'THE POWER OF THREE'
Techno-fear has long been a staple of science fiction, so perhaps it's not surprising it's more modern offshoot gizmo-phobia has been a recurrent feature in New Who. There's been mobile phones that controlled people's minds, SatNav systems that have tried to take over the world, that DVD recorder that grew teeth and chased the Doctor round the Tardis... actually, I may have made that last one up, but there's been a lot of them. They're based of course on the unfamiliarity of supposedly everyday objects, gadgets we yearn to own but then can never quite control. They've also become something of a cliché and we've grown to yawn at them.
But this Chris Chibnall episode finds a clever twist. Here we have black boxes, that ubiquitous term for something too technical for most of us to understand. But they're alien from the outset. They arrive unannounced and we just find ourselves getting used to them. And isn't it like that? Technology just arrives one day, in such a way it may as well have fallen from the sky. And pretty soon you've forgotten what life was like before it. Which is an ingeneous premise. (If, as Mike Taylor points out, one that owes something to Nicholas Fisk's novel 'Trillions.')
It's a premise, it should be conceded, that leads precisely nowhere. Years from now, the resolution to this will be a quiz question to which only the nerdiest of all will remember the answer. Well you'd guess the gist of it, it's another bog-standard alien invasion. Except these aliens are boogiemen aliens who want to destroy rather than enslave us. For reasons... well, probably there are reasons. Even Stephen Berkoff's performance as Boogieman Number One (out of an ensemble of one) can't stop the whole thing feeling less than half-hearted. Finally, he conveniently pops out the way in a puff of plot contrivance. (While his hospital orderly underlings seem to just plain disappear.) Leaving the Doctor free to press the 'stop' and 'reverse' buttons on the 'kill all humans' console. It's not even a weak ending to the episode, because it's not even an ending to the episode. It's just a generic one ordered through the mail then coupled onto the main storyline.
(My idea would have been to seed in some more straightforward alien invasion, duly noted and neuteured by the Doctor. Then at the end someone picks up a cube, asks how they were involved and everyone realises they weren't. Whereupon the cubes round the world simultaneously jack-in-the-box. They were only ever someone's idea of a cosmic jape, the equivalent of ringing Earth's doorbell and running away.)
But never mind all that. If its perfunctory its not really the focus of the episode. Formally this is actually quite similar to 'The Lodger'. The point is actually the waiting about. Or more precisely, the Doctor waiting about with humans. Time passing slowly. And in the right order. Except this time, there's a reason for the waiting. (It's the only way to figure out what the cubes are up to.) And instead of hanging around with some wet bugger nobody bloody cares about, this waiting's with Amy and Rory.
We finished the last series on the announcement the big new theme is the Doctor being Marvel dead. Which, you can't help noticing, it hasn't been at all. The last episode went by with that getting nary a mention. Instead it's been about Amy and Rory realising they'll soon be taking their separate road from the Doctor. Was it a plan, or did they fall backwards into the idea that the couple now live at home, in domestic bliss, with the wheezing groaning noise only breaking in at intervals in their lives? That mate who just won't settle down, who you'd like to imagine you'd stay in touch with even as you know in your heart you won't. (Rose has a subplot over the infrequency of her visits home, and her Mum's fear they'd one day stop.)
Whichever, it works well. (Which most likely means they did fall backwards into it.) It's the question presaged by 'Amy's Choice,' those long seasons ago. There's real life, here at home, and there's the other life aboard the Tardis. The Doctor inserting himself into their real life for a bit doesn't bridge the two, it accentuates the clash. The power of three is set for some long division.
'THE ANGELS TAKE MANHATTAN'
Sometime, in the years this show was off-air, it reached it's perfect midpoint. It doesn't really matter when it was, as no episodes were being made at the time so there was no-one there to see it happen. But it means we've been left with an excluded middle.
Take the pacing. Time was, the universe would be placed in peril from some imperceptibly slow source, possibly from imperceptible slowness itself. Daleks would threaten to get round to exterminating you in a minute, but had a couple of other things to get on with first. You'd forever be checking the remote, thinking the pause button must have been pressed by mistake. Even though remotes hadn't been invented yet.
Then, by the time the show was back, it had already hit the other extreme. Daleks didn't get time to exterminate you before being replaced by something else in the ceaseless whirlygig of change. The Doctor would quickfix everything while speakingsofasthiswordsrantogether, quite possibly by speakingsofasthiswordsrantogether. (I'm not really sure which, it all went by so fast.) This time it was the fast forward button you'd check. Which had been invented by then, but it still didn't seem to be much help.
Also, and more to the point here, Old Who was something which happened on the surface. A man in a rubber mask who wanted to take over the universe normally represented a man in a rubber mask who wanted to take over the universe. There seemed little scope for subtext. Which, given the times, we would probably have imagined was some pet monster of the Silurians, dragging the unwary down into unexpected layers of meaning and allusion.
But with New Who, it's not like you can now find a subtext by digging into the text. Like in volcanic activity the below-ground pushes the ground around, sometimes erupting to overtake it completely. At first glance, there's all the familiar elements of an SF show. But they're never lined up in even an approximation of a coherent plot structure. It's themes and symbols in search of a storyline they can hang off. Actually, it's more like themes and symbols who have given up on a storyline ever showing up, so drape themselves as widely as they can to cover over the whole question of what they're hanging off. New Who effectively reversed Old Who, went straight from plot-driven to theme-driven. It's like we can choose whether to have the word or the meaning, just so long as we don't want both.
Of course, it would be unfair to suggest every image is just there for its symbolic value. A whole bunch of them are there just so they can be images. The guy in the rubber mask who wants to take over the Universe, he's there so the Doctor had someone to struggle against. But the Statue of Liberty as an Angel... it doesn't really do much, does it? It doesn't advance on you if you turn your back, as had previously seemed something of a custom among the Angels. It's there as a photo-op. It's there simply to look cool. But let's accentuate the positive and focus here on the images which actually do something.
This episode, what was it all about? Ostensibly it's a story about the Angels abandoning their hunter-gathering ways and setting up a people farm. Which is an intriguing notion. But of course no-one can actually be bothered with any of that. It's so thrown-together you'd be forgiven for thinking it was the decoy for the actual plot. Why can the Doctor never visit New York again? Are Amy and Rory permanently stuck there now, and if so how? If they are so cut off from the Doctor, how come Amy can publish River's book? Even the Angels can't be arsed with following their own rules, such as the one where they can't look at each other.
Because of course creating a workable plot would be pointless busywork, like hoovering behind the sideboard. Because of course we've all known for months what this episode is really about – this is where Rory and Amy part ways with the Doctor. Everything else is built around that emotional payoff. Not in the sense of steps leading up to a point, so much as figures arranged around the centrepiece of a diorama.
Back in 'The Chase', in those distant Sixties, the Empire State Building ranked alongside the Marie Celeste, haunted houses and other planets. It was an honorary alien setting. This time our heroes go to New York and hang out in Central Park just like carefree youth, because that's the sort of thing carefree youth do nowadays. The juncture, the leap into the fantastical, happens when they get transported to a Thirties New York of gumshoe detectives and flophouse hotels, explicity coded as something out of a pulp novel.
Oh, and Angels. Moffat may regard the Angels as his Daleks, his legacy to the show. While the Silence hung around a bit (actually quite a lot), the Angels are the foes he chooses to bring back. But he's bringing them back here and now for a more specific reason. In the 'Radio Times' he described them as “more than monsters... agents of fate.” (6-12/10/12) The Angels, at least in their appearance here, represent mortality. They take you to a hotel, a parody of a home, virtually a temple to impermanence, and confront you with your own death. (In a scene clearly inspired by the ending of '2001', but then this show has always liberally borrowed from other sources.)
Rory and Amy, they're getting older. She needs reading glasses now. They're aging faster than their friends. That last point makes no logical sense. We've only just seen in 'Power of Three' how the Doctor can whisk them away, then take them home at the very point they've left. But it's there to make symbolic sense. The Angels only seem interested in people-farming Rory, but will take Amy if she comes their way. They pay little attention to River, the Doctor none at all. Which makes no logical sense. But it's there to... oh, you're ahead of me.
There's been a Peter Pan and Wendy element to Amy and the Doctor from the beginning, the eternal boy crashing into her life and taking her away. The underlying sense that Doctors live forever, but not so little girls. As early as 'Amy's Choice' she was asked to take a side between life adventuring with the Doctor and a life at home with Rory. Then the choice turned out to be a false one. This time it isn't. Both times she chose Rory.
...which, perhaps oddly, is another feature of the Angels that's been there from the start. In 'Blink' Sally Sparrow receives a letter from her friend Kathy Nightingale explaining she'd been thrown back in time, but had led a rich and happy life, merely in Sally's past. An almost exact precedessor of the letter Amy leaves the Doctor. The Angels are some fuzzy symboite of a foe to be defeated and an acceptance of mortality.
Even the confusion over where Amy and Rory actually go - that kind of works symbolically. Some thought they went back to the Hotel. Others they only went back in time, and were somehow cast adrift from the Doctor, but together. For my part, I doubted Moffat knew any better than the rest of us, so speculation seemed somewhat beside the point. But, in some literary variant of the Heisenberg principle, they're both. They're trapped in a hotel room, a box that quite definitely isn't bigger on the inside. Life outside of the Tardis is a kind of imprisonment. But they're also together, free to live out their natural lives the way they wanted.
In 'Who', it almost goes without saying the companions are us. And there's an 'extended gap year' element of modern culture, which may well be epitomised by jaunts to Central Park. We're not expected to have “settled down” by the age of twenty-five any more. We're told that the Thirties are the new Twenties, and the rest of it. Women have children later. So yes, we can play with Peter Pan for longer now. But that point when the eternal statue touches you, that was only ever deferred. Our responsibilities aren't a book without an ending. They're a hotel room you can never run from.
So, lift up the hood and we have a coherent and even quite effective piece of work. It's just that you can't slam down the hood and drive it anywhere. Somewhere, in some parallel reality, there was a show where you didn't have to choose between those things.
...AND SO, TO SUM UP...
River is forever telling us “Rule One”, then giving us a different rule. My Rule One for this series was “have low expectations.” Which kind of worked out. This series did give us what we least wanted, a through line. But it was an 'emotional journey' through-line, seen through the peepholes of a row of separate adventures, not an overwhelming clutch of clues and conundrums. Mapping your way through it is entirely different proposition. In that sense the show was trying to dig itself out of the hole it's been in, and was for the most part digging upwards. Chris Chibnall wrote two episodes in a row I felt vaguely positive about, words I never expected to find myself typing.
But, even so, you can't dodge that eternal finger.
People have often complained when episodes have been solved through pressing a 'scenario reset' button. For example, I have said that. But this show's longevity rests on it's own inbuilt reset button, it's ability to tear out the last page, regenerate and morph into something new.
And now's the time to press that button. Forget this talk of a “second half” to this series, like that made any sense anyway. Not just no more Ponds. Thanks for everything to Steven Moffat, to Doctor Eleven, the logo, the Heath Robinson Tardis and all the rest. The fact that there were good times is the very reason to end things now. The first rule of showbiz isn't “leave 'em wanting less.” And I know because I checked.
What we need now is new New Who.