Doctor Who: The Power of Three review

Patrick Mulkern’s analysis, writer Chris Chibnall on honouring the Brigadier, producer Marcus Wilson on hiring Lord Sugar – plus Matt, Karen and Arthur’s very last scene

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Doctor Who: The Power of Three review
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Patrick Mulkern

“Promise you won’t use this in advance..?” doublechecks Chris Chibnall during our phone chat a few weeks ago. Absolutely promise, I say. “Kate Stewart is the Brigadier’s daughter,” whispers Chris.

You don’t need to be the most clued-up Doctor Who fan to have guessed that Kate, the new head of Unit, had to be related to Brigadier Lethbridge Stewart (former Unit CO and friend to many previous Doctors), but I wanted confirmation from the horse’s mouth.

“Given that we were bringing back Unit,” says Chris, “I thought it would be a nice way to honour the character of the Brigadier and [the late actor] Nicholas Courtney’s contribution to the show by anchoring Unit to his family. It was a way to keep that family line going, after we’d heard last year on screen that the Brigadier had died [in The Wedding of River Song].”

Chris Chibnall agrees that one of the most enjoyable aspects of Doctor Who is its sense of continuity, which even younger viewers pick up on. “My kids who are nine and six absolutely understand who the Brig was and why he’s important. They’ve seen him in The Sarah Jane Adventures and some classic Doctor Whos.”

I can still work myself into a tizzy, given half a chance, that the Brig – one of my all-time favourite characters – wasn’t brought back to 21st-century Who while Nick Courtney was well and able and very keen. His inclusion in The Sarah Jane Adventures was welcome but a last-minute affair.

But let’s not moan. The Brig’s daughter Kate is a wonderful addition. And, curiously, she isn’t a brand-new invention of mainstream Who. The character was established in a 1995 fan-produced drama called Downtime, which did star Nicholas Courtney.

What’s even more wonderful is that the scientific arm of Unit is now superior to the military side. Kate is head of scientific research. “Unit’s been adapting,” she tells the Doctor. “I’ve been dragging them along, kicking and screaming.” And Kate was inspired by her dad: “He guided me to the end. Science leads, he always told me. Said he learnt that from an old friend.” Aww! Jon Pertwee’s Doctor would be so chuffed.

Jemma Redgrave is class-act casting: elegant, earnest, warm. When Kate kisses the Doctor at the end, he coos, “A kiss from a Lethbridge Stewart. That is new!” She has to come back soon, and regularly. Please!

But let’s crack on. There’s so much more to cover in this episode. The other big star name, Steven Berkoff, arrives surprisingly late in the proceedings. He has little to do, seems subdued for Berkoff, but glowers intensely under his latex mask, and reminds me of those peculiar aliens Lost in Space served up long ago. (Not that that’s a bad thing.)

RT kept shtum about the famous-face cameos in The Power of Three. It’s great fun seeing Professor Brian Cox pondering the mysterious black cubes: “Are they extraterrestrial? You’ll have to ask a better man than me.” And as for Lord Sugar telling a candidate “You’re fired!” for failing to shift some cubes… 

I asked producer Marcus Wilson if it was tricky getting these people on board. “It was surprisingly easy,” he says. “They said yes immediately and then it was just a matter of coordinating schedules. The Apprentice crew even filmed the segment for us, with our director Douglas Mackinnon standing in for the guy who was fired.” 

The episode is packed with these little fun moments, but also offers an enthralling mystery, unfolding like a John Wyndham page-turner or one of those sci-fi comic books from the 1970s. I love the little black cubes (which have seven sides, “if you count the inside”). Every home should have some and no doubt they’ll be in the shops by Christmas. In the episode there appear to be billions, but Marcus says: “We made a hundred of them. Many more in CGI.”

The dastardly cubes eventually trigger cardiac arrests for a third of the world population, but how many people actually die? It’s glossed over, and I don’t entirely buy the Doctor’s solution: a mass defibrillation a good few minutes later, after which the victims simply get to their feet. But it’s a minor gripe.

This is beautifully made television, breezily directed by Douglas Mackinnon, and with playful music from Murray Gold. Someone has obviously managed to bring down the levels for this series, after years of complaints, so that the music is once again incidental to the action and dialogue.

The main pleasure of The Power of Three is set up in that title: the excellence of Matt Smith, Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill. They all act their socks off, but with hindsight a classic scene for many will be the heart-to-heart the Doctor and Amy share by the Tower of London. “I’m not running away from things. I’m running to them, before they fade for ever,” he confides. “You were the first. The first face this face saw and you were seared onto my hearts, Amelia Pond. I’m running to you and Rory before you fade from me.”

Marcus Wilson reveals this magical moment was shot in a studio in Cardiff. “Because of the Olympics, we couldn’t film in London. Video footage was digitally composited with live action to create the illusion of being on the banks of the Thames.” Clever! 

Importantly, Rory’s dad Brian (terrific Mark Williams) forces an admission from the Doctor about the fate of his companions. “Some left me. Some got left behind. And some… not many but… some died.” Oooh, something’s being set up here…

We know next week’s episode, The Angels Take Manhattan, marks the Ponds’ farewell – and there will be gulps and sniffles. But, in production order, the very last scene the trio actually filmed is in The Power of Three. “Their last scene was the final shot of episode four as they got into the Tardis together,” confirms Marcus. “A lovely last moment.”

Make your own The Power of Three cube here

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