I thought I knew what to expect from this episode: The Doctor bunks with Amy and Rory; hijinks ensue. Well, not quite. For one, the Doctor didn’t really live with the Ponds, the way he did with Craig and Sophie in “The Lodger.” However, that may have been a smart decision to avoid a “been there, done that” feel to the story.
What we got instead was a story of how two long-serving companions have matured not only as space/time travelers, but to the point of deciding to “leave the nest” and the Doctor, and establish their own life together, with jobs and human friends and non-expired food. And we learned just how lonely the Doctor is, and a little about why he travels so much.
The story begins with Amy (Karen Gillan) and Rory (Arthur Darvill) realize that they have two lives — their regular life and “Doctor Life” — and they have to choose one. One day they are awakened by Brian (Mark Williams), who alerts them that small black cubes have appeared all over the world overnight. The Doctor (Matt Smith) has also suddenly appeared, and he studies the curious cubes. The artron energy emitted by the TARDIS attracts the attention of UNIT, now run by Kate Stewart (Jemma Redgrave).
UNIT agrees the mystery cubes pose no danger, so people bring them into their homes and make Facebook pages for them. The Doctor decides to… wait and watch the cubes. In a matter of days, the Doctor is going stir-crazy in the Ponds’ flat. He wants to have an adventure. Now. But Rory points out he’s due at work soon. “The universe is waiting, but you have a little job,” the Doctor snarks. The Time Lord goes off alone, leaving the Ponds to live their lives.
The Doctor reappears the following June for the Ponds’ anniversary, setting them up with a room at the newly-opened Savoy in 1890, and promises to have them back to their guests in moments. Later, we learn out there was a Zygon ship under the Savoy! Also, Amy accidentally married Henry VIII. When Brian confronts the Doctor, he admits they’ve been away for seven weeks. Rory’s concerned father asks the Doctor what happened to his previous companions. The Doctor sadly notes that he left some; some left him; and a few even died. But he assures Brian that won’t happen to the Ponds.
The next month the cubes finally start to do things; random things, like spin or hover or fire guns! Summoned to UNIT’s secret base under the Tower of London, the Doctor reminds Kate that father never despaired — revealing that he knows she’s the daughter of his late friend, Brig. Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart. The cubes scan everyone on the planet and then shut down. The Doctor takes a moment and reveals to Amy he knows she’s thinking of quitting. Amy fears their travels feel like running away from real life. The Doctor, however, describes his journeys a chance to explore wonders. “I’m not running away from things,” he says. “I’m running to them, before they flare and fade forever.” And that includes Amy and Rory >sob<!
The Doctor suddenly realizes that the cubes have been probing Earth’s life and defenses for the past year — just as the power goes out. When it comes back on, the cubes begin counting down from 7. When they hit zero, the cubes all open to reveal… nothing inside. The Doctor is disappointed, until reports come in from all over the globe that people near open cubes are having heart attacks. Then one of the Doctor’s hearts shuts down, causing him much pain. UNIT tracks energy waves to relay stations, and the closest is at the hospital where Rory works! There, the Doctor’s condition worsens, so Amy hits him with a defibrillator — over his strenuous objections — but the shock restarts his heart. The two find a wormhole leading to alien ship in orbit, where Brian and Rory are already unconscious after being captured earlier. A hologram (Steven Berkoff) reveals they are on a Shakri ship — the pest-controllers of the universe, intent on wiping out the human “pests” before they spread to the stars. The Doctor sonics the main computer and uses the cubes as defibrillators to revive the dead around the world, and the feedback destroys the Shakri ship.
Later, the Doctor bids farewell to the Ponds, but Brian tells him that Amy and Rory need the Doctor, and urges them to go with him, and save other worlds. But Brian asks the Doctor to bring them back safe.
This episode is another in which the plot line is just a MacGuffin to bring the Doctor, Amy and Rory together for some final characterization before next week’s end of the line.
As the Doctor points out, patience is not one of his strong suits, so it’s obvious why he is determined to take the slow path and watch the cubes (instead of skipping ahead in the TARDIS): It’s an excuse to hang out with Amy and Rory, whom he has been seeing less and less of lately, because they have been declining his invitations to travel in favor of spending time at home. Doing boring stuff like working a job and being a bridesmaid.
The Ponds are pretty unique in the pantheon of companions — and not only for being the first married couple to travel with him. They actually have taken some time off between adventures and then rejoined the Doctor. This is distinct from Sarah Jane and Jo, whom the Doctor caught up with decades later for one-off adventures. The Doctor keeps coming back to the Ponds, making their tenure, essentially, unbroken despite the breaks.
Amy and Rory have been tagging along on the Doctor’s mad adventures for about 10 years from their perspective, so a viewer could understand that they would tire of constantly running from Daleks and vampire space fish. They do enjoy it when they’re in the moment, but also feel that most mature and grown-up of emotions, guilt. Amy expressed it best when she told the Time Lord that running around was beginning to feel like running away.
It’s an essential tragedy of the Doctor’s existence that he’s destined to outlive his companions — the presence of Kate is a timely reminder of that fact — and there’s nothing he can do about it. They are, after all, only human. So he didn’t zip back and cure the Brig to give him another few years of life. And, although it feels like the Doctor knows what’s going to happen to the Ponds, he doesn’t warn them. (And we don’t really know if he knows.) I have always felt bad for the Doctor when I think about how he could spend decades with a companion and yet it’s still not enough time. He checked in on Reinette periodically (in “The Girl in the Fireplace”), but didn’t take her on adventures. But the Ponds he revisits, even more than Sarah Jane. And he senses the time is coming to pass the torch to new companions.
The story also drives home the idea of passing the torch with a legacy character: Kate Stewart, the head of scientific research at UNIT — and, since the organization was reorganized, leader of the military component, as well. Kate grew up with stories of the Doctor (like most of the audience) and has taken to heart the lesson her father learned the hard way — “Science leads the way.” There was that fun reference to the Zygons (even if it was all just a tease). And then there was the sentimental line about his “tin dog.”
The threat of the cubes and the Shakri were disposed of with relative ease because they never really mattered. What mattered was letting the Doctor relax and spend time with his best friends — while they still have it. I’m a bit surprised that all the foreshadowing this season hasn’t crushed the Ponds to death by now.
Why does the Doctor insist on turning the Ponds’ kitchen into a lab when he has (presumably) perfectly functioning laboratories aboard the TARDIS? I think that shows how desperate he was to hang around his pals.
Leading up to this episode, I was wondering how the 11th Doctor would identify himself to UNIT (psychic paper?). Luckily, Kate also thought ahead, and the bio scan looking for two hearts was a brilliant idea. Just one question: Is the 11th Doctor’s dress sense really that unusual? I mean, compared to so many of his previous selves…
The triumvirate eating fish fingers and custard together: Awwww…
When the Doctor and friends fled the Shakri ship, they left behind all those humans lying on the stone slabs. Were they already dead? Why were they there? For that matter, why did the sucker-mouthed orderlies kidnap Brian? I like to think it was all part of the Shakri plan to find weaknesses in the human race, but that was never spelled out.
No doubt the Doctor was afraid of the defibrillator because his horrible experience at the hands of Earth medicine (and a defibrillator) in the 1996 TV movie.
Biggest disappointment: The Zygons were totally offscreen! I’ve been waiting for those shapeshifters to come back for… forever!
QUOTES OF THE WEEK:
“Because you were the first. The first face this face saw. And you were seared onto my hearts, Amelia Pond. You always will be. I’m running to you, and Rory, before you fade from me.” — the Doctor
There really is nothing more to say after that.