Almost 20 months since the end of the last series, Doctor Who returns for a story of epic proportions
Starring Jodie Whittaker, Mandip Gill, and John Bishop
303 days since the last episode, and 609 since the canon-breaking instalment “The Timeless Children”, Doctor Who has finally returned to our screens for its thirteenth series since its revival in 2005. This year, with its own special tagline, Flux, Doctor Who looks set to tell one of its most ambitious stories ever, with all six parts of series 13 forming a chapter in part of a larger tale. Set to include Sontarans, Weeping Angels, the Cybermen and the Ood, trailers have certainly make the stakes seem high, even if the production team have been cagey about anything other than the appearing characters.
Despite the tremendous hype surrounding this six-part saga, this format will be more than familiar to fans of the Classic Era of Doctor Who, which used to tell all of its stories in this way. Two previous seasons, Season 16, known as the Key to Time Saga, and Season 23, otherwise known as The Trial of a Timelord, have also told singular stories across an entire series. Within the context of many other popular shows, such as Stranger Things or, indeed, most output from competitors like Netflix, it is understandable why the production team have made this move, to stay more relevant with what audiences are responding to. Additionally, it makes the series appear like an event, which slightly makes up for the reduced episode count.
Returning for their third series are Jodie Whittaker as the Doctor, and Mandip Gill as Yasmin Khan, who elected to remain on the TARDIS following the departures of previous companions Graham and Ryan (played by Bradley Walsh and Tosin Cole respectively). Joining them on their adventures for this series is Dan, a character who was shrouded in needless levels of secrecy until his debut in this episode.
The best words to describe Chibnall’s tenure on Doctor Who would probably be contentious and divisive. Not only responsible for the first female Doctor (which some people are still caught up about), but his Timeless Child story arc has completely shattered audiences understanding of the Doctor’s character as a whole. While some audience members are excited at the prospect of having more mystery surrounding the Doctor, since most of their secrets had ended up stripped away after almost 60 years on screen, others view this as a source of anger, doubtless as a result of the fact that they cannot neatly erase Chibnall’s time on Who once he leaves the TARDIS and hands the keys back over to Russell T Davies.
Despite the reduced episode count, Chibnall’s series of Who have produced engrossing stories. It looks more cinematic than it ever has before, using a wider array of different locations across the world to make each episode truly shine on screen. Returning to a larger TARDIS coterie, Chibnall evidently wanted to harken back to the earliest days of Who by creating a fully fledged TARDIS team. While this has allowed for a greater diversity within storytelling, as there have been more regular cast to bounce off each other while being separated from the Doctor, relatively few fans could claim that there had been substantial character growth and development during this time. Even Yaz, who now holds the position as the longest-running companion ever in the history of Doctor Who in terms of calendar time, has enjoyed very little depth, and is broadly written to fit the constraints of each episode as it occurs.
With tonight’s episode signalling the beginning of the end for both Chibnall and Whittaker’s tenure on the show, there is a huge amount of expectation for this instalment to hit the ground running. Many viewers are almost looking for things to pick holes in, so with this in mind, Chibnall has a lot to live up to.
Fortunately, The Halloween Apocalypse takes those expectations and entirely detonates them. For every ounce of hype and drama piled into the teaser trailers, Doctor Who: Flux is undeniably the most cataclysmic tale that Who has ever attempted to tell. If you thought that Davros’ reality bomb was the pinnacle of how epic Doctor Who could be, then this series premiere makes it look like the Adipose Invasion.
Fresh out of the gate, Doctor Who: Flux moves at a breakneck pace, finding The Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) and Yaz (Mandip Gill) partway through an adventure before sending them whizzing off in pursuit of Karvanista (Craige Els), who has foretold the last days of Earth. Kidnapping a bemused and unimpressed Dan (John Bishop) sends the Doctor and Yaz on a rescue mission, all while the Doctor conceals her true reasoning for wanting to track Karvanista down.
Soon to catch up to them, however, is the Flux, an unknown and devastating force that is destroying the universe on an atomic level, witnessed by Vinder (Jacob Anderson) and foretold by Karvanista’s kind. Meanwhile, escaping from its eternal imprisonment is The Swarm (Sam Spruell), who appears to have a history with the Doctor that she cannot recall.
This episode hardly pauses to take breath, dragging viewers along on the most cinematic journey that Doctor Who has ever gone on. The choice to tell one story throughout a series, while perhaps borne out of necessity, certainly adds an intensity to these events. Chibnall introduces many new characters and plotlines, leaving audiences with many unanswered questions as the story continues to unravel.
Integrating the Timeless Child plot into the fabric of this episode and storyline is also a nice touch. To have the Doctor’s quest for uncovering the truth of the Division front and centre demonstrates a commitment and tenacity from Chibnall to see this storyline through, and gives Whittaker’s Doctor a chance to truly show their full range of emotion. Not only is the Doctor’s pursuit of Karvanista due to their longing to discover the truth behind the Division, but also it appears that a past conflict with Swarm is one of many events that has been erased from the Doctor’s memory.
These are not the only mysteries to be uncovered as the series unfolds. New character Claire (Annabel Scholey) encounters The Doctor and Yaz, making it clear that they will encounter each other again, but within her past. This whole scene is breathtaking and probably one of the more intriguing scenes of Chibnall’s era. Scholey gives a brilliant performance here and only intrigues the audience even more to uncover her full history, and helps Claire’s plight with a suddenly advancing Weeping Angel all the more tense.
For all of the returning and new foes that are thrown into this episode, including the Weeping Angels, the Sontarans, Swarm and their sister, and Karvanista, each one of these appearances is given appropriate amounts of tension. It is thoroughly unlike the cameo appearances that pervaded the Moffat era, in which just a shot of a Cyberman or Dalek was indicative of a dire situation. While The Pandorica Opens had an incredible climax owing to all of these different enemies converging to detain the Doctor, as the scope of the series continued to grow, having an episode with multiple returning enemies has somewhat worn off. Here, Chibnall gives enough information to justify these creatures’ appearances and the threat that they pose within the narrative.
Instead of rolling eyes at the Weeping Angels again, Chibnall and director Jamie Magnus Stone manage to make them appear threatening once more. Even though most audience members will be familiar with the Weeping Angels by this point, they still take a remarkably simple concept, strip it back to basics and make that scary by itself, without having to add anything new to the established canon of the Angels.
New companion Dan has a strong introductory episode. Wisely, Chibnall introduces Dan living his ordinary life before encountering the Doctor and being caught up within her world, allowing us to get a sense of Dan as a person – something which was not afforded to audiences when Yaz, Graham and Ryan were introduced. Dan feels like a genuinely nice person, and this is demonstrated through his actions instead of being constantly stated by those around him. Firstly, a history fanatic, he is seen leading people through the Museum of Liverpool, even though he does not work there. Following conversations make it clear that this is a repeat offence, and his fervent love for his home city is monstrously endearing. Not only this, but he also works at a foodbank, but is too proud to accept any food for himself, viewing others as more needy. Even in the face of a towering Karvanista, Dan approaches the situation with good humour, and manages to provide comic relief within the TARDIS team without it feeling heavy handed. John Bishop is incredibly charming in the role, and the circumstances of his meeting with Jodie’s Doctor are thoroughly unique.
Overall, The Halloween Apocalypse is probably the tensest, most bombastic series premiere that Doctor Who has ever produced. Potentially excluding Series 9’s The Magician’s Apprentice, audiences are treated to the most gripping cliffhanger, hopefully cementing viewers’ desire to set aside time next Sunday for the next instalment: War of the Sontarans.
The only grumble to be made about this sheer masterpiece is simply that, if this is what Chibnall is capable of, why couldn’t this have been what we had all along? This is Doctor Who at its best. It looks stunning, it is well paced and constructed and it is phenomenally gripping. Should the rest of this series keep this level of quality, let’s hope that it is this series that is remembered in years to come when audiences reflect upon Whittaker’s Doctor.
Doctor Who: Flux airs on Sundays. You can catch up on BBC iPlayer.