First look review: Doctor Who: Flux (spoiler-free)
Ivan Radford | On 07, Nov 2021
This spoiler-free review is based on Episode 1 of Season 13, with new episodes arriving on Sundays. Read on below for additional spoilery notes.
“Trick or treat?” an alien villain called Swarm (Sam Spruell) teasingly asked the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) at the start of her final proper run in the TARDIS, and the answer is a bit of both. Flux, a six-part season before Whittaker’s final three specials airing in 2022, is that rarity in modern Who: a one-story serial that will unfold over a month and a half.
Beginning with what is essentially the end of the universe, it’s hard to see where the show can go from here, and that’s exactly the point, as we spend the first episode scrabbling to keep up with the Doctor and Yaz (Mandip Gill), while they in turn scrabble to keep up with what’s wiping out existence as we know it. Along the way, there’s time to introduce new sidekick Liverpudlian Dan Lewis (a likeably down-to-earth John Bishop) and a race called the Lupari, which are basically gigantic dogs. Specifically, we meet Karvanista (Craig Els), whom the Doctor has been chasing to find out some important information.
But it’s not just Dan lewis’ living room that we’re visiting: we also take a jaunt to Victorian-era Liverpool, where a man called Joseph Williamson is busy building tunnels (a nice detail actually taken out of the history books), before hopping over to the Arctic Circle, and then to someone’s doorstep where a Weeping Angel is lurking.
There’s undoubtedly too much going on here – Game of Thrones’ Jacob Anderson pops up as Vinder, a character working in an outpost monitoring an unnamed corner of the universe and the Sontarans briefly tease their involvement in future instalments. But it’s exhilarating to see writer Chris Chibnall bow out by trying something different with some bigger stakes: his pitch for Flux was to start with a season finale and leave us to piece together the puzzle. While that’s left him squeezing exposition into every possible line of dialogue, it’s also an entertaining dollop of chaos to get things in motion.
Most of all, it’s hard not to enjoy Whittaker running about firing off wisecracks with an enthusiastic grin – right down to a “run for your life” introduction when she meets Dan, recalling Christopher Ecclestone’s first ever appearance as the Doctor. And Whittaker also continues to have a good handle on the Doctor’s weaknesses, rather than just have her a screwdriver-solves-everything hero overflowing with confidence.
That crucial grasp of the character also means that Gill’s return as Yaz gives her a growing chance to assert her own smarts and agency – more than any other sidekick, perhaps, she’s able to identify and call out the Doctor when she’s lying, avoiding answering questions or just not engaging with the problem at hand. Yaz increasingly takes the initiative, right down to her getting make the call as to when she and the Doctor should jump to escape the amusingly cheesy, CGI-filled opening sequence – which sets the manic tone for what ensues.
While The Halloween Apocalypse doesn’t fail to throw lots of questions up in the air for Chibnall to answer, it also needs to be entertaining in its own right – unlike a two-parter, we’ve got six of these to get through – and the episode does manage to bring enough laughter and peril to the table to keep us engaged, albeit a little exhausted. If the gags are knowingly awful – “You defile the legacy of my forebears!” “You don’t look anything like four bears!” – the danger is actually believable, thanks to Spruell’s creepy turn as Swarm, and the nifty set design on the TARDIS that really gives a sense of the phone box starting to full apart. Throw in some praise for Klopp-era Liverpool FC, and you’ve got an hour-long romp that recalls the bold confidence of Season 12 opener Spyfall. Whether it can stick the landing in six hours, is yet to be seen – the real test of Flux will be whether it can keep up the entertainment factor in its middle episodes.
Doctor Who: Flux is available on BBC iPlayer until November 2022
Doctor’s notes (spoilers)
– Perhaps the boldest move by Chibnall here is to stick to his guns and return to the divisive Season 12’s introduction of The Division – that shady branch of Galifrey Time Lord activity that saw the Doctor help out with morally dubious things, before ultimately running away (which is what gave us Jo Martin’s Fugitive Doctor). You may well miss the details in the hectic, rushed dialogue, but that’s where Karvanista comes in: he’s the last remaining agent of The Division who might be able to tell the Doctor more about the memories and lives that were wiped.
– Swarm’s apparently easy escape from his psychic prison early on doesn’t say much for the jail he was being kept in, but it does suggest some serious power – in case his Hellraiser-like spiky face wasn’t enough to make that clear.
– Spare a moment’s silence for Jón, the little-known man who lived in the Arctic Circle with Anna (Rochenda Sandall), who was swiftly atomised when he found out that Anna was exactly Azure, the sister of Swarm.
– The fact that Swarm has never person he doesn’t like to atomise in a manner very similar to the Flux, which turns out to be a giant red hurricane sweeping through the universe, suggests that he’s behind it – although to what end, why and how is still to be worked out. And, more to the point, if he’s got a psychic connection to the Doctor, was she somehow responsible for his existence in the first place?
– Need a sinister man in period clothing? You can’t beat Steve Oram, whose scowling Joseph Williamson is digging tunnels to try and avert some kind of impossible cataclysm in the world’s future. Let’s not overthink this: he’s apparently had a vision of the Flux, and seems to think that digging deep underground can give humankind a safe refuge to avoid the hurricane. The real question is: how did he see it coming more than a hundred years ago?
– If you were left bewildered by Annabel Scholey’s Claire, rest assured that there’ll be more time in the future (well, the past) to get to know her, as her Blink-like conversation with the Doctor and Yaz – in which she knew them but they hadn’t met her yet – clearly indicates that she’ll be sent back in time by the Weeping Angels and will encounter the others then. Whether we needed her in this opening episode, though, is another matter entirely.
– Craig Els does brilliant work as Karvanista, bringing a spiky, impatient edge to the cuddly dog creature that is a welcome antidote to the universe-ending omens being thrown about elsewhere. Even the Lupari race’s mission to simply rescue one human each (a sweet spin on “man’s best friend”) is refreshingly narrow and straightforward. As for how the Lupari ships, which the Doctor helps to lock into formation in a protective ring around the Earth, will defend the planet against the Flux, who knows?
– Only the Sontarans could be foolishly excited about the end of the universe.