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Doctor Who: Flux – Chapter Six: The Vanquishers (Review)

“Not like we don’t have enough to do.”

And, like that, Doctor Who: Flux collapses into itself, in a season finale that manages to combine the worst aspects of both The Battle of Ranskoor av Kolos and The Timeless Children.

To be fair, this was always the risk. It was obvious from The Halloween Apocalypse that the season would be putting a lot of weight on the finale to determine whether it all worked or not. Particularly in episodes like Once, Upon Time and Survivors of the Flux, Chibnall was effectively able to structure the season so that the finale would make or break the season as a whole. Given Chris Chibnall’s track record with season finales, this was always a gamble. However, it was an approach that allowed the entire season to buttress itself with the audience’s good faith and hope. With The Vanquishers, it all comes down like a deck of cards.

Watch yourself.

The Vanquishers is in many ways a very typical Chris Chibnall episode, indicative of his approach to showrunning Doctor Who dating back to The Woman Who Fell to Earth. It’s an episode that is powered by plot, based on the assumption that more plot makes the episode better, and that the episode is more engaging whenever Chibnall has something else that he can cut to. In some ways, the splitting of the Doctor into three versions of herself “split across three realities” feels perfectly suited to Chibnall’s sensibility, effectively allowing Jodie Whittaker to star in three separate episodes that the series can keep cutting across.

The problem is that none of the three episodes are any good, and none are in anyway satisfying as a conclusion to this epic saga.

Ood one out.

It’s probably easiest to start with a “big picture” approach to The Vanquishers before diving into its (many) smaller dysfunctional elements. It is very clear that this is Chris Chibnall’s attempt to do something equivalent to Journey’s End, the final season finale of the Davies era. This makes sense. Journey’s End marked the point at which Doctor Who could claim to be the most popular thing on British television, topping the weekly ratings and scoring the show’s highest audience appreciation index. It’s perfectly reasonable for Chibnall to want to emulate the success of Journey’s End.

There are very obvious points of comparison between The Vanquishers and Journey’s End. Triplicating the Thirteenth Doctor represents an obvious escalation from duplicating the Tenth Doctor. The Earth is invaded, this time by Sontarans rather than Daleks, hoping to solve some complicated mathematical formula. There’s a large and expansive cast of characters who are drawn together over the course of the story, culminating in multiple different characters meeting one another for the first time. It’s all suitably “epic” and “bombastic.”

However, the camparison also underscores the key difference between Davies and Chibnall. Davies is a writer who understands what audiences want and that Doctor Who can get away with a lot so long as it is fun. Journey’s End was a big populist blockbuster episode that was as invested in impressing casual audience members as it was in satisfying true fans. Both Journey’s End and The Vanquishers are messy episodes, but Journey’s End is an infinitely better episode on just about every level because it actually cares about what somebody sitting down to watch Doctor Who on a Saturday evening might want from it.

Journey’s End features plenty of fan service, uniting the casts of Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures with dozens of characters from the revival. It features the return of Davros, who is a decidedly more niche character than the Master. It builds heavily off the disappearance of Dalek Caan from the end of Evolution of the Daleks. It features a lot of continuity carried over from Doomsday, including the idea of Rose’s entire life on the parallel version of Earth. All that stuff is pretty much “fan service”, even if there’s an argument to be made that it’s still more mainstream sort of fan service than anything in The Vanquishers.

On the ropes.

However, Journey’s End is built around solid emotional hooks that are recognisable to anybody with even passing familiarity with the revival of Doctor Who. The Daleks have invaded Earth, once again. The Daleks are one of the most iconic aliens in popular culture, to the point that they even anchored two spin-off out-of-continuity movies. The Doctor is reunited with Rose Tyler, played by Billie Piper, and there’s a considerable amount of Journey’s End built around the possibility of romantic tension, as much as certain hardcore fans might balk at that. Plus, it was crossing over with two other BBC television properties.

The Daleks and Billie Piper were household names when Journey’s End aired. There’s a reason that the cliffhanger of The Stolen Earth is built around a Dalek shooting the Tenth Doctor as he runs towards Rose Tyler in the middle of the street, even if it’s a strange structural choice that somewhat derails the episode. Hardcore fans could gossip about the possibility of a secret mid-story regeneration, but casual audiences could understand all of the iconography of that cliffhanger on sight: the Doctor, the Daleks, Rose Tyler. Regular viewers wondered whether the Doctor and Rose would ever be reunited. It was something to grab on to.

In contrast, The Vanquishers is built around a bunch of references that really hold minimal interest to anything but long-term fans of the show. The Sontarans are simply not event-story-level villains, as the classic series learned with The Invasion of Time and arguably The Two Doctors. It is nice to see Kate Stewart again, but that character was last seen in The Zygon Invasion and The Zygon Inversion, a mid-season two-parter that was broadcast over half-a-decade ago. The Doctor’s secret lives plot lacks the visceral populist hook of “… will these two attractive and charming people meet up and maybe make out?”

There is something vaguely hubristic about Chris Chibnall’s version of Doctor Who, which seems completely disinterested (if not actively contemptuous) of the idea that it might be watched by people who are not invested in the mythos of Doctor Who. When Davies folded shows like The Weakest Link, What Not To Wear and Big Brother into Bad Wolf, it was clearly out of affection. It was an attempt to situate the revival in the context of British television. When Chibnall keeps crosscutting to a knock-off of Call the Midwife or Heartbeat or Downton Abbey in Ascension of the Cybermen, it seems more driven by contempt.

Sontar-ing back again.

Chibnall seems to make Doctor Who primarily for people who think that Doctor Who is the most important thing in the world. “You are the universe, Doctor,” Swarm boasts at one point in The Vanquishers, and it seems very much like a statement of intent. It’s telling that the episode ends with the Doctor’s memories still tucked away inside the stopwatch, buried “somewhere deep within the TARDIS. Somewhere I can never find it. Unless I really ask for it.” Those premium Doctor Who adventures are still in their limited packaging, tucked away where they belong, within the superstructure of Doctor Who.

More than that, so much of The Vanquishers just doesn’t make sense and doesn’t have any tangible stakes. Chibnall is a writer who seems much more excited about telling than he is about showing, even allowing for the limitations of the pandemic shooting restrictions. So much of the actual meat of The Vanquishers takes place entirely off-camera, relegated to a few throwaway lines of exposition that serve primarily to explain screen transitions and buttress even greater amounts of exposition.

This is most obvious with the Sontaran invasion of Earth. This is the second Sontaran invasion of modern day Earth within five episodes. It seems fairly reasonable to argue that the Sontaran invasion off-screen between Survivors of the Flux and The Vanquishers effectively renders War of the Sontarans pointless. The same clone batch of Sontarans invaded Liverpool, were defeated, and then invaded the entire planet a few weeks later. It hardly creates a compelling sense of stakes.

As a side note, there’s a weird discontinuity between War of the Sontarans and The Vanquishers. The climax of War of the Sontarans had Dan and Karvanista defeating the Sontarans by crashing the landed ships into one another. However, the opening act of The Vanquishers reveals that landed Sontaran ships have a protective energy shield around them designed to prevent such an effort. “People rarely want to get crashed into,” the Doctor explains. It’s perhaps too much to expect consistency across the run of Doctor Who, but these are two episodes within the same season credited exclusively to the showrunner.

“Sontaran Invasion 2.0.”

More to the point, The Vanquishers effectively skips over the fun part of an alien invasion story: the actual invasion. After all, there’s a reason that the image of the Cybermen at the steps outside St. Paul became such a memorable visual in The Invasion, and why episodes like Dark Water have worked so hard to recreate that iconography. There is something very effective about the intrusion of the alien into the familiar world, and Doctor Who has thrived on that juxtaposition.

However, The Vanquishers relegates the actual invasion plot to exposition. There a few shots of Sontarans wandering around Liverpool. There are plenty of composited shots of Sontaran ships around the world. Unfortunately, there’s no actual sense of what the invasion looks like. In fact, there was a much greater sense of the human rebellion against the Sontarans in War of the Sontarans, and that consisted largely of Dan’s mother and father. It’s a long way from the portrayal of the Cybermen invasion at the climax of Army of Ghosts, to pick an obvious point of comparison.

There’s an entire genocide that happens off-screen in The Vanquishers, when Stenck greets Karvanista as “the Last Lupari.” It is revealed that the Sontarans have not only taken control of the Lupari shield off-screen, but have also individually executed every single Lupari off-screen. “That is the cost of resistance to Sontaran might,” Stenck boasts. It is a potentially chilling moment, undermined by the simple fact that Karvanista is the only Lupari that audiences have ever seen and that it might have been more effective to see at least some of the mass murder, like the executions in War of the Sontarans.

Then again, the problem is compounded by how flippant the whole episode ultimately is about the extermination of an entire species. At the end of the episode, the Doctor effectively just dumps Bel and Vinder on Karvanista. “You think saddling me with these two will make up for it?” Karvanista asks, but that’s about as deeply as The Vanquishers is willing to delve into any of this. The scene is remarkably vague for an episode so heavy on exposition. Is Karvanista just going to drop them home? Or has Karvanista been transformed into another surrogate for the Doctor, the Lonely Lupari? It’s all very clumsily and lazily executed.

Red scare.

Similarly, Kate Stewart’s role as “Head of Human Resistance” feels largely relegated to dialogue rather than actually shown on screen. It is much less visually interesting than Martha’s journey through the ruined world in The Last of the Time Lords, to pick another obvious point of comparison. Indeed, Kate largely seems to operate on her own. She doesn’t travel with support or back-up. She doesn’t have a clear chain of command. She is just a walking and talking bit of continuity.

So The Vanquishers struggles when it tries to build some sort of emotional or plot hook into any of this exposition. The Grand Serpent shared a single scene with Kate Stewart in Survivors of the Flux, at it arrived at the end of the episode. So it doesn’t really work when The Vanquishers tries to suggest that these two characters are mortal enemies. “Of course, Kate Stewart,” the Grand Serpent sighs at one point, as if the audience is supposed to believe they have a long-standing grudge. The Sontarans refer to his “vendetta.” As the occupation collapses, the Grand Serpent is obssessed with the question, “Where is Kate Stewart?”

The Grand Serpent is another example of the plot threads that doesn’t entirely add up in The Vanquishers. It seemed reasonable to infer from Survivors of the Flux that the Grand Serpent was a “Division” operative working to undermine human history, but instead The Vanquishers never really explains who or what the Grand Serpent is, and what he is doing on Earth at this moment in time. The Doctor summarises that he is “exiled” and “fleeing”, reinforcing the idea that he is a mirror to the Doctor. (Similarly, his use of the title “Grand Serpent” as a name also adds to the parallels.)

The Doctor also seems to imply that the Grand Serpent might be a version of the Master, identifying him as an “ex-leader or dictator” who is planning to emerge from the Sontaran occupation of Earth to “rule of a semi-grateful human race.” It’s a plan that is very similar to the Master’s manipulations dating back to Terror of the Autons, so it fits. However, the episode never really explains how or why he came to be working with the Sontarans, how he travels through time and why he chose to exploit this crisis in this way. He is clearly just there to serve as an antagonist to Kate and Vinder, which makes him a plot function.

Profiles in courage.

Much of The Vanquishers seems to exist purely so that Chibnall has something to cut away to, to prevent him from having to write dialogue- or character-driven scenes. There are entire subplots that could be trimmed from The Vanquishers, several of them introduced in Survivors of the Flux. The entire subplot focusing on Diane and Vinder feels largely pointless. The closest it comes to making sense is feeling a little bit like an action movie riff on something Heaven Sent, with characters wandering around a surrealist environment and racing against time with minimal possibility of escape.

Part of what is so frustrating about The Vanquishers is that the episode itself doesn’t need to be as jam-packed with plot as it is. In hindsight, Survivors of the Flux was practically indulgent in its pacing, with the entire Yaz, Dan and Jericho subplot effectively stretching out a Moffat-era cold open from something like The Pandorica Opens across the length of an entire episode. If Chibnall is going to lean this heavily into long-form storytelling and serialisation, the show needs to get better at pacing and prioritising.

Even purely within The Vanquishers, there are unnecessary convolutions and indulgences. There is no need for the episode to triplicate the Doctor and split her across the three primary plot threads, particularly when there are already so many characters to serve without having to serve the Doctor three times over. In some ways, this feels like a very calculated move from Chibnall, a response to criticisms of The Timeless Children about how Whittaker spent so much of the episode passively listening to expository monologues. In The Vanquishers, Whittaker gets to passively listen to expository monologues and actually do stuff.

Indeed, replicating the Doctor across the various storythreads has the knock-on effect of mininmising any story involvement for the supporting cast. Yaz has had a potentially interesting arc across this season, where she has been constantly separated from the Doctor – stranded on the Planet Time in War of the Sontarans, scattered across time in Once, Upon Time, and abandoned at the dawn of the twentieth century in Village of the Angels. Even as early as The Halloween Apocalypse, Yaz seemed to be pushing back against the Doctor’s authority, perhaps even seeing herself as an equivalent to the Doctor.

Leading an underground movement.

After all, so much of Flux paired Yaz with Dan, a dynamic that emphasised Yaz’s relative experience. (It was perhaps somewhat undermined by the decision to have Dan wipe out an entire alien invasion almost singlehanded in War of the Sontarans, his second episode.) Yaz got to take Dan with her in Village of the Angels, and spent three years within him in Survivors of the Flux. Yaz’s “WWTD?” note to herself suggests that Yaz is straining against the boundaries of a conventional companion, like Clara before her.

So it would make sense for Yaz to have at least some accomplishment in The Vanquishers, to lead one of the multiple threads as a figure with comparable expertise and confidence to the Doctor. Instead, replicating the Doctor has the knock-on effect of demoting Yaz, bumping her back down the foodchain. The relationship between Yaz and the Doctor effectively resolved in the same way that Ryan and the Doctor resolved their own issues in Revolution of the Daleks; no real interpersonal tension, just a conversation after the crisis has resolved. In The Vanquishers, that conversation doesn’t even take place, it is simply promised.

There’s no real humanity in The Vanquishers. There’s no tangible emotion underpinning any of this. Yaz is happy to see the Doctor again, but there’s no sense of what it meant to spend three years apart. Yaz was already bristling against the Doctor’s attitude in The Halloween Apocalypse, so it seems strange that it hasn’t escalated or deepened in the ensuing three years. The Doctor replicates herself and takes charge of the situation, because it’s just the easiest way for the plot to unfold in the way that it needs to, resolving everything Chibnall feels that he needs to.

There’s a lot of this sort of plotting driving The Vanquishers. Like a lot of Chibnall era episodes, things seem to happen in The Vanquishers because it is handy for them to happen at this point in the story, rather than serving any real purpose in terms of illuminating character or theme. This is notable with the character of Claire. It seems like the Weeping Angels, an alien race defined largely by their sadism, kept their word to the Doctor and just left Claire in the late sixties. They didn’t feed on her, seemingly just leaving her in an eerie and empty village.

A captive audience.

This is also reflected in the resolution of the whole “Flux” storyline. It seems that the only way to stop the eponymous phenomenon is to feed it matter. This seems rather odd, given that the storm has been consuming matter for the past five episodes. It seems strange that the combined Dalek and Cybermen fleets would be enough to slow it down, given that it has already consumed so much of the galaxy that the Daleks and Cybermen are just squabbling with one another among the ruins. Similarly, it’s odd that a “Passenger” should contain enough matter to satiate the flux. It’s all very convenient.

Then again, The Vanquishers largely ends up back where it started, which is quite something given the scale of the damage that the whole crisis caused to time and space. There are number of very direct parallels. Once again, Sam Spruell plays Swarm as a prisoner who has been held in captivity for what would seem to be an eternity, with “time” itself taking Swarm’s form towards the end. It recalls the breakout sequence from The Halloween Apocalypse. Similarly, the sequence of the passenger consuming the flux recalls the climax of The Halloween Apocalypse, as the flux attacks the TARDIS.

If The Vanquishers were a better episode, these little touches would seem like symmetry. They would suggest how far characters had come in the intervening four episodes between premiere and finale. However, there is no real sense of what the difference is between The Halloween Apocalypse and The Vanquishers. Couldn’t the Doctor just have fed the flux into the Eye of Harmony in The Halloween Apocalypse and avoided any and all of this? More to the point, what did Swarm and Azure actually manage to accomplish, despite skulking around these six episodes?

It’s notable that Swarm and Azure ultimately feel like an afterthought in The Vanquishers. After all, the title ultimately applies to the Sontarans. The episode’s title comes from the plot by the Sontarans to wipe out the Cybermen and the Daleks. It feels strange that the season finale of Flux should be built around the elimination of two alien species who only appeared briefly in Once, Upon Time. It reinforces the idea that a large driving force behind Flux was an effort to foreground the Sontarans.

It’s a bit Chile out.

“Sontarans as the ultimate vanquishers,” the Doctor muses. “That is a massive power-grab, the biggest swing they’ve ever made.” The Doctor suggests that the evil plot against the Daleks and Cybermen would “reverberate across civilisation”, while somewhat glossing over the fact that Once, Upon Time suggested that there really wasn’t too much civilisation left standing. There is an interesting return to one of the big themes of Flux here. Much like the Grand Serpent plans to take credit for saving Earth from the Sontarans, the Sontarans want to take credit for saving the universe from the Daleks and Cybermen.

Leaving aside that this seems a very political and opportunistic plan for a traditionally war-like species, these twin plot points in The Vanquishers suggest that Chibnall is constructing Flux as a metaphor for how extremists exploit periods of global uncertainty to sure up their political power. Fascists are inherently opportunistic, and will seek to capitalise on good publicity for doing the bare minimum. Donald Trump took credit for a roaring economy that he inherited from Barack Obama. Boris Johnson is hoping that he can use Britain’s success with the COVID vaccine to justify and validate Brexit.

It’s a nice idea, albeit one that was perhaps better articulated in Once, Upon Time. In The Vanquishers, it seems to exist to pile an extra layer on top of every gambit. It would be enough for the Grand Serpent to hope to rule Earth after the Sontarans leave. It would be enough for the Sontarans to hope to wipe out their two main rivals and pick over what is left of the universe’s corpse. Unfortunately, The Vanquishers just keeps adding detail after detail after detail to the plot.

The episode’s big emotional beats largely ring hollow. The climax features the noble self-sacrifice of veteran British character actor Kevin McNally as Professor Jericho. It is meant to be a big and stirring moment, as he tells the Doctor, “I’ve lived more in my time with you than I have in the previous two decades.” It’s a strange choice, given that Jericho hasn’t actually spent that much time with the Doctor. That comment would be better addressed to Yaz, who actually lived and worked with him for three years.

Jericho falls.

More to the point, Jericho is a fairly expendable character. The Sontarans arrive and dismiss him as a “nameless human.” While this is set up for Jericho to triumphantly declare his own name, it doesn’t work as a character or plot beat. Jericho has appeared in three consecutive episodes of Flux, but has only just encountered the Sontarans. It would be a big emotional moment for Jericho to sacrifice himself against the Weeping Angels given the events of Village of the Angels, but he barely knows who or what the Sontarans actually are. His sacrifice is a matter of plot convenience rather than a pay-off to an actual character arc.

It’s notable that this is exactly the same trick that Chibnall pulled with veteran British character actor Ian McElhinney as Ko Sharmus in The Timeless Children. There was no emotional depth to Sharmus’ sacrifice there, just as there’s no emotional depth to Jericho’s death here. It’s like a weird simulacra of drama, one that believes a veteran British character actor can be slotted into a particular plot thread and the result will be emotionally and narratively satisfying. It is nonsense.

Then again, The Vanquishers feels remarkably shallow. The season’s big philosophical climax comes during a debate between the Doctor and Azure, which effectively boils down to, “nihilism: yay or nay?” It’s not an argument that has particularly compelling stakes in the world of Doctor Who, particularly given that the Doctor is on the “nay” side of the argument. A lot of Flux has felt like Chibnall riffing on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and this big philosophical treatise feels like it is lifted directly from movies like Thor: The Dark World or Doctor Strange or Avengers: Infinity War.

In The Vanquishers, Chibnall gets to put his own stamp on the classic debate about why the Doctor calls themselves “the Doctor.” In The Sound of Drums, the Master sarcastically picked at the arrogance of calling one’s self “the man who makes people better.” In The Name of the Doctor, the Doctor redefined the name as “a promise.” This being a Chibnall era script, The Vanquishers settles on the most literal-minded interpretation possible. “You want to keep people alive,” Azure states. The Doctor doesn’t like to murder people, and believes – in the grand scheme of things – maybe not everything should be dead.

Azure’s allure.

“I don’t know why you’re so afraid of the opposite?” Azure asks the Doctor at one point, in perhaps the closest that Flux has come to outlining the philosophy that drives both Swarm and Azure. The two villains want to watch the universe die simply because it would satisfying to them to watch the universe die. “Why is what you fight for so much better than what we would bring?” Azure asks, in what feels like the episode’s big swing for a bold philosophical argument. It’s hardly the most compelling piece of drama. Nobody at home is wondering why the protagonist of this family show isn’t rooting for the cold embrace of oblivion.

Notably, it is a bit of a cheat – an even more extreme form of the argument that Once, Upon Time made that change can never be for the better. The argument between Azure and the Doctor is framed so that the Doctor is the defender of the “balance” of the status quo and Azure is positioned as the embodiment of change that she “would bring.” It’s a rather strange way to frame that argument, as surely life is change and death is stasis. Surely the more compelling way to frame this argument is for the Doctor to argue for the capacity to change and evolve, rather than to stagnate and decay. Nobody imagines a better world.

The focus on this nihilism is particularly frustrating because it pushes much more interesting ideas out of focs. Survivors of the Flux was a messy and boring episode, but at least it had hints of a truly radical idea in the implication that the Doctor’s entire modus operandi was something she inherited from Tecteun and Division, effectively rendering nearly sixty years of Doctor Who as fruit from the poison tree of imperialism and abuse. Given that the Doctor is rooted in Victorian adventure fiction, and the character’s historical treatment of companions, it’s not exactly an invalid take. There is room to push that in interesting directions.

However, The Vanquishers doesn’t have the space or the interest to develop that idea any further. Building off Once, Upon Time, it is revealed that Karvanista still remembers the Doctor. “Were you my companion?” the Doctor asks. “I can’t talk about it, because it would kill me,” Karvanista explains. “There was a time I would have done anything for you, but you left me.” The central tension there isn’t particularly new, as its essentially a much more abusive riff on Sarah Jane’s experience in School Reunion or Jack’s account of events in Revolution of the Daleks, but there is something there that could be developed.

There was a crooked house…

Sadly, the show ever actually digs into any of this. The Doctor never actually bothers to try to figure out if she can disable or remove the bomb that was planted in Karvanista’s brain. This seems rather callous and self-centred, and not just because it denies the Doctor the opportunity to know about her past. Removing a device that could kill Karvanista if he says the wrong thing would seem to be the very least that the Doctor could do for her old companion, the smallest gesture towards healing the hurt that she cause to Karvanista – however inadvertantly.

Then again, The Vanquished doesn’t seem particularly bother by the consequences of its epic adventure. It was fun to watch Bel wander through the ravaged universe in Once, Upon Time, but it is all forgotten rather quickly. To be fair, this is probably better than the convenient reset of something like The Last of the Time Lords, but it also jars with the tone of the episode’s closing moments. Trillions of people are dead or displaced. The universe is in chaos. The Doctor managed to cauterise the wound, but it’s still a pretty graphic and monstrous wound. However, The Vanquished ends with smiles and jokes, a sense of triumph.

It’s reflecting on how completely insane this all is, as if Chibnall looked at the insane scale of the Davies era finales, decided to escalate that and also to refuse to clean up afterwards. There’s no mention of the refugees displaced by the flux, or the civilisations erased. Earth has been occupied by the Sontarans and saved by the Lupari and… museums are open and back to normal almost immediately. Davies’ hard reset using the “paradox machine” in The Last of the Time Lords may have been inelegant, but at least it saved the show from fallout that it really wasn’t interested in exploring. The Vanquished just… ends.

As one might expect, given that there are still three episodes left under Chris Chibnall, The Vanquishers avoids revealing anything substantive about the Doctor’s secret past. Swarm and Azure take the Doctor into a dreamscape to confront the crooked house first introduced in War of the Sontarans, explaining that everything the Doctor wants is “contained within that house.” In many ways, that crooked house feels like a direct allusion to Lungbarrow, the aborted haunted house story about the Doctor’s secret history that was eventually reworked into Ghost Light.

Running out of time.

Still, it’s an effective visual metaphor, even if it’s a fob watch nested inside a fob watch. There’s something frustratingly recursive about all this, the show assuring the Doctor (and presumably the viewers invested in any of this) that “your princess is in another castle.” What exactly is going to happen when the Doctor goes inside the creepy old house, is she going to discover a creepy Russian nesting doll? It’s the kind of plotting that recalls the most recent Star Wars film, Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker, which hinged on characters finding a map that would lead them to another map.

Once again, Chibnall returns to his thematic preoccupation with balance and the status quo. The Doctor is presented as a character who is opposed to change, rather than a champion of it. “There’s a balance to the universe, and it exists that way for a reason,” the Doctor tells Azure. It’s not quite “the systems aren’t the problem!” from Kerblam!, but it’s also not a million miles away from it either. (To be fair, Diane does boast to Vinder about how she likes to disrupt systems, in the episode’s most disposable subplot.)

At the end of The Vanquishers, the Doctor has used two extremes to cancel one another out and restore balance – “matter” and “anti-matter” combine to stop the eponymous natural disaster. Swarm and Azure’s narrative ends when the Doctor stops them from freeing the abstract concept of Time. It’s worth pausing to reflect on this. In Chris Chibnall’s version of Doctor Who, time is something that must be controlled and regulated. It must be contained and imprisoned. It cannot be allowed to flow freely. It cannot be allowed to chart its own course. It must be locked away by the powerful and preserved in that state.

To be fair, this is a perspective that feels very much in keeping with how the Chibnall era treats the sanctity of history, in episodes like Rosa, Demons of the Punjab and Spyfall, Part II. What happened has happened and could not have happened any other way, and to imagine any world where something better happened would be to violate the sanctity of the flow of time itself. This is how Flux ends, the Doctor communicating with an incarcerated anthropomorphic personification of Time, one that doesn’t feel so different from the pets that “House” kept in The Doctor’s Wife.

Mining these story veins.

There is a clear sense that Chibnall is aiming for a sort of “maximalism” with Flux, a “more is more” approach. Chibnall is trying to construct a version of Doctor Who that looks like modern blockbusters. It’s notable that the most frequent scene transition in The Vanquishers is the old-fashioned screenwipe, evoking Star Wars. During the seventies, Doctor Who struggled in the shadow of Star Wars. It seems like a large part of Flux is Chibnall proving that Doctor Who can compete on that level. Looking at the quality of Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker, that might not be the flex that he assumes it to be.

The Vanquishers ends Flux with a cacophony of sound and fury, signifying… well… very little.

34 Responses

  1. Good god. He really did try and destroy the show as best he could before he left, didn’t he?

    Bring on RTD2.

    • To be fair, I don’t think it’s malice. I honestly think this was Chibnall thinks good Doctor Who looks like: lots of things happening! lots of noise! explosions! shouting! guns and shooting! vague and meaningless philosophical debates! teases about possible future developments! three separate genocides! a happy ending!

      I mean, I loathed it, but I really do think Chibnall wants it to look like this. And, hey, it does seem to work for some people, so good for them.

      • You’re right. My original comment does seem a bit whiny and entitled. I’m sure he’s giving it his all.

        I’m not very fond of it, though. It almost couldn’t be farther from what I want out of the show.

  2. *Tenth

  3. Darren old man, I am not sure what you watched but it was not the did thing I did.

  4. Was it really necessary to editorialize in a TV show review?

    • What did I editorialise over?

      (And surely the entire point of a review is to editorialise, in that it’s about having an opinion about the thing in question and (where possible) situating it in a wider cultural context.)

  5. There are very obvious points of comparison between The Vanquishers and Journey’s End. Triplicating the Thirteenth Doctor represents an obvious escalation from duplicating the Twelfth Doctor.

    an obvious escalation from duplicating the Tenth Doctor.

  6. Darren, thanks so much for this. Watching that was such an abysmal experience. Your review helped wash the bad taste out. Nothing like rational examination to ease the emotions. For me, anyway.

    • Thanks! Glad you enjoyed. I found the reviews were quite helpful in processing my own complicated feeling about this era of the show’s life.

  7. I saw a commend on Twitter that said “This is what people who don’t watch Doctor Who think that Doctor Who is like” and I kinda agree. And it’s a million miles away from RTD’s trick of basing Rose (the episode) in the same world as EastEnders.

    • Yep. It’s very much Doctor Who for people who think Doctor Who exists in a vacuum as the best thing in the world. It’s a very insular piece of television, which is really odd coming after the Moffat era and all those criticisms of Moffat becoming too fannish or too continuity-obsessed. It really underscores the extent to which both Davies and Moffat were writing to the general audience, in a way that Chibnall doesn’t seem to be.

      • I found it interesting that Cartmel identified that as his least favorite Moffat trope.

        “Moffat’s an incredibly good writer, in some ways *the* great Doctor Who writer, but he would always get hung up on all these tiny little details of the mythos, of the mythology. You just didn’t know what the hell was going on.”

        Which is fascinating, because I thought the point of stories like The Time of the Doctor and Hell Bent was that lore details were unimportant except for how they enhanced the current story. But you and I have rather extensive knowledge of Doctor Who lore. Perhaps the point doesn’t land as well for casual viewers.

  8. An excellent review. One other subplot that you didn’t mention, however, was the Companions searching for an exact date for three years. It was never mentioned again when the Doctor caught up with them, never used in any way to stop or to help anything, and the only vague reference to it was the piece of paper on the door in the tunnels that said Dec 5th 2021, which no-one was controlling or examining anyway.

    Just what was the point of that??

    • Yep. I remember reading somebody point out that, given that Yaz and Dan just came from 2021, which had a Sontaran invasion and a flux happening, it would seem like that should be a safe bet, making the running around seem especially pointless. (It really does feel like a Moffat-era cold open stretched over an entire episode.)

  9. Your re iew is absolutely spot on, however I would cut a long review short by simply saying.
    The Flux is GARBAGE

    • Ah, I’m not sure I’d go that far, despite my own disillusionment with it. But, yeah, it is not good. Very, very not good.

      • I think there is a solid argument that these past two seasons are the absolute worst in the show’s history, right down there with The Trial of a Time Lord, because they don’t have any really good standalone stories. Season 11 has The Time Warrior. Season 15 has Horror of Fang Rock. Season 17 has City of Death. Season 19 has Kinda. Season 20 has Snakedance and Enlightenment. Season 21 has The Caves of Androzani. Season 22 has Vengeance on Varos. Season 24 has Paradise Towers. All better than anything in the Chibnall era.

        The previous consensus ‘low points of the revival’ have The Girl in the Fireplace, The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit, A Town Called Mercy, The Angels Take Manhattan, Hide, and the ‘of the Doctor’ trilogy. I don’t think it’s that much of a stretch to be honest.

  10. Thank you for your weekly reviews, your writing on Doctor Who is some of the best that can be found on the internet and the Chibnall era reviews in particular are good for people like me who are frustrated with the show and but who also don’t fall for the (seemingly) dominant “it’s the fault of the SJWs” narrative.

    I do agree with everything you wrote, but I must say I still enjoyed this episode more than the previous Chibnall finales (and on the whole I enjoyed this season more than the previous Chibnall seasons). To me, its like the difference between The Force Awakens and The Rise of Skywalker – they both share the same story problems, but the former at least manages to conjure up enough of a superficial sense of fun, while the latter is a miserable slog to get through. Or maybe its just a case of lowered expectations after 2 seasons of Chibnall. When season 11 came out, I was pretty disappointed that the first female Doctor was being wasted on such a mediocre iteration of the show. Plus there was no end in sight and that made my negative feelings stronger. But right now I know that the end is near, RTD is coming back (and maybe will cast another female Doctor, fingers crossed), so I’m just patiently waiting for Chibnall to finish his bullshit, so we can all move on. And I think that that knowledge of it ending soon kept me from being too annoyed, when the Flux got messy or boring.

    • Thanks for the kind words! It’s a fair point that the end is in sight, but I will acknowledge that I’ve switched to a mode where I don’t think about the Chibnall era too much when I’m not watching it, so these six weeks felt very draining. (Particularly when the blu ray box sets have been taking me to the Letts, Hinchcliffe and Cartmel eras, my own time travel device.)

      • I understand how it could have been draining for you. There were periods of time when I thought about the Chibnall era almost obsessively. It was such a step back from the show I knew and loved – the writing was clunky, the visual storytelling (despite the surface level prestige-ness) was uninspired and often hard to follow, plus like I said the disappointment that this is what the first female Doctor is settled with. And I think because of those periods of time, at this point I just can’t be bothered to generate many feelings for this incarnation of the show (which is kind of sad, in its own way) and am open to being pleasantly surprised by little.

        That said, it doesn’t mean I am totally immune to being annoyed or even drained. When the teaser for the New Year’s special started playing I said “seriously” out loud. It’s still gonna be 2 long years before RTD returns (correct me if I’m wrong, but we don’t know whether series 14 will premiere before or after the 60th anniversary special, right?). I do hope after their repetetive and boring presence in the Chibnall era, he takes a lesson from Moffat and sidelines the Daleks though.

        Also I must admit, I never managed to get to the Classic era. Something about the lenght of the serials is very prohibitive and daunting to me. But I think I’ll take your lead and rewatch some RTD/Moffat episodes to remind myself of what good Doctor Who can look like.

      • I can see the serial length being a barrier to entry on the classic series. That said, if you do want to give it a try, the last season of the classic series is a pretty decent place to start. Curse of Fenric is basically a modern series two-parter, and has been editted into a tighter “movie” structure. Ghost Light and Survival are only three episodes a piece, with Ghost Light being decidedly modern in some of its storytelling. (There’s a lot of ambiguity that seems as much down to the edit as to authorial intent.)

    • Personally I think Ranskoor Av Kolos or whatever might be Chibnalls best finale? Still utterly terrible, but it fills most of the basic points of a narrative at least, whereas Timeless Children and The Vanquishers just feel designed to string you along for as long as possible with lore that it won’t even entirely explain.

      Also for classic the 4th doctor has mainly 4 part serials that are essentially the length of a new-who two-parter, so that might not be a bad place to start.

  11. These reviews have definitely helped me make sense of this season, so thanks for that. Love your work. I’ve been working on doing edits of the episodes to give them a more coherent throughline, but I genuinely have no clue what to do with this one lol.

    The most frustrating part is that there are a few interesting ideas here, like Karvanista losing their species is a compelling link to the Doctor (who has lost her people twice now), and youd expect her to have some words of comfort or show in some way that she understands what he’s feeling, perhaps they can reunite over shared trauma or something. At the very least you need to show Karvanista processing that. But she just dumps him off (again!) with Bel and Vinder?

    Also what was with Dan and Diane? Like there’s clearly supposed to be romantic tension there but then she… turns him down because he got kidnapped? I understand Chibnall wants an excuse to keep him around for the specials and travel with the Doctor, but like. It’s a time machine and the man doesn’t even have a house lol.

  12. I thought dr who was brilliant and Jodie couldn’t fault her . I will miss her I hope u pick the right person to take her place .

  13. I’ve been struggling to put into words for people why I felt this series of Who (and in particular this dreadful final episode) was so bad, and this nails it. Chibnall just doesn’t seem interested AT ALL in ordinary human emotions and seems to think that idea of slowing the show down for a second to include any sort of question of feelings is somehow damaging to the idea of Who (so you get terrible moments like the Doctor telling Graham she literally doesn’t want to talk about Graham’s fear about his cancer returning, a moment Chibnall manages to make the Doctor cowardly and callous when I think he meant to make her shy and endearing).

    But this was a new low. Everyone screaming techno babble and plot goals at each other, solutions that came from nowhere and Chibnall still seems to think a “brilliant reveal” is saying words to the effect of “Doctor you’ve never heard of XYZ before. Let me tell you everything about XYZ before I shock here by saying you/I am XYZ!”. His feeble attempt at an RTD tribute act just reminds you how good something like “He will knock four times is” compared to Chibnall’s tease which might as well have been “Oh and watch out for the Master he’ll be in your final episode”.

    Chibnall seems to have pulled off the master stroke. He’s written now two series of Who (his first one was flawed but better and my wife actually watched it, which I couldn’t pay her to do with Flux) which are so bereft of emotional investment and so consumed with his fundamental misreading of what he thinks most fans want from the show that he’s managed to alienate nearly everyone.

  14. Darren, since I commented in an earlier entry about the science in Doctor Who, I came up with an analogy on why it can be so off-putting for some viewers, but not for others: https://kevinwadejohnson.blogspot.com/2021/12/science-history-etc-factors-that-can.html

    I hope I provide something constructive for the discussion.

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