Review: Doctor Who Flux

Season 13 of nu-Who is over and it is time to sum up Chris Chibnall’s experiment with the format based on covid-curtailed episodes.

There’s a big mix of good and mediocre here and I could damn it with faint praise by saying I expected the finale to be worse or I could be more upbeat and say that overall I enjoyed watching it. Spoilers follow.

By the end of the final episode, most of the universe was in ruins, three of the show’s most iconic species of bad guys had been blown to smithereens en-masse and the doctor had gained the means to regain the memories of lost iterations of themselves. Yet all of that felt very inconsequential. Partly this was because there were no really big reveals. Everything was explained (sort of) but the answers felt superficial. We didn’t really learn much more about Swarm and Azure other than they were bad people. The Flux itself didn’t make a lot of sense and the actual impact of all that destruction was just forgotten. I don’t have a problem with the Doctor not magically reversing everything that happened but there wasn’t even really a nod to the fact that supposedly aside from Earth, the universe had been blasted to pieces. In retrospect, Chibnall had thrown too many pieces into this thing and couldn’t pull them altogether in six episodes — which wasn’t a surprise and maybe just ignoring them all was the least-worse way out.

So where does that leave Flux and why was it not so terrible despite all that? As I’ve joked before, it was a shaggy-dog story where lots of things happen but most of it doesn’t really matter. Events strung together but without a substantial narrative arc can be entertaining. These kinds of “just a bunch of stuff that happened” plots make millions when they are Fast & Furious movies. I don’t know what the first big example of this approach is but I suspect that is the James Bond film You Only Live Twice which makes not a bit of sense but has so many memorable fragments that it feels like it has a story there. F&F is worse to some degree because that narrative fragmentation splits over multiple films i.e. I can remember lots of scenes from those movies but I have to actively think about elements to work out which film it was from (at least from about F&F5).

Doctor Who Flux, didn’t disintegrate as badly as that and, of course, the normal situation for a nu-Who series is a set of individual stories with a light connection building up to a two/three-parter with more of an arc. Flux made those connections deeper but more in the way that, say, a comic-book crossover event “connects” the stories. Where that really helped Chibnall’s approach was that resolutions to stories were perpetually delayed. As the later thirds of most of Chibnall’s episodes are where the biggest issues have been, this was a net positive.

So what actually worked? Yas was given more to do and more to say. Some of the companion storylines were pointless (the early 20th-century adventuring bit for example) but still managed to be entertaining. Primarily, the overall sense of humour landed better and not just the actual jokes but the sense of all the actors enjoying themselves. There was a great sense of fun to everything. The campy villains never made much sense but the actors clearly enjoyed the delicious menace they brought to everything and they, like most of the episodes, looked great.

It was a mess but it was a fun mess.

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12 responses to “Review: Doctor Who Flux”

  1. The baddies were very nicely designed but it would make a lot more sense if someone actually explained who they were and what their motives was (apart from revenge, of course).

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    • On the one hand: Yes.
      On the other hand…I’d like an explanation but not in format that Chibnall keeps relying on which is having the Doctor monologue an explanation and I’m glad we didn’t get more of that.

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  2. I’m not sure I do want an explanation for fear that it will be awful and make everything worse.

    We already have Tecteun’s explanation for why she’s blowing up the universe with the Flux and that made no sense. It’s not as if it would be difficult to do better, either.

    On the other hand I really wish that the Lupari had been a tribute to Cordwainer Smith’s “The Crime and Glory of Commander Suzdal” (only dogs instead of cats) – but having them massacred off-screen rather takes the shine off of it.

    Finally, even pressing the reset button might have been better than just sweeping the destruction under the carpet. Which is the way it looks to be going.

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  3. I liked it. Yes, you can’t think about it too hard, but the actors were all clearly enjoying themselves, the stuff set in the past was delightful (the young Brig answering phones! fun period costumes!), and of course, Kate Stewart leads the resistance.

    The conceit of the tunnels each leading to a different world/time was very nice. As was the woman with one hand being underestimated, yet figuring how to get out. The 1967 scenes, I half expected Jon Pertwee to pop in (or at least Sean Pertwee), they were spot-on.

    Have they decided to move the Doctor and Yaz’ relationship from “barely subtext” to “obvious text”?

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    • Yeah, for that last scene I thought, “Well hell, are they actually going to kiss?” (Of course not.)

      I guess you liked it better than I did, Cam. With the possible exception of the Weeping Angels episode, I don’t even fall on the “fun mess” side of the ledger. It was just a mess.

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  4. As with pretty much all of the Chibnall era, there were positives and overwhelming negatives.

    Cool concepts, some clever ideas, funny scenarios and jokes, great acting and characters but with a plot that makes no sense whatsoever.

    Tecteun made no sense. Even her dialog with the Doctor was ridiculous … “we’re destroying the universe because of you … … join me and come to the new universe”.

    And the Ravagers and Time as an entity make no sense either. “Time is at war with Space” … what? I mean what?!

    The more I think about it, the more I hate it.

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    • Yeah I kept waiting for them to explain that whole bit about time and space being somehow opposed to one another. Last time I checked they were kind of the same thing…

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      • During the Virgin New Adventures book era, the 7th Doctor was portrayed as “Time’s Champion”; as a sort of avatar who has the power to intervene. I am wondering if Chibnall is sort of arguing the opposite – that ‘Time’ and ‘Space’ are actually a problem that needs to be contained in order for the universe to function coherently, that Division is there to keep them artificially apart (ahem, “divided”), and that the Doctor is actually the avatar of “Space” rather than “Time” (which would be why she was responsible for locking Time up in the first place, and why she cannot be permitted to remember.)

        I think there’s a moment after the conversation between the Doctor and Azure, in which Swarm comes dangerously close to stating it outright, that the Doctor is, in fact, effectively the entity known as “Space”, in that she *is* the universe. This might actually have been a genuinely great resolution to the whole “why is the Doctor the most important person in the universe?” and then Chibnall just lets it drop, as he generally does with everything unfortunately – or, rather, just leaves it dangling, knowing that it will annoy the commentariat.

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  5. I don’t mean to take away from anyone’s enjoyment of the series, but it didn’t work for me. The production side (costuming, location, sets) was excellent and the actors all were entertaining. But I felt the narrative doesn’t stand a moment’s scrutiny. The Doctor doesn’t take any steps to investigate the mysteries of the Flux or the Ravagers – instead she is moved by the heavy hand of the writer from location to location so people can explain the intricate backstory. There doesn’t seem to be anything for the companions to do, so they’re repeatedly separated from the Doctor and set to work on shameless episode padding. Of the other recurring cast, there are too many characters who do too little.

    I don’t have any complaints with the basic premise of the series – the ideas seem good Doctor Who fodder. (Some parts might be nonsensical, but to me they seem the right kind of nonsense.) But the story has been badly put together at almost every stage.

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  6. I’m used to Doctor Who having parts that make little sense, filled with gobbleygook terminology they’ve made up, dangling plotlines and such, but I have to say, this is the first time I simply couldn’t follow much of the plot. Every time I thought I had it figured out, they’d come up with a completely new set of things going on, and with different groups in different spots, little seemed to fit together. I did enjoy though having three Doctors trying to coordinate, but it was rather like coordinating jello. Chibnall has set up a bunch of mysteries and then walked off the show, leaving other people to try to deal with them or I guess never speak of them again.

    Anyway, the Daleks aren’t gone as they seem to be back for the New Year’s Eve movie. It’s just some of them, in 2021. Or something.

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