Doctor Who: The Power of Three

“Invasion of the very bad mystery story…”

Well then, Doctor Who, the venerable British sci-fi television show. I’ll put my All-Star Superman hat on to introduce it…

Powerful aliens. Blue box. Horrible war. Human friends. Doctor Who!

I started watching the show with “New Earth” (One of David Tennant’s earliest epsiodes) and enjoyed it. I didn’t really feel the need to catch every episode, but what I saw generally entertained me – episodes like “Rise of the Cybermen”, “Smith and Jones” and “The Impossible Planet” were all interesting twists on tried-and-true sci-fi concepts that knew when to be serious and when to be fun, and the over-arching storyline and premise helped to create a intriguing fantasy world, in which anything could happen – and would be important when it did, not just fading into nothing after the end credits.

Then, there was “Blink”, which should need even less introduction than the show itself. I loved the episode as a self-contained story, but my main problem is that it isn’t really a Doctor Who episode, and would require even less tweaking than Life, The Universe, and Everything to remove any elements of the Whoniverse from it. I really don’t like including it in discussion of the show – except, of course, that I have to, because it was the work of longtime Whovian Steven “Moff” Moffat, current head writer for the series.

When Moff took over from Russell T Davies, things were great: “Silence in the Library” already precluded any doubts I had, “The Eleventh Hour” kicked those doubts to the curb, and “Flesh and Stone” gave them two in the brainpan. I applauded how effectively he made the running plot take center stage while still allowing for self-contained adventures, as well as balancing excellent comedy with ever-darker themes of death, betrayal and futility.

Series 7’s “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship” was the first real red flag – the episode’s problem was that it really didn’t know how to maintain that balance: The episode has a fun premise that sounds like it would lend itself well to comedy (The gang, plus Rory’s dad, must save a herd of dinosaurs from Mitchell and Webb), and starts out feeling like a humorous romp, but then the story takes an unexpectedly dark turn, and tries to be a serious drama about genocide – which just doesn’t work when you start out with that premise. The tonal shift ruined any enjoyment I might have gotten from the episode, the humor being overshadowed by the drama and vice versa.

Today’s episode was written by the same writer, Chris Chibnall, and aired just two weeks later. It starts with a narration from Amy Pond, discussing with her husband Ron Weasley that “They have two lives: Doctor life and real life – and we have to choose.” This is an interesting set-up, especially since they had announced that the two would be leaving the show in the next episode – both in and out of universe, a possibility of the change to the status quo. There’s the prospect to have an almost totally character-based story here, putting some emotional thrust behind Amy and Ron’s departure.

And, for a while, it looks like that’s what we’re going to do. Mr. Weasley wakes up Amy and Ron to some sort of weird sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey: Small black cubes, all identical, littered everywhere. A news montage shows that the world is in an uproar: People are curious about the millions upon millions of cubes, wanting to know where they come from, and why. (The cameo appearance here by Prof. Brian Cox isn’t unwelcome, but I wish he could have done more – previous appearances outside Wonders of the Universe prove he can steal the show with tales of galaxy-sized toffee or ewok-shattering). Meanwhile, The Doctor turns up, asking the same questions, and expecting more success. He consults with Amy, Ron and Mr. Weasley, the latter of whom effortlessly lists off a slew of sci-fi show suggestions – “What if they’re alien eggs? Or messages needing decoding? Or deadly hard drives?” The Doctor patronizes him about this for a bit before starting some experiments, trying to find out just what they could possibly be…

This looks Photoshopped – I can tell by some of the pixels.

Now, with all the buildup around this mystery, I knew right off the bat that there probably wouldn’t be any satisfactory resolution, but the reveal of the cubes goes past that and into the realms of legendary disappointment. Spoilers coming – you ready?

They’re deadly hard drives. That’s not a joke. Or, at least, that’s not my joke.

The Doctor is sidetracked by Amy, who reminds him that they’re normal people, with everyday lives and jobs. The Doctor reacts with wistfulness and surprise, and is about to explore this further. Right now, the cubes just look like an excuse for the Doctor to stay with the Pond family, while the real focus stays on character-based humor and emotion…

…and then, a platoon of soldiers burst into the house. It’s the Plot police, here to take this potentially fun and moving episode down! Drop that character arc and put your hands up, citizen!

Although you can’t deny their effectiveness when it comes to stopping crimes against good taste.

Our gang resist the Plot police’s oppression, trying to start up a jokey routine, but the ice-cold, no-nonsense Chief of the Plot police will have none of that, shoving more cubes-are-so-mysterious exposition down our throats, before revealing that the Plot police used to be UNIT (Think a better-staffed, less effective X-Files, and an old standby from the original series), before she transformed it into an organization devoted to ruthlessly enforcing half-baked, go-nowhere mystery storylines.

She calls the Plot police off, and the Doctor realizes the mystery can’t be solved for another thirty minutes at least. He tries to kill time, but he’s thwarted by a fast forward montage – interestingly, set to the music of Beethoven at the San Dimas mall – and eventually decides to go back to adventuring.

Amy and Ron try to get on with their lives, but only succeed in eating up more running time than the Doctor’s diversions did – but the edict of the Plot police still hangs over them: At the hospital where Ron works, Little Miss Ethereal absentmindedly caresses a cube, causing the reveal of another Moff-era staple: Goons With Creepy Faces.

Any moment now, I expect them to break out into the “Mahna Mahna” routine.

Like pretty much every other GWCF, their eponymous characteristic doesn’t exist for any reason other than the scare factor, and make it much harder for them to act normally. Both of them were obviously thrown in to make everything more mysterious, and will be dropped around halfway through the resolution – even the writer doesn’t know why they’re there. I really despise mysterious supernatural waifs and pointlessly scary character design, but if you have to put them in, at least give them a reason to be there!

Amy and Ron soldier on, as Mr. Weasley applies his knowledge of Muggle artifacts to recording a constant video log of the cubes. Life happens, the family starts to settle into a normal life, and months pass without mention. Almost a year later, the Doctor shows up at Amy and Ron’s anniversary, taking them on two months’ worth of offscreen adventures. Ordinarily I’m fine with these brief snatches of untold stories, but here it just doesn’t work – usually they happen either just before or just after an episode, but here they actually interrupt the plot. How good is your story if even its main characters find it boring enough that they have to go do more interesting stuff while it’s going on?!

After having more fun than we are, the Doctor decides to stay with the Ponds. They potter around some more, skirting the issue of their two lives, aware of the watchful eye of the Plot police. All is well for some time, until one fateful day – one year after the cubes first appeared, they activate (Hey, that’s my thing!). The cubes can do absolutely anything – they record, they hover, they shoot lasers, they slice, they dice, they can cut through a tin can and still slice a tomato.

“Your Weighted Companion Cube may threaten to stab you, if the writers think it can make them any more mysterious…”

A state of emergency is declared, and the gang is brought to Plot police headquarters – an underground bunker on loan from MI6 after the terrorist attack from Javier Bardem. After the chief tells us for the seventeenth time that we have to find out what the cubes are, the Doctor reveals that the chief is actually the daughter of long-standing supporting character Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart. Here, the mystery gets dropped for a while to allow the two supernatural crusaders to play off each other – for about thirty seconds. We get a fleeting glimpse of a tight, scary mystery plot focused on these two, which would have made for an excellent episode. Again, the biggest problem is the lack of balance: Is The Power of Three a cerebral mystery, or a funny character study? It can’t decide, and therein is its downfall.

Case in point: Not twenty seconds after that Doctor-and-Chief routine, we get a heartfelt and introspective conversation between Amy and the Doctor, where they discuss why they care so much about each other…a conversation which they immediately drop when the cubes start doing weird stuff.

The Doctor does his thing for a while, waffling about electrical discharges and signals and geronimoes, as he figures things out: The cubes have been collecting information about humanity, finding out how best to attack us, which is apparently…stopping everyone’s hearts.

Now, this would make sense by itself, but the problem is that it’s taken a whole year for them to get around to it. If the cubes had just landed, scanned our databases, and sent a message back saying “Nukes will do fine”, Earth would have been destroyed inside of half an hour, and we’d be spared this travesty.

Artist’s conception.

With people dropping like flies worldwide, the two-hearted Doctor seems to be the only one who’s safe from the cubes. Though the GWCFs are 100% superfluous in these proceedings, they still gamely get on with their job, abducting Mr. Weasley from the hospital where Ron works, and tipping off Ron, who follows and finds himself in the Emperor’s throne room from Return of the Jedi.

Meanwhile, the Doctor discovers Little Miss Ethereal, and hand-waves her away before collapsing due to one of his two hearts being stopped. Luckily, they’re in a hospital, and so Amy saves the day with quick thinking and a defibrillator.

Once more, with feeling: Defibrillators can’t restart your heart if it’s stopped. In fact, they work by stopping your heart, so it’s kind of like cutting off a comatose person’s arm and expecting them to wake up fine. Now, I’ll accept that the one-heart-on/one-heart-off state the Doctor was in was close enough to cardiac fibrillation for stopping both to restart both, but I highly doubt that that’s what the writer had in mind, and you’ll see why later.

Amy and the Doctor follow Ron to the Emperor’s throne room. Amy reunites with Ron, who’s working to heal Mr. Weasley’s Voldemort-snake bite. Meanwhile, the Doctor confronts Darth Vader, who’s taken his mask off and sat in the Emperor’s seat. Vader is “The Shakri”, a horribly generic ancient enemy of the Time Lords, who everyone but the viewer is apparently supposed to have heard of. Now, originally I thought it was a reworked classic series villain (yet another Moff signature), but no – this is the Shakri’s first – and, I’ll wager, last – appearance.

“Help me rip this classic villain off…let me look upon you with my own, terminally overused eyes…”

Again, I never really expected a good payoff for the mystery, but this is just ridiculous. Not only did they make up an entirely new character just so they could be behind the devious plot, but said devious plot didn’t even make sense! As the Doctor gives his customary “I, and humanity, are awesome” speech to Darth Vader, we’re supposed to be feeling excited and triumphant, but instead we’re just wondering “Who is this guy?”

The answer turns out to be “No one”, as Darth Vader is revealed to be a hologram, and flickers into nothingness. Amy wonders how all the people who were killed by the cubes can be saved. Ron (Who is, if you’ll remember, a medical professional) says “We can restart their hearts – we need mass defibrillation.” This is why that two-hearts explanation I gave earlier doesn’t work: The writers definitely think that electricity can create life.

Using a nearby Hexfield viewscreen and his sonic plot-solver, the Doctor saves the day, gives his goodbyes to the Brigadier’s daugher and Mr. Weasley, before departing with Amy and Ron (That’s right, the burning question of whether or not they’ll stay home is answered, after all that time, with a shrug and a ‘nah, whatever’), taking them to the next episode preview.

“Our invention exchange this week is spontaneous generation – what do you think, sirs?”

As I said earlier, there are two main ways you could have done this episode: A tense, well-plotted, supernatural mystery story, or a more bittersweet piece that resolves the question of the Ponds’ personal life. If it were up to me, I would have gone for the former, and made one big change to the mystery plot…

The Doctor briefly touches on the notion of the cubes as recording devices – cataloguing everything about humanity, to find out how best to annihilate it. Instead of throwing this aside to engage in wacky guest star antics and flagrant disregard for cardiology, I would have stuck with this:  maybe, one day, the cubes all disappear, and the Doctor and the Brigadier’s daughter team up, go places, play off each other for longer than half a minute, and eventually discover that the cubes are scouts for the Great Intelligence (A brand new, much more interesting villain, who was introduced just two episodes after this). End the show on a cliffhanger, with the viewers knowing who the villain is, how he works, and what he wants – but not having been defeated. Plus, this would eliminate one of the biggest problems I have with “The Snowmen”, which we’ll get to in due time.

As for the other plot the episode had, I would have saved it for Amy and Rory’s departure, which would have the added bonus of eliminating “The Angels Take Manhattan”, an episode I like even less than this. Find out why next week – Same year late time! Same year late channel!

 TWO THUMBS UP: The snatches of the 2 good episodes that were combined into this one

THUMBS UP: The Brigadier’s daughter and Mr. Weasley

THUMBS DOWN: The dissonant tone and badly-structured narrative, the lack of substance in the ‘two lives’ plot

TWO THUMBS DOWN: The mystery and its solution

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  1. Copper Flash

     /  September 23, 2013

    David Tennant’s first episode was The Christmas Invasion.


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