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Doctor Who: Flux
Part 1: The Halloween Apocalypse
Doctor Who has been going on for so long that seeing it do something it hasn't done before on TV is always a little refreshing. Whether or not it works as intended is almost beside the point: when you're on your 39th series of a TV show (and 13th of its current run) that's had five TV spinoffs and so many spinoffs outside TV it’s not even worth trying to count, something new is always worth a respectful nod.
And Doctor Who Flux is certainly something new for the show.
Chris Chibnall is most known for his work on the mystery series "Broadchurch", a sprawling story about a small town that has a heinous crime happen in it. It’s a story told each season week by week, each episode part of a larger whole.
When Chibnall became the showrunner of Doctor Who, I expected the format to be somewhat similar. And at first, it seemed I was right: the ending of the first adventure of the thirteenth Doctor is a cliffhanger right into the start of the second episode. However, that proved to be more the exception than the rule. Most of the 13th Doctor's era ended up being largely episodic, with fewer multi-part stories than any era of the show’s revival (and, with the current Flux story, tying the 9th Doctor's single season's multi-parters).
It seemed a puzzling choice to me, as Chris Chibnall's greatest strengths as a writer were interconnectivity. His ability to juggle a group of characters who are each going about their own lives until events start forcing convergences between them. In Broadchurch, it was the murder of a child. Here, it’s the murder of the universe.
There's a strange inevitability to this, a sense that this is what we should have been doing the whole time. It’s what Chibnall coming to Doctor Who feels like if you step back from it and just imagine it as a concept, to be a little insufferable, it’s the Plato's Cave of Chibnall Who. But well, we're finally here. All that waiting, and we're finally at that point.
So, what's it like?
Well, in short, its sort of like Broadchurch Season 2.
That is, it its own story but one that is connected inexorably from the stories before it. As well as one where the opening episode spends a lot of time establishing things, we're going to see later with the expectation that we'll stick around to see the payoff. The story establishes its ties to the past fast and furiously--though to be fair it establishes everything fast and furiously. Vin Diesel is nodding his approval somewhere.
The Doctor is dealing with the Flux, a force that is unraveling the very fabric of the universe. She's also dealing with Sontarans invading Earth (though she doesn't know that yet), Weeping Angels (though she also doesn't know that yet), some guys in 1820's Liverpool having an issue (again, unaware), a fleet of doggos trying to kidnap humanity, and a pair of evil crystal-faced siblings who want to do bad things. And maybe something else I'm missing.
The main point is that we're dealing with a lot of plot threads, which are being laid out to us in an unraveled state so that we can watch them entwine, in the opposite manner of the universe unraveling. Presumably, this entwining will go along with fixing the universe itself. We'll see.
As such, it’s difficult to describe the Halloween Apocalypse, as its very much an introduction to what is going to follow. This is just a prediction, but while we may see bits from each of the storylines in each episode going onwards, it seems likely that we're going to have a structure of each episode dealing with one of the big plotlines we've established, with the Flux itself and perhaps the crystal siblings being running threads through all of them.
Really, the episode is more focused on establishing its characters than giving this episode a focused plot, and considering the introductory nature of things, that's probably for the best. Surprisingly, a big highlight is the newcomer Dan, played with instant likability by John Bishop. Did I think I was going to like Dan going in? No. Did Mr. Bishop manage to sell me on the character very quickly? Yes.
This goes into what has been one of the strongest points of Chibnall's era of Doctor Who: the casting. Bishop pulls off some lines that in other hands would be frankly pretty awkward, giving them a playfulness and sincerity that makes his scenes a delight to watch. When he finally gets to interact with Yaz, played by Mandip Gill, the way he doesn't absorb the energy in the room, but instead builds on it helps the scene shine, and you can see why they wanted to bring him into the cast's dynamic.
Watching Jodie Whittaker and Gill go at it is good, and frankly pretty refreshing, at the episode's start. It’s the dynamic I was hoping to see, and the dynamic is fun. I was disappointed when I heard we weren't going to have the adventures of just the pair of them, but Dan doesn't derail the pair, because Bishop understands something that in hindsight makes some of the earlier episodes a little unbalanced in dynamics: he doesn't need to have the spotlight all the time, and the show around him is better if he doesn't try to focus it in on him with every line. So, Dan is our fresh face, asking questions for the audience, being surprised at things, while Yaz gets to be the old hand who has seen it all. Its good stuff and makes me look forward to their future adventures together.
But again, there's a strange sense of "Ah, this is he dynamic we wanted from the get-go, isn't it?" I liked all of the fam in the previous Whittaker seasons, but four main cast members was just too much for the episodic format to handle. Here, it all clicks together nicely. It’s the right balance, and I like it.
I have a feeling that this episode will work better when you can binge straight into the second, on its own its a madcap rush of ideas that doesn't give you the satisfying tie up you want, because that's not what it’s doing or meant to do. We'll have to be back next week to see how that plays out.
* * *
All those words, and we haven't actually answered the question: What is Flux about?
Well, if I had to guess, it’s a story about things being taken and separated from things that matter to them. Throughout the episode, we start with the Doctor and yaz locked up on an alien world separated from the TARDIS, we see Dan kidnapped by space dogs, Dan's girlfriend and the mysterious Claire are both time-zapped by Weeping Angels to the past, we have one Crystal Alien named Swarm locked up by the Division (of Timeless Children Fame) and escaping, disintegrating his captors into crystal dust, before rescuing his sister who has been apparently captured and forced to live a life thinking she was a different person working for the Division. We also meet Vinder, who is separated from basically everything, locked away in a space station observing nothing, and a pair of guys in the 1800's who...
...Look I don't know why they're there yet and they don't tie into my thesis as far as I know, so maybe I'm full of it, maybe they're an outlier and should not have been counted.
But most of the plotlines are filled with things being taken from people, and those people wanting them back.
The biggest one of these things is of course that the Doctor wants to know the truth of the Division and the Timeless Children. A child stolen from their parents, raised by another culture, and their biology and memories stolen from them for the good of others.
The Flux is wiping everything away, just as the Doctor struggles to learn what was taken from her.
Now the question is, how will these strands form knots?
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