Review: ‘The Power of Three’

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’.”
“That’s worse.”
“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 –

[coughs]

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’.

Fish custard. Now past its sell-by date, although thankfully the fish fingers weren’t.

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.

We get it, all right? The Doctor dances. WE GET IT.

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.

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10 thoughts on “Review: ‘The Power of Three’

  1. Oi, where to start?

    1. I am TRYING SO HARD not to take offense to

    incessant pandering to the American market have rendered it more or less unwatchable for the first time since ‘Evolution of the Daleks’,

    Pandering? Really? Maybe you’re using a different meaning of the word than I use? As much as I may disagree with much of my country’s current political/televisual/whateverual situation, I never felt like I was being pandered to. I mean, I’ve been watching the Doctor since I was about my middle son’s age (he’ll be seven in November), and while they’ve been to America a few times now, I didn’t necessarily think that was JUST for American audiences.

    HOWEVER, since I don’t hail from Merry Olde, I guess I can’t really judge that, as for many years, I really did hear “Doctor WHO?”

    2. I like River. No, really. Maybe it’s just because I’ve liked Alex Kingston since she was Dr Corday (sp?) on ER, but I really do like her, and I like her character as well.

    3. [sigh] I’ve been harbouring a not so secret hope that Amy will die and Rory will be the Doctor’s companion for a while (with maybe more smooching? DON’T JUDGE ME!) but it doesn’t look like that will happen.

    4. Shit. I had at least three more points, but now I’ve forgotten what they were. I’ll be back in the morning when I haven’t had wine, and maybe I’ll remember them then.

    Regardless, I enjoyed tonight’s episode. I think my way of judging it is by the reaction of my kids now, though. If I have to pause it more than once so we can discuss while we’re watching, then a good time was had by all. We had to pause at least 5 times tonight, so we thought it was a good time.

    Also, I think part of the reason I enjoy Smith so much (and this is totally a YMMV comment) is that I get the feeling we have our first Aspie Doctor on our hands. As an aspie myself, I feel like he’s a bit of a kindred spirit.

    I loved Eccleston, and thought Tennant was all right, but Smith is quickly becoming my favourite Nu-Who Doctor.

    • reverend61

      Let me clarify that seemingly throwaway remark, because it was one in the morning when I wrote it and with the benefit of a few hours’ sleep I can see, quite easily, why it may be misconstrued. (Also I have no wish to offend any of my American readership, least of all you.)

      First of all, I think you lot produce better drama than we do. 24 is one of my favourite shows, and while I’ve not seen The Wire, I know enough about it to see how clever it is. However, I think that what BBC America are doing is changing the show into what they *think* American audiences want, rather then what they necessarily actually do. The bottom line is that I’ve seen a shift in the tone of the show, particularly during this season (although less so last night, which felt almost old school). It’s not just the geographical thing: there are fancy camera angles, shifts in the style of dialogue and lingering, brooding silences from the Doctor. This is what’s happened as a result of BBC American’s input. Whether it’s the right call or not is up for debate, but it changes what the show is.

      The thing about Doctor Who was that it was *huge* in the States back in the 1970s – albeit in a less saturated market – and it managed this by being very British. Now, I *know* you love the show. I also don’t think Americans are stupid, or hard to please. They just have enough good stuff of their own to simply not care about a lot of what we do, and if they’re going to like something we do it’s most likely to be because of its Englishness raher than because “it’s the sort of thing they like and can relate to” (which, if you think about it, is an incredibly patronising way to think if you’re a TV producer, although it obviously hasn’t done Simon Cowell any harm). Essentially, what irritates me is the seeming expectation from the powers that be that they have to change the way things are to ‘crack America’ (which, truth be told, is one of the things we’re always harping on about over here, particularly in the music world). Life On Mars was a great show over here but the American version (particularly that tedious ending) simply wasn’t, and I don’t think it *needed* to be altered to the extent that it was.

      They changed Torchwood almost beyond recognition in series four simply to do what they felt was the right thing by American audiences (i.e. setting it in the U.S. and adding a largely American cast). This is fine, but IT DOESN’T NEED TO HAPPEN. We watch U.S. imports over here without feeling the need to redub them (with the exception of certain children’s programmes, and even that irritates me) and I am convinced that America is quite capable of enjoying the show as it is without the stylistic changes that I’ve noticed going on – you’ve proved that, and to corroborate your own remarks you don’t need to be pandered to. I think it’s presumptuous in the extreme to assume that we have to change the essence of what a programme is in order to engender mass appeal in a target demographic who are, I’m convinced, entirely able to appreciate it on its original terms.

      Hope that clears things up…

      • Man, I woke up this morning and thought “Did I really leave that comment on the Rev’s blog?” Yes, that’s what I call you in my head, hush.

        Sorry about that, it was ~1 am when I left it.

        Okay, so I can see that I misunderstood what you meant. You weren’t saying that you felt we needed to be pandered to, but that they’re changing the direction in order to have broader appeal.

        I can get behind that statement.

        BBCA isn’t my favourite network, and sometimes I miss the days of downloading torrented episodes after they aired in the UK because we had such a delay before they were shown here.

        I mean, I don’t MISS having to do that (it’s nice that we’re only 5 hours behind you in getting to watch it), but I’m tired of BBCA thinking that all we want to watch are endless Top Gear marathons.

        That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy Top Gear, because I do, but is it really necessary to have 5 hours of it daily? There are SO MANY OTHER SHOWS they could be airing, but apparently that’s all we’re interested in.

        …and I’m not making much sense anymore. I should probably have some more coffee.

      • reverend61

        You wouldn’t be the first one to call me the Rev, and we need never mention it again. Anyway, no problems. And as I said, they think they need to change it for the American market, which is not the case.

        If it’s any consolation, Top Gear saturates our market as well – and I don’t even watch it!

        Coffee is good. I need coffee now.

      • Sometimes I enjoy Top Gear, but often I have no idea who your radio and news celebrities are, so I don’t think I can fully appreciate the jokes. 😦

  2. Seriously?

    The fish fingers and custard thing is getting seriously old after three mentions across three seasons? Are you kidding me?

    • reverend61

      Yep! It’s strictly a one-off. It should never have been mentioned again after ‘The Eleventh Hour’. It kills the impact of the gag, makes it something they keep going back to. (Thing is, it’s not just the show; it’s all over the web, and that probably contributes to my general sense of weariness about the whole thing.)

      Within the show, its use has been superfluous. Amy has to swear on something that’s important to her, and *that’s* what she thinks of? Yes, I know she means “I’m swearing on the time I first met you, which was a special night for both of us”, but it just sounds lame. And truth be told I could have put up with its appearance on Saturday evening were it not for the fact that they started talking about it. It’s just the sort of repeated gag that Russell T Davies used to do and it drove me mad then. Or maybe it’s just me…

  3. pers3phone

    River Song irritates you and you mentioned Life On Mars, I love you.

    Seriously, I like Alex Kingston, but…well, it’s not her, it’s the way River is written. She’s got far too much banter and innuendo going on. It might work for Captain Jack, but as far as Melody Pond is concerned, in counterpoint to Smith’s Doctor there’s just something predatory and uncomfortable about it. Are we meant to assume that the Doctor she falls in love with and has all these amazing dates with is the eleventh Doctor? I hope not, it doesn’t work for me, there is absolutely zero sexual chemistry between them for a start.

    • reverend61

      I know what you mean. I find River’s sexiness an embarrassment. I wouldn’t mind if they kept it under wraps but when she starts using lines like “I’m a screamer – ooh, there’s a spoiler” I want to rip off my arm so I have something to throw at her. As you say, there’s no sexual chemistry at all between her and Smith.

      I think we are meant to assume that the Doctor of Choice is the Eleventh, because I seem to remember there’s a (probably non-canonical) sketch where the Eleventh is taking her to the Singing Towers. Mind you, there’s no reason she couldn’t hang out with the Twelfth, if it still comes to that. I suspect that by this time the chief writer will have moved on and his replacement will leave this particular pet under wraps – much like Moffat himself has done with Jack.

      • pers3phone

        Yes, it’s too in your face…but then again, I could actually see it working if someone like JLC had been cast as River, because her flirting worked excellently with both the Doctor and Rory. I’m all for cougars, but maybe Alex Kingston is too old for the part in relation to the age of the Doctor?

        Hmm, do I mean that? I felt slightly more in favour of the union when I thought Tennant would have more screen time with her, but ultimately I’m still not sure. I heard about extra footage of their dates – I’ll have to check it out. It’s just one of those storylines though that I feel goes against the grain of what we’ve come to know for fact about all the Doctors. The Doctor LOVES humans, but he can never fully devote himself to one person.

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