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.