The Power of Three

Holistic Review: A fresh take on how the Doctor affects his companions' lives, and the story's numerous emotion-packed highlights nearly allow you to overlook the plot holes that threaten to sink the dénouement.

Chris Chibnall, you've done it again. I found this story to be pretty delightful, and all the more impressive because it was his second episode in the span of four. I say this realizing full well that The Power of Three has, I think, more serious problems than Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, but it also has more truly superb moments, which for me balance it out. My first viewing left me with almost a sense of euphoria, for reasons which I will of course expound upon later. On subsequent viewings, the problems that I'd initially noticed became magnified, but I found that (with one exception) they didn't dent my overall enjoyment of the episode. I just have to accept that, although I enjoyed it a great deal, it's got some major flaws that will probably earn it a flaying from those sectors of fandom that already have a bone to pick with Chibnall, although the general public will probably adore it even more than I did.

What I like most about The Power of Three is the way that it shines a light on Amy and Rory's relationship with the Doctor. Almost without exception (those exceptions being Jo Grant and Sarah Jane Smith, and to some degree Tegan), companions step onboard the TARDIS, travel with the Doctor for a delineated period, and then leave, rarely to be heard from again. Amy and Rory's habit of hopping on and off since The God Complex has really kind of thrown me for a loop. Why not just let them live out their tenure with the Doctor like everyone else, rather than leaving room between stories for all sorts of less-interesting "the Doctor travels solo" missing adventures? But after The Power of Three, I totally get it. Their status as part-time TARDIS travellers allows for a very interesting story to be told — one which could have been told with Jo or Sarah, but never was — about how, and why, the allure of "real life" starts to become more attractive than the fantastical adventure of TARDIS travel. Watching Amy and Rory slowly transition from being willing to drop everything to rejoin the Doctor, to having doubts, to seriously questioning whether they want to continue living two lives, is really interesting, and sets up an entirely new dynamic for their departure which I feel sure The Angels Take Manhattan will not bring to fruition. (I mean, right now I'm picturing Amy and Rory stranded in 1920s New York for the rest of their lives, rather than deciding "you know what, that one last great adventure with the Weeping Angels is all we needed to satisfy our wanderlust for good, and we'd like to be dropped off at home permanently now, please"... but I could be wrong!) It's also a really nice followup to their discussion back in Amy's Choice, in which Amy was incredulous that anyone would ever want to give up life with the Doctor.

I really adore the role-reversal in this story, as the Doctor, for once, becomes Amy and Rory's companion, living in their home and integrating himself into their lives. Naturally he doesn't take to this lifestyle at all, and becomes a nervous bundle of energy until he finally can't take it any longer. It's a nice way to contrast the Doctor's irrepressible wanderlust with most people's need for a place to call home, even seasoned time-travellers like Amy and Rory have become. And it leads to the very nice scene in which the Doctor realizes that, as much as he hates being tied down to a single place and time, his need to spend time with Amy and Rory takes precedence.

And this leads to my favorite element of The Power of Three: the way it sweeps the viewer up in an optimistic, uplifting wave of emotion. I grinned a lot during this story. I went "aww!" a few times. It even brought me to tears more than once, and not the sad kind; in a few key scenes, The Power of Three touched me deeply. Chibnall's dialogue in this story is overall masterful. There are maybe a couple of lines that felt a little showy, but those were throwaway lines. In all of the main emotional scenes, the dialogue comes from a very honest, character-appropriate place. It doesn't feel "perfecly designed" for maximum glurge effect, for once. It feels like a window into the characters' hearts. So, for me, the best parts of the story were these:

The other piece which I think The Power of Three handles really well is the mystery of the cubes. Their plan to invade by stealth — appearing all at once and then slowly fading into the background, being absorbed into people's everyday lives and practically forgotten about, and not activating until they've infiltrated the entire planet — is really quite brilliant, and the cubes themselves are so intriguing. The viewer, too, is hanging on every word, waiting to get some clue as to the cubes' origin and intentions. We don't even know if they're a threat, for that matter, although Doctor Who being Doctor Who, the chance that they're here to bring us unlimited chocolate bon-bons is slim. Chibnall also scripts some clever red herrings, like the Doctor's incorrect (but perfectly sensible) deduction that the cubes' purpose is to be monitored. (All in all, I'm glad the Doctor was wrong about that, because it sounded kind of boring.)

Unfortunately, and it pains me to say this, the storyline starts to fall apart once the cubes activate. Now, I can rationalize nearly everything that happens in the last 12 minutes, and if I can rationalize it, I can live with it. But I did feel myself getting disengaged from the narrative as the analytical part of my brain started to wave numerous little red flags, and subsequent viewings have only made me more skeptical of these story elements. There are a few that I'm having a really hard time rationalizing away, which is a shame because I suspect that a single well-chosen line of dialogue could have done the job. I'm sure it's decreased my enjoyment of the story a bit, so I wish that the script had been tightened further so that these problems never arose in the first place. To wit:

In retrospect, rewatching the story once you know the cubes' purpose, the mystery doesn't hold up quite as well as it did the first time through, because I, at least, felt myself growing skeptical about them. I think the unconvincing ending may be partly to blame, because, again, I can come up with reasonably good rationalizations for my questions. But I found myself wondering:

I have to say, I really preferred the episode's original title. Part of the reason, I'm sure, is my fandom of a certain low-budget Canadian sci-fi/horror film, which I may have mentioned once or twice in these reviews, but more pertinently, Cubed has a lot more to do with the actual plot. It also works on more than one level, being a reference to both the cube invasion and to "the power of three". The Power of Three works only on the second level, it gives away Amy's meant-to-be-dramatic final line, and, most unfortunately of all, it has next to no relevance to this particular story. The title implies (and Amy's line is fairly explicit about it) that this episode is going to demonstrate to us how the Doctor is even more of a force to be reckoned with when he's got Amy and Rory to back him up, but in fact, Amy and Rory have almost no impact on the outcome. In all honesty, the Doctor could have skated his way through this entire story by himself. Yes, he uses Amy and Rory's home as a cube lab, but, hello, UNIT base with loads of way more useful technology. I daresay the Doctor could've holed up there and possibly had some brilliant cube breakthroughs. And yes, Amy restarts the Doctor's heart, but I'm sure UNIT's medical team could have helped with that too. (Where were they, incidentally? Too busy fielding their own casualties to help the Doctor?) I want to be clear that I'm not picking on The Power of Three's usage of Amy and Rory. This story is really about them, and they're used far more effectively than they were in A Town Called Mercy, so I don't have a problem with the fact that they're not particularly vital to its resolution. But it does highlight the fact that the title change was not only unnecessary, it became misleading. And while it's a great story for our two companions on a character-growth front, if Chibnall was seeking to highlight their indispensability to the Doctor, it falls short on that count.

Turning back to the positive, however, Chibnall has again written both Amy and Rory really well. Knowing that they're leaving next week, and with them both portrayed so sensitively, it actually did make me feel that I was going to miss them. I'll just say it: I really like Chibnall's Amy this season, and I wish she'd been scripted this way all along. He manages to retain her core characteristics — she jokes about wanting to be in, ahem, the center of a military orgy, and she snaps at the Doctor when he complains about being bored — but it's done in a way that makes her seem funny, and self-confident, rather than inappropriately flirty and grumpy. Maybe it's just because Amy has matured (and Karen has matured as an actor?), and maybe it's because she's completely stopped flirting with the Doctor, but I like it. My favorite Amy moments this week: the very subtle change of expression on Karen's face as Amy becomes aware of the TARDIS materializing; her jumping-up-and-down excitement over the Doctor's anniversary trip to the Savoy; and her delivery of "I like it!", "The cube upstairs just spiked me and took my pulse!", and her very sweet "There was a time — there were years — when I couldn't live without you." which illustrates their deep friendship. My only gripe is the way she declaims the voiceovers (particularly on the line "It was also when we realized something the Shakri never understood. What 'cubed' actually means: the power of three."), which sounds much more melodramatic than natural. And finally, in her ninth trip to a historical period for which we have onscreen proof, Amy gets to dress up in period clothing. Well, there's also The Vampires of Venice, but that was just a simple peasant-girl outfit. This is period finery, and it looks awesome on her. I really like her curly updo! To my almost-greater delight, Amy also becomes the first companion ever to scream at yogurt.

Rory, meanwhile, gets his chance to continue the long tradition — unbroken since Turlough, unless you count Adam — of male companions "doing a Sarah Sutton" and stripping down to their skivvies in their penultimate or departure story. (Jack, of course, went one further, but then he would.) And I must say, I like his boxerbriefs! I wouldn't have pegged Rory as a "colorful orange underwear" kind of guy, but they're cool. Also cool is the amazing fact that the hospital is not only willing to continue employing him, but also to promote him, when by their own admission they don't see Rory for months at a time. And they want to reward that kind of unreliability?! Well, whatever. We know it's a smart decision, even though they shouldn't. As usual, Rory's attitude toward the Doctor is mixed: he scolds the Doctor harshly for belittling his job (although Rory's point is quite valid), but then he goes and gives the Doctor a sweet kiss on the cheek to say thank-you for their anniversary gift.

We've always known that the Doctor operates at hyper-speed, given the rate at which he talks, reads books, topples governments, defeats monsters, and ping-pongs around the universe — which is beautifully illustrated in the scene of the Doctor accomplishing numerous chores and getting in some strenuous exercise in the span of only an hour (at which point he hasn't even broken a sweat!). If my own experience is any indication, the audience gets a sort of perverse delight out of watching the Doctor being forced to live in our world for once, taking the slow path, sitting on the couch for hours, and eating cereal. It's sweet to watch him slowly get accustomed to the idea, motivated solely by his desire to spend more time with his friends. Between the Doctor's intense boredom and his melancholy reflections about Amy and Rory, Matt Smith gets some great moments this week. One of the script's quieter emotional moments is the Doctor's football exercise, when he shouts for Amy to come and watch, clearly hoping that she'll be impressed! Very sweet. And get a load of that final move, as Matt Smith balances the ball between his shoulder blades! I don't know about Amy, but I'm impressed. I loved his delivery of "Four days. Nothing. Nothing!", his Troughtonesque laugh when Brian observes "Doesn't time fly when you're alone with your thoughts!", "Crikey Moses!", "It is pitiful!", "Run.", and the little "aah!" noise that he makes after not shaking Kate's hand.

Kate Stewart — and how did I miss that massive clue? — is immediately charming, breezing in through a hallway of armed squaddies with a disarming "Hello!" and a very neighborly "The dogs do love a run out!" If Kate continues to be the face of UNIT in their dealings with the Doctor, I'll be a very happy man. She has all the competence of her father, but a more easygoing and lighthearted manner, and she's more obviously friendly and compassionate. I liked her immensely. It tickles me to see that the Doctor's influence on UNIT, and his legacy, have continued with a scientific advisor who wields obvious power within the organization. Redgrave and Matt Smith have an immediate rapport that, to me, echoed Harriet Jones' relationship with the ninth Doctor. But I do wonder how the Doctor managed to avoid meeting Kate all this time? Surely the Brigadier would have introduced them at some point!

It's lovely to have Brian back this week, making an even more positive impression now that he knows about the Doctor. In the same way that the Doctor was Wilf and Donna's shared secret, now we have the sense that Rory's dad is one of the few people he can confide in. And, like Wilf, Brian is cautious about the perils of TARDIS travel but otherwise wholeheartedly supportive, which is really lovely. Actually, "supportive" doesn't even cover it. The man who once freaked out over teleporters is now the perfect companion: he gives the Doctor one hundred percent, whether it's creatively thinking of possible endgames for the cubes (and not all horrible pessimistic ones, either; some of his ideas could be wonderful!) or devoting himself to monitoring a cube day and night just because the Doctor asked. Yet, like Rory, he doesn't let the Doctor off the hook easily, as when he point-blank asks what typically happens to the Doctor's companions (and, to his credit, the Doctor doesn't attempt to whitewash the truth). He's such a fun character, in some ways naive and wide-eyed, and in others very savvy and world-wise.

As monsters, the Shakri are hit-and-miss. I love the idea of an extra-temporal race surveying human history and deciding that the universe would be better off if they snuffed us out of existence before we spread across the universe. In fact, I'm suddenly struck by its great similarity to the plot of the Time Odyssey series, by Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter, which I really enjoyed. But I don't think we learn quite enough about the Shakri to make them (not just the cubes) seem like a threat. The plot starts to whiz by at this point, so I'm not quite sure I put all the pieces together. But, most crucially, I don't quite understand what makes them scary. "Pest controllers" doesn't sound all that terrifying, although to be sure, it becomes more terrifying when the Shakri perceives your species as one of the pests they're trying to eliminate. But how did they get themselves so entrenched in Gallifreyan myth? And, for beings that span all of time, why are they only in Gallifreyan myth, rather than clearly seen to be operating today? (And why haven't they addressed the Daleks???) There's also a bit of confusion, at least on my part, over why exactly the Shakri are doing all this. From Steven Berkoff's initial pronunciation, it sounds like he says that they're "serving the word of the Tali", which makes it sound like they have some kind of Old One overlord who's pulling the strings. But then Amy, and later the Shakri itself, pronounces it just like "tally", which the Doctor's "judgment day" description would seem to fit, as does his request for the Shakri to "put [humanity's] achievements against their failings through the whole of time." So is it their god? Their system for judging humanity? Their quota of human bodies that must be met?

Special effects team, bravo on those cubes! The cubes themselves, I'm sure, weren't that difficult to create, but the different variations are so much fun. The flying, laser-beam-shooting cube is particularly memorable — I thought it was just going to take the Doctor's picture or something, so it definitely took me by surprise — as is the one that lances Amy's palm with several sharp needles, ewww. (I think my vote for worst cube, though, might go to the one that constantly blares the chicken dance. Hilarious! I never even knew the chicken dance was a thing until I had several friends from Pennsylvania, and they had weddings. By comparison, the electric slide starts to look about as classy as the waltz.) Once the cubes activate, their glowing blue displays are really attractive and well-done. I'd love to know how they achieved that effect. In particular, I marvel at the scene where the Doctor spins a cube and the number 2 in the center doesn't budge. They also did a fantastic job on the opening shot, of the Earth surrounded by galaxies; the neat glowy blue eye effect, and the droid's face glowing blue; the rippling wall illusion, especially the way it bends around an invisible doorway when Rory walks through it; and the design of the graphic on the Shakri's screen, showing the ship's links to all of the cubes. I was especially thrilled with the cleverly-positioned (and designed) title overlays as the months go by; my favorite is July, which blinks in time with Brian's camera light! However, I must wag my finger at them for not being able to come up with enough flashing images on the TV to cover both times that the camera cuts to the cube watching in. The second shot is a replay of the images from the first shot; for example, we clearly see those freaky white masks twice. I get the impression that the Shakri, like the Dalek back in 2005, is trying to "absorb the internet", so surely it wouldn't revisit the same material twice, in exactly the same order. (Then again, people do forward lolcats around with abandon, so perhaps duplicates must be expected.) The make-up team is responsible for the wrinkled, demonic look of the Shakri, and for his two medical-attendant lackeys, with their freaky grille-mouths. I don't understand what their function is, or why they're abducting hospital patients for the Shakri, but they certainly look disturbing.

Also, the opening credits are new again! I wholeheartedly approve of the change, but then I really like purple. Hot pink makes for a vivid change from reddish-orange, too. I particularly like the way that the lightning strikes now send energy rippling through the vortex. Neat! And of course this week we get a black cube-filled logo, which reminds me of nothing so much as Q-Bert, if Q-Bert were emo.

Murray Gold gets a thumbs-up for his score this week, which is very fitting and does stand out in just the right way. I really liked it, particularly during the reveal of the cubes' arrival, the Doctor's hour of chores (ha, I nearly typed "choirs"), and as Rory ponders his cube just after it opens for the first time. Gold does, alas, re-use one of his scores as the dead heart-attack victims come back to life, but the rest is great. I got a nice laugh out of the story's re-use of "Merry Xmas Everybody", which has really become instant Doctor Who shorthand for Christmas (although I'm sure that, for most people in the UK, it's been shorthand for Christmas for decades!).

Douglas Mackinnon's direction is snazzy. I didn't write down a whole lot of individual shots that really grabbed me — aside from the creepy shot of the orderlies starting to advance on Rory with their alien-looking syringes — but his style is very kinetic and kept the story bouncing along. The hyper-quick flashbacks at the start are a wonderful way to illustrate the excitement of living with the Doctor, and the shots of the cubes being used for mundane things like paperweights is a quick way to drive home the point that people have stopped even noticing the cubes.

Minor points:

The Power of Three suffers some pretty major plot stumbles in the final act, and the message it actually delivers (how the Ponds become attached to "regular life") is far more effective than its strangely-absent intended message (that the TARDIS crew are more powerful together than they are separately), but the first three-quarters of the story are so interesting, and so emotionally affecting, that on the whole it's a great story.

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