Saturday, September 22, 2012

The Power of Three: That's The Magic Number

'Ce qui dans la boîte?'
'Life with The Doctor was like this!' Many long-running TV dramas have attempted a witty little narrative trick in which the viewers' collective perception of events is shifted, for an episode at least, from an essentially neutral internal viewpoint to a specific external one. In other words, we'll get an episode now and again in which we see the regular character not through our own eyes (or, indeed, theirs) but through that of a third party. The X Files played with this form several times, and magnificently, in a series of Darin Morgan episodes (Humbug, Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose and Jose Chung's "From Outer Space") which conspired to make the character of Fox Mulder - deadly serious in the hands of most other writers - appear as a po-faced raving nutter tilting at windmills. Buffy The Vampire Slayer flirted with the technique too, most notably during The Initiative story arc in its fourth series. It's an experiment which, even if only for a week, toys with the audience's collective tolerance for an absence of fixed signifiers. Doctor Who, by contrast, uses such a conceit on a fairly regular basis - usually when introducing new companions, although the neutral narrative is never far away once an Amy or a Rose or a Sarah Jane has been settled into the TARDIS with all of the mind-bending malarkey that this entails. What's more unusual is to do an entire episode in which The Doctor is shown as an - occasionally unwelcome - intruder into people's lives. Which, when you think about it, is certainly one way of looking at what he does. Here is this weird chap with a bow-tie (which, admittedly, are cool) who blunders around the universe like an, ahem, Oncoming Storm, dropping out of the sky one day to, literally, tear down your world. Bad enough if you're The Daleks but potentially catastrophic if you're a young, newly married couple just on the property ladder and trying to get on with a life and a pair of careers. Like chucking a rock into ... well, into a Pond or two, if you will. The ripples caused by this, if you're not careful, can capsize ships and big ships.
'"Remotely" isn't my style!' The Power Of Three starts off with a genuinely fascinating series of snapshots highlighting the central juxtaposition which had always set Doctor Who apart from many, ostensibly similar conceits - a grand space opera with a monster fixation which, at the same time, occupies a place in a beautifully John Wyndhamesque Little England. It's Jon Pertwee's famous line about there being 'nothing more scary than coming home and finding a Yeti on your loo in Tooting Bec.' Amy's voice-over contrasts the (usual) domestic tranquillity of the Ponds' home life with the excitement, danger and fun of the Ponds' travels with The Doctor. 'We have two lives,' notes Rory, simply, and by way of explanation. 'Real life and Doctor life.' Sooner or later, they both realise, they're going to have to choose between them. And, on that bombshell we move into 'The Year of the Slow Invasion' which was, also, 'the time when The Doctor came to stay.' It starts with a wonderful Matt Smith line, the first of many provided by Chris Chibnall's genuinely witty script. 'Invasion of the very small cubes. That's new!' It's a very clever central idea, actually. One morning everybody wakes up to find there are millions of little black boxes in the road. No one knows where they came from or how they got there but, since they don't seem to actually do anything, there's no shortage of theories as to what they're all about. Brian Cox, sensible chap that he is, admits that he's baffled. Sophie Raworth on BBC News suggests there is speculation that they're part of a bizarre marketing campaign the nature of which simply hasn't been made clear yet. Alan Sugar-Sweetie and his Apprentice cohorts gets in on the act. It's left, perhaps inevitably, to Rory's dad (Mark Williams putting in his second great performance of the season) to come up with a list of plausible alien suggestions. But, The Doctor is as baffled as yer actual Foxy Coxy and, after four days a sitting around in Amy and Rory's gaff waiting for them to do something, he's so bored that he's reduced to hoovering. And going into the garden and doing five million keepy-ups. Yer actual Keith Telly Topping once managed thirteen, dear blog reader. True story. Rory notes that The Doctor isn't practicing what he has so often preached since he said it would take patience to discover what the cubes were up to. 'Patience is for wimps' exploded The Doctor. So, he proposes a short trip around the galaxy and back in time for breakfast. He's surprised when Amy and Rory seem reluctant. 'What you do isn't all there is,' Rory tells him. 'Look at you now, all grown up,' The Doctor says to Amy a little later. And so, he goes off on his own. For Amy and Rory, shockingly, it's almost a relief. They start to get on with relatively normal things like agreeing to go to a friend's wedding and, in Rory's case, going back full time into nursing ('did real life just get started?') and a few months pass before The Doctor shows up again, right in the middle of a barbecue to whisk them off for a quick trip (that turns into a seven week trip) and have them back before anyone notices they're gone. Except Rory's very perceptive dad, of course. And then we get one of, quite possibly, the greatest scenes in Doctor Who history. 'What happened to the other people who travelled with you?' asks Brian as he and The Doctor look at Amy and Rory enjoying themselves with their friends. 'Some left me. Some got left behind. And some - not many, but some - died. Not them. Never them.' It's beautifully played between Smudger and Mark Williams, a tender, touching, knowing statement of understanding and mutual respect. And that's just one of numerous great moments in this really very good episode. Structurally, it's a bit all over the place but its heart (or, indeed, hearts) is/are in the right place(s).
Before that, we've already had the cute little diversion of The Doctor, Amy and Rory's whirlwind trip to Paris (and the court of Henry VIII). We've had references to The Zygons, K9 ('Is that all you can do, hover? I had a metal dog that could do that!') and, marvellously, fish fingers and custard (and The Doctor's claim that he invented Yorkshire Pudding). We've witnessed another (two) gorgeous Doctor and Amy scenes of empathy, depth and humour ('we think it's been ten years. Not for you or for Earth, but for us. Ten years of you, on-and-off') and some great dialogue. Like: 'What do you think we do when we're not with you?' 'I imagine, mostly, kissing!' And, the arrival of U.N.I.T: 'There are soldiers all over my house and I'm in my pants.' 'My whole life, I've dreamed of saying that and I've missed out by being someone else!' Yes, this is one of Chibnall's funny ones, just in case you were wondering. U.N.I.T, last seen in 2009's Planet of the Dead are, of course, a part of Doctor Who going all the way back to 1968 and The Invasion. A link made even stronger and more explicit by having Jemma Redgrave's Liz Shaw-like Head of Scientific Research actually be the Brigadier's daughter, Kate Stewart (therefore, presumably, Doris is her mother). It's a nice little bit of continuity which will have meant nothing to the show's legion of younger viewers but, for a few old guys with bellies and beards like this blogger, it was a welcome addition. 'Who has an underground base? Terrible ventilation.'
'If Fred Perry could see me now ... he'd probably ask for his shorts back!' So, what else have we got in a story about the hidden menace of pest control? References to Artron Energy (first alluded to in The Deadly Assassin, thirty six years ago, last mentioned in The Doctor's Wife just last year - another example of this show's ability to please fans old and new at the same time), street artist Bansky and a portal to another dimension in a hospital goods lift. There's a scary child with glowing eyes and some nefarious military-related goings-on at The Tower of London. 'I've got officers trained in beheading. Also, ravens of death!'
'The tally must be counted.' We've also got a rather chilling little cameo by Steven Berkoff as the episode's main villain, a kind of intergalactic holographic vermin control officer (whose existence The Doctor believed to be a bedtime story told as a warning to infant Time Lords). There's, in the second Amy and Doctor heart-to-heart, another part of the on-going process of pointing towards Amy and Rory's forthcoming departure as The Doctor gets a moment of logical introspection: 'This is one corner of one country, in one continent, on one planet that's in the corner of a galaxy, that's in the corner of a universe that is forever growing, and shrinking, and creating and destroying and never remaining the same for a single millisecond. And there is so much to see, Amy. Because it goes so fast. I'm not running away from things, I'm running to them. Before they flare, and fade forever. It's all right. Our lives won't run the same. They can't. One day, soon maybe, you'll stop. I've known for a while.' Then why do you keep coming back for us asks Amy, not unreasonably. 'Because you were the first. The first face this face saw. You're sealed onto my hearts, Amelia Pond. You always will be. I'm running to you and Rory before you fade from me.' There follows a quick little essay on their being, like the man once said, many ways to get what you want, some instant heart attacks, a bit of rank jiggery-pokery involving sudden changes of character motivation ('don't let me down, cubes, you're working for me now!') and some necessary home truths as resolution is found and admissions are made. The Power of Three works in very different ways to those of the previous three episodes but it packs the same punch as all of them and crammed in enough little moments to keep all bar the most demanding and sour malcontents amongst The Special People happy. Possibly this blogger is just easily pleased, it has been suggested, but I genuinely believe this is a golden age of the show, one which will be looked back upon from a distance as a time when they got near enough everything right. An era when a showrunner had a vision for a drama that he'd loved as a child to sprinkle a bit of the fairy dust on the format and get results which only a professional misanthrope could dislike. 'World's to save, Swings to ... swing on.'
All of which being us to yer actual Keith Telly Topping's 45 of the Day. What number is that, again, gentlemen?