Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Doctor Who - The Power of Three


I’m feeling a lot better about Doctor Who at the moment. Last week’s episode, “A Town Called Mercy”, brought back some of the magic I’ve felt has been missing recently. And it’s stuck around into this week as well. I’ve frequently been critical of Chris Chibnall’s scripts, but with “The Power of Three”, he’s delivered his best Doctor Who story yet, on par with his later Torchwood episodes like “Exit Wounds” and far better than his recent “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship”. “The Power of Three” is not a perfect episode, but its strengths (the story of the Ponds’ lives and the effect the Doctor has had on them, as well as their effect on him) far outweigh its flaws (the rather weak resolution). It’s a great character story that finally provides some logical and needed development for Amy and Rory, while at the same time paying tribute to one of Doctor Who’s most beloved characters through the first televised introduction of one of that character’s closest relatives. In short, this is a wonderful gem of an episode only marginally let down by its weak ending.

SPOILERS FOLLOW

The single best thing about “The Power of Three” is its examination of Amy and Rory, their life together, and how the Doctor fits into it all. When Russel T Davies resurrected Doctor Who in 2005, one of the biggest and best changes he made to the series was the introduction of family lives for the Doctor’s companions. In the old series, when people joined the Doctor, they pretty much left behind their lives completely. There was the occasional exception (early in her time on the series, Sarah Jane Smith still managed to keep up her journalistic career) and the occasional brief appearance or mention of a family member (such as Tegan’s aunt), but these were few and far between and virtually never became a focus for story development. The introduction of Ace in 1987 began to change that approach. She was the first companion whose backstory actually had an effect on her time with the Doctor (beyond her introductory story). Russel T Davies took that idea even further, introducing viewers first to Rose’s family, then Martha’s, then Donna’s. Beyond that, he introduced the idea that companions could maintain contact with their families even while travelling with the Doctor. It was an idea that gave the show a grounding in reality and made the companion truly a figure the audience could identify with (something that was always an intended function of the companion).

Yet when Amy came along, we suddenly lost all that. No longer did we have a connection to the “real world” as Amy seemed to have no family, no friends to connect with (other than Rory). In short, no life. It was a sudden change back to an old-style approach that was made worse by a rather inconsistent characterisation of Amy. In series 5, it turned out that this lack of family was actually a plot point. Amy’s parents had been erased by the cracks in time that were slowly erasing the universe. When the Doctor resets the universe in “The Big Bang”, Amy’s family at last makes an appearance at her wedding to Rory. Then we never see them again. After making a big deal of getting them back, it has been rather surprising that they’ve effectively been forgotten again. I don’t think Amy has even mentioned them since (although I could be wrong there).

In “The Power of Three”, we get all that back. At long last, we get to see something of Amy and Rory’s lives (although, somewhat ironically, there is still no mention of Amy’s parents; they’re not even at Amy and Rory’s wedding anniversary party). We get to see what they do when the Doctor’s not around and even get a hint at the people they know. It’s very late for this to finally show up, but at least it has shown up.

I mentioned in my review of “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship” that one of the good aspects of that story was that it actually managed to make Amy likeable by showing a character not quite so selfish and actually using her intelligence. She also has a frank discussion with the Doctor about the difficulties of holding down a job. Although her role in last week’s “A Town Called Mercy” was relatively small, that story also managed to show a likeable Amy. “The Power of Three” continues that trend, showing an Amy that has matured a great deal even from the selfish brat we saw in “Asylum of the Daleks”. According to Amy, as best she and Rory can tell, they have been travelling with the Doctor off and on for about ten years from their personal perspective, while much less time has passed on Earth (the story remains very vague on what the current Earth year is), and it’s really showing in Amy’s and Rory’s behaviour. I do wish a little more had been done to make the actors look a little physically older, although it’s believable that in ten years, their appearance hasn’t changed much so this is a minor point (though I did love the subtle telephone message saying that Amy’s reading glasses were ready). Amy actually behaves like an adult and a real person. While Rory and the Doctor (the men in her life) are important parts of her life, they aren’t all there is like has been previously the case. She has a job (that she actually seems to be holding onto). She has friends, even getting to be a bridesmaid for one of them (nice subtle touch, too, that it’s a marriage between two women). Likewise, Rory has a life. We see him at his job for the first time since his introduction in “The Eleventh Hour”, and we get to see Brian again.

Brian really is a character who should have shown up ages ago. While he’s a very different character from Donna’s grandfather, Wilf (which is a good thing), he fills the same role as Wilf, and his introduction has reminded me just how much I miss characters like Wilf. They round out the companions. They help to make them real people. Until Brian’s introduction, we knew even less of Rory’s family than we did Amy’s. Although Rory’s family was presumably present at his wedding, we didn’t actually get to see any of them at that time, nor even hear about them. (It does create the interesting question of where Brian was at the time, seeing as he doesn’t recognize the Doctor in “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship” even though the Doctor made a very dramatic entrance at the wedding, but that can be put down to a minor continuity error). It’s refreshing to finally know a little more about Rory through Brian. Of course, Brian’s a delightful character in his own right, so well portrayed by Mark Williams that when I see him on the screen, I don’t see an actor playing a role, I see Brian Williams. Who’s this Mark Williams person again?

The other absolutely wonderful character in “The Power of Three” is Kate Stewart, head of scientific research at UNIT. More properly, Kate Lethbridge-Stewart, daughter of the late Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart. Kate is a character who has appeared and been mentioned several times in various unofficial spin-off media, most notably in the 90s in Downtime (although she was played by a different actor in that production, which also starred Nicholas Courtney as the Brigadier, Elisabeth Sladen as Sarah Jane Smith, and Deborah Watling as Victoria Waterfield). This marks her first appearance in an official Doctor Who production or spin-off, and it’s something that is likely to set long-term fans’ hearts aglow. Wonderfully portrayed by Jemma Redgrave, Kate’s appearance is a wonderful tribute to the late Nicholas Courtney, who made the Brigadier one of the most beloved characters in Doctor Who’s history (I am still saddened that the Brigadier never showed up on the new series, but at least he had one last appearance on The Sarah Jane Adventures).

However, Kate is more than just the Brigadier’s daughter. Like Brian, she’s a character in her own right. She learned from her father, but she also learned from her father’s experiences and his mistakes. As such, she handles things in her own way. She tries to keep science at the forefront of UNIT rather than the military. One of the best things the episode does with Kate is that it doesn’t hit the viewer over the head with the fact that she’s a woman. She is an individual first and foremost. The story doesn’t feel the need to tell us how special she is because she’s a woman or a mother. It doesn’t even mention these things (although people familiar with Downtime and other unofficial productions will know that Kate does have a son). The same is true of Amy in this story. Both Amy and Kate are treated like people. It makes a refreshing change from Steven Moffat’s style of constantly reminding us that his female characters are female and by making them wisecracking and domineering over their men. Kate manages to be a strong character without once being flirty or attempting to put any men around her down.

The Power of Three” also provides a profound look into the Doctor’s character. The Doctor has never been one to discuss his inner motivations with others, and this is especially true of the eleventh Doctor. As such, it makes for a wonderful moment when the Doctor admits to Amy that the reason he keeps coming back into her life is because he misses her. We see a Doctor that is so frustrated by the “slow invasion”, so impatient, that he starts to become vulnerable. We got to see a little of the Doctor staying still in one location for an extended period a couple of years ago in “The Lodger” and we get to see a little more of it here. It makes for a wonderful insight into his psyche to see him forced to deal with normal life, forced to wait for something to happen rather than just taking off to where something is already happening. It’s also great to see how disastrously he manages patience and so ends up taking off on side adventures just to pass the time. (There’s also a wonderfully subtle hint that last week’s episode actually happened during this episode. In “A Town Called Mercy”, the Doctor mentions Rory leaving his phone charger in Henry VIII’s bedroom. In this episode, when the Doctor interrupts the Ponds’ anniversary party and takes them on seven weeks of adventures before returning them to the exact moment they left, we see the Doctor, Rory, and Amy in Henry VIII’s bedroom after Amy somehow “accidentally” married him. Also, kudos to the return, albeit off-screen, of the Zygons!)

As great as all these points are, “The Power of Three” is, unfortunately, not a perfect episode. The resolution to the threat of the cubes, after being set up wonderfully, is something of a let-down. There are a number of oddities that aren’t well-explained, such as who or what the orderlies with the cube-mouths were and what they were doing. Why were they kidnapping hospital patients and taking them to the ship? It appeared to be for study purposes, yet the cubes are supposedly capable of that. Also, did no one in the hospital ever notice the young girl/android sitting there for months on end? Although it is never clearly stated that the girl never left the hospital, we never see her anywhere but the hospital, and so it’s heavily implied that she never left it. Surely someone would have noticed. Then there’s the restarting of everyone’s hearts after quite a prolonged period of them all being dead. A simple line of dialogue (such as the Doctor stating that the cubes would do more than act as defibrillators; they would also repair any brain damage that had occurred) could have cleared that last point up, but unfortunately, such a line was notably absent.

Then there’s the Shakri, the new villainous alien race that conveniently explains their whole plan to the Doctor as soon as he shows up. Although the Shakri representative is better realized than Solomon in “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship”, the Shakri still suffer from a similar lack of motivation. They believe humans are an infestation, but we never really learn why or much else about the Shakri at all beyond their devotion to something called the “Tally”. Is this another race or do they literally mean a tally of some sort? My guess is actually towards the latter, but there is no definitive answer in the episode. It’s entirely possible this is deliberate, that this is intended to be a bit of an ongoing mystery, and that the Shakri will be showing up again at some point. However, even so, I would have preferred a little something more to help get a feel for who these strange beings are and to hint at there being something more. Even a single line from the Doctor, pondering these things after he’s defeated them, would have helped.

The Doctor also saves the day with the sonic screwdriver. In recent years, there has been a lot of valid criticism laid against the sonic screwdriver, which continues to become more and more powerful all the time, even more of a magic wand than it was back in Tom Baker’s time (and it was that magic wand quality that led to the sonic screwdriver being removed from the show in the 80s). To be fair, however, the sonic screwdriver rarely provides the solution to the conundrum (despite what some people may believe). It (often improbably) gets the Doctor through the bumps along the way, but it’s still the Doctor’s ingenuity (or sometimes that of his companions) that saves the day in the end. Not so much this time. The Doctor really does just wave the sonic screwdriver in front of a computer screen a couple of times and suddenly the cubes work for him and reverse all the trouble they caused. It seems a bit of a cop-out.

All that said, I can ignore these faults because the rest of the episode is just so good. It has a humanity to it that was almost totally absent from last year’s episodes. Along with last week’s episode, it has helped restore greatness to Doctor Who, and I desperately hope this can be maintained as we move towards the departure of the Ponds in next week’s “The Angels Take Manhattan”.

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