What’s The Show? Doctor Who‘s six episode long truncated series 13
What’s It All About, JG? Trying to find out if there’s anything worth salvaging from the Chibnall era of Doctor Who before both he and the reliably brilliant Jodie Whittaker bow out, and also embracing the full force of serialisation. But in terms of plot, the universe is threatened by a mysterious “Flux event” the Doctor knows nothing about. The Earth is protected by the Lupari, as represented by the appealingly dog-like Karvaista. Turns out there’s been some kind of battle between Space and Time (capital S and capital T) as represented by Azure and Swarm on one side and the mysterious Division on the other. Meanwhile, two survivors of the Flux, Vinder and Bel, are separated and are trying to reunite while getting into/out of the way of the plot, and the Doctor has a new companion, Dan (a surprisingly strong John Bishop), a Liverpudlian who turns out to be a dab hand at taking out Sontarans with a wok. It all ends with the Doctor struggling to get back her memories from her adoptive mother (unsuccessfully), a snake-like Grand Serpent infiltrating UNIT, and the Flux wiping out vast amounts of Daleks, Cybermen and Sontarans. Whatever else you can say about Flux, it’t not lacking for event!
Is It Any Good? Let’s be clear about one thing straight off the bat – it’s by miles the best of the three Chibnall seasons. That’s not to say it’s perfect – its not – and that’s not to say there aren’t multiple flaws – there are – but this is a fast-paced, frenetic and event-filled six episodes that really makes you wonder if that rather plodding first Chibnall season was really necessary at all. Sometimes things move too fast, and the finale suffers greatly from this (more on which a little later) but there’s no doubt that for the most part these are six quick-smart episodes that absolutely rollick along with their own compellingly-bonkers energy. And they actually feel relaxed about the fact that they’re Doctor Who, which feels like a revelation. Jodie Whittaker gets to play moments where the Doctor is unsympathetic and guess what? She doesn’t shatter into a million pieces! The relationship with Yaz and the Doctor is given real space to breathe, not only when they’re together but also when they’re apart – the wistful way Yaz looks at the Doctor’s hologram in the fifth episode, “Survivors Of The Flux”, says as much about their relationship than any amount of hugs or tear-stained speeches. But more than anything, their relationship feels real and both Mandip Gill and Whittaker play it to the hilt.
You know what else about this season works? It’s funny! Not “funny”, as an excuse for lame humour or padding, but actually, genuinely laugh-out-loud funny. Karvanstia is a constant source of amusement (right up until he gets some genuinely heartbreaking back story – “were you my…. companion?”), as is the good-natured sparring between Dan and Yaz with their Liverpool/Yorkshire rivalry. The Sontarans are largely played for laughs – the right call – but still maintain just enough nastiness to have bite as a genuine threat, and the oily, understated menace of the Grand Serpent brings a camp comedy without just becoming stupid or over-indulgent (helped, it must be said, by a pitch-perfect performance from Craig Parkinson). The gossip-hungry hermit in the fifth episode is laugh-out-loud funny. And as you would expect, John Bishop is able to land the comedy well, though what’s perhaps surprising is the little moments where he manages to break away from what looks like for all the world a bit of stunt casing. “God, I loved her,” he says, referring to the woman he fell for, and it’s quietly devastating in a way you don’t quite expect from a comedian trying his hand at this acting malarky. Much praise is deserved there.
Still, there’s more than a few times where you can hear the seams being strained. The impact of the pandemic is clear, not just from the truncated episode count, but by more than a few occasions where people stand about alone on set and just recite things because it doesn’t look like anyone else in the studio had done a lateral flow test that day. Some of the episodes are able to land their chaotic what’s-going-on? pacing (“The Halloween Apocalypse”) and some not so much (“Once, Upon Time”, though it’s mostly still a solid episode, just… messy). Yet even when there’s a few frayed edges things never really get derailed, if you’ll excuse the mixed metaphor. The standout episode, as everyone and their Lupari have pointed out, is “Village Of The Angels”, easily the best Weeping Angel episode since… well, probably “Blink”, though your reviewer maintains “Time Of The Angels” / “Flesh And Stone” is worthy of considerable praise. Anyway, it’s great, blending traditional Doctor Who scares with a bit of Sapphire And Steel‘s intuitive logic (the village surrounded by space is a very S&S conceit), a great guest turn from Kevin McNallly as Jericho, and one of the all-time great cliffhangers. It’s in moments like these that it’s really possible to have one’s faith in the show restored.
How Many Of These Have You Seen? All of them. Still.
Would You Recommend It? Not only would I, I have. This just feels like Doctor Who in way that big chunks of the Chibnall era have really struggled to do, so even when there’s a misstep it never feels like it’s undermining to the show because Doctor Who is never perfect (nor should it be) and hey, it gets things wrong sometimes! There’s enough variety across the six episodes that things never get boring – a fair complaint to direct at chunks of Chibnall’s first season, if not so much the second – and the sheer frenetic pace keeps everything interesting and engaging. Yes, sometimes it moves too fast and yes, sometimes that means that there are gaps in logic, but again – it’s Doctor Who! Of course there are gaps in logic! But the confidence and swagger the show has finally rediscovered mean these glide by pretty easily when watching, even if they’re also easy enough to pick up on once the closing theme tune has died away.
The most obvious thing that suffers here, if one were to criticise, is the finale, which struggles to bring all the disparate thread of the Flux together into a coherent whole. If any part of the season was hurt by Covid, surely it was the last episode, which simply aches for additional space to really land its conclusion. Swarm and Azure have been compelling villains throughout the course of all these episodes, yet their dispatching feels too off-handed. Yes, we understand they were partly driven by revenge and partly by a desire to just seen everything burn, but as they “ascend” it feels a bit too abrupt to really land, especially as they’re immediately replaced by Time, who just looks like a slightly bigger version of them. The whole “antimatter slows down matter!” smacks of some hastily-written bafflegab that should have got fleshed out at a later point but the later point never arrived so it’s still in there. And lovely though it is to see Kate Stewart again, one can’t help but feel her original role would have been bigger had the season not been cut down, though her quiet, unflinching defence of UNIT and Earth is something of an understated joy, even as it’s not exactly central. Oh, and some have suggested that the Doctor commits a triple genocide here – Daleks, Cybermen, Sontarans – though that’s ambiguous at best, especially since it requires the assumption that they all sent the entirety of their fleets to the Sontaran rendezvous rather than, you know, just some of them. The Cybermen aren’t always the greatest strategists the universe has ever seen, but even they’re not that thick – are they?
But even as the finale has a hard time landing all its plot points there’s just so much to enjoy, and that makes all the difference in the world. The Doctor being trisected across time is a lovely conceit, and Jodie Whittaker does stunningly well at playing the Doctor across three time zones (and then getting to play Time impersonating the Doctor too, just to really bring home how good she is in all this). There’s a few lovely Doctor/Yaz moments. Dan being turned down by Diane is an unusual beat – normally, he’d turn her down as he zooms off to travel with the Doctor (think Rose turning down Mickey at the end of “Rose”) but here we get a nice inversion of that. The Grand Serpent’s fate is pleasingly apposite while also allowing scope for his return, and Jericho’s death adds an appropriate note of poignancy without just milking it. Again, there are criticisms to be made – the Doctor, Yaz and Dan swanning off, surprisingly unconcerned about how much of the universe has apparently been wiped out, is a bum note for sure – but the fact that the rest of the season has basically been great again obviates much of the sting. And it’s not like RTD and Steven Moffat always, or even usually, nailed their finales. “The Pandorica Opens” / “The Big Bang” and “The Parting Of The Ways” aside, Doctor Who is almost always poor at ending its big season arcs and “The Vanquishers” is way easier to sit through than, say, “The Last Of The Time Lords” or “The Wedding Of River Song” (talk about a messy finale!). So sure, it’s not perfect, but for once that makes Chibnall’s era feel a part of what came before, rather than separated from it – he didn’t get it all right, but that’s pretty much par for the course, and it’s still largely good fun minute-t0-minute and most of the rest of the season was good or great, so it feels like a win.
And in the end, it’s just tough to be that harsh on this. It’s not flawless, but it’s just so much better than either expectations going in or what proceeded it, and it ends up being a genuinely terrific season of Doctor Who. Back when I wrote about Season 12 I mentioned that it was a considerable step up from Chibnall’s first (Season 11), and if the third was better by the same amount then we should get something really good – and that’s exactly what happened. For the character moments, for Jodie Goddamn Whittaker, for excitement, for using the Weeping Angels and not fucking it up, for a couple of great villains in Azure and Swarm, for the wonderfully corrupted TARDIS, for a great new villain in the Grand Serpent, for the delightfully charming Jericho, for all these and a bajillion more, Flux is more than worth anyone’s time and the Chibnall era has finally found its feet.
You know, just in time for it to end. Still, better late than never.
Scores On The Doors? 8.5/10