5 December 2018: It Takes You Away review added.
26 November 2018: The Witchfinders review added.
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THE POWER OF THREE
Chris Chibnall again. Twice in a five-episode run. How lucky are we?
Fortunately, despite our unanimous groans as "by Chris Chibnall" came up, this could be worse. There are some nice ideas and some nice moments. On the other hand, there's some dire stuff too.
We like the cubes. They're simple but fun. But as the story unspooled, we were getting an increasingly strong sense of déjà vu. Did this script slip down the back of the sofa in Russell T Davies's office? Because it might as well have "RTD Era" stamped all over it in big red inky letters. The news broadcasts. The companion parent. Slade. The celebrity cameos (we have to admit we completely adored the Apprentice one). Plus some other stuff we'll get to later.
And as well as reminding us of RTD episodes in general, it unfortunately reminded us in particular as well. Didn't we see just this same appearance of weird stuff that people quickly get used to in Army Of Ghosts?
Not that all the RTD stuff's necessarily bad. We liked Mark Williams's Brian much more here than in Spaceship of The Dinosaurs: he gets room to do more so the character isn't as cartoony, and his listing off of the possible threats the cubes might pose is a mix of intelligent, fun, hilarious and believable. Nice.
And whoa, hey, UNIT! Shameless mining of our love and nostalgia for Nick Courtney it may be, but it totally works. Jemma Redgrave hits it out of the park as the Brig's daughter, and there was a distinct sound of sniffling chez Androzani when they were talking about the Brig.
What else? Well, it's a story divided into two: half the Ponds and their dithering about whether to stop travelling with the Doctor, and half world invasion blah blah blah.
The Pond part is actually pretty good. To be honest, we're more on the Brian side of things, so we have trouble trying to figure out why the Ponds would entertain the idea of stopping. Adventures through time and space, all with the ability to return to the moment you left so you don't miss out on anything at home? What's not to like? But at least Amy makes a case for it, and we can see that it could be a problem coming to terms with defrosting the freezer and defleaing the cat if you've just married Henry VIII.
What's more, we get to see the Doctor's side of it. His companions, especially these ones for this Doctor, aren't interchangeable, and it's touching to see that he misses them. This stuff is lovely: it's real, it's human (ha!) and it's believable. If this were all there was to the episode, we'd score it as a complete success.
It isn't, though, is it? There's an alien invasion in here too. In forty-two minutes. Our thinking? If the important part of a story's the deeply emotional stuff between companions and Doctor, try not to shove a world-spanning invasion story in there as well. Something's got to give, and boy, does it.
The pacing in this story is just horrible. Fifteen leisurely minutes to kick us off, followed by an uptick in action that increases in speed to frenetic level. Then how to do we cap that off at the grand finale? By screeching to a halt for a lengthy chat with Emperor Palpatine! Really, Chris Chibnall? Really?
And after even Palpatine gets bored with yapping and switches himself off, they have to sort out the mess. How? With the sonic screwdriver. We'll say that again. With. The. Sonic. Screwdriver. One word: unforgivable.
What's more, so much stuff has been cut from the invasion story to squeeze it all in that it doesn't end up making much sense. Why were they taking people up to the spaceship? That android sat in reception for a year, and nobody noticed? We know the National Health has problems, but it's not that bad.
As for the whole heart stuff, dear God. There isn't enough plot straining at the seams, not to mention enough peril for the Earth, that they had to force in the Doctor having a heart attack too? Why did it even affect him, since it targets human hearts? Why, when they're surrounded by people whose hearts have stopped, is a defibrillator sitting around in Rory's hospital unused? One third of the world's population are dead for a lengthyish period, yet on resuscitation all of them are completely unscathed?
And the overstuffed plot and poor pacing mean, as was the case too often in the RTD days, that the impact of the invasion plot simply glances off. They've got enough time in the first fifteen minutes for repeated shots of the Doctor painting the Ponds' fence, yet later there isn't a single second for the characters, and as a result the viewer, to absorb the impact of the death of a third of the world's population. Look at Amy's face as Kate breaks this news: she doesn't bat an eyelid. What's more, a few seconds later she's giggling as they prepare to plunge through the portal. All of this is made worse, too, by the decision to give the Doctor a heart attack, as the first thing that happens after we find out that the cubes have zapped a large chunk of the global population is…a comedy sequence. Mmmyeah.
Also, what about the poor old humans left on the spaceship? They're blown to smithereens and they don't rate as much as a glance, let alone a rescue plan, from the Doctor. We're not saying they should have cut the fence stuff: that was good. What they should have done is not try and force a portentously weighty extra plot in around the edges. You simply can't stretch forty-two minutes that far.
It's s shame: the Pond stuff is great. Had they surrounded it with a smaller-scale plot, this could have been a really good episode.
So what's going to happen to the Ponds, anyway? In his (dead good) conversation with Amy, the Doctor says "One day, soon maybe, you'll stop. I've known for a while…I'm running to you before you fade to me". What with that and with all the fecking about with time Amy's been involved with and the constant emphasis on remembering, we think one or both of them are going to exit not in a shower of internal organs but by fading out of existence.
MORAL: Sometimes bad things come in small packages.
The alien invasion plot's got a lot of faults, but those guys with the snouts are definitely not one of them. We all screamed. For realz.
"Remotely isn't my style"? Yeah, but putting himself into an obviously highly dangerous situation for no reason at all when he could have looked through the window is just a silly contrivance. Blue-pencilling the Doctor's heart attack would have got rid of the necessity for this as well.