my subconscious is nothing if not satirical

TV  The other night as I slept, and as is so often the case during a run of Doctor Whos, my subconscious provided a special exclusive preview of the upcoming episode based on the scraps of information I’d seen up until that point, which wasn’t much given my finely tuned spoiler avoiding abilities. In the version of The Power of Three that broke through the Amsterdam red light district which usually constitutes my dream state, the boxes were revealed to be the work of a Time War avoiding Rani, Kate O’Mara reprising her role for some mournful scenes in which she commented on how young her nemesis has become leading to a suicide induced regeneration into I know not because I woke up, but let’s presume Gina Bellman or Laura Pulver. Given the writer of tonight’s episode’s famous televisual run in with the Rani’s creators, my subconscious is nothing if not satirical. How I chuckled to myself as my daily routine began, listening the 7am news headlines on the Today programme, thinking that they’d never do something like that.

A few days later and they have.  Meet Kate (Lethbridge) Stewart.  Truth be told I was so wrapped up in Chris Chibnall’s best script for the franchise (and that Chibnall was capable of writing a script this good) to notice the reference other than to wonder out loud when Alistair even had time for children.  But come the close of the episode I was reminded by the TARDIS Index File that in the 60s “the Brigadier met and married Fiona. Fiona and he had one child, conceived after the "London Event", whom they named Kate.” In other words, just after The Web of Fear when The Brigadier was still a colonel. It’s all here in the relationship section. Go look. Such information was established in Downtime, Realtime Pictures VHS Whogasm of the 1990s in which the Brig, Sarah Jane and Victoria do battle with Great Intelligence along with Kate Lethbridge-Stewart, who would later reappear in Daemos Rising. When I read all of that, reader I screamed.

I’ve seen Downtime, of course I have. Daemos Rising too, but I didn’t make the connection. Partly it’s because of the change in casting, Beverley Cressman replaced by Gemma Redgrave in the first historic appearance from the Redgrave/Richardson dynasty and yet it’s her. Even the back story, what there is of it checks out. This is huge. NuWho’s replete with knowing references to the wilderness years, the ongoing storm and kronk burgers mostly, but this is a character from back then walking around, talking, being funny, on a Saturday night. It’s the present show experimentally plunging its hand in time and grabbing what was once fanon and replacing the f with a c, nuWho equivalent of putting Nyota Uhura on the credits to nuTrek. Did Gemma know? I like to picture her doing some research watching Downtime and wondering whether Kate’s son Gordon’ll be putting in an appearance.

Of course to the not we and probably some of the we, and certainly this we during the episode it was just a lovely reference, so remarkably well chosen, it's own power of three as this Kate embodies the Brigadier in her charge of the military, the Doctor as the scientific advisor and Liz Shaw with her intelligence, dry wit and chemistry with the Time Lord. Originally played by an actress called Beverley Cressman in the original stories, Gemma Redgrave also looks physically similar, I think, chronologically the correct age too, which somehow makes this bit of continuity all the more spectacular. Let’s hope this is the start of a new legacy and a new returning character, it certainly feels that way, and all the better because she doesn’t seem to have an agenda, she’s just a friend for the Doctor, someone to help him back on Earth going forward, a more permanent link to UNIT.

But this is an episode which is confident about the show’s mythology, entirely blasé about dropping squee encouraging references to Gallifrey and Zygons, also coming to terms with its own recent history by offering what amounts to a love letter to the Russell T Davies era with its celebrity cameos, family members on contemporary earth, UNIT HQ under the Tower of London and international newscasters announcing impending doom, though with Sophie Raworth stepping in for Trinity Wells (and there’s a sentence I didn’t think I’d ever type). It’s also an element of Doctor Who that it can lurch from one week looking a little bit lost, not quite sure what it’s supposed to be for to entirely at the top of its powers the next, entertaining us just as it always has. I think we can all imagine Russell chortling his way through this, oh so tempted to email Ben and Steven with some script pages he’s thrown together at 3am.

It’s also one of those moments when the franchise takes a breath and reaffirms its core tropes, alien invasions, companions, the implications of time travel and the Doctor and in subtle ways underscores that no matter how many elements change some do stay the same, “trad” when it wants to be, “experimental” when it needs to. However often we vote the likes of Androzani and Blink to the top of appreciation lists, secretly we’re more likely to stick Terror of the Autons or Resurrection of the Daleks on for comfort Who and why such stories tend be chosen to introduce a new incarnation (Spearhead from Space, Robot, Rose) or reboot them (Attack of the Cybermen, Remembrance of the Daleks). Arguably Dinosaurs on a Spaceship attempted something similar for the base under siege story, but there was too much unruly narrative interference for that to truly work as is often the case in bases under seige.

The cubes are classic Davies territory too actually, like the Atmos and Adipose slimming plan taking an object that might otherwise seem perfectly innocuous and turning it deadly by extemporising its core thematic element. What are these Shakri cubes but Apple products taking to their horrific conclusion, their sleek black surfaces revealing a range of apps that aren’t useful in and of themselves but testing us, testing our reactions. True, there’s a slight Arthur C Clarke element to them, but whereas the monoliths were engaged in controlling our development Silence-style, these are all about removing our infestation of the planet a third at a time, a nod to the blood connection in The Christmas Invasion. Imagine if you happened coincidentally in your life happen to be in the A+ blood group and standing next to a cube at the literally heart stopping moments. Sucks to live in the Whoniverse.

Also for the third week running we’re faced with a maniacal villain, this time in the shape of Steven Berkoff doing an impression of a dying Anakin Skywalker in Return of the Jedi when he was still played by Sebastian Shaw. Berkoff’s strangely muted as Professor Shanks though he still retains his thousand mile stare, the deep reservoir of mock hatred which you just know he also drags out when a waiter misunderstands his drink order at Stringfellows (or wherever these actors drink now) (I’m really out of touch). The Shakri are a surprise. Unlike Kate they feel like some ancient piece of Who lore but the TARDIS Index File has nothing (or at least it didn’t when I began writing all this which was so long ago now the editors have slipped in put up the inevitable entry), this is brand new Gallifreyan mythology, ready to be whispered to the time tots living just on the edges of The Deadly Assassin.

The most unique element of the episode, at least in television terms is the temporal duration of events. With the exception of Turn Left, I can’t think of another Doctor Who story in which the POV of the characters stretches quite this long, well over a year and even longer if you include the Doctor’s TARDIS jaunts. Building on Pond Life, Chibnall underscores just how different the relationship between the Eleventh Doctor and these companions is, though it was established in the Eighth Doctor novels that he left his companion Sam at a Greenpeace Festival for three years before coming back for her with many adventures and other friends in between. Unlike most other companions for whom home becomes just another way station, Amy and Rory are there to be picked up for adventures and japes before being dropped off again in their “normal” lives.

It’s rare that the effects that has on their aging process has been much considered. Neither seems to be much older, yet we’re told that they’ve been travelling with the Doctor for ten years, or at least for them it's ten years since Leadworth. Does that mean they’re now physically ten years older themselves or has the TARDIS kept them young? Did I miss a line about how their friends are noticing them getting older? It’s mildly confusing but in a good way and depending what happens next week, show some companions naturally leaving the Doctor, growing up, there’s a metaphor for childhood here, I’m sure, not least with the Looking Glass reference. But the return of voiceover Amy, last heard in The Beast Below, her second episode must be significant too. As we also know from the Davies era, when a companion’s talking to us, grimness is sure to follow, with words not said and crying on beaches and not in the Bette Midler sense.

As is so often the case, Amy carries the emotional weight in this episode and Rory stumbles into trouble. But the clear winner is Mark Williams as Brian Williams another in a line of family members left behind, loyal, dependable, and like Wilfred Mott, heartbreaking (“You’ve been in here for four days?” “Someone needs to water the plants?” etc). We might ask where Augustus and Tabatha Pond stand on all this, especially since they’re not at the wedding anniversary. Having returned them to the universe it seems cruel and unusual that they should be forgotten. But Brian wasn’t apparently at the wedding so perhaps they’re not on speaking terms. Families can be like that especially when there’s a potential class or geographical divide. For some reason I imagine them falling out one Christmas evening during the engagement over a game of Trivial Pursuit and Professor X not having been created by Perry Station (a legendary error in the first edition).

No wonder the Doctor wants to hang out, that he can’t quit them. After all the lurches into darkness in recent weeks (THE DOCTOR DOES NOT USE GUNS) (yes, alright unless he does), he’s in surprisingly buoyant mood and although you could argue that him time tripping in the middle is like a surgeon sodding off for a game of Angry Birds in the middle of a particularly baffling operation, it’s the first time in weeks we’ve met the Eleventh Doctor from earlier seasons, funny, extemporaneous and without a shred of moral ambiguity short of some selfishness in wanting to keep in touch with his friends even though it may be bad for them. This shows in Matt’s performance. He knows how to play this Doctor, the friend to children, singular in purpose, frustrated when the answer doesn’t immediately present itself. Fish fingers and custard. Fish fingers and custard.

But this is no retread of The Lodger.  This is a Doctor more engaged with the human world, even to the point of playing Wii games and staining fences. Partly the writer's helped structurally, those earlier episodes were character pieces, whereas this is much more plot based, but it’s also because his character's more comfortable in the Pond's company. They know him and to an extent he doesn’t need to show off, even if he can’t help himself sometimes. That’s when you know you have really good friends. You can just be yourself and you know you’re not being judged or they know you well enough that when you aren’t being yourself there’s a reason for that too. Though we await the moment when Amy bothers to ask him why the main credits are visibly getting murkier or the in-verse reasons for it.

All of this is shot with a suitably cinematic eye by Douglas Mackinnon, a directing callback to the Davies era, his previous work for the series having been Sontaran story from series four. From the opening moments the camera drifts up the brickwork of the Pond’s house, makes corridors seems far longer than they should be and shoots the world from the boxes point of view, imbuing them with a presence for the viewer mirroring their creeping into human society and arguably in a more seamless way than the ghosts that turned out to be Cybermen back in the mid-noughties (and now you feel old). Amid the lavish sets and trips abroad of the episodes around it, The Power of Three could have been the poorer, cheaper cousin but not a bit of it. Indeed with its shifts through time, teasing stories elsewhere, in its own way it’s even more visually complex.

Arguably the weakest element of the episode is the conclusion of the A-plot, like some episodes from the Davies era never quite living up to the preceding half hour and too easily repaired by the Doctor’s magic wand and the bizarre notion of starting a few billion hearts well after their owners have keeled over. At least in The Christmas Invasion when the Doctor pressed the big red button, there's sword fighting and a satsuma to come. Here we have an explosion, which oddly looks like its killed the humans captured by the Shakri, unless we’re expected to assume they’re already dead. Unless The Power of Three’s an even cleverer script and the A-plot is really the companion’s choice, everything else part of the methodology, with their dive back into the vortex and many spin-off adventures still to be written and like The Eleventh Hour, the show’s commenting on its own anticlimactic nature.

No matter. From unlikeliest of sources, The Power of Three more than makes up for the missteps of recent weeks and increases my excitement for next week’s New York story. As I said earlier, one of the reasons I love this franchise is that you can have a couple of episodes you haven’t enjoyed and yet know that somewhere along the line it’ll snap back into focus and be the show you hope it always can be. But as to how the Ponds will leave, we simply don’t know, and the trailer offers few clues. Perhaps Rory’ll be zapped by an Angel. Perhaps Amy, who’ll become the girl who waited again. Perhaps it’ll be the Doctor and we’ll have a couple of him taking the slow way through the 20th along with Captain Jack. Did anyone else wonder what Torchwood made of the little boxes? Or Sarah Jane and gang? If tonight’s episode was a reminder of anything, it’s that it’s all connected.

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