Wednesday, 17 October 2012

The Proverbial Good Chris Chibnall Episode

Doctor Who
The Power Of Three
Series Seven, Episode Four

When it comes to not liking an episode, or a film, or a breakfast cereal, it’s not as if I sit with my arms crossed and decide it will be rubbish before I actually know.  I judge every episode (or book, or bowl of fruit) on its own merits, and it so happens that everything I’ve seen with “By Chris Chibnall” on it has been various shades of rubbish.

Above: Not By Chris Chibnall
If nothing else, he’s consistent: uninspired plots, flat characters, and an all-consuming predilection for cliché.  Whether it’s Doctor Who, Torchwood, Law & Order UK or Life On Mars, his scripts are usually the least imaginative, and the most likely to induce groans.  His most recent effort, Dinosaurs On A Spaceship, suffered from an all-over-the-placeness that made a welcome break from going over a previous episode with some tracing paper, but it was still less an improvement than just a new kind of problem.

Then along comes The Power Of Three.  And it’s good.  Not good like Dinosaurs On A Spaceship – which was neither noxious nor particularly noteworthy – but a genuine, Would Watch Again highlight.  No, really.  No, really.  It’s got funny bits, well-judged emotional bits, and bits that make good use of the characters.  It’s a warm, sweet, nifty little episode for the most part, and… look, are we absolutely sure it’s him?

The Power Of Three mostly forgoes obvious or famous monsters (apart from a hilarious garnish of Zygons), focussing on a brilliantly obscure menace: tiny black boxes that just sit there.  All the ensuing world invasion stuff (with news coverage and celeb cameos) is very Russell T Davies, but we see that so seldom nowadays it’s actually kind of novel, especially with Matt Smith in it.  Also, those inane little boxes are a neat way to turn it on its head, as is the timeframe.  It takes place over a year, a fact that irritates the Doctor no end.

I love this.  It’s great to be shown how life with the Doctor varies from the norm, and there’s nothing like a practical demonstration.  Having him dip in and out of proceedings, and whisk Amy and Rory off on a seven-week adventure and back again without interrupting the party they’re throwing, heightens the contrast between Amy and Rory’s two lives, and reminds us what the episode is really about: their growing commitment to the “real” one.

Okay, so in an ideal world there’d be no reason to leave the Doctor, and they’ve apparently been juggling things well enough for ten years now.  But the idea that it’s time to go lends an arc to Amy’s (and by tenuous extension, Rory’s) time on the show.  The Doctor has been presented as her imaginary friend, so it’s time for her to grow up.  Makes sense to me.  (As for Rory, it’s hard to say.  His involvement has always been pretty much go-where-Amy-goes, so his decision to leave is as solid now as it ever was.  And unfortunately, in his second-to-last episode, he has as little to do as ever.  He’s a really good nurse!  He’s on the spaceship!  Now he’s not!  Rory, we hardly knew ye.)

Funny Caption Not Found.
It's too good.
The Doctor sees it coming, of course, so he wants to make the most of them.  This is very well handled.  From the Doctor’s pained, adorable delivery of “I… miss you,” to Amy’s equally agonised admission that there were years when she couldn’t live without him, their scenes together are some of the best they’ve had in ages, not just knocked out of the park by Smith and Gillan, though they are, but really well articulated in the script.  The Doctor’s “I’m going to you” speech reminded me of a similarly showy, much more pointless one in Night Terrors.  This time though, it’s pertinent and it’s poignant.  Bravo.

So, it’s a great episode for the cast, an all-round red letter day for Chris Chibnall, and the story’s small but neatly-formed.  Except it doesn’t stay that way.  Sooner or later you’ve got to explain what the boxes actually do, and the moment The Power Of Three hedges its bets, it all falls apart.

It’s as if two episodes are competing for space.  There’s the small peripheral threat that keeps the Doctor popping in and out of events, bringing all that juicy Doctor/Amy stuff to the fore, and the Russell T Daviesesque Earth Invasion episode.  The former works beautifully.  The latter comes with all the bells and whistles, like a portentous villain whose motives aren’t clear, cool-looking monsters (those scary male nurses) that don’t need to be there, several random ideas (the lil' girl droid) stuffed in there just because, and enormous mounds of stupidity in resolving it all.  And of course, the really disappointing purpose of the boxes: a way of killing all humans.  Oh, really, again?  And they do it by stopping our hearts.  That’s it?  That’s the best you could come up with?

There’s no point going on about it, so just briefly: if that’s all they do, why did it take a year?  What about all the other random stuff they do – why any of that?  Why’s it so important that we’re total magpies and can’t resist taking them home, why did it take the Doctor so long to realise that’s clearly a bad idea, why bother since we see one teleported straight into Amy and Rory’s bedroom, and what the hell’s so appealing about a box?

They're like giant man-made rat droppings!  I want one!
Before you know it the small character-piece is going at full gallop, and a third of the population’s dead.  A third!  And after a bit of Doctorly heart-restarting, which veers awfully close to The Shakespeare Code and sounds like it was written for that other guy, he brings everybody back with a wave of the (urgh) sonic screwdriver.  Meh.  You don’t feel any great loss in the first place, and neither do the characters, so it’s no skin off my nose when it turns out everybody lived.  Why do the worldwide catastrophe thing if you’re going to be so offhand about it?

There's nothing wrong with plots that are small-but-sweet; in fact the more concise they are, the better.  Look at The Eleventh Hour and Amy's Choice.  Big character stories, just-right-sized plots.  The Power Of Three should have followed suit and tightened the story to fit.  Less epic, more quirky.

As it happens, the episode’s last-ditch attempt at Rusty’s Greatest Hits doesn’t derail it completely.  (And nor does the bizarre last-minute attempt to explain the title.  "Cubed"?  What a stupid, irrelevant coincidence.)  The good stuff, the funny, warm, character-developing stuff is gold.  And there’s more: we’re lucky to get more of Mark Williams pottering around as Rory’s adorable dad.  He offers some great ideas on what the boxes might be (most of them more interesting than the truth), and even grills the Doctor on the fate of his companions.  (The ease with which he rattles the Doctor here is somehow consistent with the character's innate cuddliness a sheer credit to Williams.)  Also, although it’s probably a nerdy enough reference to leave some out in the cold, Jemma Redgrave makes such a graceful go of the Brigadier’s daughter that I was glad to meet her.

The Power Of Three scratches an Amy/Rory itch I’ve had for a while, and for the bits that focus on that, it’s one of my favourites.  As for the rest... well, the plot was always going to be windowdressing around the episode's actual point, so annoying as all this is, and unfortunate that they couldn't get this bit right, it doesn't really matter that much.  There are plot episodes, there are character episodes, and there are episodes that can't be bothered with either.  At least this is the best of one world.


  1. I really liked it I think mainly because the ridiculousness of the motive and murder was entirely bypassed due to my watching it whilst working. So all the bits I watched and enjoyed were fantastic and revolved on the Trillions (the novel) stuff rather than the killing a third of the world and egghead alien gabble.

  2. That girl droid thing was totally pointless as was Rory finding his way on to the spaceship first only to do absolutely nothing. That may have been the only bits of the episode I watched though.