“This is Division, Doctor. Welcome back.”
Worried that we’ve reached the penultimate episode of Doctor Who: Flux and you still don’t have a clue what’s going on? Baffled by the multifarious plot strands stretching all through history? Beginning to suspect that Chris Chibnall has even less of a plan than the Brexiters?
Well, worry not, for Survivors of the Flux is here! Packed with so much exposition it doesn’t really have time for a plot, this ep’s entire purpose is to clear up all that confusion you may have been feeling up till now. Did it work? Weeeelll… no, not really.
In the unenviable position of chief info dumper was the mighty Barbara Flynn, returning as the Mysterious Old Woman the Doctor glimpsed a couple of episodes ago. Barbara Flynn is a fantastic actor, and she did the best she could with a role that was basically an hour’s worth of telling the audience what has been going on. But not even a tense moral-off between her and an equally good Jodie Whittaker could disguise that most of this episode was just those two telling, and guessing at, things they logically should already have known.
All right, the Doctor at least has an excuse – she’s had her memory wiped. And we now know it’s stored in one of those handy Time Lord fob watches, one of a seemingly endless series of references to continuity this week. The Ood working as a servant at Division was another, though I thought that David Tennant had discouraged their species from acting as the galaxy’s hired help.
And then there was UNIT. Oh thank goodness, they’re not gone after all. Like just about everyone, I was pretty pissed off that Chris Chibnall had wiped them from existence in his very first Christmas special, seemingly just to pull off a not particularly funny joke about Brexit cuts. Well, now it seems he had a plan for them after all – or he’s just reacting to fandom’s general irritation about their peremptory disappearance. Still, Chibnall has made his own contribution to the UNIT dating confusion by showing the organisation founded in 1967 – when, it’s generally accepted, The Web of Fear actually took place several years after the year it was broadcast. Anyway, great to have UNIT back – surely they can help?
But no, it seems they too have fallen victim to a longstanding conspiracy, this time embedded in the organisation from its very beginning. Their whole existence has been driven by the plans of… the Grand Serpent. Wait, what? I mean, I like a bit of Craig Parkinson, and it was great to see the master sleazeball back in action after what looked like a one-off appearance in Vinder’s flashback. But really, a former galaxy boss now has nothing better to do than spend decades discrediting a single organisation on a small planet, just to help the Sontarans?
It didn’t feel particularly plausible, but perhaps further explanations are forthcoming. However, it was a joy to see Jemma Redgrave back as the estimable Kate Stewart after assuming she’d gone for good. It almost made up for the fact that her scene with ‘Mr Prentice’ was yet another barrage of exposition. He’d been eking this out all episode, revealing fragments of his plan to everyone he subsequently killed, but with Kate he let it all hang out. Well, I suppose not even Barbara Flynn could handle doing all the exposition this ep required. Parkinson too did as well as he could with this, while still pulling off being somehow sinister and sleazy at the same time. Quite a performance.
But wait! Not even Flynn and Parkinson were enough for all the exposition we required! So it was that Yaz, Dan and Professor Jericho, still stuck around the turn of the 20th century, went on a globetrotting tour in search of an info dump of their own. A number of stock establishing shots having shown that they definitely weren’t actually in a TV studio in Wales, they delved into tombs a la Indiana Jones, were threatened by murderous shipboard stewards a la James Bond, before finally finding the ep’s funniest character, a cranky Nepalese hermit with the advice to “fetch your dog”.
As exposition goes this wasn’t much use – especially since, as Karvanista disgustedly remarked, “we don’t have time travel!” Fortunately for our heroes, another infodumper was lurking below ground. Yes, it was finally time for 19th century business magnate Joseph Williamson to tell us exactly why he’d been digging those tunnels under Liverpool, and how he kept appearing at disparate places all over space and time!
I must admit, my mind, still reeling from the sheer bombardment of information, started to wander at this point. So, although I think it was mentioned, I’m still unclear as to how Williamson was aware of the potential future threats to Earth, or why his tunnels were full of doors leading to other times and places, like the basement of Spain’s own Ministerio del Tiempo. In fact, the main thing I took away was, once again, that actor/comedian Steve Oram seemed to be channelling Reece Shearsmith’s League of Gentlemen grotesques in his performance. It actually took me a couple of episodes to realise it wasn’t Shearsmith.
There was little time to pause and reflect on this however, as back at Division HQ, the infodump was continuing. Maintaining remarkable composure, Barbara Flynn revealed that she was actually the Doctor’s ‘mother’, Tecteun – the one who’d found her as a Timeless Child next to a still-unexplained wormhole. And further, that the Flux has been deliberately unleashed to destroy the universe as a safeguard against the Doctor herself.
This did seem a trifle like overkill. Imagine, when James Bond went rogue as he has countless times, M decided to start World War III as a precaution. That’s basically the scenario here, though Tecteun did have a handy escape route into the next universe. A universe from which the Doctor herself, might, conceivably have originated.
I must admit, while I admired Chris Chibnall’s audacity in overturning everything the show had established over more than 50 years about its central character, this Timeless Child stuff does rather seem to be disappearing up its own fundament, scientifically speaking. It’s as though, having come up with the concept, Chibnall is coming up with ever more desperate ways to justify it.
It’s not dissimilar to Steven Moffat’s attempt (which largely succeeded) to post hoc explain everything that had happened over Matt Smith’s tenure in his final episode. That handily provided a Big Reset for the arrival of Peter Capaldi, sweeping away all the convoluted plotlines and time paradoxes that characterised the Eleventh Doctor’s era. This time, with the much-anticipated return of Russell T Davies as the next showrunner, perhaps Chibnall is attempting to do the same – to clear away the cluttered detritus of new continuity he’s littered the show with (to little real effect).
Of course we have a few more episodes to see how that works out. Back in exposition world though, Tecteun had little left to tell
the audience the Doctor, so Swarm and Azure duly turned up and disintegrated her.
So who’s the real bad guy here? I mean, I thought it was the Division, but that seems to have been just Tecteun, and she’s dead. Is it the Grand Serpent? The Sontarans? Swarm and Azure (probably)? The sheer multiplicity of baddies in this increasingly convoluted tale is making it harder and harder to follow. Just when you think one’s been dealt with, another shows up, then the first one returns from the jaws of defeat.
Even with the sheer volume of information dumped on the audience in this penultimate episode, things don’t seem much clearer. Still, Mr Chibnall has one more episode to clear it all up. Will he manage it, in a way that satisfies the slavering demands of online fandom? I must admit, I’m sceptical…