Or: The weighted companion / cube. Warning: spoilers abound.
Companions are funny things. In the Whoniverse they’re usually dazzled by the Doctor’s charm and bravado and travel with him until they get sick of it. And then they leave, seldom to be seen again, at least until the Big Finish contract is worked out. Life with the Doctor becomes an all-or-nothing enterprise, an experience to be savoured, a gap year to end all gap years, and it is taken somewhat for granted that it should be done all in one go. Essentially, there is life pre-Doctor, then there is life with-Doctor, and then there is life post-Doctor (unless you happen to be Adric). The notion that one could have a life that is both at once has seldom been explored in any real depth, until today.
At the same time, ‘The Power Of Three’ is, essentially, a story about nothing. The title itself is a non-entity, a reveal that’s left to until the very end of the final reel, forming an absurd non-sequitur masquerading as a punch line. You could almost imagine the conversation:
“It’s good, Chris. But we still need to actually call it something.”
“Oh Christ, Steven, not this again. I told you, I don’t do titles.”
“I know, ‘Dinosaurs on a Spaceship’ was bad enough. But I can’t run this as an ‘Untitled’.”
“Why don’t you just call it ‘()’? It worked for Sigur Ros.”
“And it’ll drive the Google bots insane.”
“…I know. We’ll call it ‘The Power Of Three’.”
“It’s a title.”
“Oh, what the hell, we’re at deadline.”
So you got a bunch of posters containing cubes emblazoned with the number three, which we assumed would be an important plot point, when of course it wasn’t. Even the cubes are colossal MacGuffins – omnipresent, (mostly) non-responsive and seemingly harmless, and ultimately far less crucial to what the story turned out to be about than was first thought. They’re the world’s sleekest paperweight (available shortly from iwantoneofthose.com for the bargain price of £14.95), enough to lull the world into a false sense of security while the Doctor waits and broods and generally gets in the way.
‘The Power Of Three’ may perhaps best be described as The Odd Couple meets Mike and Angelo: an eccentric houseguest invading the lives of a two married people who have almost got used to life without him. The Doctor is, at least in part of this episode, the special guest star playing the role of a reckless old college friend who has refused to grow up or slow down, and who is forced to do at least the latter while the Ponds sit around waiting for the hatch of the house cube to slide open. This is all well and good, but we’ve already been here in ‘The Lodger’, so what Chibnall does here is have the Doctor pop in and out while he’s away doing Other Things, and the result, whilst not being exactly Doctor-lite, is an episode where there’s actually comparatively little of Smith, and far more of Gillan and Darvill than we’ve seen recently – along with Mark Williams, once more along for the ride.
This restructuring turns out to be something of a blessing, because when Smith is on screen, he shines in a way that he hasn’t since ‘Closing Time’. The world-weary cynic is gone and the early impishness is back: there is running and silliness and the Doctor engages with the other characters with a boundless enthusiasm that’s been sorely lacking in recent episodes. Even his interactions with the cube are amusing. “Is that all you can do?” he sneers at one. “Hover? I had a metal dog who could do that.”
But Smith has always been at his funniest when playing a Doctor who’s trying to understand humanity, as opposed to merely trying to ape them (which is why last week’s “tea” exchange wasn’t any funnier than the tedious football montage in ‘The Lodger’). Here, he flits back and forth across Amy and Rory’s lounge like a child with ADHD whose parents didn’t manage to top up the Ritalin before the chemist shut. Amy and Rory are, for a moment, transformed into the parents of the piece, to all intents and purposes urging him to find something to do: which the Doctor does, painting a fence and vacuuming the house before setting a world record for keepy-uppy, all in the space of an hour. (Sadly, Rory’s punch line is as predictable as the inevitable “Geronimo” that follows it later in the episode, and it spoils the scene.)
Elsewhere, Brian is busy staring.
And aside from a brief exchange with the Doctor halfway through, and a couple of scenes in the closing fifteen minutes, that’s about it. After all the frantic running from two weeks ago, Williams really doesn’t have a lot to do this week except sit and be funny, which he manages, albeit less effectively than in ‘Dinosaurs’. In an example of typical inter-generational confusion he chooses to spell out ‘U.N.I.T.’ while describing a video blog he started more or less on the Doctor’s instructions; and in an early scene we find the Doctor and Ponds wander into the TARDIS to discover him sitting on a chair, still watching the cube. When informed that they left him four days ago, all he can think of to say is “Doesn’t time fly when you’re alone with your thoughts?”, a situation that I suspect Boris Johnson is yet to encounter.
U.N.I.T’s role was brief, and limited largely to a couple of encounters with one of the Redgrave girls.
Kate Stewart was pleasant, open-minded and admiring of the Doctor’s work without deteriorating into sycophancy, even though the family connection should have been obvious from the moment she introduced herself. Remarks about ‘ravens of death’ (that’s a metal band name waiting to happen) aside, her job was mostly to stand around and offer a few conjectures and turn up whenever she needed the Doctor – in other words she was somewhat underused – but it may be the first time in New Who I’ve seen anyone from the Brigadier’s finest that I didn’t want to immediately splinter in half with a blunt chisel, and for this Redgrave has my utmost thanks, delivered with a hope that we’ll see her again.
When we’re not examining the cubes, the Doctor, Amy and Rory go exploring, which is yet another excuse for Gillan to show all the wonderful things she can do with her hair.
And this year’s BAFTA for Best Costumes goes to. Of course, things are never as simple as an event-free period drama reconstruction using one of the abandoned Great Expectations sets. The luxury hotel the Doctor promises turns out to be a Zygon ship, although we are sadly denied any glimpse of the penis-like monsters, and instead have to manage with Henry VIII’s feet.
The whole point behind this little excursion, of course, is to make it VERY OBVIOUS INDEED that the Ponds are going to have a hard time of it next week. This is emphasised by lots of hard stares from the Doctor, smouldering glances from Amy and a very intense conversation between the Time Lord and Brian, who has obviously been at the punch bowl. “What happened,” he asks the Doctor, “to the other people that travel with you?” The Doctor can do nothing except admit that “Some left me, some got left behind, and some – not many, but some – some died. Not them, Brian. Never them.”
Seriously, this couldn’t be any more signposted if Moffat had got everyone else to come to the party wearing T-shirts that read “THE NEXT EPISODE IS GOING TO BE SAD”. The worst part of it is that the ending is going to be a complete let-down, because any ‘death’ that occurs will probably be within the context of the time-jump that the Weeping Angels seem to be back doing again, at least if the next-time trailer is anything to go by. It would be nice to see another scene like the death of Father Octavian in ‘Flesh and Stone’ (the high point of an otherwise patchy story). But what’s likely is that Amy or Rory will get zapped into the past and then the stranded spouse will live just long enough to croak out a final farewell to the surviving husband / wife in the present day, in a dimly-lit scene where the Doctor is in the background, trying not to cry at Murray Gold’s piano and strings. Cue lots of requests from Amy / Rory to take them back in time for a reunion, followed by lecturing from the Doctor about crossing your own timeline, and lots of “I hate you!”, and chest pummelling and then a teary-wordless goodbye, and lots of brooding looks from Smith.
In any case, I do wish that we could just get on with the bloody thing, instead of having yet more scenes where the Doctor and Amy show what good friends they are (we’ve had the shouting match in ‘A Town Called Mercy’, now they’re getting on again) by trying not to talk about the fact that eventually one of them will die. The build-up to this departure has been insufferable, and it’s far more fun instead watching Rory snipe “What you do isn’t all there is”, when the Doctor bemoans the fact that he’s going out to work.
Indeed, the scenes where the Ponds are just getting on with stuff are generally quite fun, although there is a clumsy exchange in front of The Apprentice - Alan Sugar, in this week’s Pointless Celebrity Cameo #2, and if you needed a reminder of Who Is #1, take a look here. Actually, don’t worry, because -
The Doctor and Amy and Rory dip fish fingers into a bowl of custard, and the Doctor tells us that he invented the Yorkshire pudding, because “pudding that’s also a savoury? Think about it”, suggesting that he really ought to brush up on his etymology. More than this, the fish fingers and custard thing is getting seriously old: it was amusing in ‘The Eleventh Hour’, but there’s a pointless reference to it in ‘The Impossible Astronaut’, and its use here as a symbol of a cosy ménage a trois is enough to make even the childlike part of me dismiss it with a shrug and a ‘meh’.
The same might be said for the ending, which is vaguely hurried, and largely unexplained. We hope – for a moment – that this might be Rory’s chance to shine the way he did in ‘A Good Man Goes To War’, but the scene in which he enters the alien ship – seemingly to save the day – is followed by a later scene in which the Doctor and Amy rescue him. Again. Still, at least Rory doesn’t almost die this week; nor indeed does he perform an embarrassing dance in a hospital corridor.
That hospital. It really is a bit old-school, isn’t it? I didn’t think hospitals like this still existed; I thought they’d all been refurbished. I was so busy staring at the walls I almost failed to notice the SINISTER LITTLE GIRL.
Anyway, the mastermind behind all this, as it turns out, is none other than – well, have a look.
You see what I mean.
There is some garbage about humanity being found wanting and the Doctor’s retort that people will all pull together when their backs are against the wall (which presumably explains last summer’s rioting). For a moment there we fear some dreadful finale where Love Conquers All, in the manner of ‘Victory of the Daleks’, ‘Last of the Time Lords’, ‘Closing Time’ and…oh, more other episodes than I’d dare to count, but instead the Doctor waves his screwdriver a bit and they all get the hell out of Dodge before it explodes.
Back on earth, things get back to normal: those who have cardiac arrests mostly recover (which is a bit of shame, because killing off a third of the global population would have been a bold and drastic step). The Doctor says his farewells to Kate, and they even find a use for all those cubes.
So now you know.
And of course, none of it really matters. Because this was essentially a last hurrah for Amy and Rory: a companion’s-eye view on the world, overstated and heavy-handed, but with a quirky flair about it. The three leads are all likeable (a first this series), Williams and Redgrave provide able support and the story, while ultimately inconsequential, is nonetheless sufficiently interesting to retain your attention, even if I was hoping that the contents of the newly-opened cubes would actually be far more interesting than they turned out to be.
For all its uneven pacing and misfired gags (and that dreadful title), it was enjoyable, and that must count for something. It certainly counts in an age where Doctor Who‘s incessant pandering to the American market have rendered it more or less unwatchable for the first time since ‘Evolution of the Daleks’, and while Chibnall still needs to brush up on his Syd Field techniques, his two contributions this series have at least been enjoyable hokum. Besides, if the build-up to next week (and the return of the insufferable River Song) is anything to go by this will be the final opportunity to see Amy, Rory and their
900 1100 1200-year-old friend actually have any fun – and on that basis, it’s really not a bad way to go out.