Friday, 11 August 2017

The Power of Three

Chapter The 63rd, the last one done by that nice Chris Chibnall - whatever happened to him?

Amy and Rory are considering ending their travels with the Doctor, as their real life of work and friends is not getting a look in, they're getting older (though, to be fair, they don't look it), and regularly run out of milk and washing tablets. One day, all across the globe, millions of little black cubes appear everywhere, as if they've fallen from the sky. UNIT think it's an invasion of some kind, but the cubes don't do anything. The Doctor stays with his two friends to observe the cubes, but they still don't do anything; after four days, the domestic life drives the Doctor mad, and he goes back on his travels. Rory's Dad, Brian Williams, continues to monitor the cubes as the Doctor instructed, but everyone else forgets about them; people take them into their homes, use them as paperweights, construct tasks in The Apprentice around selling them (which is a bit stupid given they don't do anything and are in plentiful supply, but it wouldn't be the stupidest task they've ever had on The Apprentice).

Nearly a year on from when the cubes first appeared, the Doctor is making an effort to stay with the Ponds again after being guilt-tripped by Brian, and finally the cubes start doing stuff. After some experimentation, they give people heart attacks, as playing the Birdy Song at them failed to kill. The Doctor gets aboard the bad guys' spaceship via the hospital Rory works at, which is involved (somehow), and meets a hologram thespian who explains the plot to him: the bad guys are intergalactic pest exterminators who see human beings as an infestation, and the cubes are like slug pellets (except for all the myriad ways they're not like slug pellets). With his sonic screwdriver, the Doctor turns off the plot. Brian persuades Amy and Rory to continue to save the world, as that's what makes them happy.

Watched from the Series 7 Blu-ray box-set while snuggled up on the sofa with the Better Half one wet and windy evening in this so-called English Summer. It's close enough to a 'date movie' Doctor Who story what with the focus on a relationship, and the complete lack of any real jeopardy.

First-time round: 
On the evening of BBC1 broadcast, slightly timeshifted, in September 2012. No special memories of this one, but I do remember I was happy with the general direction of the series, and I enjoyed all the episodes in the short run that is series 7 part 1. Mind you, I'd felt the same, since it was broadcast, of the first half of Peter Capaldi's debut series, but when rewatching Into the Dalek for the blog recently, it wasn't quite as good as I thought. I hope this is a one-off, but tastes do change  (sometimes for the better). Luckily, the quality of The Power of Three was exactly as I remembered.

Let's start by addressing the elephant in the room: Russell T Davies. Chris Chibnall has produced one of those Doctor Who scripts that act as a love letter to another author's work, putting all that author's favourite tropes into a Doctor Who context. Somewhat surprisingly, in this instance he's channelling not Dickens or Agatha Christie but RTD's Doctor Who work, and this only a couple of years after the regime change. Consider the evidence: globe-spanning scenario represented by cut-in excerpts from fake or real news channel programmes, comic cameos from popular figures commenting on events, the invasion not being the main plot but just a backdrop to tell an emotional story about the regular characters, and swathes of online fandom having a problem with the ending. It's textbook Davies, and - given I'm keen on that kind of thing - it was rather marvellous to see it all again. I wonder what Moffat felt about it, though; he'd similarly paid homage to this story template in The Eleventh Hour, his first episode as showrunner, but things had moved on since then. And it does seem from everything I've read that this story was mostly Chibnall bringing ideas to Moffat, rather than Moffat supplying them. Will Chibnall's period in charge see a move back to this kind of story, or was it just a fun one-off experiment?

The ending is obviously flawed; the Doctor literally waves his sonic screwdriver and the machinations of the villains instantly cease. This was a major criticism of many stories produced by Russell T Davies as showrunner, but that was always overblown, and endings rarely happened so easily in any of his stories, certainly not as easily as it happens in The Power of Three. Was this a homage taken too far? Probably not; I remember from Andrew Pixley articles read at the time that there were issues with the narrative and a lot of material was moved around, shaped or lost in the edit. There was for example lots more material about what exactly the two mask-faced guys are up to at Rory's hospital, a thread left loose in the final product. Perhaps defeating the enemy as written was not so easy. Another reason why the ending doesn't work may be where The Power of Three becomes a victim of its own success. The cube plotline, which isn't really the point of proceedings, is really strong; much more so than anything in the RTD era. Davies didn't do much in the way of intrigue: game shows have gone sadistic in the future, there are ghosts walking the Earth, the planet's moved across space; what's the reason? Probably Daleks, isn't it? Or, if not, Cybermen. And that's okay. But the cube set-up is so intriguing and different, probably any explanation and solution offered was going to seem like a let down.

Certainly, the mystery of the cubes is more interesting than the penultimate outing for Amy and Rory, but it runs close. Up until Chibnall got a grip on the characters in 2012, I'd never believed too much in them as a couple. Darvill is excellent and has chemistry with (the excellent here, as he always is) Matt Smith; but, though it is seen as sacrilegious in some quarters to say it, Karen Gillan is limited as an actor, and never works with Smith as well as do Darvill, James Corden, Jenna Coleman or Caitlin Blackwood. But then Chibnall, ably supported by Moffat as commissioning showrunner, makes me care about them, by introducing a character that should arguably have been there from their day one: the person who misses them when they disappear off. Brian turns Rory from being a 2000-year old plastic Roman Centurion into being a son, and turns Amy from being The Girl Who Waited, to being a normal human being. Mark Williams helps things by being excellent, but it's all there on the page. It's not 100% successful, the couple are still slightly less charismatic than a bunch of matt-black cubes, but that only makes one frustrated that this wasn't all set up properly from the beginning.

Other points of note: Kate Stewart is a fantastic addition to the rich tapestry of Doctor Who and UNIT, the music is wonderful, and there are a few cracking gags in there as well as a magic quiet  scene between Gillan and Smith towards the end, possibly their best work together.

Both stories have no real monster, just a villain played by an eminent actor; both feature a three person TARDIS crew with one male and one female companion, and both see the Doctor playing a game.

Deeper Thoughts:
Enormous End. Faithful readers of the blog (hello mum!) will have noted me often joking in a blog post that Big Finish will or have covered this or that outrageously nerdy story idea. For those that don't know, Big Finish are a company that make audiobook dramas on CD and download; Doctor Who is their flagship range, but they do lots of others, both spin-offs connected to the wider world of Who (they've had ranges for Torchwood, Sarah Jane, Bernice Summerfield, UNIT, Gallifrey), and other cult telefantasy stuff (Blake's Seven, Terrahawks, Dark Shadows...). The phrase 'less is more' was tailor-made for Big Finish to ignore: they must have been more prodigious and comprehensive than any other Doctor Who merchandise, and that's a big thing in such a crowded market. If there was ever talk in Doctor Who's history that any group of guest characters could have had their own series - even if it was just an idle two-minute conversation in the BBC bar after recording - Big Finish have made it a reality; every corner of Who has been covered, new companions created to extend a Doctor's reign, each era's stars coaxed out of retirement, or recast if mortality prevents such coaxing, abandoned scripts or story ideas finally made, thousands of shiny discs.produced containing hundreds of stories.

I've listened to four of them. This is not because of indifference, but simply available time. I was tempted to spend some of that precious time on their output in the heady days of the early Noughties  when Big Finish persuaded Paul McGann to reprise his role of the Doctor, and it really seemed like this would be the only chance fans would have of a progressing new series of adventures. But, they were only okay, and I stopped after the first four story 'season'. It's odd to think that it was only a couple of years after that a new series of Doctor Who for real on the TV was announced, and any enthusiasm I had for audio-only new stories waned.

As the new series has been going on so long now, Big Finish have obtained the rights to cover elements from the latest twelve years, as well as the twenty-six and a bit before that.  They've started to release some mash-ups of old and new elements, and one I recently read about is almost tempting: new UNIT with old; Kate Stewart and Osgood teamed up with a New Tricks style posse of oldies: Yates, Benton and Jo. Almost tempting, but I'd need to find another 24 hours a day first. Maybe I'll wait until I retire, and then listen to the lot, but how many will have built up by then? I may have to admit it, even as a full-time obsessive, there are so so many more bits of Doctor Who that I could experience, had I but world enough and time, but probably I never will.
In Summary:
A victory lap for Amy and Rory, just when I finally didn't want them to leave.

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