...a blog by Richard Flowers

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Day 4283: DOCTOR WHO: The Power of Twee

Saturday (flashback):

It's possible that I may have been unkind to Mr Chris Chibnall, back at the start of season two of "Torchwood", when I suggested in my review that Russell Davies had written "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" for him.

It becomes clear from "The Power of Three" that he can at least write a very good pastiche of RTD. All the tropes are here: the emphasis on character; the way they stand around and emote heavily at each other to tell us how very special they are; the kisses to the fans; the adoration of the Third Doctor/UNIT era; the failure to do the research; the hand-wavy non-resolution; the implicit xenophobia...

Let's start with the basics: if you want to call your story "the power of three" and especially if you want to finish with that as the valedictory line, then you really, really need a resolution that depends on a contribution from all three leads. Ideally, something unique to each of them, that proves how vital is the contribution each one makes, but failing that at least have each of them do something.

It is surely not beyond the wit of man to think of something. How about an invasion from the second dimension – moving shadows! – but which can be trapped when approached from three directions at once.

You would be better off calling this something like "Real Life (Interrupted)" or "How the Doctor Couldn't Sit Still" which at least would draw attention away from the largely-irrelevant invasion plot.

Because what we have here is just a bog standard invasion plot (and, judging by starship design and alien make-up, it's an invasion from the "Babylon 5" universe); it's the Master's "plastic daffodil stratagem" without the plastic daffodils. Or the Master.

Certainly, the cubes start off as intriguing. They spend a year carefully waiting, infiltrating human society, scanning us to identify our key vulnerability (which disappointingly does not turn out to be a weakness for the Apple company's product design), and then take advantage of that to suddenly wipe out a third of the human race.

(Handy, incidentally, that it's a third. So you can have the Doctor – who can survive it – get zapped and let his two companions be the "other two thirds". Though no one else who gets actual screen-time is among the casualties either. Brian, of course, has been conveniently kidnapped otherwise he'd have certainly been watching his cube and been killed by it. But we don't even get the horror of seeing someone we've "met" – the married lesbians, say, or Rory's friend from the hospital – collapse. Even without the absurd "nobody dies" miracle ending, this is shying away from the truth of the plot.)

Almost it would be better if there was no explanation. They do their thing and just as mysteriously vanish.

Sometimes, awful things just happen.

Thematically, that would go quite nicely with Brian's conversation with the Doctor about what happens to former companions, and would neatly foreshadow the events of next week, while at the same time being an almost literal "you could be hit by a bus tiny black cube tomorrow; you might as well get out there adventuring".

And, hey, after the events of "Miracle Day" maybe the cubes were just reversing Earth's massive overpopulation problem. Whadda ya mean 'how could Chris Chibnall be expected to follow plot developments in "Torchwood"?'. Oh...

Instead, we veer off sharply into a string of the most dreadful Who clichés: the ancient and terrible foe, known in the legends and bedtime stories of Gallifrey, who we hear of for the first and probably last time when the Doctor pulls an "oh, I know all about you" out of his fez; and their motive to unravel human history, to prevent humanity colonising space… we make the universe messy.

And they would have been unstoppable too so long as no one from Earth could make it onto the command ship and have the entire plot explained to them and then be left alone with the "off" switch... oh. These aliens are so dumb they don't even deserve to have nearly gotten away with it except for those meddling kids.

(Actually, I'm now regretting making that throw-away remark about "correcting" the events of "Torchwood", because the next biggest Dr Who cliché is of course the ancient and terrible thing from Gallifrey left behind by the Time Lords, because the Shakri are just begging to be renamed the Mother's Little Helpers of Rassilon.)

Given the brief "life with the Doctor from the Ponds' point of view"; given that this is the last adventure before their last adventure, couldn't we have had something more about what makes the Ponds so special to him, rather all the dialogue just saying they're "oh so special to him!"

Rory in particular is back to being badly served (a shame as one of the few good aspects of the dire Silurian two-parter from 2010 was that Chibnall handled Rory quite well).

Rory is exactly the guy you want to be stood next to when your heart gets stopped, because he can fix you... but he's been sent off to another part of the plot. (One which, for all its intriguing cube-mouthed orderlies, will just peter out and vanish).

But still – by an unbelievably massive coincidence – he's also the guy in exactly the right place to tell the Doctor where the portal to the alien ship can be found and... instead gets removed from that plot too and the Doctor just finds the portal anyway (and indeed rescues the now-unconscious Rory with a wave of his illicit smelling salts).

Amy doesn't fare much better, being all doe-eyed and "you're so wonderful, Doctor" a lot of the time – yes, yes, "I'm running towards you before you fade from me" is a lovely scene, and Matt acts it beautifully, but still – and of course she kills the Doctor stone dead with a defibrillator. Oh no wait, it's a magic defibrillator that doesn't work like any other defibrillator on Earth and can restart a heart that's stopped while not stopping one that's working properly. How clever is that!

(Seriously, folks: the clue is in the name – a de-fibrillator is used to normalise the pulse of a heart that is in fibrillation i.e. firing irregularly. If your heart has stopped you need CPR and pretty damn quickly too. It's quite bad that Amy doesn't know this, but when Nurse Rory suggest "mass defibrillation" as a response to all those people who've been cardiac arrested by the cubes... well, you wonder just how much professional training he's skipped while having larks in time and space.)

The fan-pleasing moments (Zygons under the Savoy aside) are, of course, the return of Mark Williams as Rory's dad Brian and the (re-)introduction of Kate Lethbridge-Stewart in the appropriate setting of UNIT's secret base under the Tower of London.

Or possibly an impressively-badly-done green screen of the Tower of London.

Kate is a lovely character. Not quite consistent with her single-mum appearance in the BBV story "Downtime" (aka the The Worldwide Web of Fear), but as a scientist leading the military, certainly a step on the way from the Brig's "action by havoc" UNIT to the "zen military" that the New Adventures repeatedly imply they evolve into. Played perfectly by Jemma Redgrave with a dry sense of humour that really did seem like she might have inherited it from the late, much-loved Nick Courtney, it would be nice if she was intended as a recurring character. If there's any truth in the rumour that Chibbers is being groomed as the next show runner (or at least is one of the possible candidates, along with Toby Whithouse and Mark Gatiss), then Kate may be "his River Snog".

But even if it's not Mr Chibnall setting out to create a recurring character (or Mr Moffat, for that matter – he too has form) I would like to see more of Kate Stewart and her UNIT bloodhounds. And her Ravens of Death.

It's sad that we're almost certainly not going to see Mr Brian "Pond" Williams again, as in just two appearances he's made himself the Wilf de nos jours. Grounded and dependable, occasionally the butt of the joke, but clear-sighted enough to cut through the Doctor's blether and speak it how it is.

I also rather like that he seemed to be able to stay awake for forty-eight hours solid watching the cubes while in the TARDIS. A property of the timelessness inside the time ship, or just "dad power"?

Brian, of course, is the one who first puts his finger on what's going on when he asks the Doctor about how companions leave.

That's the underlying sadness to this episode (which again is totally opposed to the "everybody lives" cop out of the conclusion). This is clearly playing out as a tragedy.

There's a wistfulness on the part of the Doctor: you can see that somehow he knows that this is his last time with the Ponds. He's already confessed to Amy in front of that green screen that he can tell they'll soon be going their separate ways. And from the moment of his conversation with Brian which is immediately followed by asking if he can stay with Amy and Rory, he does not want to leave them alone because – it seems – he is certain that the next time they part it will be forever. That's why he tries to wish them a hearty farewell at the end and, ironically, it's Brian himself who then urges them into the TARDIS for the fateful trip to New York that is coming.

Some people have taken this apparent foreknowledge to suggest that these first five episodes of season thirty-three are in the "wrong" chronological order, that, for example, the Doctor in "Asylum of the Daleks" is actually from after the events of "The Angels Take Manhattan".

I think that there is a possible case for the suggestion that "A Town Called Mercy" takes place within the seven weeks away during Amy and Rory's wedding anniversary party. (One episode inside another – how very "The Time Monster"!) A throwaway reference to King Henry VIII – Rory leaving his phone charger in the Tudor monarch's bed-chamber – takes on a different resonance when we see our heroes hiding in said chamber. Sloppy script editing or a sly tie-in? I prefer to give the benefit of the doubt in this case and accept that these are the same incident seen from two angles.

The case for "Asylum" being out of order is weaker. That the Daleks might kidnap Amy and Rory from earlier in their time stream is not impossible, collecting the 21st Century versions rather than the strictly contemporaneous back-to-the-20th Century Ponds, and thus "filling in" a gap in their lives that the Doctor had skipped over, namely Amy and Rory's temporary divorce – though I still cannot see how that fits with their characterisation in any other episode.

But otherwise... no, I think that these stories have to take place pretty much in broadcast order. Brian meets the Doctor for the first time in "Dinosaurs on a Spaceship" and the Doctor meets Brian for the first time in "Dinosaurs on a Spaceship"; it's not a tricky timey-wimey thing. They know each other in "The Power of Three" so those episodes must be in the right order. And, although it's not explicit, it would diminish the tragedy of Amy and Rory leaving on their final trip after Brian give them his blessing for them to pop back several more times. There's not really any coming back from "The Angels Take Manhattan".

So I think that the Doctor's behaviour is more a matter of being old enough and wise enough to see the cards on the table, perhaps with a dash of Eighth-Doctor prescience thrown in.

On the subject of relative time though, there is Amy's unexpected reference to having spent ten years of her (and Rory's) life with the Doctor on and off. Which seems like an awful lot of unseen adventures. Certainly the Moffat-era creators are far more willing to embrace the idea of lots of life being lived off-screen than almost any earlier era. The Troughton stories, for example, on occasion seem to take place all on the same afternoon, such is the tightness of continuity between episodes; while the UNIT era definitely appears to take place in "real time", despite disagreements about how far into the future said time is taking place.

It's possible that this explains Rory's "I'm thirty-one" remark in "Dinosaurs on a Spaceship", although not Brian's lack of incredulity, if Amy and Rory have been "doubling up" their time by having the Doctor return them to Earth "later that same day".

(And isn't that at least bending the Laws of Time? Oh well, there's no one left to spank him now. Except his wife!)

So what we have here is a mash-up between a series of character vignettes without a plot and a crude cartoon of old-style Doctor Who each getting in the way of the other.

(Was it just me, by the way, who thought that "Pond Life" was made from off-cuts from this episode? The fact that the first four "minisodes" are a minute each and that this under-runs by about four minutes? But it's not like "The Power of Three" needed more Ood-on-the-loo related fun, so why was Chibnall writing this instead of a much-needed explanation of what happed to the cube-faced porters or why they were kidnapping patients from Rory's hospital? And, whatever the reason for kidnapping them, the victims are definitely left behind to get exploded along with the Centauri cruiser Shakri spaceship. Which is a bit harsh.)

The character scenes are trying to tell us about death or separation being forever and that's directly contradicted by the Moffat-lite "everybody lives" invasion story. And lovely as Kate Stewart is – and she is lovely – she's still a bit of sleight of hand by a writer tossing some continuity red meat to the wolves of fandom to cover his lack of coherence.

Finally, if this was the power of three, why make such a fuss about the significance of seven? Seven minute countdown, seven portals, seven Shakri ships (which we never see). And why, like so much in this episode, does it not go anywhere?

It's not awful, but it is a mess. A sign of a writer, and a series perhaps, in transition, not yet either one thing or another.

Next Time... Angels 3... Doctor nil. Yes, it's time to "Blink" one last time, as River narrates her own flashbacks and the Ponds finally get permanently killed by living happily ever after to death. Prepare to be clubbed over the head with the meta-textuality of "The Angels Take Manhattan". Also, the Statue of Liberty... give me strength!

1 comment:

Dave Godfrey said...

My comment at the time, which I stand by, was that I couldn't help thinking that "Zygons under the Savoy" would have had a better plot than this one did. And I really hope Chibnall doesn't get the gig after Moffatt. Gatiss or Whitehouse would be very much more preferable.