“Taste the victory, my soldiers!.”
The opening “chapter” having set out the multifarious plot threads for Chris Chibnall’s magnum opus, this second ep of Doctor Who: Flux was more focused and made more of an effort to tell an actual story. Rather than dealing with every one of the characters left in jeopardy at the end of the previous week’s cliffhanger, War of the Sontarans zeroed in on just several across two plot threads – what had happened to the occupants of the TARDIS, and the unfortunate Vinder, in the wake of their encounter with the Flux.
In this, though, it felt like Chris Chibnall cheated. One moment all concerned were facing imminent destruction, the next they were inexplicably… somewhere else. Now, I’ll give this a pass (for the time being), as it’s obviously going to be an important plot point, but it did rather undermine an effective set of cliffhangers. I’m guessing it has something to do with skull-faced baddie Swarm, whose motivations and plans are still unclear, but obviously… bad. I mean, this is Chris Chibnall – no character who looks like that is going to be the good guy.
Swarm wasn’t the most ugly thing on display this week though. For that, we had the ep’s main baddies, the newly redesigned Sontarans. It’s fair to say that the Sontarans have lost much of their menace since reappearing in David Tennant’s era, mostly due to the fact that they have only appeared in the form of Dan Starkey’s comic relief character Strax.
This was an obvious attempt to restore their potential threat as the ultimate military machine. And where better to do that than in the middle of a war? For a species repeatedly described as the ultimate soldiers, “bred for war”, we’ve seen precious little of the Sontarans actually in battle since their introduction in 1973. So, War of the Sontarans didn’t mess about, and chucked the newly grotesque baddies straight into the middle of a major conflict – the Crimean War.
For this was where the Doctor (and, initially, her companions) found herself after the enigmatic resolution to the previous week’s cliffhanger. Specifically, in the environs of the Battle of Sevastopol, where, in trademark Who style, she bumped into an inspirational historical figure – British-Jamaican “doctress” Mary Seacole, who tends to get rather unfairly overlooked in the history of the Crimea in favour of the more famous Florence Nightingale.
As with Ada Lovelace and Noor Inayat Khan in last season’s Spyfall, Seacole was perhaps given rather short shrift as a guest character in a story that wasn’t really about her. Nonetheless, Sara Powell gave a compassionate, no-nonsense performance, making the most of the opportunity to play a woman who, in 2004, was voted the greatest black Briton.
Actually Seacole was about the only guest character (from a limited ensemble) given any kind of depth. British General Logan (Gerald Kyd) was pretty much a cypher, there to demonstrate the worst aspects of humanity in war, while Dan’s parents, popping up unexpectedly in the modern day, could best be described as “nice” and little else.
Still, it was good to see that Karvanista, and his grudging obligation to protect Dan, hadn’t been forgotten. Despite the show’s undoubted overreliance on anthropomorphised animals since 2005, Karvanista is a pretty good character, that cutesy dog face belying his grouchy, irritable personality. Stuck with acting behind a mask, Craige Els does a fine job of conveying this, his Sheffield accent full of resigned contempt for his charge even while helping him out.
I must admit though, I wasn’t sure what it was they actually did to end the brief reign of Sontar in contemporary Liverpool. How did crashing one spaceship into the rest reset the timeline? The resolution in the Crimea was less murky, but it served to underline something of a lack of clarity in how the Sontarans had actually achieved what they were up to. I mean sure, I get that they took advantage of the Flux to insert themselves into Earth’s timeline – they’ve always had time travel capability from their introduction in The Time Warrior – and why they might enjoy the Crimean War.
But why insert themselves into the (relative) peacetime of contemporary Liverpool? And how come their incursion into the 19th century didn’t mean that, from a modern perspective, they’d been on Earth for centuries? Timey-wimey, I’m sure the Doctor would say, but even in Steven Moffat’s most confusingly plotted paradoxes, he’d chuck in a throwaway line to explain this kind of thing.
The Sontarans at least felt like they were back on form – indeed, this was probably their best depiction since 1973. Their redesign, presumably intentionally, was more than reminiscent of their original appearance, their skin now warty and slimy and their armoured suits retooled in the original colour scheme of black and silver. Sontaran commander Riskaw even mentioned the original and best Sontaran, Kevin Lindsay’s Linx, in explaining why the squat potatoheads were so interested in Earth. (“Plus, I wanted to ride a horse.”)
The humour wasn’t entirely absent of course, and Dan Starkey, surely the natural heir to Kevin Lindsay in being the go to guy for playing Sontarans, was present and correct here. The charge against the British on the battlefield of Sevastopol was well-realised, freighted with allusions to the ill-fated Charge of the Light Brigade (General Logan even said that they were “the Light Division”), and there were plenty of (mis)quotes from Tennyson’s famous poem.
Still, I think the show has missed a trick since bringing the Sontarans back in 2008 in not focusing a little more on their raison d’etre – their millennia-long war against the Rutans. Making them purely an antagonist for humanity misses the original point, that they didn’t care about Earth one way or the other; except insofar as it gave them an advantage against the Rutans. Plus, the blobby, shapechanging Rutan Host, with their lethal, electric shock-dispensing stings, would be a cool antagonist for any modern episode.
That’s just griping on my part, though. Generally, this was the best depiction of the Sontarans we’ve seen in the post-2005 show. It’s just a shame that, even with the focus squarely on them here, they were merely a sideshow to the main plot. For that, we got Yaz’s own inexplicable transportation to the Temple of Atropos, on the planet Time (“there’s no such planet!”). Handily, this was also where young Vinder had ended up through similarly mysterious means, bringing at least two of last week’s disparate plot threads together.
Well, three actually – Yaz also bumped into that dour 19th century industrialist from last week, who is apparently the real figure of Joseph Williamson. Williamson, an eccentric philanthropist, is apparently best known for having constructed the Williamson Tunnels under the Edge Hill area of Liverpool, which is surely what was alluded to last week. The Tunnels are still of unknown purpose, but I’m betting this story will find some reason for them.
What Williamson was doing at the Temple of Atropos was not explored, and sure enough, he vanished in pretty short order. I’m sure we’ll come back to him, but in the mean time, Yaz was pondering, as written on her hand, “WWTDD?” – What Would the Doctor Do?
If nothing else, that at least gave Yaz some semblance of a character of her own. An acolyte of the Doctor, like so many before her, she wants to model herself on the itinerant Time Lord. I do wonder whether that’s storing up heartbreak to come – as most clearly demonstrated with Clara Oswald, using the Doctor as a role model can be a pretty dangerous thing.
So it already seems, with both Yaz and Vinder drafted in as replacements for the enigmatic Priests of the Temple, and now threatened with extermination by Swarm and his cohorts. I must admit, the reason for this, again, was less than clear. Was it that the death of the Temple’s priests had somehow created the Flux? If so, what is Swarm trying to do? Also, y’know, who is he, and why does he have a gripe against the Doctor? Could it be something she did and has now forgotten about, in the service of the Division?
Questions, questions. I’m still giving Mr Chibnall the benefit of the doubt here, but let’s see if he answers them with something that satisfies the plot. For now, we ended on another cliffhanger, with the future of the universe (I care about that) in doubt, along with the lives of Yaz and Vinder (I care less about that). Let’s see what the next ep brings.