It seems like forever since the last full series of Doctor Who, but we can’t really complain. Once upon a time we had to wait 16 years between seasons. As is often the case after a hiatus of sorts, we return with a tweaked format. The whole season is going to be one story. This has been tried before, and patience has been tried in the process, but the difference with Flux is that we only have a six episode season, so perhaps the precedent is Torchwood: Children of Earth. There is no reason why this shouldn’t work, and work well.
Telling a single story over the season allows for a greater degree of complexity within the storyline, and immediately we start hopping from location to location. The Doctor and Yas are tackling a James Bond moment on an alien planet (you know the score: the baddie sets a trap with a timer, and then leaves, so they have just enough time to escape). Then we are taken to Liverpool in 1820, so far entirely uninteresting, and the same city in 2021, where we are introduced to new companion Dan. So far I like him, but he’s no Graham. The next location gives us the key moment the episode revolves around: the escape from imprisonment of our big bad: Prisoner Swarm. He rips his captors to shreds with just a look: a truly nightmarish monster.
The inclusion of Sontarans and a Weeping Angel seem like fan-pleasing moves. The latter does what it always does. It’s creepy, and the sequence got the heart pumping, but we’ve seen it before. The Sontarans look much more promising, and after they had degenerated into (admittedly funny) comedy aliens, I was wondering if they would ever be featured as a credible threat again. We shall see. Either way, the returning monsters aren’t the real draw here, because Swarm is immediately the best new villain Chris Chibnall has given us. In fact, I’ll go out on a limb and say this is what he’s going to be remembered for as a writer of Doctor Who. We have seen all-powerful aliens before, but the difference here ties in with Chibnall’s other great moment of inspiration: the pre-Hartnell timeline. The Doctor doesn’t remember Swarm, but he says they were “dancing across space and time, locked in combat.” This of course places the Doctor at a huge disadvantage (we learn from our past actions), and raises the threat level massively, so perhaps the pre-Hartnell naysayers will start to realise the potential that idea offers when they see it starting to be exploited here.
The end of the universe story is not entirely unfamiliar. It’s something Doctor Who has attempted occasionally, sometimes towards the end of a Doctor’s era. It can’t be done too often, because it would lose its impact, but this feels incredibly dangerous for the seemingly helpless Doctor. I have often felt she is too weak and passive as a Doctor, but here we see the other side of that coin. Things feel just a little bit scarier that way. That approach is taken further by the TARDIS herself being compromised, an extremely rare thing to happen. Anything that can affect the TARDIS is automatically much more frightening, because it’s so unusual, and the sound of the cloister bell still has the ability to send a shiver down the spine. It’s the sound of deadly danger.
We’re still missing something, and I don’t think Chibnall is a writer who is capable of finding it: the emotional core of the show. He has always written Who a bit like a nerdy teenager who is interested in monsters and sci-fi ideas but none of that soap opera nonsense, and yet it’s that soap opera nonsense that allowed the show to reach its greatest ever heights of success under the stewardship of Russell T Davies, who is mercifully returning soon. In the meantime, at least Chibnall seems to have found his mojo at last when it comes to the monsters and the ideas. Appropriately for a Halloween episode, Doctor Who feels very frightening again, and that has been achieved without making the show unsuitable for a family audience. That’s something Steven Moffat routinely got horribly wrong. It’s a long time since Doctor Who has been this good and as we approach the 60th anniversary at last things seem to be back on track. RP
The view from across the pond:
Well, the Doctor is back and I’ve got to say, I was surprisingly excited as the hour approached. I was not happy with the way Chibnall blasted through the series history with his Timeless Child revelation but the series had been missing for just too long for my liking and I anxiously awaited the start of The Halloween Apocalypse. And when it started with those stunning visuals, I felt that wave of excitement spike even higher. But within minutes, I was seeing the standard Chibnall signature. This is the man who writes while listening to music, so the music dictates what happens more than the story does and we are instantly in a frenetic race against booby traps that make no sense and culminate in the Doctor and Yaz looking like Dorothy’s Witches, flying brooms around a swirling green miasma before making an idiotic dive into the TARDIS from 2 totally different points and landing safely as if nothing was out of the ordinary. Before the credits even began, I was remembering why I had not been counting down for the return of my favorite series. In a nutshell it boiled down to one thing: Chris Chibnall is still the lead writer.
But credit where due, the story starts to change right after the credits finish. There’s a sense of the grand with this story. I was reminded of chess pieces being placed on a board as we are introduced to Dan, Claire, Vinder, the Swarm, the Sontarans, Karavanista, and the Weeping Angels. I can see this could be reviewed as individual episodes or as one big one when the story is done, but it seems a shame to waste the fun of talking about each part individually. Like, will I remember by the final part to applaud the reference to Nitro9, Ace’s explosive of choice? Probably not. Equally, I would not be able to condemn the typical, age-old Doctor Who infantilism of a planet named Trapezium 7 where the Doctor learned to do trapeze acts. So yeah, Roger and I will enjoy the next 6 weeks of the Doctor finalizing her time with Chris Chibnall at the helm.
Clearly we’re talking about it, so the episode is worth watching. A show can be measured to some extent by the water cooler chatter it generates and, if I lived in a more civilized country, we’d be talking about this for days. Alas, this is America and there was undoubtedly a game on last night, so that will dominate the water cooler banter. Still, even if I can’t talk about it at the office, I can’t deny the joy I had at so many moments of revelation from seeing that Angel to the first glimpse of the Sontaran ship, and the visuals in general were outstanding. That utter destruction of planets was amazing and the idea that this skeleton creature was haunting the Doctor on Halloween was marvelous. Interestingly, I recall plenty of Christmas specials, a few New Years, and even an Easter one, but never a Halloween one. I think it’s a shame that they didn’t capture more of the Halloween spirit, but then the utter destruction of mankind is a pretty scary idea, and watching people disintegrate is pretty macabre. Less scary is the idea that a race of dogs is going to save the day, but “man’s best friend” and all that silliness actually works surprisingly well. It’s a shame Chibnall takes such a loose view of Doctor Who continuity, because this could have been a much better race (maybe a returning race like the leonine Tharils or even that dog-like creature from Terminus, the Garm) but he is determined to put his stamp on the series, 60 years be damned. And that brings me to the real question about this episode which we might have to wait to find out about: what is happening to the TARDIS, who is the Swarm that he knows the Doctor but the Doctor doesn’t know him, and is “the Division” the same Division from the season 12 finale? I can’t see it being any other!
Now look, as I said above, I didn’t like the revelation that the Doctor was not Gallifreyan, or that Hartnell was not the first Doctor. I think it speaks loads about Chibnall and not in a good way. But in the grand scheme, he’s effectively added a layer of mystery that may end up being a good thing. Or, if he’s really far more clever than I give him credit for, he may find a way to both enhance his idea without destroying the fandom we all knew and loved before he came along. We won’t know for 6 more weeks, and I’m not holding my breath, but it could all begin here and it could be great. The Swarm knows of many battles together that Jodie’s Doctor does not remember. Sure it’s fairly likely that it will be from the Jo Martin/Alt Doctor timeline but my first thought was that he could be Death who the 7th Doctor battled in many of the New Adventures. (Perhaps that’s his sister!) Alas, when I looked up his name, I realized that was unlikely. I mean it might have been given credence when they said he was imprisoned since the dawn of time and the feeling of a chess battle (see the cover of the book The Dimension Riders) but again, why trust anything logical in this series? Then there’s The Division. I’m going out on a limb here to say Chibnall is not done basking in his own destructive juices and planning to mine that ore for all its worth, if you’ll pardon a very mixed metaphor. So he’s making sure we know that storyline isn’t done yet but will that mean it’s resolved well? Maybe he can still pull a bunny from the hat, eh?
To my dismay, I can’t say a lot happens here, or moreover, it’s a lot of setup with little actual story. A few hints linger: Claire knows the Doctor from the past, so we know she survives but we have no idea how she knows of the Angels. We see the Sontaran’s in the trailer as we move towards some war; could be good but how will it jive with the very anxiety-inducing ending where the end of the universe is coming for the Doctor? And what is happening to the TARDIS? Is it gearing up for the massive overhaul that’s bound to come with a new Doctor and new lead writer? Overall, for all my feelings of worry about how Chibnall will close out his time on Doctor Who, I am still looking forward to the next few parts and I hope the end result blows me away. I want to love this series again. For now, I’m assuming the apocalypse that’s coming is to any hint of the show we knew before, but then maybe it just signals the end of the destruction of the universe we knew and we can go back to a pre-Chibnall one. I guess there are two possibilities in the end: trick or treat. ML
Read next in the Junkyard… Doctor Who Flux: War of the Sontarans