Once again we’re back to one of Doctor Who’s most classic themes; something strange is happening across planet Earth and nobody knows what the heck is going on! This time, little black cubes appear all over the planet, and do nothing at all but sit there. They actually become a sort of satirical fixture of everyday life. One of the best lines in the episode comes in the title sequence with Amy narrating. She calls it “the year of the slow invasion”. If that doesn’t scream Doctor Who plot I don’t know what does.
The interesting thing about this episode is how it twists the standard format of companions running off with the Doctor. While it’s usually the Ponds leaving their lives behind to join the Doctor on his adventures, he is now home with them, experiencing their perspective of daily life. It’s a very unique twist of the Doctor-companion relationship. It’s actually oddly sad. The Doctor is completely incapable of maintaining a calm, safe, “normal” existence.
The main theme of this episode is the Pond’s coming to terms with their life. As the Doctor’s visits are completely random—we learn that they’ve been traveling with him, on and off, for ten years—the Ponds seem to be enjoying their “non-Doctor” life more and more. It’s a very interesting bit of character development, as the Ponds appear to be making a very human decision to live the comfortable, safe life.
There is a particularly touching scene when Brian, Rory’s father, asks the Doctor what has happened to other people who have traveled with him. The Doctor tells the truth, that some left on their own, some got left behind, and some died. He instantly promises, “never them”, in what can only be Steven Moffat playing with our expectations of the Ponds’ imminent farewell.
Brian quietly steals the show in this episode, as his total acceptance of the Doctor, the strange boxes, and the time traveling lives of his son and daughter-in-law, make him a most eager and enjoyable semi-companion. He’s so good that I kind of wish we’d get to see him go on some adventures with the Doctor!
The first twenty minutes of the episode have little to do with the little black cubes, and it is the growing transformation of the relationship between the Doctor and the Ponds that drives the story. That is, until, the cubes start doing something other than being just inert cubes. What has basically been dramatic lollygagging quickly escalates as the cubes begin going crazy and acting in seemingly unrelated, yet strange and deliberate ways. The Doctor, starved for excitement, takes his cue and bursts into action.
At this point I want to mention the nostalgia factor, which is one of Doctor Who’s greatest charms. There are many recurring elements that link together all fifty years of the show’s rich and unique history, and in this case it’s UNIT, or, the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce. The organization charged with defending the Earth from alien threats long before Torchwood, and a ubiquitous element during Jon Pertwee’s era as the third Doctor, UNIT has only rarely appeared in NuWho. This Classic Who staple has been relegated to the realm of nostalgia for those fans who have put in the time to see all of the show’s serials, and those show writer’s who, for whatever reason, choose to use UNIT as a quaint element in their story.
The heartbreaking tribute in The Wedding of River Song to Nicholas Courtney, who played Brigadier Sir Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart, tugged the heartstrings of the most fanatical Whovians. But having the Brigadier’s daughter turn up in charge of UNIT was a wonderfully brilliant decision, and paid fitting homage to the late Mr. Courtney, as well as the character he immortalized. Its things like this that makes Doctor Who just better than every other show.
With UNIT’s help—now driven by a more scientific purpose as opposed to its traditional role as military force—the Doctor swings into his normal routine. With a mystery to solve, and pressure mounting, the show returns to its usual science fiction adventure formula.
The most touching scene, in a break from the mystery, is when the Doctor and Amy discuss the possibility of the Ponds no longer traveling in the TARDIS. The Doctor corrects Amy’s assertion that he is constantly running away, and explains how he’s actually running towards all that there is to see in the universe. A particularly heartbreaking moment is when the Doctor flatly says that he spends so much time coming back into their lives to experience as much of them as he can before they “fade”.
As the cubes begin an ominous countdown, shades of earlier Doctor Who shine through as the Doctor directs Kate Stewart, in charge of UNIT, to begin spreading the word to humanity to get away from the cubes. It’s just like watching the Third Doctor ordering The Brig around all over again!
It is as Rory steps through a camouflaged teleporter, hidden in an elevator in the hospital where he works, that we finally get a glimpse of what is really going on, as we see a massive energy field encompassing the Earth, and a spaceship looking on.
Back on Earth, the countdown ends, the cubes open, and nothing happens. That is until CCTV feeds from around the world show people falling dead, just as the Doctor soon loses function in one of this hearts. While in pain, the Doctor manages to deduce that the cubes are shorting out the electrical charges in the hearts of those nearest the cubes. After Amy jump starts the Doctor’s failed heart with a conveniently placed defibrillator, they’re off to find the baddies.
Amy and the Doctor finally find their way aboard the mysterious spaceship, where they meet up with Rory and Brian, who for some inexplicable reason have been captured and sedated. It’s here that the episode’s villain is revealed. The Shakri, an ancient myth of Gallifrey told to scare children, are proven to be a very real, very powerful reality. What they want is to keep humanity, a species they deem vermin, from moving into space, and are here to bring about the end of days. They’re the galactic pest control.
The Doctor has other plans, and uses the cubes to actually save humanity by making the cubes defibrillate those whose hearts they made stop earlier. End of story…
While this episode had a story that appeared as if it was building to something big, it actually fell flat with a resolution that felt incredibly contrived and rushed, as did the episode on a whole. If there was ever an episode that screamed out “two-parter”, this was it. Since the Doctor didn’t really defeat the Shakri, just stop the cubes from killing people, perhaps this is the first appearance of a new recurring threat.
I did enjoy this episode, and although it provided a very interesting perspective of the companions never before shown, and a wonderful bit of mythology building within the Doctor Who universe, the episode on a whole was not that spectacular. It is touching though, how with Brian’s advice and blessing, the Pond’s choose Doctor life rather than real life, all in light of the fate we know is awaiting them.
This episode was simply a buildup to Amy and Rory’s departure, and in making that the primary focus of the episode, a story that greatly deserved proper telling was lost in the shuffle. While in no way a bad episode, I think it’s the weakest of the season so far. I’d give it 3.5 out of 5 stars. “A” for effort, but “B-“ for execution. Without the nostalgia factor, the interesting “Pond perspective”, and an almost beaten horse approach to the Pond’s impending exit, there was very little of anything else going on. Good, but not great.
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