Though I’ve been watching Doctor Who since before TVs came with remote controls, the same cannot be said for all current fans of the series. This is not a bad thing – I’m excited to be able to share something so dear to me with a whole new batch of people. It’s not really fair to expect Newvians (as I call them) to catch up on decades’ worth of lore, so I want to do my part to help by going through each new episode this season, filling in some of the backstory and explaining oblique references when they crop up. This will be part episode recap, part history lesson, and hopefully all enjoyable.
Do you need to know any of this to enjoy the new season of Doctor Who? Nah, not at all. And given that New Who has rendered much of Classic Who moot, you can shrug off almost everything pre-2005 if you want. But it’s fun to explore the roots of a fiction with so much history, and knowing a bit more about the olden days may just entice a few of you to check out the the pre-Eccleston Doctors.
So with that, let’s head off to The Power of Three!
Not a particularly active episode, but of course that was kind of the point. The slow invasion – a bunch of strange black cubes just sort of hanging around the place, not doing anything for the better part of a year – was just a background for an examination of the relationship between the Doctor, Amy, and Rory. Most of their time was spent waiting for the boxes to do something, so we got to see what they’re all like when they’re not busy saving the world from slavering aliens. And in the case of Amy and Rory, they’re a perfectly normal married couple. She writes articles for travel magazines and is going to be a bridesmaid in a friend’s wedding. He’s a nurse who just got promoted to full time status at the hospital. Rory’s dad, Brian, drops by sometimes for tea. And the Doctor … well, he gets bored very, very easily.
It’s an interesting contrast with the way things worked in Classic Who, where a companion was in the TARDIS, day and night, until they left, got kicked out, or died. Their role in life was as Companion, first and foremost, and everything else was on hold until that was done. In New Who, companions go home from time to time. Amy frequently complains to the Doctor how long it’s been since he last came and picked them up. It’s a small difference, but it does an excellent job of underscoring just how isolated the Doctor really is. Here he is, offering up all of time and space as a playground, and Amy and Rory are seriously considering staying home, because their other life is really quite appealing. To be fair, he is 1200 years old, and hanging around the garden probably loses its appeal after the first few centuries, but as much as he loves the Ponds he’s never really going to be able to relate to them.
He does try to give them an anniversary gift of an overnight stay at a posh hotel, but the evening is ruined when it turns out there are Zygons underneath the building. It’s a throwaway line, a nice chuckle for viewers who might remember this scarcely-used foe. Zygons are rather bulbous creatures that were first featured in Terror of the Zygons (1975) as they terrorized an off-shore oil rig with a huge underwater creature called a Skarasen. Their technology was organic in nature, with terminals looking like they had grown right out of the floor. They crash-landed on Earth centuries ago, but their home planet was destroyed before they could return. Their “body printing” technique allowed them to impersonate humans, which was handy not only for nefarious intrigue, but also for getting out of the heavy Zygon costumes. After the Doctor defeated the Zygons and destroyed the Skarasen’s control device, it went back to the water where it had made its home on Earth – Loch Ness.
Terror of the Zygons also features Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart, father of Kate Stewart featured in The Power of Three. Like her dad, Kate works for UNIT (Unified Intelligence Taskforce), which is now stationed under the Tower of London. UNIT is basically the military response to extraterrestrial shenanigans – they tend to point guns at whatever’s invading Earth at the moment. UNIT has plenty of history with Doctor Who, as well as its spin offs The Sarah Jane Adventures and Torchwood. When you need a discreet army – or at least as discreet as an army can be with rocket launchers and tanks – UNIT are the folks you want.
The Doctor has long had a relationship with UNIT, most prominently when the Time Lords exiled the Doctor on Earth, which is when he formed his lasting bond with Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart. We learn in Mawdryn Undead (1983) that the Brigadier left UNIT to teach mathematics at a boy’s school – the same school where we met Turlough, the alien who made a deal with the Black Guardian to kill the Doctor in return for a way off Earth. (That’s also the episode where we discover what happens when you cross your own timeline and meet yourself. As the Doctor puts it at the time, “ZAP!”) The Brigadier never actually appeared in New Who, but was mentioned many times, until finally, in The Wedding of River Song (2011), the Doctor learned that he had passed away.
Kate gets involved as UNIT tries to determine the level of threat the cubes present. They don’t seem to be doing anything, but there are billions of them scattered all over the world, and they seem to be completely invulnerable. The Doctor decides to wait around at Chez Pond until the cubes fulfill their purpose, whatever it may be. He also goes a bit bonkers as he waits, and takes to mowing the lawn, painting the fence, and playing lots of Wii Tennis. Eventually, each cube does something different – gushing fire, taking a blood sample, causing mood swings – as they simultaneously learn everything there is to know about humanity. They then begin counting down from 7 for no really sound reason other than to make me want a black clock that displays the time in the same luminescent blue as the countdown digits. (Tell me that wouldn’t look amazing on my desk.) When the countdown stops, about a third of the world’s population gets zapped and has a heart attack. Boom.
The cubes turn out to be a tool of the Shakri, a sort of intergalactic pest control service that’s looking to thin out humanity before we infest the rest of the universe. The cubes provided intel on the best way to take us out, finally settling on using electricity to disrupt our hearts. I’m not entirely sure why it took so long – one season of any medical drama will tell you out how fragile the human heart is. But a wave or two of the sonic screwdriver and the Doctor has given everyone a reverse zap on the old ticker, blown up the Shakri ships and whisked Amy and Rory back to Earth.
The slow invasion was moderately cute, even if it did crib rather a bit from Army of Ghosts (2006), though the resolution did feel quite rushed. There were some nice nods to the lore, and a few good laughs, but I couldn’t help feeling like this episode only existed to tell us what we already knew: The Doctor’s relationship with Amy and Rory is special, and it is ending. The biggest red flag was when the Doctor admitted to Brian that some of his previous companions had died, but never, never would that happen to the Ponds. As foreshadowing goes, it’s a bit heavy handed, but there’s not much else for these two go through.
Well, we’ll find out soon enough, when The Angels Take Manhattan. (Hmm … Manhattan, eh? Think we’ll run into any Daleks?)