The Power of Three is, for the most part, an absolute cracker of an episode, of the kind that we haven’t had in quite a while. Whilst it may not have ended up being a Blink or a Midnight – an episode that will be talked about for years to come – it certainly marked a great improvement on the hum drum tone so far. It also felt much more like a classic Doctor Who episode than any other this series, and certainly more than many from the quiet relaunch under Moffat.
When I say Classic-Doctor Who I admittedly refer to it purely as something that, like Professional Wrestling or Star Trek, I find more interesting as a programming concept than an actual show. I’m still to watch much of the pre-relaunch Doctor Who – I’ve seen one full story and snippets of others and if I’m honest it’s not something that I feel any need to go back to.Yet on some purely intellectual level I love the idea behind classic-Doctor Who, and see it as very separate from New Who – my Who. Like wrestling or Star Trek, I can enjoy the knowledge of the universe that I have picked up, recognise the plots and many of the players, all without having actually bothered to sit through a wrestling match or an episode of original Star Trek. I enjoy those things not because of exposure to them, but because of exposure to the idea of them.
Classic Who, for me, can be boiled down to two things. Firstly, it’s a form of Sci-Fi that emphasises a hope for the future, both for the universe and humanity, rather than a pessimistic vision of progress (in the same vein as Star Trek, or the Legion of Super Heroes).
Secondly, at its simplest, it’s about solving crimes with your mates – the problems might be bigger than they are in most shows (universal destruction, planetary enslavement, wars between species across all of time and space), and the entire team might change every few seasons, but it’s still the intergalactic equivalent of the Famous Five.
Which is brilliant.
“Classic Who is the intergalactic equivalent of the Famous Five”
On that basis (i.e. the basis of a totally arbitrary and, I’m sure, inaccurate reading of classic Doctor Who) this episode is the most classic of the new-Who episodes we’ve seen in a long time.
Chris Chibnall has now delivered the two best episodes of the season so far (and if you had told me that I would be writing this before Asylum of the Daleks I would never have believed you). The Power of Three is a better episode than either Daleks or Town Called Mercy, but those were supposedly written by two of the best writers in Britain, the auteur show runners of numerous critically lauded and well regarded series, whilst Chris Chibnall … isn’t.
This certainly isn’t a perfect episode – the ending is horribly botched, the episodes pacing feels off and the reveal of the enemy is underwhelming given the build up, but it’s as close as we’ve had for a long while.
The idea of the Doctor being forced to slow down whilst a subtler alien invasion than we’re used to takes place is an engaging one and is carried along by the cast with real verve. The excellent work of Karen Gillen and Arthur Darvill over the last few years pays off here as we get to see their weariness towards the constant in-and-out act that The Doctor plays over the years, whilst Mark Williams develops a role that seemingly had very little left to add in Dinosaurs.
The difference between this and Dinosaurs is extreme. If that was the ‘best Chibnall episode’ for Doctor Who, this is just a good episode. The characterisation, plotting, tone, development – every part of this is a real step up from what we’ve seen from him before this.
“Where it works best is in humanising the Doctor”
Where it works best is in humanising the Doctor, giving him a chance to return to his roots as an idealistic figure, someone who inspires, and is inspired by, the best of humanity. By rooting hope as the centre of the Doctor’s take on who we are as a species Chibnall successfully sets the Doctor up as a force for a more enlightened, peaceful, impressive version of humanity than is common in most genre fiction, where an apocalypse is only one failed misadventure away. In fighting against an enemy whose entire masterplan is rooted in removing humanity from history, preventing them from spreading through the universe it moves away from the dominant theme of this season; small scale choices between right and wrong, with a view to removing the Doctor’s unassailable position as a known entity. Instead, we get an episode where the Doctor gets to save everyone. Two billion people may die in the episode, but it’s nothing that a little bit of global electro-paddling can’t fix once it comes time to wrap up the plot.
Nowhere is this optimism more clear than in UNIT, now retooled as a more kindly defensive force, less overtly military and more akin to a UN backed Fringe Division, led by the daughter of the Brigadier. In its various forms in New Who UNIT has been, variously, an alternate worldwide version of Torchwood, a fully militarised response force dealing with non-terrestrial threats, and the red shirt army sent in to show how much of a threat a villain of the week is. This is a much more benign, and ultimately more satisfying, incarnation which retains the potential for taking the fight to the enemy whilst taking the science-first approach of Torchwood. For all the talk of the hopefulness of humanity it’s UNIT that shows that more than anything else, even more than the companions.
In case it isn’t clear, I REALLY liked this episode. The idea of creeping invasions is one dear to my heart (when Cape and Cowl Issue Two comes out you’ll see just how much). From ‘Animorphs’ to ‘The Thing’, ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ to ‘Secret Invasion’, the idea of an alien threat moving amongst us tends to be couched in terms of them hiding unseen. The twist of having aliens invade obviously but appear harmless is one which is less often seen. New Who does have another example of it in Army of Ghosts though, where the Cyber Invasion of Earth is passed off as the (apparently less threatening) return of loved ones from beyond the grave. The whole concept here reminds me more of Trillions, a book by Nicholas Fisk which had a massive impact on me for the central conceit of an invasion of grains of intelligent alien sand which mimics what surrounds it to communicate with humanity. The idea of an invasion that features such innocuous and utterly alien forms as small, black cubes to invade Earth is far more interesting than them actually being time bombs.
“The Doctor has a new challenge to face – boredom.”
It gives the Doctor a new challenge to face – boredom. The hyperactive, pangalactic supersleuth is thrown off by a lack of activity. He is lulled into a false sense of security as well. So for the majority of the episode we’re able to concentrate on character over crisis. The Doctor’s declaration of why he keeps returning to the ponds (he essentially imprinted on them like a child), Amy and Rory realising that they want a home life (and then changing their mind) and the Doctor making a promise he can’t possibly keep to Brian (it’s less whether one of the Ponds dies, and more just how much Moffat will milk it for tears). Every scene is played beautifully, and the story gives each conversation room to breathe before the next one starts. By the time a year has passed and things go wrong it’s easy to have forgotten or dismissed the cubes, leaving the audience in exactly the same position as the characters onscreen.
And through it all, the Doctor gets to spend time with his friends. Because the cubes spend so much time as a secondary issue it gives the Doctor, Amy and Rory something different to do than just run around and avoid death at every turn. Instead, they get to actually enjoy life so that by the end of the episode remember what it is that made them love the Doctor in the first place. Just in time for the inevitable heartbreak of next week, Amy and Rory can accept that their place is with the Doctor, just as he accepts that they are who he comes back to when he wants to see familiar, friendly faces.
“Hope for the future and friendship are keys to Doctor Who”
Hope for the future and friendship. The twin keys to what Doctor Who should be about.
So, whilst the majority of the run time is near perfect it does all breaks down at the ending, and then it breaks down big. Everything that until this point has gone right suddenly falls apart. In all the episodes so far we’ve seen that 42 minutes just isn’t enough to pack in the big summer blockbusters that we were promised. Every story has suffered from an inability to tie up the plot satisfactorily, either choosing to end with the Doctor Who standby of hitting a (reset) button, or a support character resolving the plot when time expires. My major problem with Daleks was that it removed the Doctor from the driving seat, resorting to teleporting him away whilst Oswin achieved the stated aim of the episode. That was repeated last week in Mercy, when Jex blew himself up – an action whose only reason to not have happened 45 minutes and weeks previously was to show how The Doctor can inspire others to act less selfishly.
In fairness to Chibnall then, it is indisputable that The Doctor solves this episodes dilemma and saves the day, by a combination of guile, bravery, team work, and the convenient apathy of an alien who is so unconcerned about the possibility of anyone stopping him that he leaves his ship unguarded to be blown up by anyone who wanders in with a sonic screwdriver.
“All the worst tropes of New Who endings are on display”
All the worst tropes of New Who endings are on display here. We have the rushed explanation (if I wave my sonic screwdriver at the screen it’ll reverse the effects), the appeal to human emotions (you’re a people of hope, so this has to work), the conveniently located reversal button (here’s the console that controls all those cubes, and it’s only protected by a hologram) and, of course, the Sonic Screwdriver is a magic wand cop out (point, click, run away from explosions).
As overused as that trope is it’s usually justified by falling back on the cliché and widely disseminated is the saying that all sufficiently advanced technology has the appearance of magic. But there is a big difference between saying ‘We solved this by science and so it just appears mystical’ and what normally happens on Doctor Who which boils down to ‘Screw it, the Sonic Screwdriver can solve this again’. It’s so frustrating, in an episode which has been unexpectedly interesting, showcased a few beautiful moments between the main characters and developed its idea to the point where everything is coming to a head, that the final scenes are such a let down.
There’s nothing wrong with the idea, but the concept doesn’t stand up to the climax. An alien who wants to remove the humans he sees as vermin is a great concept, and tying it into the Time Lords own history is a great way of reminding us that post-Gallifrey that the Doctor doesn’t always avert the apocalypse. But there’s no clever resolution, or twist on the idea. Everything is solved with the minimum effort. There’s never any real threat, either to humanity or to the characters. The stakes are TOO high – nobody can really see a third of humanity being killed off for real offscreen, so obviously they’ll backtrack. The bad guy isn’t even present, so there’s no chance that they won’t stop his masterplan. Just like that, it’s all over. Everybody lives, and the intricate plans of a cosmic exterminator (who could return at any moment) are ruined because he didn’t password protect his computer.
In Dinosaurs I mentioned how Chibnall seems to be aping many of the tropes that Moffat has used in the past, and it happens again in this episode. We can tick off everyday objects being transformed into something dangerous, objects protruding from faces. As mentioned, everyone lives thanks to the Doctor’s judicious application of electricity.
“Chibnall’s not there yet but could one day be showrunner material”
The creepy child who isn’t what she seems would also count, but I’m deducting a point for her not actually doing anything once identified. Just as Moffat began series 5 by trying to emulate or better the style of RTD this appears to be Chibnall’s pitch for showrunner status post-Moffat.
He’s not there just yet, that final five minutes just proves it, but I’m more convinced that he could be some day then I was before. Ultimately, that’s the highest praise this episode can get.