday, 24 August 2014

The Power of Three written by Chris Chibnall and directed by Douglas McKinnon

This story in a nutshell: The year of the slow invasion when the Doctor came to stay with the Ponds…

Nutty Professor: The Doctor is a mass of contradictions; he likes exploring new places and discovering new wonders but he doesn’t like it when there are potential threats to people he loves that he cannot fathom out. Sometimes he likes not knowing, other times he hates it. Rory asks a pertinent question about what the Doctor thinks they get up between his infrequent visits. Of course they have lives of their own with jobs and friends and family…it's just he never hangs around long enough to see any of that (if he can help it). When the Doctor mocks his ‘little job’ Rory is right to stick up for the life he has built and to tell him that what he does isn’t all that there is. It’s a moment of spectacular arrogance on the Doctor’s part and he looks troubled that his friends would rather head off home than for a quick jaunt around the universe with him. The Time Lord doesn’t like his enemies to be impressive, he prefers them vulnerable with a nice Achilles Heel (weird that it always seems to work out that way despite appearances to the contrary, huh?). The way the Doctor spits out the word Twitter left me with no illusion of his opinion of the social networking site. We saw a far more subtle approach to the Doctor’s issues with linear time in Vincent and the Doctor but watching him rushing about doing chore because he cannot bear to sit still still raised a smile. He’s been hanging around for months waiting for the cubes to make their move so its very amusing when he tries to brush one aside the second it starts to do something. The Doctor’s speech about not running away from anything in his travels but running to things before they fade away is magnificently scripted. It captures his character so concisely. Amy was the first face this Doctor saw and it was seared onto his hearts.  I will never get tired of the Doctor defending humanity and their achievements (almost as much as I’ll never get tired of him condemning us and our achievements).

The Ponds: This time we’re seeing life with Amy and Rory through the Doctor’s eyes, neatly subverting the norm and as a result I feel closer to all three of them than ever. Quite apt considering next week is their last adventure together. The dramatic crux of this episode isn’t the alien invasion of the week but which choice Amy and Rory are going to make – to start a life on their own without sporadic visits into time and space or to travel with the Doctor until they are no longer able to. We learn that Amy and Rory have known the Doctor now for ten years and that is what will make them so unique when they leave him, the fact that we have chartered the lives of two companions across an entire decade. Even those companions that felt as though they travelled with the Doctor for a long time (Jamie/Tegan) probably only spanned a handful of years. Amy commits to being a bridesmaid and Rory agrees to work full time…real life is beginning for these two and the important thing is they like it. That moment that Steven Moffat was talking about in DWM that encapsulated the Doctor/Amy relationship was probably referring to the scene on the river (I’ll get to that in a second) but I felt the quintessential moment came when they faced the portal in the goods lift. They share a cheeky smile and confidently take hold of each others hands and jump through the looking glass. It's childlike and magical, capturing that same feeling of stepping into the unknown together in The Eleventh Hour. There was a time when living without the Doctor and the thought of a normal life would drive Amy crazy but after building a life on Earth (one which the Doctor gave them to protect them – The God Complex – odd that seems to have forgotten that) it now feels like running away every time they step into the TARDIS. Just as they are ready to give this madcap lifestyle up this adventure reminds of what they are missing out on. It's Brian (wonderful Brian) who convinces them to go travelling again, pointing out that nobody else can do the things they have the opportunity to do. He makes an unspoken promise to get them home safely.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘There are soldiers all over my house and I’m in my pants!’
‘I’m running to you and Rory before you fade from me.’
‘Ohhh…portal to another dimension in a goods lift?

The Good:
  • From the opening scene it is easy to see that this going to be something a bit different to the norm. Imagine if (for some inexplicable reason) you hadn’t been watching Doctor Who for the past eight years and you saw all those glorious images flashing before your eyes? The temptation to zip over the Amazon and grab the last six seasons would be irresistible!
  • It has been mentioned on forums everywhere that this episode has a distinct flavour of the Russell T Davies era about it and it's one that I happy to say is true. It’s not that I’m entirely aversed to Moffatt’s approach to Doctor Who (every episode in season 7a works for me to some extent) but I have gone in to some detail in my reviews about why I preferred the tone and style of the show under Davies’ reign. That mixture of the otherworldly and domestic that was so capitalised on during the first four seasons of the shows revival and gave us a unique and personal insight into the lives of the Doctor’s companions is back with a vengeance this week. Also prevalent in the RTD era were news reports from around the world to give the crisis a global scale, gloriously photoshopped footage worldwide with the latest threat added (remember Cybermen marching on the Taj Mahal?) and celebrities turning up to discuss the implications of the latest threat. There’s even a superfluous but not at all harmful gay reference. They are all present here (Brian Cox and Sir Alan Sugar’s cameos made me howl!). Is it too soon to have a nostalgic peek back at the Davies era? I don’t care, it gives me a warm feeling in my belly that things haven’t changed that much.
  • There are good things and bad things about the ‘slow invasion’ but first and foremost there are the cubes. What a gloriously simple idea. It worked when Star Trek decided their latest big bad were going hulk their carcasses around in giant cubes and this is just as visually impressive. The idea of random black cubes showing up all over the Earth and waiting for us to adjust to them being there is gorgeous…the way we accept the new status quo is basically our downfall. When the Doctor says ‘that’s new’ it's worth considering that this is a genuinely original take on a hostile alien attack from a show that has been churning out those types of stories since 1964. There is a nagging paranoid feeling that they are just sitting there, observing us, waiting for us to lose interest so they can get on with whatever they are here for. Brian helpfully lists a plethora of possibilities and origins for the cubes in a scene that made me wonder if he should be the Doctor’s assistant. There is real tension when the cubes start to come alive (it helps that the effects are so vivid), each with a seemingly different purpose and power. By this stage the human race have started utilising them for all manner of fun and fruitful purposes (to pin notes on, to play golf in the office, paperweights, etc). The idea that this might all be a mass marketing scam screams of contemporary Who – there’s no way that would have been suggested in the old series which shows how cynical and capitalist we have become. When one of them began blasting away at the Doctor I got a real vibe of the Zeroids from Terrahawks! The fact that one plays the Birdie Song on a loop proves that they are truly devices of pure evil and the idea that they are basically slug pellets for the human race dropped on the Earth is one metaphor that made      me grin. Slug pellets? How rude!
  • It would appear that Douglas McKinnon has been brushing up on his quirky camera techniques since he last helmed an episode (the gigglesomely action packed Sontaran two parter) and he approaches his latest episode with far more creative verve. The transition from month to month is imaginatively achieved, the scene folding over like the pages of a desk calendar. The way he makes inanimate cubes a credible threat has to be applauded.
  • UNIT is back (and again bridging the Davies’ era they are still set up beneath the Tower of London) and headed by a new scientific advisor in the shape of Kate (Lethbridge) Stewart played by Vanessa Redgrave. The scene where we learn her identity gave me goosebumps – not for anything as silly is making Downtime canonical (I wasn’t that keen on it) but because it was such a loving tribute to the Brigadier’s character and a respectful way for his presence to continue in the series long after Nick Courtney’s tragic death. Redgrave plays the part with a gentle urgency and it would be lovely if we could see much more from this character. She’s very easy to like. Plus isn’t it great the way the scene so effortlessly shifts tone from urgency to poignancy and back to urgency again during her fathers reveal. That’s a confident show for you folks, I haven’t seen moods turned on a sixpence this fearlessly since Buffy.
  • Love the fact that The Power of Three takes place before A Town Called Mercy (or rather it takes place before and after A Town Called Mercy) as the Doctor mentioned Rory leaving his phone charger in Henry VIII’s bedroom during their Wild West adventure which is seen in this episode (Rory even has hold of the charger just in case you didn’t get it). Moffat loves his timey wimey madness and this might just be one of the most subtle and clever examples of the non linear nature of the Doctor’s adventures yet. Its there only if you have paid attention which makes it all the more rewarding.
 The Bad: 
  • As good an addition as Kate Stewart was I missed the red berets and the Murray Gold’s UNIT theme. His new theme for them wasn’t up to much (mind you his quirky whistling score for the cubes was excellent).
  • Why were they kidnapping people from the hospital? It’s a rather important plot point that seems to have gone missing at the script or even the cutting room floor stages of production. Since it is the very reason the Doctor, Amy and Rory move from the hospital to the alien spacecraft it is left surprisingly ambiguous. Are we supposed to assume they were just testing on them to see what made them tick?
  • I realise it is an emergency but could you really just take your dad to work in a hospital without any questions being asked?
  • How comes the alien portal just so happens to be in Rory’s hospital?
  • The whole heart stopping idea is basically a load of smelly washing. Not only does it see Smith leaping about like a flea on a griddle mimicking the worst excesses of David Tennant’s performance (that’s the first time this year he hasn’t impressed me) but it also leaves us with the unbelievable notion that after the majority of the worlds populations hearts have stopped…they are just kick start again. Its about is nuts as setting fire to the sky in the last Doug McKinnon helmed script. A shame because everything was going splendidly until then.
  • There’s nothing wrong with the make up or the performance (indeed Berkoff’s tired smile is chilling) but the function of Shakri is to spout a little exposition that could have been given to any old computer voice. After giving rewarding roles to some of Britain’s finest over the past seven seasons it seems a crying shame that someone of Berkoff’s talent drew the short straw.
  • Okay, okay, okay…I finally see it. The sonic screwdriver is becoming a plot resolving liability. Its finally the magic wand Chris Bidmead claimed it was. A wave of the wand, a quick (albeit pretty) explosion and its all over. Was it worth all that delicious set up?
The Shallow Bit: Amy and Rory look practically edible in their finery as they visit the opening of the Savoy for their anniversary (until the Zygons involve themselves, explosions ensue and they wind up looking like smelly tramps).

Notes: ‘Some left me, some got left behind and some died…’ In timely fashion Brian asks the Doctor how his other companions left him, just one week before we will find out which of these fates will befall the Ponds. Maybe its misdirection and none of the above will apply. The Doctor mentions K.9 (although to my knowledge he has only recently started hovering).

Result: For making me not just like Amy but start to feel pangs about losing her from the show (something I thought would never happen) and for its unusual and creative approach to telling an alien invasion story, The Power of Three was on its way to being the first 10/10 of the season. All of the material right up until the last ten minutes is top dollar; confidently scripted by the ever improving Chris Chibnall, vividly realised by Douglas McKinnon and with enough kisses to the Russell T. Davies era to make my fanboy heart sing. We’re saying goodbye to the Ponds soon so it's quite timely that we should get this close to them and enjoy lovely moments exploring how close they have become to the Doctor and the effect that he has had on their lives over the past ten years. There’s some really poignant moments in here and its tragic that they should make such an exciting choice just before their departure. I love absolutely everything about the cubes, from the comments on society (how we initially panic, and then adjust and then start to utilise them) to their freaky abilities right down to the look of them gathered all over the world, watching and waiting. The minute Brian is kidnapped for no explicable reason the narrative stutters and grinds down to a disappointingly banal, sonic screwdriver waving conclusion that manages to waste an actor of Steven Berkoff’s talent in a minor role. This is one episode to enjoy the journey rather than the destination but I really hoped that this was going to be the knockout that would finally stick one finger in the eye of all of Chris Chibnall’s detractors (including me). It's 80% there. It’s a world away from the Silurian bollocks a couple of years back. Start from the end and work your way backwards next time because it’s the ending that often leaves a lasting impression. Cute, sinister and touching for the most part: 8/10


Anonymous said...

I think that's Jemma Redgrave, not Vanessa.

My favourite episode of the season.

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David Pirtle said...

Your review made me appreciate this story more than I have done, but it's still never going to be great in my book. I might be more interested in an episode about the Ponds' home life if I wasn't so thoroughly tired of their being on the show at this point. The cubes themselves are the least interesting part of the story, which I don't think was the goal. As you say, the concluding ten minutes were a waste of airtime.

The most impactful moment of the story was the Doctor's conversation with Brian about the ultimate fates of his companions, and it annoys me that the whole point of wrapping up the Ponds' story at the end of the last series was that he was leaving to protect them, and that's what was so moving about it. The first half of this season just cheapens it all, and this episode highlights and double-underlines that for me.