Interim, spoiler-free, review of Doctor Who: Flux

The 2021 Doctor Who season is four episodes into a six-episode season. Scaled-down because of covid, this is going to be the last full season under Chris Chibnall but with some movie-length specials to come next year.

While I’ve liked Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor, the Chibnall period has been weak and often infuriating. There have been some goodish episodes but a lot of stories with strong ideas have fallen flat. The idea of having more of an ensemble cast sounded promising but then what was delivered in previous seasons has been scripts that didn’t actually make much use of the three companions. So would season 13 be particularly unlucky or would the show regain its spark?

The invention (sort of) for this season is a stronger plot arc. The initial promise is that all six episodes would be a single story. That’s not entirely true. The four episodes have been partly like stand-alone Doctor Who stories (e.g. episode 2 is the Crimean War but with time-meddling Sontarans) but with at least part of the plot tied into a universe-wide catastrophe called The Flux and two super-villains called Azure and Swarm.

Overall, I think so far it has been pretty good. Like previous Chibnall seasons, there’s no stand-out 100% future-classic episode but he is leaning into his strengths. Those strengths include a good sense of the aesthetics of “good” Doctor Who episodes (but not the substance of it) and longer story arcs. Rehashing classic villains isn’t a great way of moving the series forward but Chibnall’s attempts at new ideas previously have largely fallen flat, so…I think I prefer him playing it safe.

The other profound weakness of Chibnall’s period has been endings. Stories like 2018’s Kerblam! that had all sorts of interesting ideas fizzled out before the episode ended. The structure of Flux has allowed Chibnall to dodge the issue of how to wrap up a story. That does suggest that Episode 6 (in a couple of weeks) will be a disappointing, horrible mess but in the meantime, the four episodes we’ve had have been fun. Still not great but not disappointing or dull and with sparky energy and atmosphere that make me look forward to the next episode.

Yas (Mandip Gill) has had a better role as a companion than she had previously. Script wise, in previous seasons it felt like she kept being sidelined, even in episodes like Demons of the Punjab that nominally centred her as a character. I was suspicious of the casting of Liverpudlian comedian John Bishop as an additional companion but he’s largely been entertaining.

Having been rude about Chris Chibnall’s past attempts at innovation, another feature of this season has been the introduction of a partially separate non-Doctor storyline. In the first episode, the character Vinder was introduced as a generic Doctor-Whoish future space soldier who first detects the planet-destroying power of the Flux. His role was initially as a normal side character. However, he’s gained more of a plot since then. In addition, the character Bel has her own story starting from episode 3. Played by Thaddea Graham who was brilliant in the otherwise flawed Netflix Holmes pastiche The Irregulars, she’s added another level to the broader arc, including giving an ongoing sense of a universe-spanning catastrophe.

Like I said, the chance of this kitchen-sink’s worth of stuff all coming together in a sensible way by the final episode is low. It is a big mess but largely a good big mess that is enjoying itself and has largely got the balance of weird ideas, humour, bad-CGI, sci-fi and tea-time appropriate moments of deep horror right.

I’ll post something more spoilery in a couple of weeks when the edifice has all come crashing down.

11 thoughts on “Interim, spoiler-free, review of Doctor Who: Flux

  1. You have a more positive view of it than I have. And there seem to be plenty of people even less happy about it. In my view it isn’t quite working and Chibnall isn’t going to pull it together in a satisfying way.

    The Bel and Vinder storyline seems dispensable to me – it didn’t have a lot to say in episode 3 and even in episode 4 it seemed a bit of a distraction. (I wouldn’t call it an innovation either, though it is very unusual – the episode Mission to the Unknown didn’t include the Doctor or either of his current companions)..

    Come to that, the Flux seems largely dispensable, too – the Ravages (of Time – sigh) and Time going wild seem quite enough to keep the plot pot boiling.

    All that said, Village of the Angels was almost good – there was a lot to like in it, a lot of classic Who feel. But it didn’t quite come together in a satisfying way. One of Chibnall’s better episodes I think, but it’s final reception will depend on how the arc resolves. And I have no more optimism than you do on that point.

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    1. I was of the opinion that the weeping angels had lost all their menace but they were used well here. The cold open on that episode was brilliant.

      I think in the final review, I’ll judge it both with and without the final episode (unless somehow he pulls it altogether). Broadchurch was Chibnall’s biggest critical and commercial success and the resolution of that felt like he pulled a cast member from a hat but I guess a lot of detective fiction is like that.

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      1. I reckon Chibnall is a far better “plotter” than he is usually given credit for; he generally does appear to have an internally consistent explanation for all of his stories – but the problem is that he either slides past it far too quickly to make sense (the end of S11) or he decides to devote most of an entire episode to the exposition (the end of S12.) I’m hoping that we’re going to get some sort of synthesis this year but on past evidence, I’m not holding out a lot of hope.

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    2. Just seen episode 5. To try not to spoil (much) I’ll say:

      The companion storyline was fun.

      Bel continues to be virtually irrelevant, but Vinder’s short appearance at least looked to be heading in the right direction.

      The Division plot is bonkers but not in a good way.

      The other plot line is not bad but possibly another example of trying to cram too much in.

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  2. I’m very much enjoying it but, like you, worried that Chibnall will absolutely screw the ending, as is his habit. But that does mean this time around we get up to 5 and a half episodes of general Dr Who goodness. Also props to him for retconning an earlier, black, female Dr into a hidden part of the Dr’s timeline.

    John Bishop bothers me because he, like Bradley “Bradley Walsh” Walsh, can’t actually act and isn’t really a necessary addition to the cast.

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