❉ Robert Fairclough returns to pass his verdict on ‘Chapter One’ of Doctor Who: Flux…
Doctor Who is in a funny place in terms of public perception right now. It’s characteristic of the Jodie Whittaker/Chris Chibnall era that seemingly most people – in Doctor Who fandom and in the media generally – are more excited about Russell T Davies, the show’s 21st century creative godfather, returning to oversee the series in its 60th anniversary, than the prospect of a third Whittaker series.
From comments I’ve seen online, the detractors Chibnall and Whittaker have had since day one have breathed a collective sigh of relief and are prepared to tolerate the twitching, truncated corpse of the thirteenth Doctor – down to six episodes, plus three specials before she hangs up her hoodie – until RTD puts everything right.
How fair is that? True, Chibnall’s era has had its faults:The initial line-up of three companions didn’t help, the writing not allowing them much depth or giving any of them enough to do, and so hobbling the pace of a lot of the Series 11 episodes. Things improved in Series 12 with multi-location stories like Spyfall and Praxeus – split up by different locations, the regulars all had a chance to shine – but there was still a distinct lack of the quick-fire, clever wit you’d get under Davies and Steven Moffat (or, last century, under writers like Robert Holmes). It also has to be said that truly memorable dialogue has been a bit thin on the ground under Chibnall. Which is odd, as he has had such an ear for it in his popular thriller series Broadchurch.
Yet, there have been truly excellent episodes: Rosa, Demons of the Punjab, Kerblam!, Fugitive of the Judoon, Praxeus (again), The Haunting of the Villa Diodati, the two Dalek stories and – although no-one else in the world seems to like it except me – The Tsuranga Conundrum. In those stories you’ll find concepts, stories and characters as vivid and memorable as in any other era of Doctor Who.
So how did ‘Chapter One’ of Doctor Who: Flux fare? When I heard that Whittaker’s third series was going to be one long story, I sat up and took notice. Say what you like about how Chibnall’s handled Doctor Who, it can’t be denied that Broadchurch, especially the first series, is a masterpiece of long-form storytelling built around strong characters. The novelistic approach of Broadchurch brings out the best in Chibnall’s writing, and with that applied to Doctor Who, we could, I thought, be in for something intriguing and special. Not to mention the return of cliffhangers.
At the end of fifty minutes, I thought ‘So far, so good.’ Chibnall has taken the template of Spyfall – multiple locations and accompanying shifts in tone – and applied it across a whole series. As a result, the first episode was a breakneck whirlwind of different environments, from grim, industrial, 19th century Liverpool, through an isolated house in the Arctic Circle to the deck of a Sontaran battle cruiser. Pleasingly, the plot wasn’t as convoluted as Spyfall, with a rampaging galactic force wiping out all planets throughout all time and space front and centre. The episode even ended like an episode of Broadchurch, switching between all the main characters and their current predicaments.
With space for the narrative and the characters to breathe, Chibnall was able to set up some tantalising character beats: the Doctor is lying to Yaz (her one surviving companion) about hunting down the Time Lord black ops unit The Division but, on the surface at least, remains the cheery optimist. The new TARDIS recruit Dan Lewis cries ‘back story!’: although he appears to be a lovable Scouser, proud of his heritage, a friend to the disadvantaged and with a ‘maybe’ girlfriend, he lives in a house that looks suspiciously like his mum’s, where every cupboard is bare: is he on his uppers? No wonder Chibnall said he had comedian and actor John Bishop in mind when he wrote the part, because the character is John Bishop, all the way down to his Liverpool FC football shirt. I liked him immediately.
Because of Flux’s mammoth length, the supporting characters all intrigue and, perhaps even more gratifyingly, give middle weight rather than ‘name’ performers a chance to stand out. Most impressive is Annabel Scholey as Claire, who with a few lines and in a few scenes, made a nervous victim of the Weeping Angels compulsively watchable. Jacob Anderson’s truculent Vinder is just as ambiguous, and I can’t help feeling that he was exiled to ‘Observation Outpost Rose’ for some as yet unspecified misdemeanour.
Then there was Craige Els’ Karvanista. This was an odd one. I’m all for the idea of an alien called the Lupari “species bonding” with humans so they become their rescuers, but did the observation that they were “man’s best friend” have to be taken quite so literally? Once Karvanista removed his helmet and was revealed as a dog the joke was over – a Yorkshire terrier with a Yorkshire accent, no less. Having said that, Els is projecting an appealingly grumpy and cynical personality through the layers of fake fur, so I’m looking forward to seeing more of Bungle – I mean Karvanista – in the future.
This particular shaggy dog also provided the plot twist of the episode, as the supposed Lupari invasion was revealed to be a rescue mission, not an invasion. That was very nicely done.
For the opposition, Swarm, a nemesis of the Doctor that she doesn’t recognise, was the best thing in every scene he was in, Sam Spruell inhabiting a truly memorable villain through the seductive sibilance of his voice and some striking crystalline make-up. Chibnall must have been inspired by Swarm because, for me, his dialogue really sang. My favourite lines were the evocative “dancing across space and time, locked in combat” and the ominous “I remember every battle, which gives me the advantage!”
At this stage, there’s the sense of pieces being moved into place for the coming weeks, but, overall, Flux: The Halloween Apocalypse was off and running at a hundred miles an hour into Chibnall’s finally perfected widescreen version of Doctor Who. The only real misstep was – ironically – the opening sequence, which felt curiously flat and unconvincing. I hope the viewers that might have been put off by it stayed with the show, because it quickly got an awful lot better.
And the question has to be asked: why do the Doctor and Yaz have a double bed in the TARDIS control room…?
❉ Doctor Who is a BBC Studios production for BBC One and a BBC America co-production. BBC Studios are the international distributors for Doctor Who.
❉ Robert Fairclough writes on a variety of subjects, including mental health and popular culture (sometimes both at once). He has written six books, contributes to magazines and websites, and writes regular blogs about projects he’s involved in for The Restoration Trust. He can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org, and his website can be viewed at www.robfairclough.co.uk