Doctor Who’s most ambitious story to date continues with the return of a fan-favourite enemy
Starring Jodie Whittaker, Mandip Gill, and John Bishop
Last week’s Halloween instalment saw Doctor Who return to screens with a bang, introducing the most epic story that has graced the series in its 58-year history. While not universally lauded, many have commented upon the improvement in writing and the return of the classic Doctor Who cliffhanger, a staple of the Classic series.
The first episode, “The Halloween Apocalypse” has certainly left audiences with more questions than answers (as is only fitting for the first of six chapters). Introducing both new companion Dan, as well as apparently old enemy Swarm, viewers have had a week to ponder just how the Doctor will escape the destructive Flux. Besides that, what has caused the Flux? Why are the Sontarans so pleased to hear of it? How do the Weeping Angels factor in to this? What have Liverpool’s tunnels have to do with the price of fish? Why is the TARDIS malfunctioning? Who is Claire? What does Azure have planned with Diane?
With this in mind, it also seems slightly incongruous to follow the Doctor from her previous universe-hopping adventure to land ourselves in the Crimean War with the Sontarans. Will this episode be as successful at juggling the multiple storylines that Chibnall has set up, as well as continuing to develop tension between the Doctor and her continuing companion Yaz?
Once again directed by Jamie Magnus Stone and written by Chibnall, War of the Sontarans opens with the Doctor and her companions miraculously safe after their run-in with the Flux in the climax of The Halloween Apocalypse. Quite how this has occurred is anybody’s guess, but I propose that it is the crafty interdimensional force of Plot Convenience, which is one of the few enduring elements of Doctor Who since 1963.
Finding themselves on a wartorn battlefield, the Doctor and company soon encounter Mary Seacole (Sara Powell), tending to the wounded British, whereupon the Doctor realises that they are in the midst of the Crimean War, with the British fighting against the Russians. Within moments, however, it transpires that the real threat against the British forces are the warloving clone race, the Sontarans, taking advantage of the Flux to swoop in and claim Earth as theirs.
The Doctor is not accompanied for long, however, as soon both Yaz and Dan fade away (though the Doctor garbles some sort of explanation for this, this is blatantly the malevolent force of Plot Convenience once again making its presence known). Dan finds himself back in Liverpool, where he encounters more of the invading Sontaran force which he tries to take on by himself.
Meanwhile, Yaz alights in the Temple of Atropos, who firstly encounters Joseph Williamson – the mysterious figure from Liverpool Past in the last episode, who is working to excavate tunnels. Unfortunately, Plot Convenience drags him away before there are any firm answers, and Yaz is tasked with “repairing” the Temple, along with Vinder, who has also found himself in the Temple.
As it transpires, the Temple of Atropos houses the Mouri, a group of humanoids who control the stable and predictable course of time. It appears that they are malfunctioned and broken in some way, which could help explain the Doctor’s recent troubles with the TARDIS which, despite suffering from a surplus of doors in the previous episode, now seems to have the opposite affliction, preventing the Doctor from gaining entry so that she can pursue her friends.
With Azure (Rochenda Sandall) and Swarm (Sam Spruell) soon appearing in the Temple with nefarious intent, Yaz looks set to become a devastating casualty in the Doctor’s battle of wits with her forgotten foe.
Having been reintroduced to the series in Series 4’s The Sontaran Stratagem, the Sontarans have suffered within Modern Who as moving away from their warfaring image towards that of blundering incompetence, doubtless owing to Dan Starkey’s Strax, who had a recurring presence throughout Matt Smith and Peter Capaldi’s eras. Fortunately, this instalment rightfully reinstates them as a formidable galactic force, and their new design adds to this image. Dressed in muted, earthy shades, with more asymmetry than before, these Sontarans seem experienced on the battlefield – a far more dangerous and brutal force than we have seen recently.
That isn’t to say, of course, that this episode is devoid of comic relief, however. Despite posing a very real threat, some Sontarans are still delightfully dim, and Dan has some delightfully witty exchanges with his parents back in present day Liverpool, and his affable bumbling around Sontaran space ships is dreadfully endearing, even though he is perhaps overstating his experience with alien races.
Through separating our three main characters, it allows each to shine individually. Of course, Jodie’s Doctor needs precious little opportunity, being the driving force of many episodes, but here we really see the benefits of a less crowded TARDIS. One can imagine that, with Graham and Ryan still around, there would have been a temptation to have a pairing in a particular location. Here, each character is allowed to demonstrate their character and solve problems without having to precisely verbalise their plan. When Yaz goes along with the floating, unexplained gem thing in agreeing to repair something (despite not knowing what it is), all it takes is a quick shot to a scribbled “WWTDD” (What Would The Doctor Do) to see what Yaz is up to. Instantly, within a few moments, Yaz seems dramatically more capable than she has done before, purely by allowing her to demonstrate her skills instead of continually verbalising them.
Unfortunately, Dan’s storyline suffers remarkably more. While his storyline captures the audience’s imagination as it separates him from the Doctor, being tasked with ridding the entire Earth of a Sontaran invasion fleet is somewhat of a tall order and the resolution of this plot thread is monstrously unsatisfying and overly convenient, even if Karvanista’s appearance and link to Dan was thoroughly established in the previous chapter.
In terms of how War of the Sontarans fits in to the wider narrative, it manages to further the Flux storyline, whilst also remaining satisfying in its own right. While, on one hand, it deals with the Sontarans’ invasion of Earth, it also provides a few more answers about the flux and the dangers it poses, as well as furthering our understanding of the Doctor’s past with Azure and Swarm, with the implication that they have attempted to destroy the Mouri before. Could it perhaps also be the case that it’s the disruption of the Mouri is also the root cause for the TARDIS’ continued deterioration?
Here, it can also be seen how effectively using the multi-episodic structure of Flux can be used for the benefit of this individual instalment. Including the Sontarans within the previous episode, laying their plans for the Flux to hit, makes their presence here foreshadowed, instead of it feeling random. Similarly, the following episode being entitled “Once, Upon Time” seems linked to the Temple of Atropos on the planet Time. Similarly, the appearance of the Weeping Angels in the Next Time trailer suggests that that, in turn, will lead into the fourth chapter “Village of the Angels”.
What’s more, even though as an audience we are receiving a remarkably shorter series than usual, this is more than made up for in the quality of the cinematography and the visual effects, which are on par with a cinematic level. The rendering of the epically-sized British/Sontaran conflict is incredible, and the CGI that accompanies both Azure and Swarm’s destruction helps to enhance their credibility as a threat.
The entire instalment ends with yet another brilliant cliffhanger and, though there are still some lingering plot threads which are not even remotely touched upon during this chapter, such as the fates of Claire or Di, to have Yaz’s fate be the cliffhanger is a real sign that Doctor Who is once again investing its energies in the importance of the audience-companion relationship, instead of them merely being generic, stock characters. Having said that, hopefully Flux provides some more clarity on what exactly Swarm and Azure plan to do before too long, as, though it is clear that something is disturbing the flow of time itself, allowing creatures like the Sontarans to take advantage, this will not nearly be enough to sustain the series as it edges towards the halfway mark.
Doctor Who: Flux airs on Sundays. You can catch up on BBC iPlayer.