Doctor Who‘s latest instalment certainly takes advantage of its serial format
Starring Jodie Whittaker, Mandip Gill, and John Bishop
If nothing else, Doctor Who‘s thirteenth series post-revival has provided variety. It hit the ground running with The Halloween Apocalypse, throwing myriad plates up into the air: a universe-destroying, faceless threat; new/old foes The Ravagers, known individually as Swarm and Azure; new companion Dan, his flirtation Di; mysterious Claire, who the Doctor has yet to meet; and many of the Doctor’s old foes lurking in the shadows, ready to take advantage. The second episode, War of the Sontarans followed a more episodic structure, though did feed the audience some clues towards Swarm and Azure’s game plan, introducing a planet called Time and the seeming keepers of it, the Mouri. Chapter Three is still of a gloriously high quality for Doctor Who (if not the best it has ever been and, yes – please do quote me on that one), but, like the series premiere is harder to enjoy in isolation – and that’s no bad thing.
Once, Upon Time credits the audience with both patience and intelligence. Swiftly saving Vinder and Yaz from their fate, the Doctor and Dan complete the Mouri circuit, allowing the Doctor to absorb the full force of Time. This does, however, have the effect of sending Vinder, Dan, Yaz and the Doctor herself into their own timestreams. While the previous episodes were setting up all the pieces on the chess board, Once, Upon Time seems slower, and helps clue the audience in on some important elements of the Doctor’s history. Just because it is slower, however, it doesn’t mean that it is without intrigue.
Doctor Who has experimented with dreamscapes before, such as in Matt Smith’s “Amy’s Choice”, but here it is the focus of the episode, and the confusion of the characters and the bizarre nature of flitting to one event to the next is intentionally used to jar the audience. Instead of providing viewers with a straightforward retelling of previous events, the core cast of Jodie Whittaker, Mandip Gill, John Bishop and Jacob Anderson are displaced into these memories, creating an element of mystery and allowing the actors to play against their typical type.
The sections within the timestream are most effective for Vinder and the Doctor. In her third season, there is comparatively little to explore with Yaz, so hers is mainly used to set up future conflict with the Weeping Angels, and Dan’s offers a brief hint at a future encounter with the bizarre Joseph Williamson (Steve Oram) in the tunnels underneath Liverpool.
Vinder’s flashbacks offer a lot more insight into his character and how he wound up on Outpost Rose. As it transpires, Vinder was exiled here as a result of being a whistleblower against the corrupt Grand Serpent (Craig Parkinson), who is practically untouchable. These memories are clearly incredibly painful for Vinder, but it serves to establish him as an honourable, trustworthy character which, as an audience we already suspected, but paves the way for him to take a more active role within the storytelling moving forwards.
The Doctor’s storyline has the most dramatic impact upon the established Doctor Who lore as we know it, though not as universe-breaking as the Timeless Child storyline. Originally, the audience are left to question whether or not the Doctor has been displaced to a future siege on the Temple of Atropos with Yaz, Dan and Vinder (a brilliant justification for the use of the regular characters masking the real identities of these characters), or whether these is just a fabrication of the timestream, or indeed some sort of trick played by the Mouri.
The mystery gradually begins to unravel when the Doctor notices not herself in her reflection, but instead the Fugitive Doctor (Jo Martin), revealing that this event is the Doctor’s first siege on Atropos, and the events which led towards the Ravagers’ imprisonment. Though we still do not know the full identity of the Doctor’s team, Dan is revealed, of course, to be Karvanista (Craige Els), and it would hardly be surprising if Yaz and Vinder turned out to be Gat and Lee from “Fugitive of the Judoon” either.
It is refreshing here to give Jodie more to do as the Doctor than she has been given as much opportunity to do in both Series 11 or 12. Here, we see far more shades to her character. While acting as the face of the Fugitive Doctor, Jodie is allowed to be far more ruthless and straight forward than we are used to, but there’s also a fire and a desperation to this Doctor that we haven’t seen before, as she beseeches the Mouri to show her more of her own past. Returning to the present, we see this Doctor more broken than perhaps before, even lashing out at best friend Yaz and sternly instructing Dan to remain in his place. Though it is doubtful that this more taciturn Doctor stick around for long, it’s a canny move, having replaced the central character of the show as the Doctor once more to give the part more emotional range.
The tantalising glimpses into the Doctor’s past (as well as likely becoming a Big Finish range in coming years, let’s be honest here) are brilliantly achieved and merely spark the imagination for however many other missions and incredible things that the Doctor did while serving the Division. It is also an intriguing proposition of how the universe existed before time was regulated and brought under control by the Mouri. All these pieces, as well as the cryptic conversation with Aswok (Barbara Flynn) are sure to be expanded upon in the remaining three episodes.
Elsewhere this episode was the introduction of Bel (Thaddea Graham), an aggressively likeable character who consistently demonstrates that she is headstrong, practical and tenacious. Refusing to be broken despite the devastation surrounding her, she retains her hopefulness, and destroys a Cyberman uttering the brilliant line “love is the only mission”. The first scenes following Bel’s quest through a post-Flux world evokes expository scenes of the Classic series, right before the Doctor would swoop in. Bel is yet another highlight of this series, and another irritating reminder of how much Chibnall has been holding back on the audience for the past two series, so clearly able is he to craft well-rounded, interesting characters. One could easily see Bel fulfilling a companion role, though her destiny seems wholly different, her quest to reunite with Vinder as she expects his child. It’s doubtless that Bel will continue to appear as the series continues.
This episode still gives audiences plenty to ponder. Firstly, what did Aswok mean when she blamed the Doctor specifically for the Flux event (which was manufactured, apparently)? Does this mean that the Flux was targeting the Doctor specifically. Could it be sent by the Doctor’s true people? After all, “The Timeless Children” suggested that the Doctor hails from a different universe. Perhaps this is merely a ploy to get the Doctor to return to where she came from? Aswok’s words about “introducing” the Ravagers to pollute time is intriguing, as this suggests that there’s some sort of power operating behind Swarm and Azure to control them. To that end, giving a personhood to the fight between space and time is mind boggling, though does perfectly encapsulate the Doctor’s life.
Secondly, what have the Weeping Angels got to do with anything? The serial format has allowed Chibnall to weave the Angels in since the series premiere, but it is still uncertain just what they have to do with the Flux. Seeing as the Angels feed off time energy, perhaps the disruption of time could be devastating for them. Equally, it could be massively advantageous and perhaps they played an important role in creating the Flux. Yet, why would the Angel pilot the TARDIS to take the Doctor, Yaz and Dan somewhere? Perhaps the Angels need the Doctor’s help? Additionally, are they specifically targeting Yaz? Should we be worried about the Doctor’s closest friend?
Just what exactly have these tunnels got to do with anything? We have seen small glimpses of Joseph Williamson so far, first insisting that his tunnels would be helpful for some untold future danger, then he cropped up on Atropos itself, seemingly confused and lost, before bumping into Dan in these tunnels again. This is perhaps the part of the story that doesn’t quite seem to be making any sense yet, though we are only halfway through the story.
What’s so important about Vinder? And, to that end, Bel? It’s always worth examining why characters are involved and why the audience needs to know so much about them. It surely cannot be a coincidence that Vinder, at the far reaches of the galaxy (at an outpost called Rose, for heaven’s sake) would then just happen to alight at the Temple of Atropos, without even his escape pod. This suggests that he, like Yaz, ended up transported here. Vinder cannot have been the only person in the universe to have been caught up in the Flux like Yaz similarly was, so why exactly did he end up there too? What’s so important about him that brought him to that place?
A certain online theory (which is annoyingly believable) posits that Vinder and Bel are in fact the Doctor’s parents and, since the Flux is apparently all about the Doctor, and Bel hypothesises that sometimes it feels like the universe is trying to stop her reuniting with Vinder, could there be more truth to this statement than she realises? Personally, I believe that this would spoil the characters of Vinder and Bel. Having known the Doctor for almost 58 years, that’s simply something one doesn’t need to know by this point.
A main detraction of this episode would likely be how alienating it would be for the casual viewer. However, should one judge the success of a TV programme based upon what somebody who knew nothing about the world might think? Absolutely not. That would be absurd. Doctor Who is an institution and, sure, not all viewers need a biblical knowledge of the past 58 years, but event television, which Doctor Who is striving to be, generally operates under the principle that you need to tune into every episode to understand what is happening. There were few complaints about the fact that each of WandaVision‘s episodes didn’t make sense in isolation. Nor should they have. There is a time and place for standalone entertainment. Films, plays or musicals should make sense and be able to be appreciated in isolation, but that simply is not an expectation for an episode of a TV show. The entire purpose of an episode in a show is to persuade the viewer to tune in for the next instalment, and that has been achieved spectacularly here, for those viewers with the patience to watch the entire story.
Having said that, despite the unexpectedly incredible start to Flux, it will likely be remarked upon in future based upon how Chibnall manages to write the ending. At the halfway point now, and with more of a typical-seeming episode on the horizon for next week, here’s hoping that Flux is remembered for its brilliant storytelling.
Doctor Who: Flux airs on Sundays. You can catch up on BBC iPlayer.