‘Doctor Who: Flux – The Vanquishers’

Flux may have been a qualified success, but it was still far and away the best outing for the Thirteenth Doctor (so far).

I honestly don’t know why, looking at what’s been posted on social media, so many people apparently found Doctor Who: Flux difficult to follow. Yes, the storyline is complex, but it’s no more complex than streamed shows like the timey-wimey The Umbrella Academy (2019- ) or lysergic psycho-thriller Legion (2017-19, which, funnily enough, included a shady black ops department called Division 3).

I think the context is the problem. With each episode going out on a Sunday night on BBC1 across a month and a half, viewers were expected to hold all the multi-plotting and time-jumping in their heads for a week. True, they could re-watch the episodes as many times as they wanted on iPlayer after they were transmitted, but without the luxury of being able to forge ahead into subsequent episodes and follow the story closely as it developed, as you’d be able to do on a streaming platform, some viewers apparently got lost.

Make no mistake about it, this was frenetic, up-to-the-minute fantasy storytelling, but if you didn’t watch Flux from Chapter One, there was no way you were going to jump on board with Chapter Three. In other words, this series did the exact opposite to established 21st century Doctor Who, which allows casual viewers to dip in and out with its usual a-new-story-every-episode policy. That change cost the show viewers.

People have also said Chapter Six: The Vanquishers was an anti-climax. Was it? No, but there was a significant caveat.

The Sontarans luring the Daleks and Cybermen into a trap, using the rampaging Flux field to both destroy their enemies, and in turn using their enemies’ fleets to dissipate it so the “potato heads” could conquer the universe unopposed and in safety, was epic stuff and would have made a great season finale on its own. The regular cast and supporting characters all slotted into its defeat admirably and consistently, even if Karvanista’s revelation that the Lupari ships could be remote controlled – how handy! – smacked of deus ex machina. And who could resist tearing up at Professor Jericho’s noble last stand? A bitter-sweet moment, movingly played and directed.

The Doctor’s part of the narrative, however, was a bit more problematic. Correct me if I’m wrong, but in The Vanquishers I think we learned from Azure (unless she was speaking metaphorically) that the Doctor and the Ravagers are part of a universal ‘balance’, with the Doctor on the side of light – keeping things alive – and Swarm and Azure on the side of darkness – death and destruction. That used to be the job of the god-like Black and White Guardians in the 1970s and 1980s; now, with the Doctor somehow part of the elemental structure of the universe, it appears that Chris Chibnall is asking us to accept that the Doctor – that late-developing student who scraped through his graduation from Prydon Academy with 51% on their second attempt, remember – is effectively a god. This idea was reinforced by the interpretation of Time as a sentient, amoral entity, kept in check by the Temple of Atropos, wearing the Doctor’s face and warning her of her impending dissolution.

However far Doctor Who has gone into fantasy, it’s always been anchored to science fiction based in plausible (or roughly plausible) science, but this is taking things to another level, a level that I reckon even script editor Andrew Cartmel didn’t dare contemplate when he had god-like ambitions for the Seventh Doctor in the late 1980s. When you factor in that the Doctor has also recently discovered that she’s the foundation stone on which all Time Lord civilisation was built, we’re starting to get dangerously near super-characters like Marvel Comics’ Loki and Thanos.

That might work for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it’s not what Doctor Who’s fundamentally about i.e. improvisation, lateral thinking, muddling through, intelligence over muscle, the small guy winning out over seemingly overwhelming odds. In Doctor Who right now, there’s a danger of making the main character so omnipotent that she ceases to have any dramatic credibility. This might be conveniently forgotten about in the upcoming special episodes, but if it is, it’ll make rather a nonsense of the whole Flux storyline. I’m intrigued to see what will happen, especially as that brilliantly realised, floating crooked house still has to be explained.

Dig down through the frantic pacing of Flux and it was reassuringly built on well-defined characters – the best that the Whittaker/Chibnall era has so far offered – and it was satisfying to see that Bel, Vinder, Karvanitsa, Claire and even Passenger’s stories all paid off rewardingly. The only ones a bit short changed were Di, who only seemed to be there to dump Dan so he was free to go travelling with the Doctor, and Joseph Williamson, who was literally shown the door out of the story when his usefulness ended. Notably, poor Peggy from ‘Village of the Angels’ wasn’t mentioned at all.

For the opposition, Jonathan Watson excelled as Commander Stenck, while Dan Starkey’s patented blend of pomposity and arrogance enlivened no less than three Sontaran warriors, including – hilariously – the chocolate-obsessed Shallo. Craig Parkinson continued to make the Grand Serpent a hypnotically watchable (if underused) villain, and his exile to a tiny asteroid, neatly paralleling Vinder’s banishment to Observation Outpost Rose, looked distinctly like the set-up for a rematch. I was also sorry to see Azure and Swarm go, but then, have they really gone?

I think that’s the thing about Flux overall: some of the ingredients gelled and some didn’t, but there’s so much in it that can be developed, referenced or ignored in the future.

For the Doctor as she approaches her twilight travels, things are getting interesting. Admitting she was wrong not to open up emotionally to Yaz produced a rare tear, which may well indicate there’s more intimacy to come between the two. The Doctor retaining the fob-watch containing all her missing lives, and hiding it in the TARDIS – “unless I really ask for it” – bodes ominously, as well as excitingly, for what’s to come.

Doctor Who at the moment may not be perfect, but it’s bang on form. Which, oddly enough, is how it always was.

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 robmay1964@outlook.com, and his website can be viewed at www.robfairclough.co.uk

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