Doctor Who’s 13th season was one single 6-episode story titled “Flux”. I expect the three specials slated to air over the next year will be the last hurrah for show runner Chris Chibnall and star Jodie Whittaker as they turn the keys to the kingdom over to returning show runner Russell T. Davies and whomever he chooses as the fourteenth Doctor. Chiball’s run has been mediocre and pretty forgettable to date (see my previous season round-ups). Did Flux change that? Let’s find out what I think, with spoilers, after the cut:
While there were some things to like about Flux – notably John Bishop as new companion Dan Lewis – it was overall a pretty muddled story with little emotional impact. “Convoluted” is probably the best single word to describe it. Here’s my attempt at untangling the timeline of events:
- In the distant past, the Fugitive Doctor (Jo Martin), working for the Time Lord stealth agency Division, confront a pair of aliens Swarm (Sam Spruell) and Azure (Rochenda Sandall) in a temple on the planet Atropos, where they capture the aliens. One of her companions is Karvanista (Craige Els), a dog-like alien Lupari.
- At some later point, the Doctor betrays division, although she has no memory of this.
- In 1958, an alien entity called the Grand Serpent (Craig Parkinson) helps to form UNIT and influences it over the ensuing 60 years. (I still don’t have a good idea who the Grand Serpent is, how he connects to the other villains or the Flux, or why he has such a pretentious name.)
- Catching up to the present, Division frees Swarm and Azure and they go to Atropos where they disrupt the flow of time, unleashing the Flux, which begins to destroy everything. Division has decided the Doctor has ruined their plans for the universe too thoroughly and plans to restart it in an alternate universe.
- The Doctor and Yaz are pursuing Karvanista to learn about Division. The Lupari are working to save humanity from the Flux, and the Doctor helps them erect a barrier around Earth. But not before Karvanista plucks the human he’s been assigned – Dan Lewis – from Earth.
- Vinder (Jacob Anderson) – a former employee of the Grand Serpent’s – has been exiled to an outpost where he warns the universe about the Flux. He escapes being destroyed, but is separated from his partner, Bel (Thaddeus Graham).
- Dan’s friend Diane (Nadia Albina) is taken by Azure. The Doctor and Yaz also meet Claire (Annabel Scholey), a woman from their future, who is taken by a Weeping Angel.
- The Flux throws the Doctor, Dan, Yaz, and the TARDIS back to the Crimean War in the 1850s where the Sontarans are invading. They stop this invasion, but the Sontarans in 2021 are taking advantage of the Flux to invade again.
- The Doctor and company again end up on Atropos, where they meet Vinder, but where Swarm and Azure have disrupted time. The Doctor puts herself and her companions in their own time streams, but she convinces the priests the aliens have disrupted to restore things. They manages to restore the travelers, but the Flux is already released.
- A Weeping Angel takes control of the TARDIS and brings them to a small town in 1967, shortly before all its inhabitants disappeared. This had happened before, in 1901. Naturally the Angels are to blame. The Angels are trying to capture a fugitive angel which is hiding inside Claire’s mind. The rogue Angel trades the Doctor for its life. The Angels turn out to be working for Division.
- The Doctor is taken to meet Division operative Awsok, whom she saw briefly when she was stuck in her past on Atropos. Awsok is Tecteune, the woman who found the Doctor as the “Timeless Child”, apparently a child from another universe, and gave the child’s regeneration capabilities to her race to create the Time Lords.
- “Meanwhile”, stuck in 1901, Yaz, Dan, and Professor Jericho (Kevin McNally) – who joined them escaping the Angels in his town – spend three years trying to figure out how to contact the Doctor or get back to the present. However, they manage to find a man (Steve Oram) who dug a network of tunnels under London – I think prompted by visions – where he found doors to other time periods.
- The Grand Serpent neuters UNIT and allows the Sontarans to invade. Kate Stewart leads the resistance against them.
- Various nonsense occurs involving Vinder, Bel, Diane, and an alien transport entities called Passengers which seems largely disconnected from the larger story, except to inject a little pathos as Vinder and Bel try to find each other again.
- Swarm kills Tecteune, but the Doctor somehow manages to split herself into three different people across three different times. Two of them reunite with Yaz and Dan and the TARDIS.
- The Sontarans plan to betray everyone and use the Flux to destroy everything except a few worlds, which they will rule. The Grand Serpent is allied with themselves in this, for unclear reasons.
- The Doctor manages to use the Lupari shield to contain the Flux, which destroys the Sontaran fleet, and then she uses a Passenger to absorb and contain the Flux.
- The Doctor’s selves are reunited, but captured by Swarm and Azure who take her to Atropos to meet their master, Time. But since the Flux has been destroyed, Time is still captive in the temple, and it kills the aliens. It lets the Doctor go with a warning presaging her upcoming regeneration. The Doctor rescues a fob with her past memories, but deposits it in the TARDIS for safe keeping until she needs it, and then continues to travel with Yaz and Dan.
Did I get it all? I hope so! It was told in a. very circuitous manner and with a lot of digressions.
I think Chibnall was making an effort to break up the story into six parts with separate villains: First the new race the Lupari (who turn out to not to be bad guys), then the Sontarans, then the Cybermen, then the Weeping Angels, then Division and the Grand Serpent, then wrapping it up in the last episode. That part sort of worked, although – for example – the whole Crimean War episode seemed kind of superfluous.
The core problem with the story is that the characters are all pretty cardboard and it’s hard to care much about them. Bishop’s performance as Dan elevates what would have been a pretty mediocre character into someone fairly entertaining. Chibnall tries really, really hard to make Vinder and Bel work, but they’re both pretty flat and feel superfluous to the story. The most successful supporting character is Professor Jericho, who has a nice little story arc, albeit with a sad ending. Claire and Diane, on the other hand…
The best episode is surely the fourth, “Village of the Angels”, which is creepy and is an interesting iteration of the Angels without really breaking what we’ve seen before. I wish this had been a stand-along two parter, as the Angels manipulating a whole village and pursuing a fugitive Angel are both interesting, but they required a denouement about the village (perhaps in the present day) and a more satisfying rationale for why there would be a rogue Angel. As it is this episode was just a stopping point along the way to Division and felt unfinished.
There are a lot of bad guys in this story, but the real villains are Division and Swarm and Azure. We only really see Division in the form of Tecteune, who is killed, and we have no idea how large Division is or whether it succeeded in its goal of setting up camp in an alternate universe. Since the Flux was just cleaning things up (in a sense) behind them, there’s no reason to believe they didn’t manage to get there.
Swarm and Azure on the other hand… they look pretty cool, but what they hell were they? Extensions of Time, I guess, being used to free itself. But I couldn’t tell if they were all aliens of some species we’d never seen before, or if they were constructs, or what. It was all too obscure.
Ultimately I think these sorts of complicated time-sliced adventures are not really worth it. Telling a story with interleaved time takes a lot of cognitive effort to fit everything together, and the large cast means that many characters don’t get their due in a dramatic sense. Really all of the supporting characters should have had their own arc and climactic moment, but most of them are just going through a series of events.
Flux was certainly big and bold, but it was also kind of shallow and unsatisfying. Not nearly as frustrating as “Revolution of the Daleks”, but, well, it looks like the Christmas special is going to be more Daleks, so we’ll see.