It was unconventional, I’ll give it that. This episode strayed from Doctor Who’s tried and tested forms of storytelling by casting the story from the companions’ point of view. The episode was enabled to do that by the central premise of the episode in which the Earth finds itself invaded by trillions of small black cubes which… do absolutely nothing. Thus obliging the Doctor to wait around in the Ponds’ house until the cubes do do something. Both devices — the companion POV and the lack of immediate threat — were unconventional for Doctor Who. The episode deserves praise for daring to be different, at least, but unconventional doesn’t necessarily mean effective. Watching the Doctor hanging out with Amy and Rory and trying vainly to pass the time while waiting on the cubes and, failing that, whisking Amy and Rory away for adventures of which we only see the entertainingly absurd endings, was charming and amusing, yes, but didn’t really make for particularly gripping storytelling. I was wondering impatiently when the episode would get to the point while watching all this.
When it did, belatedly, things started to improve. Although “the invasion of the cubes” is the kind of idea that initially makes you wonder what the writer was thinking, the cubes turned out to be a properly intriguing mystery. Especially so after they “activated”. The countdown was spiced with tension, and things really started to hot up when people started collapsing in the streets. The gruesome grill-mouthed men posing as hospital staff, spiriting away patients and nurses’ unsuspecting fathers through a goods lift to an ominous looking spaceship orbiting the Earth, had real fear factor, but their child-scaring potential was unfortunately not fully exploited. Moffat should beat into Chris Chibnall Rule 1 of Doctor Who: take no prisoners when it comes to trying to traumatise children.
For the episode’s build-up, though, both the revelation and the resolution felt undignifiedly underdeveloped. The idea that the shadowy alien masters of the cubes wanted to use them to exterminate the human race before they spread into the universe was fine enough, but the whole thing felt like an afterthought. It felt awkwardly lynch-pinned on, the revelation of these malignant, semi-legendary “pest controllers of the universe” (the Pesticide Lords?) sitting incongruously with the light, fluffy tale that had preceded it. I didn’t feel the conviction in that scene; neither in the writing nor in Matt Smith’s delivery of the “humans rule, OK?” speech. Nor was the resolution any good. I’m not among those who insist the sonic screwdriver is an overused “magic wand”, but if one were to point to a perfect instance of the sonic screwdriver being used as a magic solve-all, it’d be here, where the Doctor seemingly waves his sonic screwdriver at the screen and brings billions of people back to life. It was all disconcertingly over in a matter of seconds.
This episode couldn’t stand on its plot, but where it does succeed is its character element. It’s great writing and directing, along with acting from the three leads, portraying the Ponds’ anxieties and equivocation over having to sort out their “real” lives from their Tardis lives. Seeing the Ponds increasingly committed and content with their “normal” life, and seeing the Doctor’s apprehension about that, is charming and just a bit sad (I loved the Series 6 Doctor-Ponds dynamic, and it pains me to see the Doctor and his best friends drifting apart from each other like that). This emotional element of the story led to a couple of tender character moments—the Doctor and Amy’s emotion-laden conversation outside the Tower of London was particularly beautiful. The Doctor’s poetic exposition of why he runs to things, not away from them, was only topped by his assertion that he keeps coming back to Amy, “Because you were the first. The first face this face saw. And you’re seared onto my hearts, Amelia Pond. You always will be. I’m running to you, and Rory, before you fade from me.” Also very poignant moments were the Doctor’s admission to Amy earlier that, all the adventuring around time and space aside, he missed her. And his being forced to admit to Brian what happened to his former companions—you can see the repressed pain and regret written all over the Doctor’s face.
Some final thoughts. I have laudatory things to say about two characters in particular. First, Kate Stewart was a wonderful invention. I’m not sure who, of Moffat or Chibnall, gets the credit for Kate, but her conception was ingenious. She was written well and played impressively by Jemma Redgrave, who has become the face for Moffat’s new-look, revamped science-driven UNIT. She’s a fitting successor to the venerable Brigadier. Brian
Pond Williams is shaping up to be the next beloved companion parent. Few could convincingly fulfil that role after Bernard Cribbins played the endearing companion parent par excellence in Wilfred Mott, but Brian really pips it, an adorable, quirky, devoted old man who truly deserves his status as an honorary Pond. Although Amy has slowly matured since we first met her at the beginning of Series 5, it occurred to me that the difference was particularly marked in this episode. She still retains a few of the familiar old Pond-isms (Rory: “There are soldiers all over my house, and I’m in my pants.” Amy: “My whole life I’ve dreamed of saying that, and I miss it by being someone else.”), but, other than, obviously, physically*, she’s distinctly older, more mature, and even audibly older — her vocal range and speech patterns seem less, er, teenage girl-ish and more mature young lady. Amy’s character development over her two-and-a-half seasons has been really subtle and well-orchestrated, and I’d say the most successful character development yet of any of the New Who companions.
* She and Rory calculated that it’s been 7 years in (relative) time since they first took up with the Doctor, which makes them about 26 in this episode. The age of their friends indicates what age they’re supposed to look.