‘Doctor Who: Flux – War of the Sontarans’

Chapter two of ‘Doctor Who: Flux’ delivered drama, spectacle, good storytelling, laughs and great characterisation, writes Robert Fairclough.

I’m watching Doctor Who again. By that I mean that for two episodes in a row, Flux, the current season-long story, has improved on the ‘chapter’ before it. I haven’t had the feeling of being completely absorbed from episode to episode for about four years, as well as not being distracted by willing the narrative pacing to get out of first gear, or wishing the characterisation wasn’t so thin and that the dialogue was less stilted. War of the Sontarans powered along with the baton thrown down by The Halloween Apocalypse, delivered drama, spectacle, good storytelling, laughs and some great characterisation.

The cynics will say that it’s a shame that it’s taken writer and executive producer Chris Chibnall four years to get here, and that this is where the Thirteenth Doctor should have started. They have a point, but I’m still glad we’re here.

The narrative was again split over different locations, but the storytelling wasn’t as impatient as in the first episode. Staying in only three different time zones – the Crimean War in 1855, Liverpool in 2021 and the “Planet of Time”, in who-knows-when – allowed the competing subplots room to mature, develop and intrigue convincingly.

The overall plot for this episode was a clever one, building on what was established in the first episode. It would be just like the Sontarans, Doctor Who’s favourite pompous race of war mongers, to sneak in under the Lupari’s shield around the Earth and launch a “temporal assault” throughout Earth history. How exactly they did that I’m not entirely clear on, but I went with it.

After several years of the comedy antics of Dan Starkey’s Strax (although he turned up here playing a subordinate Sontaran), it was rewarding to see the invaders exhibiting the brutality and ruthlessness they often talked about but never really unleashed. At last the budget allowed them to do it, massacring thousands of British troops and murdering the fallen wounded on the battlefield, two of several movie-worthy scenes in War of the Sontarans. Framed by snow falling on a wintry battlefield, these sequences were part of a memorably bleak backdrop to the Crimean location, a setting that also seemed to energise Jodie Whittaker. With the Doctor marooned in 1885, her companions lost in time – yes, one per location, but a forgivable plot contrivance – and trying to stop a war, from beginning to end she quietly presented the steel that has always lurked behind this hale and heart regeneration’s demeanour. It might even have been Whittaker’s best performance to date.

Pleasingly, John Bishop’s Dan Lewis was much better here than in The Halloween Apocalypse. Allowed to play a broader range of emotions that just “cheery Scouser,” his business with the wok that he used to clobber Sontarans with embodied that combination of the absurd and the bizarre that Doctor Who has practically made its own. He was so sure of himself he even attempted a OO7-style-pun – “I’m gonna wok right outta here” – after trouncing another Sontaran foe.

Dan’s a great addition to the show, as are his grumbling parents (Sue Jenkins and Paul Broughton). It turns out his house was his own, so later on in the series we’ll no doubt we’ll get some back-story about why he’s apparently penniless. Dan’s development is being nicely paced; his glee at being offered a ride in the TARDIS makes perfect sense if life in Liverpool has nothing left to offer him. And I almost punched the air when Karvanista (Craige Els), his Lupari protector, turned up to grumpily save him from the Sontarans. These two are great together, and you can see a potential double act developing between the caustic mandog and the salt-of-the-earth Liverpudlian. How long can it be before one of them says “This shit just got real”? (Assuming that’s OK on BBC1 at 6.30 on a Sunday).

Yaz, meanwhile, appeared to have landed at the centre of things in the Temple of Antropos. She’s also benefiting from the attention to detail in Flux’s characterisations, now convincingly brisk and efficient, every inch a PC of the (time and) spaceways, but boosting her confidence by writing the acronym WWTDD – “What Would The Doctor Do?” – on her hand. The same depth applied to Vinder (Jacob Anderson). As I suspected, he was posted out in the wastes of space because he had been “shamed, disgraced and rejected,” a fact brought to light by the magnificently malevolent Swarm (Sam Spruell).

Without a doubt, Swarm, Azure (Rochenda Sandall) and now the ominously silent Passenger (Jonny Mathers), are shaping up as the best villains of the Chibnall/Whittaker era. I’d wager they’re partly modelled on the grotesques of The Abominable Dr Phibes (1971) and Hellraiser (1987), and as their role in the story expands, so they become ever more watchable: crumbling to dust the nervous, flying CGI gizmos in the Temple, dropping cryptic hints about future story developments and delivering a second memorable cliffhanger, namely threatening to blast the full force of time through Yaz and Vinder.

That fact that I’ve written 844 words without mentioning the mysterious floating house seen in black and white at the beginning of the episode, or the guest role of Mary Seacole, the “doctoress” who built her ‘British Hotel’ near the Crimean frontline and who nursed the wounded, is an indication of how rewardingly textured the story and plotting are without this extra icing on Chibnall’s creative cake.

The crooked house has Doctor Who fandom tongues a-wagging, as some pundits think it could be Lungbarrow, the Doctor’s ancestral home on Gallifrey, from the New Adventures novel of the same name. Food for thought… Mary Seacole is a real historical figure I knew nothing about. It would have been all to easy to have featured her better-known contemporary Florence Nightingale instead, so it was an eye-opener for me to see how a British-Jamaican woman financed her own medical expedition to assist the British army. Small wonder that in 2004, “Mother Seacole” – as the troops she cared for called her – was voted the greatest black Briton. With that to work with, actress Sara Powell created a memorable figure of strength, dignity and kindness.

If the anti-woke lobby wanted to grumble about anything in War of the Sontarans, it would have been the ‘women are compassionate and caring, men are warlike and stupid’ message. But I suppose they couldn’t really argue with that because it’s so often the case.

All in all, Flux is shaping up to be the most Doctor Who fun you can have with your clothes on.

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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