Warning: Contains Spoilers!
There seems to be a distinct pattern with the post-2005 series that when a Doctor nears the end of their run, the frequency with which new episodes appear slows considerably. David Tennant ended his run with a spaced-out series of specials, Matt Smith’s later series were split in two to allow for more ‘first nights’ and Peter Capaldi had a whacking great 18 month gap between his second and final series. Jodie Whittaker at least has an excuse; the little matter of a global pandemic which put the brakes on film and TV production across the globe. As Doctor Who fans we were quite lucky, because episodes are filmed so far in advance that the 2021 New Year special Revolution of the Daleks was in the can before the strictures really kicked in. Having said that, the last regular series ended in March 2020, so it’s still been quite a stretch since the Doctor last graced our screens in a full length series.
Not that it is a ‘full-length series’ of course, because a mixture of budget cuts and COVID restrictions have resulted in Series 13 being a reduced run of 6 episodes, followed by three specials spread over the next year, at the end of which both Jodie Whittaker as the Doctor and Chris Chibnall as the showrunner will depart to pastures new, making way for someone called Dave Russell or something… whoever he is. The initial 6 episodes compose an ongoing story. Now, I’ve said for a while that Doctor Who should really move on to a continuous serial format; it’s the modern way to do things and in this age of streamed content, a cliffhanger – something which Doctor Who brought back from Saturday Morning Serial obscurity, ran with for a quarter of a century, then abandoned for no adequately explained reason – is essential for getting the viewer to click the all-important view next episode button.
This particular 6 episode serial has the umbrella title of Flux and seems to have taken the correct step of presenting an ongoing story that still sees the Doctor travelling to different times and places and encountering a variety of old and new foes. So far so good. Returning to the fold are Jodie Whittaker as the Thirteenth Doctor and Mandip Gill as Yaz, joined in the TARDIS by new companion Dan Lewis, played by John Bishop. Some fans balked at the casting of erstwhile stand-up comedian Bishop, but quickly backpedalled when it was pointed out that not only did he have a solid straight acting pedigree, having appeared in Mike Leigh’s Route Irish among other things, but also that Doctor Who has a strong history of casting comedians and comic actors in dramatic roles, including Catherine Tate, Bernard Cribbins, Bradley Walsh… and even Jon Pertwee!
The story starts James Bond mini-adventure style with the Doctor and Yaz suspended over a lake of boiling acid at the mercy of a Yorkshire alien. They escape from this predicament in time for the opening credits. The Yorkshire alien is later revealed to be more of a Yorkshire Terrier, as the dog-faced warrior Karvanista kidnaps unemployed Liverpudlian Dan Lewis from his house. The Doctor and Yaz follow their quarry to modern day Liverpool (for reasons known to the Doctor, but unknown to both Yaz and the audience) and are almost killed when Dan’s booby-trapped house is shrunk to the size of a matchbox. Our heroes also have a brief encounter with a character called Claire who appears to know them from the future and who is clearly being set up for later in the story (there is a lot of such groundwork in this episode).
Dan is already an interesting character; Doctor Who was achingly middle class for a long time and only really broke away with that when Ace arrived and only fully embracing the idea of a working class companion in 2005 with Rose. With Dan, this is taken a little further, as he is shown to be working class, unemployed and impoverished. Poverty is a big problem in the UK today, with the gulf between rich and poor being more apparent than it has been for over a century and although I’m not a fan of overt politics in Doctor Who, it’s an issue that should be addressed because this is a part of all our lives that can never be changed unless we all first acknowledge that it exists. Also of interest is the fact that Dan is in a mixed ability relationship, which is something to which I can personally relate very directly and is a scenario that is rarely represented on television without there being some kind of ‘issue’ they want to raise (I’m looking at you, soaps).
Back with the story, the Doctor and Yaz head to Karvanista’s ship to rescue Dan, but in the TARDIS, the Doctor is subject to unwelcome visions showing the escape from bondage of a mysterious all-powerful entity of ghastly appearance. The skull-like make-up with crystalline protrusions is the stuff of nightmares and I couldn’t help being reminded of the type of weird and wonderful characters that littered Paul Compton’s illustrations for the mid-70s Doctor Who Annuals. It’s not yet revealed who this weird character is, but it’s later revealed that he has a similarly skinless sister. As with many elements of this serial, it can only so far be hinted at as to the identity and intentions of this horrid pair, though the usual treadmill of fan speculation is running at full tilt; so far I’ve heard it proposed that he is the Master (I hope not), Eldrad (interesting, but seemingly only based on his crystals) and the Timeless Child’s dad (no comment). No doubt his sister is the Rani, as all mysterious female characters are always the Rani.
On Karvanista’s ship, Dan is freed but the Doctor learns that he was only captured to free him from the Earth, which faces imminent destruction… and there are 7+ billion other ships from Karvanista’s planet heading to Earth to rescue the rest of the population. One ship per person? That’s a dreadful misuse of resources! Couldn’t they car-share? The cause of the Earth’s pending annihilation is the titular Flux, a wave of endlessly destructive energy that is sweeping though the universe, destroying everything in its path. Bad times. The Doctor is not the only person to have noticed though; a character called Vinder (who looks far too cool to be manning an isolated observation post in deep space) observes its power first hand and various alien races seem to be stirred into activity, including the Weeping Angels and the Sontarans.
I’m not sure how I feel about the return of the Weeping Angels. Don’t get me wrong, they were superb in Blink and The Time of Angels / Flesh and Stone, but they’re a very limited alien threat; I mean, you can hardly have them invading Earth or planning to disrupt an intergalactic peace conference, can you? They’re a very visceral threat and how well they work depends on how well they’re used, so I’ll reserve judgement until I see where the story is taking them. The Sontarans are a race I’ve always loved, though I don’t think that they’ve always been that well used. I was never a big fan of their blue rubber costumes in the Tennant era and was glad to see all that Sontar-HA haka nonsense quickly dispensed with. The new costumes are a definite improvement (though they’re still blue for some reason) and the smirking, swaggering behaviour of the Sontaran commander in the episode is a timely reminder that they’re not just another generic emotionless race.
So, before too long the Flux is encroaching on the planet Earth. The ships of Karvanista’s race, the Lupari, are designed to withstand the forces within the destructive energy wave, so the Doctor comes up with the idea of having them form a protective shield around the planet. Alas, the TARDIS is still on the outside, so in order to avoid getting well and truly fluxed, the Doctor hatches a plan to smash the control console and release the energy of the time vortex… ‘cos, you know, that went really well last time. The vortex energy pours out of the open TARDIS doors towards the advancing wave of destruction, but doesn’t appear to have any effect. The theme music screams in as the orange wave of death descends on the Doctor and Yaz. God, how I’ve missed cliffhangers! It’s so great to have them back. Here’s hoping Chibbers doesn’t do that Steven Moffat thing of not actually following up on cliffhangers and starting the next episode at another point in the narrative.
So, that was episode 1 of Flux. Wow, there was a lot of content! You could argue that there was as much content in this one episode as in all of series 11 and most of season 12 put together. And, you know what – I really liked it. I’m a genuine old school Doctor Who fan, who is prepared to give every new development a far crack of the whip, but I’ve increasingly found that the series doesn’t engage me the way that it used to; there was just a certain blandness to it that didn’t revive the youngster in me. I’ll openly admit that I wasn’t a fan of the whole Timeless Child storyline; although the Doctor is an alien being, I like her/him to be a relatable character, an every(wo)man, and the concept of the Doctor as a unique ‘chosen one’ with a manifest destiny, just seems a bit Harry Potter to me. It’s the one thing that I never liked about Star Trek: The Next Generation – everyone was special; the first android in Starfleet, the first Klingon in Starfleet, the first blind navigator in Starfleet etc. I prefer to have to dig a little to see what makes a character one of a kind.
The Timeless Child stuff does not get a mention in this episode (for which I am grateful), but I’ve no doubt that it will before the end of Chibnell’s tenure. I’d really rather they kept it for one of the specials though, rather than muddying the already chock-a-block waters of Flux. They’ve got a good thing going here and I really hope they don’t spoil it by trying to stamp their mark all over the show’s proud history. For the first time in a while, this really felt like Doctor Who and most importantly of all, I found myself eager to see the next episode; in fact, I can’t wait to find out what happens next! Whether this is a result of the serial format or just a generally more engaging storyline, I really can’t say; in general, it’s really quite wrong to judge the whole of Flux on the basis of one episode, but a lot of previously disenfranchised fans agree this is a step in the right direction.
Just please don’t screw it up. Pleeeaaase.