|It’s basically what watching this feels like.|A reminder that I’m doing a launch party for the latest TARDIS Eruditorum book at the Way Station in Brooklyn tomorrow at 3:30 PM. It’s at 683 Washington Ave. I hope to see you there.
It’s September 22nd, 2012. Script is at number one, with Ne-Yo, Pink, Flo Rida, and Fun also charting. In news, Dale Cregan kills two police officers and is arrested, and the NHL begins a player lockout. While on television, it’s Chris Chibnall’s second effort for Season Seven, The Power of Three.
The Power of Three has its faults, most of them seemingly fairly broad, and few of them actually the objections usually raised. Yes, the villain is a bit rubbish, but that’s largely the point. This isn’t actually a story about alien invasion, it’s a story about the Ponds. It’s the first time we really start to see the narrative acceleration of Season Seven used with some purpose and deliberateness – the resolution of the plot is sped through because it’s not actually the part of the story that matters. The beats are all there, they’re just not given room to breathe. Really, the only two solid criticisms are that “the year of the slow invasion, when the Doctor came to stay” is rather badly undermined by him going away for the bulk of the year, and the closing monologue, with its painfully ham-fisted integration of the title, is absolutely wretched.
But on the whole, we have a story where the oddness of the previous three finally starts to be justified. I mean, in its own way it was in Asylum of the Daleks, which was at least a generative and productive hot mess. This is a simpler thing, though – a story that uses the sped up narrative to fit unusual things in the margins of a Doctor Who story. It’s not, obviously, the first time we’ve played in the margins of Doctor Who stories – that’s what Love and Monsters and Blink were for. But it’s the first time we’ve done it without largely removing the Doctor Who story from focus. Instead of looking at a Doctor Who adventure an odd angle, we’ve got a Doctor Who adventure playing out at an odd speed, so that we get to put the emphasis on different parts. However stuttering the execution, in hindsight, this is the first time they actually show us where this is all going, creatively.
More interesting, however, is the title. Under the fan nomenclature that sprung up around the new series, The Power of Three refers clearly not just to the numerical operation of “cubing” a number, nor just to the Doctor-Amy-Rory triad, but to the iteration of the Doctor played by Jon Pertwee from 1970-74. And true enough, Three looms large over this entire story. As he looms large over any “invasion of Earth” story, that being the format that defines his tenure. This is somewhat odd if one stops to think about it for too long – over his five years and twenty-four stories, only Spearhead From Space, Terror of the Autons, The Claws of Axos, and Planet of the Spiders are actually alien invasions as such. But much like the phrase “reverse the polarity of the neutron flow,” the legacy of Three is distinct from the actual twenty-four stories that make up his tenure.
Certainly The Power of Three is invested in trying to reconstruct the infrastructure of the early seventies, with a standing guest cast to be put into service for earth-based adventures. Implicit in this is the continual link to the present day – something that was at least briefly questions in the process of designing Clara, where there were a few months in which she was named Beryl and was going to be the Victorian version we see in The Snowmen. (This was very early on – prior to casting Coleman.) But ultimately, that idea was rejected, and the assumption that we absolutely must have a character from present-day Earth remains a default axiom of the series. And likewise, because the series must exist in contact with the present day, the present day must always be one of the major settings of the series.
Part of this is simply the growing aggregate of what the series has been in the past, which in turn defines what it will be in the future. The truth is that for an enormously successful period of its history, Doctor Who was tethered to the present day, and unleashing scary things, whether proper alien invasions or not, into contemporary settings was one of its basic functions. That cannot be pried out of Doctor Who, regardless of how much one likes the trick. (And I’m not a huge fan – looking at my rankings of stories, contemporary Earth ones are very poorly represented in the upper places, and when I do like contemporary Earth stories, they tend to be small affairs.)
And yet it seems strange that this must be accomplished with the same military organization the Doctor worked with in the 1970s, under the command of the daughter of the primary character associated with that organization, with her history being plucked consciously and explicitly from an obscure 90s tie-in video. It’s not that such fetishization of the past is unusual, and sure, if any character is going to get a second generation replacement it’s the Brigadier, but it’s curious that the present is the only place in which the series feels the need to lay down roots like this. Especially given that the effect is in part to create a sense of distance. The UNIT stories were famously only sort of set in the present day, with a sizable contingent of fans being absolutely dead certain that they took place in the 1980s. This is a weak reading, as I’ve argued elsewhere, but it’s persistence highlights a strange tendency inherent in UNIT and the big alien invasions, which is to make it difficult to believe Doctor Who to take place in our own world.
Now, on one level, this is hardly a problem. After all, it doesn’t. The TARDIS is made up, much like Robin Hood. The Zygons never lurked beneath Loch Ness. The last time you tripped over nothing was not, in fact, a rotting Silence corpse. But on the other, there is a difference in how “our world with things you don’t know about” and “not our world” read. Up until The War Machines, it was possible to read Doctor Who as taking place in a world identical to ours – to believe that, if you panned the camera steadily from Totters Lane to our own houses, you would find us, staring at our television screens, perfectly represented in the Doctor Who universe. After, this became impossible. Occasional retcons and lampshadings have attempted to reassert this, but a double negation is not the same as never having been rejected in the first place. The show has taken repeated steps to push us out of its fiction.
And Three represents the zenith of this. An extended period in which Doctor Who loudly shouted that it is not set in our world. In some ways, this, and not the fact that sometimes the Doctor’s allies are soldiers, is the most straightforwardly objectionable aspect of the era, which I’ve always presented as something of a problem. And it clearly is. Of the first four Doctors – that is, the ones who played the part during the relatively uninterrupted period in which Doctor Who was consistently adjacent to the beating heart of British culture and identity – Three is unique in having never really been used as the model for later ones. The default position of all Doctors is Four. Whenever the Doctor gets a bit crankier and mysterious, it’s a reversion to One. Whenever he gets impish and mercurial, it’s Two. But nobody ever goes for Three. Not even Capaldi, for all the similarity in facial structure and coat lining. Three, for all his popularity and success, was apparently a dead end.
And yet he still has his power. And this comes from the very root of Three’s era: the fact that it pushes the viewer out of the world. Because, of course, this creates a lack within the narrative. If it is not our world, if we do not exist in it, then we are free to project ourselves into it. If we can pan from Totter’s Lane to our doorsteps and find ourselves fully represented within the narrative, then all we can do is wait passively for the TARDIS to arrive in our living room. But if we would not find ourselves anywhere within the world of the Doctor then we have an altogether different power, which is the ability to create ourselves. Here we return to the particulars of negation. What is important is that Three rejects us – that is, that it actively establishes a difference between the screen-world and our world. It’s not a matter of declaring the world of Doctor Who to not be our world, but a continual active pushing against the viewer – of telling use we don’t exist in their world, even as it leaves innumerable gaps for us to squirm through.
In this regard the weirdness of Three as a character makes sense. Because his role is to create a barrier that we cannot pass through, he’s the one Doctor who must be almost completely static. The reason for this, though, is that he instead pushes the mercurial nature of the role out to everything else. It’s the classic trick of emboitment – by serving as a rigid box of paternal charm, he is capable of ensnaring the entire world within his fundamentally mad nature. This is why Three can never quite be repeated: because his central trick is to swap the basic paradigm of inside and outside, so that the world becomes mad and mercurial around him. So in lieu of ever reiterating him, the show reiterates the world that existed around him, sustaining the glorious tension that causes us to go poking around the requisite portals to faerie.
And this, more than anything, is what The Power of Three ultimately explores. It embodies the basic tension of Three by having the Doctor simultaneously be drawn into the world and pushed out of it. The Doctor does not belong in the everyday world of the Ponds. That world necessarily resists him. But equally, he cannot exit it. Because, of course, he has the one thing Three himself lacked: the TARDIS. The magical box that is the portal to faerie. This is another essential part of why Three worked in the early seventies and cannot now – because in the absence of a magical box, the Doctor and the television itself filled the role. But this was only possible because it coincided with a conspicuous technological leap in televisual technology – with the fact that the television was now in color, and was thus ostentatious and visible in a way that it had not previously been.
Now we are back to the standard paradigm, employed when the television has become invisible again, if indeed it’s even a television at all and not some other screen. Doctor Who is decoupled from its medium, and instead has to function on its conceptual merits alone. And so the Doctor returns to his now-standard role as the point of contact between the two worlds. He cannot exist in “our world” or “not our world” entirely, because his entire purpose is to demonstrate that these are not rigid categories in the first place.
And so we get the central magic trick of The Power of Three, which is that a story that is seemingly about the Ponds and their double lives is in fact about the means by which they can have two lives in the first place. It was never a story about these characters, but about the fact that there exists something on the other side of their lives. This is, after all, the only thing a first face can ever be: the first face you’ve ever looked away from. This is the real power of Three – as a set of signifiers that are at once iconic and rejected, he becomes the enduring symbol of the show moving forward.