The final chapter of Jodie Whittaker’s last series feels overstuffed and awkwardly convenient
Starring Jodie Whittaker, Mandip Gill, and John Bishop
“The Vanquishers” signals the end to Modern Who‘s most ambitious story yet. Made in the midst of a global pandemic, there has been no sign of this production strain on the output, with the cinematography and graphic effects the most accomplished that they have ever been. With the return of serialised storytelling, largely absent from the show since Russell T Davies’ 2005 revival, Doctor Who: Flux has been praised by audiences for just how much it “feels” like a classic Who tale.
However, Flux has not been without its flaws, with critics pointing out that individual instalments cannot be enjoyed in isolation and its alienating effect upon casual viewers. However, considering the modern trend towards serialised storytelling, as popularised by streaming services such as Netflix, this criticism is perhaps slightly unfair.
While early episodes set up multiple disparate plot lines, which looked set to converge in a meaningful and epic way, the series finale betrays that a large proportion of Flux relies upon plot convenience and an inhumane number of in-universe coincidences. Last-minute left-field plot twists have muddied the overall storytelling right before the end, confusing the storyline with multiple villains and a lack of consequence.
“The Vanquishers” starts off where Chapter 5 ended, with Swarm (Sam Spruell) and Azure (Rochenda Sandall) menacing the Doctor following their swift dispatch of Tecteun. Meanwhile, the Sontarans set their sights on invading Earth once and for all with the help of the Grand Serpent (Craig Parkinson); Yaz (Mandip Gill), Dan (John Bishop), Jericho (Kevin McNally) and Williamson (Steve Oram) are stuck in Williamson’s time-crossing subterranean Liverpudlian tunnels; Bel (Thaddea Graham) and Karvanista (Craige Els) are being invaded; and Di (Nadia Albina) and Vinder (Jacob Anderson) are trapped within the Passenger.
Ultimately, where “The Vanquishers” falls down is that it muddles and confuses what the overall antagonist of the Flux is. Is the Flux itself what the show is to fear? Is it the Division, as the orchestrators of it? Is it Swarm and Azure – the stunningly underdeveloped pair who, despite their relevance within the earlier stages of the series had largely disappeared? Or, then again, is it Grand Serpent, whose role probably could have been entirely excised from the show with minimal consequence?
A lot of the finale is dedicated towards the Sontarans as the invading force of Earth amidst the chaos of the Flux. While they are depicted here more successfully as previous outings, finding a nice balance between being bumbling and an actual, legitimate, ruthless threat, their story still feels like it’s in the way, considering the approaching end of the universe which seems a moderately more pressing issue.
Moreover, now that the Doctor has happened upon the fact that the Flux was manufactured, and that it is being controlled from Tecteun’s base, the audience were already primed for a speedy de-compression of the universe, so Azure and Swarm’s plans to release Time at the culmination of the Flux seems less threatening as the audience is incredibly comfortable that the Flux is not going to complete itself anyway.
Most of the finale relies upon the conceit that the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) has been split in three, for reasons ill defined, which – if one has been following along – has been happening an unnerving amount throughout this arc. The show might have been forgiven for such convenience were its relevance ultimately to make sense, but it just seems like lazy writing. In Episode 2, the TARDIS team just happened to end up in the Crimean War where the Sontarans were, with Dan and Yaz conveniently being transported to areas of plot relevance.
As it transpires within this episode, after all the hype surrounding Bel and Vinder, they were genuinely just an ordinary couple fighting against insurmountable odds. This doesn’t quite explain why Vinder ended up on Atropos, since he seemed to have been scooped up by a transmat, and the episode doesn’t dedicate nearly enough time to their reunion if the point of this storyline was to demonstrate the profound effect that the Flux had on ordinary people.
Moreover, after a disproportionate amount of last week’s episode being dedicated to his historical infiltration of UNIT, the Grand Serpent ultimately ends up being nothing more than some torturous lackey of the Sontarans, who has a strange fixation on Kate Stewart (Jemma Redgrave). His relation to the Flux is arbitrary, and his function within the narrative does nothing other than create intrigue earlier in the tale.
Azure and Swarm’s plan is so grand that it almost stops being threatening. Destroying the universe endlessly just to harm the Doctor? It’s so dramatically grand that it doesn’t create tension for the audience, as it’s obvious that it’s not going to happen. Moreover, the show hasn’t given the audience nearly enough information about why Azure and Swarm detest the Doctor to such a degree. Why target her specifically, when they merely killed Tecteun, the actual mastermind behind their combined fates?
After stepping further into the limelight last week, Yaz and Dan are given comparatively little to do here, other than stand around and watch the Doctor. Claire (Annabel Scholey) returns to the story – not because the Doctor actually has any sense of ownership or control over her, but because she needs her gifts – but it’s Jericho who ends up meeting his demise on board a Sontaran ship. This particular moment overestimates the extent to which the audience have developed an affection for Jericho – and also robs him of agency or ownership over this decision. It isn’t a sacrificial moment, but merely an unfortunate, unavoidable accident. Were Claire to have broken her ring and Jericho to have swapped them, it would have given him a more heroic, and more touching conclusion.
Ultimately, the events of Flux are wrapped up swiftly, but messily. Di (who managed to miss the entire Flux while inside the Passenger) somehow understands it enough to suggest that the Passenger absorb the last of it. That’s only after, however, the Doctor has stood wilfully by two genocides and caused another one. Swarm and Azure are eliminated by the randomly appearing embodiment of Time for reasons ill defined.
The aftercare is also somewhat lacking. Once everything is wrapped up, the episode gives a false impression that everything is back to normal. However, the events of the Flux were not reversed, as it was suggested it might be in Chapter 5. Presumably the universe is still decimated and broken as we have seen all series. The universe itself is a very different place, and the blame for this lies at the feet of the Doctor. It was her investigation into the workings of Division which led down this path, and yet there is precious little acknowledgement of this within the narrative, despite Chibnall’s endless fascination with humanising the Doctor.
As for Yaz? There’s no shifting her faith in the Doctor, nor indeed any sort of trauma or anxiety or upset or desire to see her family, even after three entire years spent living in the past. The episode does not concern itself with such tawdry trifles, and moves on at a pace.
However, there is no mistaking that Flux has been a massively ambitious tale in Who history. A tale rooted in the Doctor’s character development. It’s a story that the Doctor propels and has gone the furthest way that the show has ever done into making them a three-dimensional, relatable character. Amidst the elements of space epic, this tale has remained constantly focused upon the Doctor’s hidden past.
Doubtless there is more to come from the Timeless Child storyline, despite Tecteun’s demise and the Doctor’s hiding of her fob watch within the bowels of the TARDIS. There’s no question that this storyline will continue to feature in Chibnall’s remaining three episodes, and, hopefully, a more satisfying and clear conclusion will be made of it. I will continue to maintain, however, that killing off the Doctor’s surrogate mother at that stage of the tale was a wasted opportunity, and would have made for a much more compelling villain in this episode than Swarm and Azure’s flaccid Shakespearean posturing.
Doctor Who: Flux airs on Sundays. You can catch up on BBC iPlayer.