The actual plot
Oh dear! Not up to much, was it? And in many ways that's OK for me, because the emphasis this week was clearly supposed to be on character instead, and that aspect was done quite well. If I have to choose between whether the sciencey macguffins and villainous machinations of a Doctor Who story make sense, or whether the experiences and interactions of the characters are emotionally plausible, I will go for the latter every time - although obviously it's even nicer to have both. But a plot which is literally resolved by the Doctor waving his Sonic Screwdriver around a bit, magic-ing away not only the cubes themselves but the deaths which they have caused, stretches even my tolerance. This is the sort of stuff the Russell T. Davies era was (rightly) criticised for, but in fact I don't think any of the stories he wrote or oversaw had quite such a weak plot resolutions as this one. This was one of the worst I've ever seen in all of Who history.
We never did get any decent in-plot explanation for why the number seven was of any importance to the cubes or the Shakri, either, but I assume the out-of-story explanation is simply that Chibnall had drawn on the idea of the seven chakras when creating them. If so, that ranks right alongside the use of Greek mythology for world-building in Underworld and The Horns of Nimon - i.e. an attempt to lend depth to a story without really engaging with the internal logic of the borrowed idea (though I still like Horns anyway for other reasons). I also note that the idea of placing a portal to another dimension inside a goods lift was used only last season in Closing Time, where the Doctor and Craig teleport to the Cyberman ship from a lift in the department store.
Amy and Rory
But the weight of this story clearly lay with Amy, Rory and their imminent departure anyway, and as I've said above I felt that was done well. Amy's conversation with the Doctor, sat overlooking the Thames, was lovely, as was Brian asking the Doctor what has happened to the other people who have travelled with him, and the Doctor giving a completely honest answer for once in his life - that some had left, some got left behind, and some died. All of this, too, made the story feel very much like a left-over from the RTD era, rather than a Moffat job. But by reminding us of what character drama looks like when done well, it also made me even more annoyed by contrast over the abysmal handling of Amy and Rory's divorce and re-make-up in Pond Life and Asylum of the Daleks. If you're going to do emotions, give them proper space - don't treat a major relationship break-up like it was a brief row over leaving the lid off the toothpaste.
Possibly there were other guest characters, but I only saw one: Kate [Lethbridge-]Stewart. She is absolute love, and I very much hope we see her again - which seems reasonably likely, given the effort put into her back-story and into signalling shifts in the role and focus of UNIT. I particularly liked what her role as 'Head of Scientific Research' signifies, in fact. If this is the role occupied by the head of UNIT now, then it speaks of a shift away from fighting off alien visitors and towards finding out more about them - a more fitting approach for the 21st century, although perhaps also one which allows less room for clashes with the Doctor. I noticed that Kate recognised the Doctor straight away, even though the rest of the Universe now believes he is dead. Perhaps that is meant to reflect Earth's relatively isolated position, so that while news of the Doctor's death has spread far and wide amongst alien cultures, it simply hasn't reached UNIT - or if it did, they just shrugged and assumed it was only a temporary death, as they have experienced with him before. Or perhaps it is a continuity oversight.
Happily, there were lots of these. I liked the cubes themselves, even if the plot they were part of was weak. Their design was good - a classic example of simple but effective - and I liked the way that when they came to life they were a bit like phone apps, each doing something different. But above all I liked the shots of they cubes after they had been normalised and accepted into people's lives - as paper-weights, menu props, in mug cupboards, on desks. This also felt very much like something from the Russell T. Davies era, recalling his eye for the small details of everyday life.
And once again nodding in RTD's direction was the treatment of LGBT issues. This week, Amy's female friend who asks her to be a bridesmaid is clearly a lesbian, since Amy jokes, "It's about time you made an honest woman of her" when she tells her about it in the nightclub. This felt like a real attempt at inclusivity by depicting LGBT characters even when their sexuality has no significance for the plot, this time avoiding the pitfall of then making them the butt of stupid jokes or stereotypes (as happened in Closing Time, for instance). Put next to the Doctor kissing Rory last week, and Rory returning the favour (to the Doctor's obvious delight) this week, it's almost like Moffat has actually listened to and responded to criticism about this at long last.
And then there was just the general feeling of fun and joking around, presumably with an eye to upping the pathos in the next episode. Like Amy, Rory and the Doctor eating fish fingers and custard in front of The Apprentice, Brian's dogged persistence with his cube log, and Rory running down a corridor - but it being a hospital corridor on Earth. The Doctor's quip while playing Wii tennis - “If Fred Perry could see me now, eh? He’d probably ask for his shorts back” - sounded very First Doctorish, which is always good. And of course I loved the romp through history on Amy and Rory's wedding anniversary to the Savoy in 1890 and to reclaim Rory's phone charger from Henry VIII's bedroom. This actually means that The Asylum of the Daleks has been the only episode so far this season not to feature a little of Earth's history in some capacity, which I strongly approve of.
My main response to Amy's opening voice-over on first watching was that it was was spoken from a perspective of looking back over her and Rory's time with Doctor after it has finished, and therefore presumably signalled that she would (in some sense) survive the next episode. The commentary I've seen regarding The Angels Take Manhattan suggests that it is a bit more specific than that, though, in that she goes on to become an author after her travels with the Doctor are over - but I'll have to wait until I've seen it to be sure about that. In the meantime, though, the issue of narrative voices has become very prominent in this season of Who, as parrot_knight points out in this thread, and I particularly like danieldwilliam's vision of a post-50th anniversary season really going to town with that concept. :-)
Following up on other ongoing threads, lightbulbs of course remain an issue, with the lights failing this time in the UNIT base below the Tower of London. I also note that (in addition to being just generally funny and ace) Brian's torrent of guesses about what the cubes might be specifically included the suggestion 'alien eggs', while Rory then also adds, "There couldn't be life-forms in every cube, could there?" The Shakri see human beings as vermin, rather than parasites, for whom metaphorical slug-pellets must be put down. But the cubes themselves quite clearly are parasites, inoffensively infiltrating their way into human culture before unleashing their deadly force, so that theme too is nicely continued this week.
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