Doctor Who: Flux continues, and so do my attempts at describing some quick impressions.
Survivors of the Flux, by far the worst title that we’ve had this season, is the first episode of the Flux event that I’ve had kind of hard time writing about. It’s not because I’m uncertain about my opinion of the episode–that’s pretty clear, actually. It’s more because the episode is so all-over-the-place, so meandering, so broadly focused and yet so aimless that it’s hard to articulate the reasons for my opinions. And that very quality is probably a good starting point for explaining why I feel about it as I do.
So if it’s not clear, my opinion of Survivors of the Flux is pretty negative, which is quite disappointing.
Going into this series, I had not felt very hopeful. Over his first two years as the guiding hand behind this series, Chris Chibnall had not impressed me with great regard for his ability to blend character, plot and tone into a satisfying adventure. But for whatever reason, be it the revised format or the extra time provided by the COVID-related delays or anything else, the first four episodes seemed to turn that track record around. Suddenly, things were fun again–the Doctor got to be clever and impressive, the companions were well-utilized, the drama compelling. Even when there were problems with certain parts of certain episodes, there was enough strong stuff to keep it going.
But then, Survivors of the Flux hit the screen and all that got thrown out the window.
Most obviously, the episode was just spread too thin, with the action divided between the Doctor and the Division, the companions hoofing around the world looking for clues, the Grand Serpent doing who-knows-what with UNIT, Bel and Karvanista shooting at each other, Vinder getting captured and meeting Di, and Azure and Swarm doing whatever they are up to. There is a lack of narrative focus which makes the episode frustrating to watch, especially since it all ends with so little actual advancement of the plot. This is precisely in the story where things should be focusing in, not expanding outward. When we finally get to the multi-faceted cliffhanger, with all that that has been left up in the air about the show’s mysteries, the appearance of the Sontarans doesn’t make us excited. Rather it just makes us feel tired in advance–all this and now the Sontarans as well? What’s the point?
I went through the whole episode wondering why secrets about the eventual date of the attack on earth would be encoded on some sort of ancient Aztek offering pot. Then I read through a transcript of the episode and realized it’s explained in the holographic message from the Doctor–the Flux event has caused ripples in time and some clever people in history have figured it out. And then I thought–actually, this is all nonsense: nothing that takes place in their scenes matters at all to the story until they meet Joseph Williamson towards the end. Everything else is just filler, to give the companions something to do.
Over in the Doctor’s plot, it’s a bit different. Here, the story does matter, as the Doctor meets Tecteun again and finds out what is actually going on with the Flux. We revisit the (lamentable) Timeless Child idea again, which is potentially interesting as it’s the big question hanging over the series at the moment. But just like in The Timeless Children from last season, this storyline consists of the Doctor standing around being held prisoner while her enemy tells her stuff. The Doctor gets a few good moments of earnestness and rage but doesn’t actually do anything, as the era’s big meta-plot is told entirely in scenes of awkward exposition. But that’s what happens, I guess, when your whole story is built on something that long ago happened to the main characters, rather than anything they are actually doing now. I hold fast to an opinion I’ve shared before–the Timeless Child concept is not only ill-conceived, it’s also badly delivered. It’s like it didn’t occur to anyone that a big reveal standing in isolation would not by itself make a good story.
This episode also reminds one of The Timeless Children by the way that Azure kills Tecteun–something similar happened with the Master and the Lone Cybermen in the earlier story. The 2020 episode had built up both threats, and then when time ran out had one kill the other while the Doctor fail to deal with either. And now here we are in 2021 with an episode featuring two threats that the series had built up, only to have one kill the other, while the Doctor stands around haplessly. Of course there is still one more episode to go, and presumably the Doctor will deal with Azure and Swarm rather than just having a one-off guest character run in and blow them all up, so we assume this story will still finish ahead of The Timeless Children in overall quality.
But…can it possibly resolve all the other threads that the story has brought up and thus far let hanging? Can it even address them all, even if some things are left open? Can it do it in a way that makes me feel like I’ve watched a whole story, as every episode of even a highly serialized television show should be? Can it even bring the whole season to a close in a way that satisfies, and doesn’t just finish off feeling like a haphazard mess?
Because to do that, the show has got to at least touch on questions and uncertainties related to a lot of people and places–Swarm, Azure, Diane, Vinder, Bel, Vinder and Bel’s baby, Karvanista, Jericho, the Grand Serpent, Joseph Williamson, Kate Stewart, Planet Time, and those stupid Sontarans. Plus, spend some time with our main characters and give Yaz, Dan, and the Doctor some good moments and development, plus maybe some more exploration of the Doctor’s hidden backstory and maybe some extra bits about how the Timeless Child got to the world with the tower. And it’d also be nice to see if Claire is doing all right as well, touch base with the Mouri, and of course to resolve the whole thing about the Flux and the potential end of the universe.
And frankly, I just don’t trust Chris Chibnall’s Doctor Who to do that. It’s sad how quickly Survivors of the Flux has stolen away whatever confidence I was developing in the writer, but it has happened–there has just been too much dissatisfaction in the past not to feel wary.
But that’s also how I felt before Flux began, and for four episodes I was happy to admit I was wrong. I’ll be even happier if it turns out I am wrong again.
I have some other thoughts about the way UNIT is used in the episode and the unusual cameo that was included as part of that, but I’ll share that tomorrow.