Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Doctor Who - The Power of Three (S07E04)

A, let's face it, pretty easy visual approximation of my feelings whilst watching this episode.
There are two kinds of Doctor Who episode. Actually, that's so reductive as to be a lie: there are as many kinds of episode of Doctor Who as there are species in the universe that The Doctor has saved and/or doomed. However, when it comes to the typical construction of the show, there are two broad types: episodes that are carefully built around a core concept (think of "The Girl In The Fireplace" or "Blink" for great examples of this), and ones in which a couple of cool ideas are thrown out there whilst the plot merely acts as a way of connecting the disparate elements together. Both approaches produce good and bad episodes - heck, last week's "A Town Called Mercy" was one of the best the show has done in a while and was a prime example of the latter - but, in general, the former are consistently better because science fiction as a genre benefits from attention to detail, and ensuring that all the elements of the plot fit together in a way that fundamentally works.

"The Power of Three", then, is a bad episode of Doctor Who, and arguably the worst of Steven Moffat's tenure as showrunner, not because it's a largely plotless mess in which a handful of neat ideas are strung together with a threadbare story, but because it doesn't have anything going for it to balance out those aspects. "A Town Called Mercy" used its setting to explore some interesting ideas about the nature of guilt and forgiveness; "Asylum of The Daleks" had plenty of funny lines and interplay between the characters; and even "Dinosaurs on a Spaceship" (which, like "The Power of Three", was written by Chris Chibnall) had a childish giddiness to it that distracted somewhat from the fact it didn't really make much sense. "The Power of Three" fails not merely to have a good story at its heart, but it also doesn't manage to realise the simple pleasures that make Doctor Who such a fun show to watch and pick apart.

As far as that story goes, it is at least built around a novel idea, albeit one that winds up amounting to very little: an invasion that doesn't seem to be an invasion at all. Millions upon millions of little black cubes appear one day, in locations across the world, and no one can figure out what they are, not even Professor Brian Cox! (People often talk about the way in which the show has started to court the American market more in recent years, something which perhaps not coincidentally has occurred at the same time that it has begun to build a sizable audience on BBC America, but this episode was surprisingly heavy on figures from British popular culture whose presence might mystify the American audience.) There's only one man (Time Lord, whatever) for the job, and The Doctor gets right down to the nitty-gritty. However, despite his best efforts, he also fails to figure out what the cubes are for or do, but senses that there must be something going on, and he hangs around to figure out what that something is.

It turns out that the cubes are a monitoring device for an alien race who want to assess mankind's weaknesses in order to conquer them, and to do this they introduce the cubes, then have them remain largely inactive until such a point that people forget about them and they become part of the fabric of everyday life. (People even start to use them as paperweights.) This takes them the better part of a year, which is why Amy describes it as "The Slow Invasion," and so forces The Doctor to do something he hasn't done before: spend some time as part of Amy and Rory's life on Earth.

As Amy says in voiceover, she and Rory have been living two lives; one in which they are a married couple with friends and jobs and bills to pay, and one in which they travel across time and space battling aliens and witnessing fantastic sights. They've maintained the balance well enough over the years, but strain is starting to show. Amy agrees to be a bridesmaid for her friend and Rory takes on a permanent position at the hospital, both of which require stability and certainty, but in both instances we get the sense that the people around them see them as unreliable and flakey, i.e. the sort of people who disappear for months at a time with no explanation whatsoever. Even when they are dropped right back in time where they left - as happens when The Doctor takes them away for an anniversary trip that winds up lasting weeks - they still age at a normal rate, which means that they're several years older than they should be. (A concept that I first saw explored in an episode of the little-remembered time travel show Seven Days.) Basically, they can't keep living the way that they have been, and they have to choose between real life and Doctor life.

At least, that's what the episode wants to appear to be about, but after introducing the idea early on it ends up being sidetracked for much of it, only coming back in at the very end when it manifests itself as unwarranted sentimentality. Now, I like sentimentality as much as the next man (I cried at fucking War Horse, for Christ's sake), but it has to be earned. Since the episode was so devoted to an adventure and showing how exciting they can be for Amy and Rory, there wasn't much question over whether or not they would choose to stay with The Doctor, and the scene in which they reached that decision felt horribly forced. Once again, the show looks to be laying the groundwork for their exit without ever committing to it. Since the episode ended with the three together, seemingly stronger than ever, the emotion of that scene ultimately seemed a little hollow knowing that they won't be around for much longer.

Now, that may be a problem arising from my knowing that they are going to leave soon, but I think it speaks to a deeper problem with the episode that I spent my time thinking about the production of the show, rather than getting swept up in the story itself. By reiterating what we already know - that The Doctor and Amy and Rory are all friends and it's all swell - this episode was the worst example yet of the stasis that the series has fallen into this year as it waits for a big change to come. Unlike the other episodes, though, that sense of waiting wasn't alleviated by an exciting episode of television.

Rating: 4/10

- On the plus side: it was great to see Mark Williams back as Rory's dad, Brian, and I thought his involvement in the plot by monitoring the cubes was funny and sweet.

- To illustrate how bereft of good lines this episode was, the only one that stuck out to me was Matt Smith's slightly contemptuous delivery of the word "Twitter", though even then it was for the wrong reasons, since I couldn't help but think of it in terms of Steven Moffat's recent exit from the social networking site. (I realise the episode was finished far in advance of that happening, but I couldn't help but imagine that some disenchantment with the site might have been percolating even then and bled into the script somewhere along the line.)

- I liked the reintroduction of UNIT, the planet-wide military organisation that was a big part of the show during its earlier incarnation, and the introduction of Kate Stewart (Jemma Redgrave), daughter of Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart as the new leader. This was probably the only major event in the whole episode from a big picture perspective, so I hope it means we are going to see a little bit more of both UNIT and Stewart going forward.