Doctor Who: Series 13, Episode 6 – Flux: Chapter Six: The Vanquishers

“There’s a balance to the universe. It exists that way for a reason.”

(SPOILER WARNING!)

Well. Let me get this out of the way right at the beginning, because I’m struggling to contain myself from saying it. That was the biggest load of overcomplicated, incoherent, unmitigated garbage I’ve ever seen masquerading as the resolution for a story. Frenetic running around in place of explanations, with so many deus ex machinas cropping up out of the blue that I’m actually looking forward to the return of RTD who usually sticks to just one a season.

I can’t say I’m entirely surprised. Longtime readers of this blog, if there are any, will be well aware of my low opinion of Chris Chibnall as a writer. In the interests of balance, though, I always go into his work prepared to give him another chance, but with a few notable exceptions (Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, The Power of Three) he’s lived down to my expectations nearly all of the time.

This time though, he actually surpassed my expectations by delivering something even worse than I had expected. And my expectations were pretty low to begin with. Having boxed himself into a corner with far too many disparate plot threads all requiring paradoxical resolutions even Steven Moffat would have struggled with, Chibnall plainly had no idea whatsoever how to end this. So instead, he did what he almost always does – thought of a bunch of cool-looking set pieces, then glued them together with no regard for how they fitted with each other, or into the story as a whole.

How did it fail to make sense? Let me count the ways. For starters, he’d clearly written several simultaneously occurring plot threads all of which required the presence of the Doctor to work. But clearly she couldn’t be in three places at once… Oh wait, with a couple of lines of technobabble from an Ood, she can! How terribly convenient.

Then there was the Grand Serpent. Having been built up as a duplicitous threat capable of decades of long term, conspiratorial planning, he revealed himself to be a dunderhead who just fell into his own traps time and again. First he got trapped in his own torture device by two (count ‘em) of the Doctor, then having been released by his surprisingly forgiving Sontaran allies, he rushed off on an inadvisable chase of Kate Stewart for personal reasons. All that planning and Machiavellian scheming, and he loses everything because he’s been irritated more by her than anyone else in the past 54 years? Give me a break. Not even Craig Parkinson could make that believable.

It was at least dramatically satisfying that his final denouement came at the hands of Vinder, and that he was such a douchebag he didn’t even remember who Vinder was. Unfortunately, Vinder’s important presence for the event depended on yet another staggering plot contrivance. Dan’s love interest Di, imprisoned for several episodes now in a Passenger Form, suddenly and unexpectedly turned out to be an expert on… well, whatever she needed to be to get the plot moving. First off, this was the methodology of escaping from said Passenger Form, which would have been straining credulity somewhat for an Earthling from 2021 without Vinder having mentioned that she could teach a class on such escapes at his Space Academy. Groan.

But that was as nothing compared to her later coming up with a solution to the whole problem of the unstoppable, universe-ending, implacable Flux itself. Having noticed that the Flux was composed of anti-matter (which had somehow gone unnoticed or unmentioned until now), Di blithely suggested just bunging it inside one of the Passenger Forms that she was suddenly such an expert on. Something which neither the Doctor nor Vinder, who did know about Passenger Forms, seem to have even considered.

Now, I’ve nothing against portraying contemporary humans as resourceful, imaginative and clever, and certainly Nadia Albina gave a fiery, likeable performance as Di. But for such a diabolical, unstoppable threat as the Flux had been built up as to be stopped in such a mundane way, at the suggestion of someone who should have had none of the knowledge required, seemed supremely anticlimactic. I mean, Doctor Who is a show rightly lauded for its imaginative breadth, and this was the best Chris Chibnall could come up with?

Not to mention the all-powerful Division, built up since The Timeless Child as some sort of universe-spanning black ops group of near-infinite power, which actually turned out to be just a steely old lady in a funny hat. I mean yes, she was Barbara Flynn which makes her automatically cool, but I don’t think even Ms Flynn has the kind of resources to do all that by herself.

But wait, I hear you cry, she did have the Weeping Angels working for her! Ah yes, the Angels. Having pretty much petered out as any kind of menace well before the end of Village of the Angels, this ep diluted their menace still more. Previously, there was no coming back from being sent into the past by them, sometimes even if you had a TARDIS. It was one of the scary things about them – the Doctor couldn’t just pop back in time and rescue you, and the Angel that sent you back would be nicely fattened up by the “quantum energy” of your unlived life.

Well, not any more. As Yaz, Dan and Jericho found out after all that pointless wandering the globe last time, now all you need to escape this fate is to wander through any handy time door located under 19th century Liverpool. How convenient. I bet there’s a few Angels wasting away from lack of quantum energy cursing themselves they didn’t think of that one.

Well, maybe not that one hiding out in Claire’s brain. But actually that seemed to be conveniently forgotten, and wasn’t mentioned again after the end of Village of the Angels. Is it still there? How much more interesting might it have been as a resolution to have it unleashed from her mind in the Sontaran command ship? But no, it seems Chris Chibnall forgot about it in his haste, as indeed he did about Claire’s timeline. As I mentioned before, the fact that Claire already knows the Doctor when they first meet in ep1 must mean that their first meeting takes place subjectively in Claire’s past and the Doctor’s future.

Except that their every meeting from then on takes place sequentially, from their perspectives. So how did Claire already know the Doctor when she was first introduced. I mean, yes, when they next meet it is in the past (1967), but not Claire’s past. From her perspective, she’s just spoken to the Doctor then been sent back to 1967. That’s not how time travel works. You’d think the showrunner of Doctor Who would have understood that.

He’d probably say it was something to do with her precognitive powers, something which again turned out to be mighty convenient in predicting “the final Flux event”. All well and good, but the show’s usually pretty dismissive of psychic powers like that. And even then, it was only mentioned glancingly in Village of the Angels – though at least it wasn’t as completely out of the blue as half the plot points in this episode.

I particularly wasn’t impressed to see the Daleks and the Cybermen as so gullibly trusting they just fell into the trap set by, of all people, the Sontarans. I know the show falls back far too much on these two iconic baddies, but they’re rarely portrayed as out and out stupid – the Daleks in particular are usually suspicious of everything. The Sontarans, on the other hand, are frequently portrayed as both unimaginative and stupid, even here – just witness the bafflingly ill-placed bit of comic relief about their obsession with chocolate nicked from corner shops. How these lumbering idiots were able to put one over on two of the baddest of the bad guys is something that not even Chris Chibnall could satisfactorily explain.

Which just left us with Swarm and Azure as the main baddies of the story, as I predicted last time. To give them credit, these were two excellent performances from Sam Spruell and Rochenda Sandall. The characters were irredeemable and sadistic, yet also charismatic and charming (despite their ghoulish appearances).

But even after they died, we’d been told next to nothing about them. Who were they? Where did they come from? The Doctor called them Ravagers – is that a species? Even their motivations were unclear, as representatives of a personified concept of Time somehow at war with an unpersonified concept of Space (don’t even ask). They talked a lot about rewinding the end of the universe to watch over and over again, but failed to mention how they themselves wouldn’t be in some way inconvenienced by this. Like so much else here, it made no sense, as if Chibnall had forgotten to write the dialogue explaining it.

To be balanced, there were a few good things about this ep. Director Azhur Saleem kept everything moving at a suitably frenetic pace, presumably aware that it was necessary to paper over the cracks in the script. Kevin McNally continued to own the screen as Professor Eustacius Jericho, right up to a well-played heroic end quoting Peter Pan’s thoughts on death – “what an awfully big adventure”. It seems almost churlish to point out that his death didn’t actually achieve anything, and felt like it had been put in by Chibnall just to have at least one of the good guys die.

And it’s perhaps best that (at least for now) the mystery of the Doctor’s past remains unaddressed. Given the complete pig’s breakfast Chibnall made of the rest of the story, the revelations seem sure to have been disappointing. It was a nice touch that she rejected the idea herself, putting the fob watch out of reach (for now anyway), presumably out of fear of what she would discover about herself.

Less successful was Dan, introduced as a two-dimensional Scouse stereotype but losing even that defining aspect to become simply “the older male companion” with no real character. Again, this is no fault of John Bishop, but the writing simply didn’t give the character any depth. To be honest, the story could probably have proceeded perfectly well without him. There were plenty of more rounded characters serving as male pseudo-companions anyway, in the shape of Vinder and Professor Jericho.

On balance then, Doctor Who: Flux was a beautifully produced, well-acted but terribly written story that didn’t make sense even on its own terms. Earlier episodes didn’t seem so bad, with the promise of a resolution to come, but the complete failure to do that in any satisfying kind of way left the whole thing feeling like a ridiculous shaggy dog story with no real sense of jeopardy. Well, except for the shaggy dogs themselves, whose actual genocide wasn’t even deemed worthy of being depicted onscreen.

The story of the Timeless Child is clearly far from over – ‘Time’ came out with some recycled guff about “the forces massing against you, and their master”. It remains to be seen whether that means the actual Master, but based on what we’ve seen here, I’m not expecting the end of Chris Chibnall’s run to make any kind of sense at all.

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