“The end of the universe. I always wondered what it would feel like.”
The Doctor is back, and the universe is ending. Again. I must admit to a feeling of déjà vu about this; the universe has been at stake in stories as varied as Logopolis, Terminus and most Russell T Davies season finales, and it’s still there. Experience suggests that saving the universe is not something the Doctor will have a problem with.
Still, she does look a bit worried. Perhaps because this time it won’t be neatly wrapped up in a couple of episodes; this season’s truncated run of six episodes is all one story. That’s hardly new either – after all, the show had multi episode stories for its first 26 years. It even had a couple of official season-spanning arcs with The Key to Time and Trial of a Time Lord, and unofficial ones such as the Master popping up in every story of the original Season Eight.
However, even they were, technically, made up of individual stories, whereas this, like Torchwood: Children of Earth, is all one narrative. That could be interesting – Children of Earth was a tightly plotted five episode story with a relentless narrative drive. This, however, is by Chris Chibnall, so I’m rather less confident about it. It doesn’t help that, to indicate its one-storyness, the show’s title has gained an addendum for the first time in its history. It’s now Doctor Who: Flux.
Now, perhaps ‘Flux’ sounded cool and sciencey in Chris Chibnall’s mind, but to me (and I imagine a few others) it sounds like a nasty case of indigestion. Perhaps the universe just needs some milk of magnesia. Still, the titular Flux is certainly a scary looking thing, a wave of unstoppable destruction consuming everything in its path, whether suns, planets or whole galaxies. Just like all those ones that keep popping up in Star Trek – in fact, there’s one threatening the galaxy in this season of Star Trek Discovery right now.
To be fair, that’s obviously an unfortunate coincidence – both shows must logically have been written and filmed at more or less the same time. And this does have the potential to be interesting. For a showrunner whose first season was so unimaginatively safe, Chris Chibnall has developed a fondness for earth-shattering revelations that overturn everything you thought you knew about Doctor Who (though your mileage may vary as to how well he’s achieved this in story terms).
He’s certainly thrown everything but the kitchen sink into this season opener, titled The Halloween Apocalypse so as to neatly tie into its broadcast date. Sontarans! Weeping Angels! A mysterious Hannibal Lecter-like alien escaping from millennia of activity with a bone to pick with the Doctor! Oh, and, er, dog people.
There were plenty of disparate and seemingly unconnected plot threads introduced right from the start here. What’s going on with that dour industrialist digging tunnels in 1820 Liverpool? Who is the (obviously evil) skull-faced alien escaping from millennia of captivity on a distant planet, and why is his sister masquerading as a human with a nice jumper in the Arctic Circle? What exactly is Observation Outpost Rose supposed to be observing? Who is Clare and how does she know the Doctor?
By the end of this first ep, it’s hard to see how all these are connected. But connected they obviously will be, as the story progresses, though it did seem very ambitious to have so many plot threads for such a short episode count. Even with all of that though, this ep did have an ‘A plot’ of sorts, which was what the aforementioned dog people, the Lupari, were actually up to.
This neatly introduced us to three important things – the Flux itself, the fact that the Doctor is seeking information about ‘the Division’ – and new companion Dan Lewis.
Unlike some people, I didn’t have much trepidation about the casting of Liverpudlian comic John Bishop. After all, the just-departed Bradley Walsh turned out to be genuinely superb in the show, and I’ve seen Bishop give some perfectly decent acting performances in the likes of Skins. On first acquaintance though, the character of Dan seems, well, pretty awfully written. I mean yes, I get that John Bishop is Scouse and rightly proud of his home city. But Dan, the character, takes it a level further. He is the Uber-Scouse. He is so Liverpudlian he hangs out in the city museum giving impromptu lectures to unsuspecting tourists, and actually lives on the same street as Anfield Stadium. He couldn’t have been more stereotypically Liverpudlian if he’d started saying, “calm down, calm down” with a big moustache.
None of this is John Bishop’s fault – he didn’t write the thing after all, and he does the best with what he’s given. And I’m hoping it’s just teething troubles, and the more interesting aspects of the character will come to the fore as we go on – like the fact that he volunteers at a food bank despite being grindingly poor himself, and has the beginnings of a relationship with nice museum worker Di. Still, if he threatens to “get out there and twat” the Flux, I wouldn’t be at all surprised.
The ep also introduces us to another new regular character – Vinder, the solitary space watcher played by Game of Thrones’ Jacob Anderson. Equipped with dreads and facial hair to distinguish him from that show’s character Grey Worm, Anderson seems pretty good so far (“I’ll sign off like the last 21,000 times by saying go to hell”). Currently careening through space in a bit of his destroyed observation post, it’s a bit soon to say much about Vinder as a character, but he already seems better written than Dan.
I wonder whether his ‘observation post’ was something else to do with the mysterious ‘Division’ in which the Doctor is so cagily interested. This is obviously a very important plot point, possibly the most important. I’m guessing the Division is the Time Lord intelligence service that kept wiping the Doctor’s mind of her now-multifarious previous incarnations (though the Time Lords already had a perfectly usable black ops department called the Celestial Intervention Agency). Of course, as of last season, the Time Lords are no more (until they inevitably return in some timey-wimey manner). But all those revelations about their interference must have some far-reaching effects for the universe as a whole.
Given this secret agenda, Jodie Whittaker fortunately had more depth to work with than the usual playful adventurer we saw in the crowd-pleasing action-packed prologue. I’m glad about that; Whittaker has shown that, when given the material, she can do broody, secretive Doctor as well as any of her predecessors. The trouble is that there’s been all too little of it, giving her something of a lightweight feel that’s ill-deserved.
Yaz, however, remains a rather cardboard, uninteresting character. Again, this is no fault of Mandip Gill, who gives a fiery, energetic performance. It’s just that the writing isn’t there. Yaz was frequently sidelined when Graham and Ryan were still on board the TARDIS; her current status as the only companion doesn’t give the character anywhere to hide how two-dimensional it is. It was notable in previous seasons that Yaz only really displayed a spark in the context of her family and background as a Sheffield copper. Shorn of that, there really doesn’t seem to be much to her.
It’s a mixed beginning, this. Chibnall throws so many plot threads into the mix that presumably some of them will turn out to be game-changing, but it did feel rather crowded. Children of Earth was leanly and tightly plotted from the outset, while this feels sprawling and all over the place. But as an opening chapter, it feels churlish to judge it the way I would a self-contained episode. Let’s see what the rest of the story brings.