'The Power Of Three' was shaping up to be my favourite of Doctor Who's truncated fifth season before being stopped in its tracks by a rushed, meaningless ending which wasted all the good ideas so carefully built up by the preceding forty minutes. After deranged Daleks, Dinosaurs on a spaceship and a cyborg assassin in the old West, 'Power' reigned in the spectacle for a wonderfully creepy, low-key vibe, playing on our vulnerability to things we have become used to. The premise was superb, and the simplicity of the inactive black cubes supremely unsettling.
The episode also made brilliant use of the Doctor, who seemed a bit out of sorts last week. Matt Smith may not be good at being intimidating, but is an expert at vulnerability. His chat with Amy about why she and Rory mean so much to him was a sweet moment and perfect homage to the Ponds' contribution to the series, set to end next week in spectacular fashion.
The idea of the Doctor being forced to live for a while as part of his companions' everyday lives was a terrific one, somewhat reminiscent of the excellent 'The Lodger' from Smith's first season. (Let's not mention the episode's roundly disappointing sequel, 'Closing Time', though). Unlike Tennant, who fitted into the human world quite easily, Matt Smith has a slightly unearthly aura about him which produces fantastic comedy whenever he's forced to interact with what might be called the 'real' world. Whether painting a fence, doing the hoovering or proving himself a master at keepy-uppy, there's never a moment when it isn't fun to watch him doing normal things in such an unplaceably odd manner.
Insight was also given into how well the Ponds have settled into a stress-free, happy marriage, with a vivid social life and strong family ties. Doctor Who has often championed everyday existence as something special in its own right, yet this was the first time the series set out to show why someone might consider settling down rather than travelling with the Doctor forever. Naturally Amy and Rory worry about whether they'll get bored without a regular fix of adventure and the disappearance of their raggedy friend, but in their hearts are settling into the idea that it's time for them to enjoy the rest of their lives as normal people. In the episode's final scene, Brian (played by the wasted, but still adorable, Mark Williams) convinces them to keep going, but it felt a bit of a cop out considering how much time had been dedicated to showing the couple's happy home life and how much it meant to them. They had to return to the TARDIS to go on their ultimate journey next week, of course, but it would have been more in-keeping with the episode's themes, and more tragic in the long run, if they'd decided instead to go on one farewell adventure for old time's sake before leaving their time-travelling life behind.
The main story, wherein black cubes appear one morning across the globe for no apparent reason, mostly took place in the background, mirroring how quickly the human characters got used to their 'invaders' and forgot the cubes might once have been considered a threat. The unknown is always more unnerving than explicit danger, and despite not doing anything for most of the episode, the cubes managed to be one of the most ominous 'monsters' the series has yet devised. That it was impossible to work out what their intentions were, where they came from and who sent them, made for a rare instance where even the Doctor was helpless but to wait and let them do what they were sent to. This slow-burning, Quartermass-esque tension lingered in every shot, silently reminding viewers of the cubes' presence even when the characters were content to ignore them.
The premise's subtleties only made it more frustrating when they were brought to such a hurried conclusion. With the cubes sent to assess the best means of exterminating the human race - by causing heart failure apparently, which surely no self-respecting alien race should have needed an entire year to find out - the Doctor locates the transporter to the mothership, before reversing the signal to bring everyone back to life. Steven Berkoff popped up as an Emperor Palpatine-type villain, whose entire role was to deliver tiresome amounts of mostly useless exposition (none of it changed how we understood events leading up to that point, or how the Doctor saved the day), before disappearing with no attempt to stop the Doctor from putting an immediate stop to the master scheme which had taken so long to put into action.
True, the story's sci-fi elements were of secondary importance to giving viewers a glimpse into Amy and Rory's normal lives, but that doesn't excuse allowing such potent material to fizzle out. The justification for the 'power of three' title was also dismally cheesy, and meaningless in context since only the Doctor did anything to resolve the situation. We'd seen how close the Doctor, Amy and Rory have become and how intertwined their lives are, so why not have a climax where the threat is overcome by their teamwork, rather than a quick sweep of the sonic screwdriver?
Although not given much to do in terms of impact on the story, Jemma Redgrave's Kate Stewart was a wonderful throwback to the Brigadier, an ally of the Third (and briefly Seventh) Doctor. Nicolas Courtney died in February 2011, a fact acknowledged near the end of Tennant's run, and it's a welcome touch that the series continues to pay homage to characters and performers from the classic era. (Incidentally, the Brigadier previously made a cameo on The Sarah Jane Adventures alongside the wonderful Lis Sladen, who passed away only a few months after Courtney). Kate was mostly defined by being her father's daughter, but hopefully she'll get a return appearance at some point. Moffat likes bringing back popular characters, and I'd imagine fans will be very receptive of the next generation of Lethbridge-Stewart. Redgrave's performance was strong enough to justify giving her the chance to build a new character in the memory of such a beloved old one.
Had it not been for the abrupt ending, 'Power Of Three' was on course to be one of Matt Smith's best episodes and a fine tribute to the longest lasting companions since the series' revival. There was suspense, plenty of callbacks and humour, and terrific performances from Smith, Gillan and Darvill. Although it ultimately failed as a satisfying narrative, it did enough as an Amy-Rory showcase to compensate. Their story comes to an end next week in 'Angels Take Manhattan', which also sees the return of River Song (hopefully her last contribution to the series, since it's difficult to work out what she has left to offer). I'll write more then about the impact the Ponds have had since their first appearance two and a half years ago, but despite its shortcomings, 'Power Of Three' was a good enough reminder of how important they have been in shaping the first act of Matt Smith's time in the TARDIS.
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