Back in May I wrote an article about the significance of the number three in Doctor Who, and came to a conclusion that stated three reasons why the number three was important, one of which focussed on the Doctor, the TARDIS and the companions. I also mentioned the iconic groupings of Doctor plus two companions, and that is the aspect of the number three within the context of Doctor Who that is focussed on for this episode, with a fun little bit of word play: cubed, the power of three.
Within the world of Doctor Who, every number takes on a special significance because it also represents a Doctor, and here we are channelling the spirit of the Third Doctor’s era. UNIT is back, and the Brigadier’s daughter Kate is introduced for the first time, crossing over into mainstream Doctor Who television episodes from books and unofficial spinoffs, most notably the straight-to-video fan produced Downtime. We are also playing with the idea of an Earthbound invasion story, with the Doctor stuck on Earth for a long time. The Pertwee era was adept at making the mundane frightening, most notably in Terror of the Autons, and The Power of Three plays with that too. The cubes are not everyday objects like a shop window dummy, a sofa, or a telephone, but they are pretty ordinary to start with, just simple boxes, and the length of time they stick around without doing anything makes them take on that quality of a normal object made dangerous, despite them not actually being human-made.
Some degree of logic is sacrificed to achieve this. The cubes are obviously designed to be interesting and attractive objects that people will want to keep. They capitalise on the old adage: curiosity killed the cat (and note what the Third Doctor identified as his failing in his final story). But the Shakri then wait for just long enough for people to start to get bored with them, and eventually we see piles of them discarded next to the bins. This is one of those episodes that are a huge amount of fun but you really do need to switch off the brain. Try not to think about why the Shakri don’t just deposit them in a third of homes and have them kill people straight away. There would have been no defence against that. But the idea of aliens viewing humans as a pest that needs to be culled is an interesting one. It’s something we do with animals (badgers are a controversial and recent example in the UK), so it makes perfect sense that some aliens would observe the human race and come to the conclusion that there’s too many of us. Just as some people look at animals as inferior creatures subject to our decisions, there’s no reason why an alien race wouldn’t view us in the same way. It’s a gloriously twisted but straightforward idea. The Doctor’s defence is a strong one:
So, here you are, depositing slug pellets all over the Earth, made attractive so humans will collect them, hoping to find something beautiful inside. Because that’s what they are. Not pests or plague, creatures of hope, forever building and reaching.
…but that’s not so far away from the kind of speech that could be crafted about an animal. Something attractive that makes us want to collect it? A magpie does that. You could interpret this as an animal welfare parable if you’re so inclined.
All this of course is the resolution to the mystery, which is held off as long as possible, because this is one story that is all about the journey rather than the destination. That’s the point of the “power of three” reference. Partly it’s an exercise in repeating the fun of The Lodger, with the Doctor showing off while he proves how badly he fits within a normal human existence. If his manic approach to getting housework done inspired any children watching then this episode did a public service. That’s all hugely enjoyable and funny to watch, but there’s more to it than that, because we mustn’t forget the presence of a very important number 4 in the story: Brian Williams. We shouldn’t even forget the significance of the fifth semi-regular, getting her introduction here: Kate Stewart. And those two characters show that there is always more going on than a perfect trio.
The Power of Three in the end is a misleading title. This is an episode that proves the importance of friendship and family. Like a tripod, a group of three is strong, but three plus Brian and Kate… that’s not just strong. That’s amazing. RP
The view from across the pond:
Three; a mystical number. The Holy Trinity: Father / Son / Holy Spirit. Beginning / middle / end. Past / present / future. There’s the phrase, “third time’s a charm”. Or the superstition that things happen in threes. Even the symbol of Ireland, the Shamrock, has the decency to be a three leaf clover. And on this side of the pond, what would we be if not for the red, white and blue, three colors that represent a nation? Probably most important of all, “Who unto Rassilon’s tower would go, must choose above, between, below!” There is power in the number three. It’s only natural that there would be a Doctor Who episode called The Power of Three. Perfectly natural too considering the Doctor is traveling with two of his best friends, Amy and Rory.
The problem is, barring the mythical properties around the number, there’s very little magical about this story. It’s more of a study in duality than 3’s because it gives a stark contrast for Amy and Rory to decide what life to pursue: the exciting, non-stop action of the Doctor, or the peaceful enjoyment of growing old together on the slow path. When the cubes arrive, Amy and Rory see that the two worlds can intersect. It’s interesting too that these are cubes because in mathematics, to cube something is to multiple it by itself three times. Yet, it’s the duality that faces Amy and Rory and that’s a two sided coin. That is, unless you consider one thing: merging the two gives us a third take possibility. There’s Doctor-life, home-life and in this very odd episode, Doctor-home-life. It can’t happen often, but when it does, it gives us a third option that we didn’t realize could exist. And it’s a strange story.
While the episode isn’t particularly strong, it does have some positives in its favor. Kate Lethbridge-Stewart makes her television debut (outside of a radically different version we saw in Downtime). Kate is marvelous. Her attitude is so perfectly distilled from her father. She is completely believable and instantly accepted into the Doctor Who family. When she locates the Doctor, she comments on his clothing which is something we could easily accept coming from the Brigadier. The slow-burn realization for the reveal that she is Kate Lethbridge Stewart (which she noticeably fails to say upon first meeting the Doctor) is a wonderful realization. Meanwhile, the Shakri are an odd alien race that never feels that threatening. Maybe it’s the “old man” look that doesn’t seem particularly menacing. Or maybe it’s that their name too closely resembles the name of the afterlife according to Vulcan mythology in Star Trek. Whatever the reason, the threat in this episode never feels like it amounts to anything. (A threat score of zero, even when cubed, still is zero!) And in all honesty, this is a little worrisome coming from future showrunner Chris Chibnall. Let’s hope he subscribes to J. Michael Straczynski’s belief that before a heavy episode, you have to let the audience relax because the episode that followed this one was an emotional rollercoaster ride.
And that’s the episode: it’s a slow one with a hefty dose of comedy from Smith’s Doctor, who is not good with being inactive. It also gives us a lot of foreshadowing. Amy gets her glasses, which the Doctor will take and use in the very next story. Brian voices his concerns for his son and daughter-in-law that one day they won’t come home, which we see fulfilled in the very next story and there’s talk of Amy and Rory’s anniversary as a final reminder of who these two are: a husband and wife who will grow old together. In that way, it’s a reflective episode, there to remind us of why we love Amy and Rory so much. Even Brian, who has become a wonderful part of the cast, is signing off in this story. The end reminds us of the power of three as the three companions walk back into the TARDIS and onto their next and final adventure. If taken as the calm before the storm, it’s a needed respite. What’s coming will stick with us for a long, long time… ML
Read next in the Junkyard… The Angels Take Manhattan