Variety is the spice of life, and as a programme, there is more room for variety in Doctor Who than there is in any other show, period. Steven Moffat’s “Pond Farewell” mini-series is currently proving just how much variety is possible, in spite of the potential for repetition in Moffat’s claim that we might expect five mini-movies of the week. The Dalek episode was cold and dark and centred around an impossible premise, and last week’s western was beautiful and thoughtful and serene. Chris Chibnall’s Dinosaurs on a Spaceship was a riot, probably the funnest episode of the series since, well, ever, and this latest episode is the most unusual and distinct of the lot.
But Doctor Who fans tend to be a little conservative in their appreciation of the spiciness of life, and The Power of Three seems resolved to continue in the tradition of opinion-polarising stories like Love & Monsters, The Lodger and Let’s Kill Hitler. It’s unlikely to win any season polls, and I can imagine the reaction to it will be largely comprised of old school fans screaming WTF? at anyone who will listen. That will be a huge shame, because in spite of the fact that The Power of Three treads an unusual path (neither excessively comedic nor overly obsessed with the mystery at its heart), it manages to sustain a level of quality throughout its running time and along the way, Chibnall’s script runs with the logic of his premise and finds its causes and effects rather wonderfully.
Initially, the episode looks set to share a space with Gareth Roberts’ two eleventh Doctor stories, The Lodger and Closing Time, in that The Power of Three begins for all the world like a ‘the Doctor comes to stay’ story, the expected focus being on the domestic disruption that occurs when this fish-out-of-water becomes something of a fixture. Indeed Pond Life, the short series of online shorts that preceded transmission of Series 7a, works in a far better context now that we’ve seen this episode than it did at the time, the tone and inspiration of those mini-films echoing this episode rather more closely than it did Asylum of the Daleks, the story those miniature episodes prefigured. Just as Pond Life began in one place before quickly becoming something else, The Power of Three eschews its similarities with the Gareth Roberts stories (in which the Doctor and Craig were the focus, and the sci-fi trappings were relegated very much into the background) and divides its time just as effectively between the mystery of the cubes and Palazzo Pond. ‘The year of the slow invasion’ and ‘The year the Doctor came to stay’ would both be highly apt taglines for the episode, and neither plot suffers for the time spent with the other. It’s a perfect dovetailing of two stories, and the writing and direction never overemphasises one at the expense of the other; it’s a beautifully written and directed and very rounded piece of television. In fact, at times it feels like Doctor Who cubed, or Doctor Who to the power of three, in that Chibnall seems to have found a new way of ‘telling’ Doctor Who.
Douglas Mackinnon has the distinction of being the only director to have worked with both Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat on their independent material (The Grand, Jekyll) and their Doctor Who stories, and if Moffat has chosen almost entirely new directors since taking over from Davies, in order to stamp his own visual identity on the series, then it’s telling that Mackinnon is only the second of Davies’ directors he has invited to return (Richard Clark being the first). The last three episodes might have looked amazing and moved beautifully, but The Power of Three raises the game once again, with the pacing of the episode very deliberately pitched, making the unravelling of the mystery a mesmerising experience. There are some astonishing choices in the camerawork (and it’s a dazzling, diverse and confident bag of tricks that Mackinnon brings to the table) that are equalled only by the performances on display, and other than the occasional moment of overacting from Matt Smith (he does love to “Doctor” up his Doctor), this feels like one of the most rounded episodes in a long time, for all sorts of reasons. I can’t wait for Mackinnon to return, and if, as rumoured, he’s to return next year – in a story that it’s suggested will see the return of another classic series monster – then I couldn’t be happier.
Most impressive, though, is the fact that for the second occasion in a row, Chibnall has been given the usual ‘shopping list’ of elements by his showrunner (dinosaurs, on a spaceship!; cubes, the Doctor comes to stay – at least, I expect the cube element was in the shopping list, it might have been of Chibnall’s own invention), and has sat down and come up with a logical and plausible explanation for them. That the resolution of all of this is an automated technology running amok is so very Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who, but that ain’t necessarily a failing. In this instance, it’s the journey we take in order to reach a foregone conclusion that makes that conclusion appear less forgoing, and if the story’s conclusion is perhaps just a touch disappointing, then it’s only because the ride was more important than the destination (a failing that even the greatest classics in the series’ back catalogue have had to endure). Having said that, the appearance of Steven Berkoff in the space-set scenes (looking so very like something out of the Star Wars universe; but then, that’s Moffat’s Doctor Who all over) more than makes up for any disappointment we might feel when we get there, and the idea of cosmic rat-catchers is actually quite powerful and consistent in a way that almost makes a virtue of what might otherwise be an anticlimax. Something so mundane as the explanation for all the mystery somehow seems perfectly in keeping, even more so because the idea of the cubes seems to stem naturally out of the Shakri rather than the other way around.
Berkoff himself gives a fantastic performance, all glazed and staring eyes and quiet, calm menace. There’s something fantastically disturbing about his presence on the screen.
But what The Power of Three really emphasises is the Doctor. It goes beyond the comedy shenanigans of the Craig Owens stories, to really get to the heart of how the Time Lord might react if he was forced into the kind of domestic arrangement that even the third Doctor might have baulked at. There is humour to be gained from such a situation (and the early part of the episode allows this to come to the fore), but the extraordinary thing is that Chibnall’s script moves easily beyond this and actually answers some of the questions that even we as viewers probably never thought would be addressed: the Doctor’s justification for his travels is not only credible, but the “flare and fade” comparison is almost poetic, and the scene in which this exchange takes place is both heart-warming and guaranteed to raise the hairs on the back of your neck. And if the ‘importance’ of Amy as a character is something that fans have debated endlessly over the last two-and-a-half years, a single sentence uttered by the Doctor gives the simplest and most coherent possible answer to the puzzle. Astonishing, and yet totally apt.
Then there’s the final scene. It for all the world looks as if it’s going to play as a repeat of the kind of warning that Jackie Tyler would once have given the ninth or tenth Doctors, but when Chibnall turns it on its head and Brian encourages Amy and Rory to go off and save worlds, it feels natural and right and beautifully optimistic. No doubt this particular scene will result in a nasty sting in the tail next week.
Speaking of which, what a brave move to introduce Jemma Redgrave as Kate Stewart. Many people will consider the Lethbridge-Stewart legacy to be something the programme shouldn’t address, but both the character of Kate and the actress playing her have done a great service to Nick Courtney’s Brigadier, distilling the best of the old soldier and carrying the legend on for another generation. There’s a calm and a softness in Redgrave’s performance that reflects the twinkle that was so often in her screen father’s eye, and her reveal in the episode felt pertinent in the same way as the scene in The Wedding of River Song when we heard of Alistair’s death. Let’s hope Redgrave returns and the character becomes another of the recurring presences in Moffat’s Doctor Whoniverse; it’s as much as she deserves and the interpretation of UNIT benefits from her company.
Mark Williams is again superb as Brian. The subtlety that Williams brings to the character, even when playing some quite broad comedy, allows for a credible take on the parent-figure that even Russell T Davies’ Doctor Who didn’t often achieve. That Chris Chibnall’s stories seem almost like an amalgamation of the two modern showrunners’ approaches feels quite fitting and right; it’s almost as if Chibnall has distilled the best of the current show and somehow managed to get it down on paper. There’s something of a ‘Greatest Hits’ of Doctor Who about The Power of Three, a feeling that is only emphasised by the multitude of references back to past stories. It’s not an approach that will appeal to everyone, but to this reviewer at least, the writer’s last two stories have been an utter joy.
In fact, as regular readers will be aware, after the blip that was Series Five, I’ve been enjoying Steven Moffat’s series as much as I have any Doctor Who since the glorious mid-1970s, and it feels at times almost as if Moffat is channelling the ghosts of Robert Holmes and even Douglas Adams, creating a series that plays fast and loose with continuity and credibility, but that dazzles, thrills and entertains to excess. There’s a wealth of ideas and even romance about the current incarnation of the show, and if Moffat also manages to throw the occasional curveball into the arena, and never less than entirely satisfactorarily so, then that is just one more example of the confidence and vitality that the present manifestation of the series possesses. These are dizzying, invigorating times for Doctor Who, and The Power of Three is as glorious an example as any of just how assured and energised it currently is.
The ‘fans’ are going to hate it. It was bloody wonderful.