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Doctor Who: Flux – Chapter Five: Survivors of the Flux (Review)

“We’re not in the universe.”

Survivors of the Flux marks a return to the narrative style of both The Halloween Apocalypse and Once, Upon Time.

It’s not so much an individual episode of television so much as it’s a space in which the larger narrative threads of the season advance itself. While it’s not as scattershot as Once, Upon Time, it lacks the clarity of focus and momentum that held The Halloween Apocalypse together as a season premiere. Surivivors of the Flux often feels like things happening, which is particularly noticeable in the two story threads focusing on the Great Serpent and the separated companion crew, which are largely a series of disconnected vignettes jumping through time and space respectively to provide a sense of scale to the adventure.

Tomb to manoeuvre.

Even more than The Halloween Apocalypse, Survivors of the Flux is an episode that hinges heavily on the looming series finale. The nature of Doctor Who: Flux places a lot of weight on The Vanquishers. If the season finale is suitably compelling, any earlier missteps will either be retroactively justified or easily excused. However, if the last episode of the set collapses into itself, it may erase a lot of the more interesting ideas leading into it. It is best to travel hopefully, but The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos and The Timeless Children are perhaps cause for concern.

Survivors of the Flux is not only a heavily serialised instalment, it’s also recognisable as the first half of the season finale. It is comparable to something like The Stolen Earth or Dark Water. The best of these penultimate seasonal episodes manage to balance a compelling self-contained narrative, or at least engaging character work, with the necessity of setting up larger plot arcs to pay off the following episode. Survivors of the Flux feels a lot more like homework than episodes like Heaven Sent or World Enough and Time.

Glowing concern.

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Doctor Who: Flux – Chapter Four: Village of the Angels (Review)

“Doctor, there are angels in the wall here.”

“Of course there are! Why wouldn’t there be?”

Village of the Angels largely works.

It is the best episode of Doctor Who: Flux to this point, and certainly the best episode of Doctor Who since Maxine Alderton’s last credit on The Haunting of the Villa Diodati. Like The Haunting of the Villa Diodati, Village of the Angels is an interesting high-concept cocktail: it is a period-piece base-under-siege story with a classic monster and simmering occult undertones. It is an illustration of how sturdy some of these Doctor Who templates can be, and how there’s room for novelty and ambition to be found even when playing the old standards.

Angels of the Mourning.

That said, Village of the Angels does run into a couple of problems. Like The Haunting of the Villa Diodati, it is a narrative that feels somewhat undercut by the decision to use it as a launching pad into the two-part season finale. There are enough interesting characters and concepts at play in Village of the Angels that the episode feels like it deserves to function as more than just an extended trailer for the epic closing story of the season around it. Village of the Angels is a story that has markedly less internal resolution than War of the Sontarans, and it almost feels like both episodes would be better served by swapping places.

Still, that’s a relatively minor complaint about one of the most impressive episodes of the Chibnall and Whittaker era.

Grave danger.

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Doctor Who: Flux – Chapter Three: Once, Upon Time (Review)

“Love is the only mission.”

Once, Upon Time is equal parts ambitious and frustrating.

It feels like an attempt to adopt the approach that Chris Chibnall took to The Halloween Apocalypse and apply it to a mid-season episode. Allowing for the tertiary plot involving Yaz, War of the Sontarans was recognisable as a fairly straightforward Chibnall era episode, albeit one tied to the season arc. It was a historical epic about a marginalised female hero like Rosa or Spyfall, Part II and it was also a modern-day invasion story like Arachnids in the U.K. or Revolution of the Daleks. Sure, the plot mechanics where governed by the larger concerns of Doctor Who: Flux, but it was recognisable as an episode of Doctor Who.

Blaster from the… future?

In contrast, Once, Upon Time is a radically different approach to Doctor Who on television, one that feels like an extension of the style of The Halloween Apocalypse. On some level, it recalls another of the bolder scripts of the Chibnall era, The Timeless Children, in that it really feels like Chris Chibnall is driving Doctor Who like he stole it. He is trying to do something new with a nearly sixty-year-old franchise. That is genuinely admirable, particularly given how traditionalist the rest of the era around it can feel. For Doctor Who to grow and evolve, it needs to be able to try new things.

However, that’s a very qualified comparison. Like The Timeless Children before it, Once, Upon Time is an episode that doesn’t necessarily work on its own terms. It demonstrates that an episode like The Halloween Apocalypse – an episode with multiple seemingly disconnected threads constantly pushing the narrative forward – only really worked as a season premiere. The Halloween Apocalypse worked because it started with a bang. The audience were oriented coming into the episode, which made the chaos somewhat compelling.

Time, pyramided.

In contrast, Once, Upon Time is too disjointed. It never provides the audience with enough to hold on to as it jumps from one concept to another. It is an episode that should theoretically have a set of clear emotional hearts – Dan and Diane, Vinder and Bel, the Doctor and her past – but gets too tied up in scale and speed to really ground anything that is happening. Once, Upon Time feels like a more dynamic version of The Timeless Children, a lot of exposition in place of what should be a compelling and engaging emotional narrative.

Once, Upon Time feels like it is trying for something new, but it isn’t quite succeeding.

Back up.

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Doctor Who: Flux – Chapter Two: War of the Sontarans (Review)

“I have Queen and Country on my side. That is all that I need.”

“She here with you right now, the Queen?”

War of the Sontarans is a basically functional episode of Doctor Who, even if it feels like a rough draft of a more interesting premise that moves quickly enough to dance over the more obvious cracks.

In some ways, War of the Sontarans feels very much like a proof of concept for Doctor Who: Flux, a demonstration of how exactly Chibnall is going to turn that frantic season-opener into a sustainable six-episode miniseries. War of the Sontarans settles down, severely trimming down the number of plot threads in play at the end of The Halloween Apocalypse. Diane and Claire are nowhere to be found. The Weeping Angels are entirely absent. Joseph Williamson only makes a minor appearance, serving primarily to remind audience members that he still exists.

“Queuing for petrol,
Queuing for petrol.
Queuing for petrol.
And I’m on a horse.”

So War of the Sontarans feels very much like a conventional episode of Doctor Who, albeit with considerably more plot crammed into comparatively less space, and with a secondary subplot that more directly ties into the larger arc. It’s not the most elegant way of structuring an event story like this, but it is a more workable model for six weeks of Doctor Who. This is an episode of television that will be easy enough for casual audience members to follow, even if they haven’t seen The Halloween Apocalypse. Indeed, it’s possible to argue that this is easier to follow than The Halloween Apocalypse.

For all the plot and narrative hijinks at work in War of the Sontarans, the episode is remarkably straightforward. This is both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness. War of the Sontarans touches on a variety of interesting ideas, but never lingering on any of them or pushing them too far into their more compelling implications.

Sontaring into battle.

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Doctor Who: Flux – Chapter One: The Halloween Apocalypse (Review)

“You know, Yaz. I can’t help but feel like some of this is my fault.”

In the lead-up to the broadcast of Doctor Who: Flux, there was some debate about the marketting of the series.

After all, it seemed like fans knew more about the distant fourteenth season of the revival than they did about the looming thirteenth season. Information about Chibnall’s third season tended to escape into the wild rather than derive from a single coherent source. Former showrunner Steven Moffat seemed to (accidentally) confirm that the Weeping Angels were appearing. Part of the publicity campaign for Flux involved deleting the show’s social media presence. The first trailer was released only three weeks before the premiere. In interviews, Chibnall openly worried about “giving too much away.”

Dogged pursuit.

In some ways, this is typical of the larger Chibnall era. After all, Chibnall took great pride in seeding the phrase “the Timeless Child” in The Ghost Monument, only to eventually pay it off with twenty minutes of expository flashbacks in The Timeless Children. The Chibnall era is very plot-focused, which means that it is paranoid of potential spoilers, and it is reasonable to wonder whether that paranoia makes it harder to sell the show to the general public. For a sprawling six-part epic built around one of the BBC’s flagship properties, Flux seemed to fly in under the radar.

Then again, this makes a certain amount of sense watching The Halloween Apocalypse. The season premiere doesn’t really feel like an episode of television, at least not in the traditional sense. There is a relatively minor self-contained plot within the episode focusing on Karvanista and Dan, which is neatly wrapped up within the episode proper. However, that is just one thread of a story that cuts frantically from one thread to another, introducing a host of set-ups that promise the possibility and the potential of chaos.

Tracing an outline of the season ahead.

This is itself pure and unfiltered Chris Chibnall. It is the ultimate acceleration and culmination of the style that he adopted in The Woman Who Fell to Earth. Inheriting the series from Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat, Chibnall was a writer who lacked his predecessors’ skill with character and dialogue. Watching The Woman Who Fell to Earth, it seemed like Chibnall’s solution to this problem was to ensure that there was always something to cut away to – that he could get into and out of scenes quickly, to distract from the fact that his dialogue and characters felt rather generic.

The Halloween Apocalypse takes that idea to its logical extreme. It introduces a variety of disparate and disconnected elements that are presented as a series of mystery boxes, hoping that the audience will be enticed enough to keep watching – the Swarm and his history with the Doctor, the transformed Azure, the mysterious Vinder, Claire who appears to be from the Doctor’s past and/or future, the Sontaran invasion fleet, the mysterious excavations in 1820. None of these elements get any pay-off, or even development. Instead, they are simply spinning plates positioned for the rest of the six-episode arc.

With that in mind, the marketting strategy makes a great deal more sense. Why would Flux need heavy advertising, if the first episode was essentially a fifty-minute trailer?

Being a little cagey about spoilers.

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New Escapist Column! On Chris Chibnall’s “Doctor Who” Aspiring to Prestige Television…

I published a new In the Frame piece at The Escapist this evening. With Doctor Who: Flux launching this weekend, it seemed like a good excuse to take a look back at Chris Chibnall’s tenure as showrunner.

One of the more interesting recurring aspects of Chris Chibnall’s tenure as showrunner of Doctor Who has been the way in which he has embraced a lot of the narrative and visual language associated with “prestige television” – the anamorphic lenses, the muted colour scheme, the serialisation, the minimalism, the self-seriousness. It’s an approach that is an awkward fit for the show, particularly when the era around it seems so lacking in substance. It feels like an unconvincing attempt to argue that Doctor Who is “serious business.”

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

New Escapist Column! On Russell T. Davies’ Return to “Doctor Who”…

I published a new column at The Escapist yesterday. With the seismic news that Russell T. Davies would be returning as showrunner of Doctor Who, it seemed worth taking a look at what he might bring.

Davies is, to put it simply, one of the best dramatists working on British television. He is also one of the single most important creative personnel in the history of Doctor Who. While Barry Letts did briefly return as an executive producer, his return is unprecedented. While nobody knows exactly what happened behind the scenes, it seems safe to suggest that his return is a pretty big deal. So the question remains: can Davies save Doctor Who again?

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

New Podcast! Mr. TARDIS – “Jodie Whittaker and Chris Chibnall Leaving. What Next? + Poorly Animated”

I was thrilled to be invited to join the very generous Will Carlisle for one of his weekly live streams at Mr. TARDIS.

I joined him to discuss the news that Jodie Whittaker and Chris Chibnall would be departing Doctor Who together, to explore the complicated politics of the era and to ponder what might potentially follow. It was a fun and broad discussion, and I was delighted to join Will to have the conversation.

You can watch the full live stream below.

New Escapist Column! On How the Thirteenth Doctor is Already Awaiting Rehabilitation…

I published a new column at The Escapist yesterday. With the announcement that both Chris Chibnall and Jodie Whittaker would be leaving Doctor Who after this season and a string of specials, it seemed like a good opportunity to take a look back at their time on the show.

In particular, how this three-season stretch marks the first time since the revival that an actor’s interpretation of the Doctor has been left awaiting rehabilitation. Jodie Whittaker’s Thirteenth Doctor was a striking opportunity for the show, a talented actor in a bold reinvention. However, despite the combination of the actor’s enthusiasm and the audience’s goodwill, the show itself failed to deliver on her potential. This essentially places Whittaker in the same position as Colin Baker. The Thirteenth Doctor will have to look outside the show to find stories and characterisation worthy of the actor involved.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

Doctor Who: Revolution of the Daleks (Review)

“Have you had work done?”

“You’re one to talk.”

Like Resolution before it, Revolution of the Daleks is a special that largely works through momentum and spectacle, while failing to cohere into anything greater than the sum of its separate parts.

The cobbled together Dalek casing from Resolution is a major plot point in Revolution of the Daleks, but it also plays as metaphor for the episode itself. Even as early as The Woman Who Fell to Earth, it was clear that the Chibnall era did not share the same strengths as the Davies and Moffat eras before it. It is impossible to imagine Chibnall constructing a holiday special featuring characters bantering around a couple of generic sets. If he did, it would probably resemble The Timeless Children more than Twice Upon a Time, with characters just expositing at one another.

Insert political joke here.

Instead, Chibnall tends to construct his more successful episodes around propulsion and momentum; he likes to have multiple characters doing things simultaneously, while constantly throwing new elements into the mix to maintain some sense of forward movement. Revolution of the Daleks is not so much an episode as a collection of familiar Doctor Who elements thrown into a blender with even more familiar elements thrown on top. There’s a frantic sense of “… and then…” plotting to the episode, as Chibnall rhymes off any story coming into his head.

The result is an episode that is messier and more overstuffed than Resolution. Indeed, Resolution might have somewhat bungled the eponymous reconciliation between Ryan and his father, but at least it understood that this relationship was meant to be both the heart of the episode and the pay-off to a thread running through the season. In contrast, Revolution seems like a bunch of stuff happening incredibly quickly as the stakes frantically escalate and the story switches before the audience can get bored of it.

To be fair, everybody looks at Christmas leftovers the same way.

Revolution of the Daleks doesn’t really work. After all, despite all the stuff that happens in the episode, it is hard to pinpoint what it is actually supposed to be “about.” There are certainly scenes and developments that feel like they should be important, but they never really feel like organic evolution from one scene to the next. That said, Revolution of the Dalek manages to avoid falling completely flat. The sense of constant escalation prevents anything from collapsing into itself. Revolution of the Daleks is certainly more Spyfall, Part I than Spyfall, Part II.

At the same time, it is hardly revolutionary.

“It’s hard to keep track of how many stories this is referencing.”

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