I’ve long thought of 1981’s Warriors’ Gate as a story about doing nothing, a sort of satire on inactivity. In the early stages of The Power of Three, it appears that Chris Chibnall’s highly enjoyable story might cheekily go one better than that by setting up an apparent invasion of Earth with no real payoff.
The mysterious cubes found everywhere across the globe don’t do anything, their lack of a tangible threat or apparent purpose leading to the Doctor not knowing what to do about them and becoming frustrated at his inability to act as he normally does in response to an enemy. Thankfully, the opening scenes avoid dullness by milking the comedy of the Doctor’s predicament, as he drives Amy and Rory up the wall with his restlessness. After four days of observing some cubes without any changes, things come to the boil between him and his two friends:
Cue fast cutting between scenes –some speeded up – of the Doctor creosoting a garden wall, playing keepy-uppy with a football, mowing the Ponds’ lawn, trying to fix a car engine, and hoovering, infused with a manic zest by Matt Smith and director Douglas Mackinnon. God knows how the Doctor managed to survive all those years exiled to Earth – just as well he had Unit and all those alien invasions to contend with.
Unsurprisingly – as the cut and thrust world of modern, popular TV drama demands purposeful action – the idleness of the cubes doesn’t last for the whole episode. After one year – pleasingly, a whole year! – in Who time and about fifteen minutes in TV time, they begin to open, to display what appeared to be a countdown, to shoot laser beams at the Doctor and, worst of all, to play The Birdy Song non stop. Sinister porters appear at Rory’s hospital, with large, distorted, gaping mouths; very reminiscent of Fury from the Deep’s Oak and Quill.
I’m still not sure exactly why Rory and Brian are transported to the orbiting alien spaceship, or indeed why the enemy’s activities are focused around the hospital, but Steven Berkoff makes an all-too-brief but impressive guest appearance as one of the Shakri, intergalactic pest controllers who want to kill off humanity before we can start space-travelling en masse. The idea behind the Shakri, and their modus operandi of using the cubes to absorb electricity before discharging it to attack the human heart, is a neat one, but the peril they pose is dealt with rather too easily and they become just another villain of the week. Berkoff, his prosthetics making him look like the moon from Georges Méliès 1902 film A Trip to the Moon as played by Harry Enfield, imbues the bad guy Feargal Shakri with a credible alien aloofness and gravitas, but those who love their classic series aliens and monsters may feel cheated by the mention of another popular foe that doesn’t show its face – in this case, the Zygons.
Some may not be happy with the inclusion of tongue-in-cheek celebrity cameos so beloved by producer Steven Moffat’s predecessor, either; and on that point, do you really believe that Lord Sugar is a Doctor Who fan who has watched the show for over forty years? Is he a man or more of a Nimonite? Actually, I found the bearded capitalist reality show peer very convincing as himself; he didn’t appear as self-conscious as others have.
One of the most endearing aspects of this story was the introduction of Kate Stewart, daughter of the Doctor’s dear-departed friend Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart. Having a scientist take charge of UNIT is a smart move; the last few incumbents in the ‘Brigadier-role’ have been decidedly charisma-free, and maybe it just isn’t possible to strike gold twice by finding another militaristic character as loveable as the pompous old Brig or an actor as suited to the role as Nicholas Courtney. Jemma Redgrave is instantly likeable as Kate, forming a strong, immediate connection with the Doctor, and here’s hoping she makes a return soon.
Another loveable character, this one making a quick return, is Rory’s dad Brian, played to perfection by Mark Williams. He has all the comedic pathos and twinkly, down to earth charm of Bernard Cribbins’ Wilf Mott, and he has the right emotional register for the final scene too. Refusing the Doctor’s offer to join Amy and Rory in the TARDIS, he says, ‘Somebody’s got to water the plants,’ before warning the Time Lord, ‘Just bring them back safe.’ This, along with the Doctor’s admission to Brian that some of his previous travelling companions have died, appears to be setting us up for an ominous conclusion to the Pond’s story, though it’s hard to tell whether Amy’s past tense narration at the beginning and end is a red herring or a clue to her and Rory’s eventual fates.
For Amy and Rory, the year of the slow invasion mostly involves them getting on with their lives with sporadic visits from the Doctor, and realising that they quite enjoy normality after all those adventures in time and space. Although they happily leave with him at the end, we know that something’s got to give in this threesome. Even if you don’t care much for the Ponds, you might still have been moved by the night scene featuring the Doctor and Amy discussing their relationship and their travels together. ‘I’m running to you and Rory before you fade from me.’ And hands up who hadn’t already guessed what the story’s title referred to? It has become clear over the last few stories, once you look beneath the grand movie-style presentation, that this mini-season’s underlying theme involves the Ponds and the loosening of their ties with the Doctor.
As a plot about an alien threat, The Power of Three may leave a lot to be desired. For many viewers, it has the same flaws as some similar stories had in the Russell T Davies era – the menace too easily and quickly dispatched, and nudged out of the way in favour of an emotional emphasis on the relationship between the Doctor and his friends. However, it rightly takes time to make us care about what’s going to happen in next week’s far too premature season conclusion, and whether or not you’re a fan who thinks the Doctor and the Ponds are The Three Who Rule, something special appears to be in the offing.