We should have had more faith. When Chris Chibnall wrote UNIT out of Doctor Who in Resolution it seemed like sacrilege, but the man had plans. Survivors of the Flux shows us the Grand Serpent’s interference in UNIT’s history, right from the start, with a lovely little nod to the Brig (or the Colonel as he was at the time), the voice of the late Nicholas Courtney audible from behind a door. Importantly, Kate Lethbridge-Stewart is the only member of UNIT who is any kind of a match for the Serpent, a formidable villain. As soon as an enemy is aware of that he isn’t a human, that person is already in his death throes. It’s perhaps slightly gruesome for a family audience, but Chibnall has succeeded in creating another superb monster. He suddenly seems to have found a knack for that.
Apart from the UNIT stuff, for most of the episode we alternate back and forth between the Doctor and her companions, who are trying to reunite with her. This new team is a lot of fun, especially with the addition of Professor Jericho, who seems to have stepped into a traditional companion role, while Yasmin is following the path of many a companion and becoming more and more Doctor-ish, clearly the leader of this gang. Both of her companions are very entertaining. Another thing I have to praise Chibnall for is the way he has demonstrated that a Doctor Who companion doesn’t need to be just a young female. I know we have had variations in the past, and Russell T Davies got things very right indeed with Wilf, but Chibnall’s entire run has featured an older male companion, and they have also been his best companions.
But the big news this week is of course the Doctor getting some answers. Most of the information we learn here has been either hinted at, or given to us piecemeal already, but there is some welcome clarification about the Division, the Doctor’s origins and her adopted mother. One thing I absolutely love about this is how her past is shrouded in mystery, and not just the pre-Hartnell incarnations. It goes back further than that, to the Doctor as a child beside a wormhole, something that I don’t think we are going to get answers to this season, but it feels fitting for the Doctor to be a mysterious being once more. After all, that was how things were at the very start, and it feels so right for the show.
I’m not sure I’m all that keen on the idea of the Doctor being a “virus” in the experiment of the universe, which feels uncomfortably close to the sort of nonsense we got towards the end of the RTD era and at the beginning of Steven Moffat’s tenure, with the Doctor agonising over whether he is a force for good or not, and accused by his enemies of bringing destruction wherever he goes. This was of course deeply flawed logic, because somebody who seeks to make things better will of course often be found in the midst of bad things. It works reasonably well if we take Tecteun as basically a villain in the tradition of Davros (who had similar universe-destroying aims), who is therefore peddling similar arguments (“Morality was always your flaw.”). She is just the more respectable face of evil, treating the whole universe as an experiment to be aborted while she moves on to the next. The idea that the Doctor’s mother could be genocidal works just as well as her best friend being the Master. It’s a message of hope to those who have been betrayed by friends and family. A person is defined by their response to those situations, not the betrayals themselves.
The sight of the fob watch is tantalising, and the Doctor makes a decision that reaffirms how amazing she is. Imagine the kind of amnesia she is suffering. Imagine having a massive chunk of your life closed off to you, not knowing truly who you are. Now imagine being offered the chance to recover those memories… and saying no. That’s the decision the Doctor makes without a second thought, eager to turn her back on that fob watch so she can go back and save what remains of her universe, never for a second considering the offer to get back her memories and go travelling with her mother into the next universe, which contains the other end of the wormhole she came from as a child. That’s bravery, and that’s selflessness. The Doctor has never seemed more heroic. RP
The view from across the pond:
When Survivors of the Flux started, I confess to being somewhat disappointed. Like episode 2’s cliffhanger, this one opens by rapidly dismissing the shocking events of last episode by decalcifying the Doctor from her angelic state. I’ve been very impressed with this season so far, finding the roller coaster just so much fun that I’ve been ignoring things like a dismissed cliffhanger, but if I’m honest, it does bother me. Don’t give me such a great cliffhanger, only to brush it away the next week. In fairness, this gets explained that it’s just the way we are seeing things while the Doctor is communicating with the Angels, but then once they bring her to their intended destination, they basically do decalcify her for real. This takes something away from what was really an amazing cliffhanger. Then the episode goes a bit exposition-heavy. Sure, it still keeps things entertaining, but this is the first of the episodes that felt long in the tooth, very much like filler trying to cram in a lot of information while tiding us over with a pulp adventure featuring Yas, Dan and the professor.
While that felt like a bit of a change in pace from last week, there are just enough good revelations to keep things fresh and engrossing. Chibnall does show his fandom in this episode maybe more than any other so far. We get loads of the formation of UNIT (including a background voiceover of the Brigadier. I had to listen to twice to catch it but it was undoubtedly our Lethbridge Stewart!). We’re told it’s a new colonel who was brought on after an incident with the Post Office Tower; referencing the events of The War Machines. Kate Lethbridge Stewart shows up and Osgood gets a name-check. As if that’s not enough, the pocket watch offers us an alluring hint that the Doctor’s memories might be waiting for her. (And this says nothing of the trailer with the spooky house that put me in mind of the Doctor’s ancestral home from the New Adventures book, Lungbarrow!) Then we also find out that the woman goading the Doctor is her adopted mother, Tecteun. Now, all this fan pleasing might be enough to whet the appetite, but it’s not doing anything new. In many ways it’s doing the same thing that Star Trek: Lower Decks has been; a complaint many of my friends and I lament – both series are basking in past glories. What we need to be asking is if the series has enough juice to finish off as strong as it started.
When Tecteun mentioned a “seed vault”, I confess, it did spark my curiosity! They could use a thing like that to start anew in all sorts of good ways, while not getting rid of all the best elements of the series. Then we discovered that the Division is actually destroying one universe to hide its own presence since the Doctor found out about her own past involvement with this nefarious organization. Now, that’s some secret! What on earth was going on there and how will it impact the future of the series? The idea of a place that existed between universes is interesting but it’s been done before (Castrovalva) just without any of the implications we have here. My question about the Division though is simply: how is it different from the CIA (Celestial Intervention Agency)? Are they the same thing or is this a bigger, badder organization??
By the end of this episode, I realized I didn’t know what to think. I felt great about some parts of it, like seeing the advent of UNIT, but lukewarm about others. I mean the aforementioned decalcification of the Doctor happens instantly, then she gets resolidified at the 4:34 mark and is un-solidified by 4:41! (Yeah, I get nitpicky with things like that!) On the other hand, I loved the hermit and wish we could have him in every episode. And I found the snake creature amazing, if a bit surprising considering family viewing. Watching it come slithering out of the mouth was unexpected! And was that not the cutest Ood ever?
Overall this is the hardest episode to evaluate on its own. And we’re once again left with a cliffhanger like the one we had three weeks ago: Skeletor (aka Swarm) is about to touch the Doctor and disintegrate her. Can the Doctor escape? Based on the last 4 cliffhangers, the answer is clearly yes, but I can’t help but wonder if I’m alone in thinking: maybe she won’t want to. Maybe we will discover that Swarm and Azure are not actually destroying what they touch. All I know is that the whole Chibnall era hangs in the balance of a good story. Like it always should have! ML
Read next in the Junkyard… Doctor Who Flux: The Vanquishers