The Halloween Apocalypse
War of the Sontarans
Once, Upon Time
New Series Series Thirteen
|Dates||Oct 21, 2021 -
Dec 5, 2021
Otherwise, Why are We Here? by Hugh Sturgess 13/2/22
Warning: plenty of spoilers, but I think I've avoided giving away the real twists.
I think the ambition of Doctor Who: Flux is admirable. For years, fans and commentators have wondered if or even simply when Doctor Who would make the jump into pure serialisation the way (for instance) Star Trek did with Discovery. Series 6 came close (and a "cut down" season dropping standalone stories like Curse of the Black Spot yields a Chibnall-era-style ten episodes) but I admire Chris Chibnall for going ahead and not just doing serialisation but what you might call hyperserialisation. Most TV shows (especially non-procedurals) are "serialised" in the sense they tell an ongoing story across episodes, but I don't think I've ever seen a piece of television like The Halloween Apocalypse, switching between five different subplots in a way that frequently resembles channel-surfing. (It is very funny that the episodes of Flux are called "Chapters" - it's hard to think of a bigger tonal difference than that between the frenetically paced romp that is Flux and the slow, self-serious prestige streaming shows "Chapter" is obviously echoing.)
But for a show that made such a big deal of telling "one epic story" written by the same author, it's indescribably, unforgivably messy. That fractured, channel-hopping adrenaline rush of The Halloween Apocalypse never ends; the threads never cohere into a story that can be said to be "about" anything.
Darren Mooney has said that Chibnall's style of writing is all about having something to cut away to, so as not to leave the focus on character or dialogue that he recognises cannot sustain it. Flux, and especially its first episode, has that in spades. While initially exhilarating in set-up, it becomes alienating and repetitive as the subplots pile-up and crash into each other in deeply unsatisfying ways.
Take, for example, the startling fact that the main villain of the series (the wonderfully camp Swarm) and the main threat of the series (the Flux itself) are ultimately entirely separate threats. It's hard to immediately recognise this because their effects (reducing people/planets to dust on contact) and their eventual consequence (the destruction of the universe) are (surely consciously) almost identical. The story has two entirely separate "elemental forces of universal destruction" with only the most preposterous technobabble (the Flux can only affect Space, while the Ravagers can also destroy Time, apparently) to justify it. I've seen this described as Chibnall's Gun: rather than introduce a plot device in order to use it later, Chibnall will randomly substitute it with another, functionally identical one. To pick an obvious example, in Series 12 Ashad spends an episode trying to get the Cyberium, then in The Timeless Children suddenly reveals he also has the Death Particle.
The Flux appears in Chapter One poised to destroy the universe, then returns in Chapter Six. In the meantime, Swarm takes the stage as the villain of the piece, with what amounts to a separate plan altogether but with the same aim: to destroy the universe. Then in Chapter Five a new "arch-villain" is introduced, who also has a plan to destroy the universe, who does nothing but upstage Swarm for fifty minutes before being killed off by Swarm. That both sets of villains are old (but forgotten) enemies of the Doctor's, bent on destroying the universe with the Flux, can't help but feel duplicative, especially when it's not clear what, if anything, distinguishes them beyond a bit of phoned-in philosophy on the need to rule or the meaninglessness of existence. It does a disservice to Swarm to have him upstaged by another villain who doesn't even appear or get mentioned in Chapter Six.
Try this as a thought experiment: remove Swarm from Flux and consider how the plot changes. Swarm's motivations are that he is seeking to destroy the Temple of Atropos and thus unleash Time itself. After Once, Upon Time, wherein he temporarily disrupts the flow of time, apparently to his satisfaction, and unleashes a cloud of shimmering blue CGI petals ("the time force") that never appear again, he aims to do this by destroying Atropos with the Flux. So, in other words, exactly what would have happened anyway had he never escaped from his cell. It makes precisely zero difference whether the Flux is directed by an old lady who hates the Doctor or a purple crystal skeleton man who hates the Doctor. Especially when one doesn't make it to the final episode and the other gets defeated basically without realising it.
Swarm is far from alone in being a character who ends up being irrelevant to the plot. The series is cluttered in a rather COVID-unsafe way with characters who are there for no clear purpose. Take Di, who gets the line that solves the entire crisis but otherwise has no reason to be there. Or Bel, who is there because she's looking for Vinder, who is there because… uhh, he's there to rescue Di so she can feed the Doctor the info to stop the Flux? Frankly, you can include both Yaz and new companion Dan in this as well: they spend three years going on Indiana Jones-style quests to work out when the Flux will destroy the universe but obtain no useful information whatsoever, and their one proactive decision (to leave a message for Karvanista) is revealed to be pointless literally one scene later.
In Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss's Dracula, Agatha van Helsing remarks, of the "rules" of the vampire, "these three things are really one thing, much tidier". Chibnall most certainly does not hew to that. This kind of juggling of plot lines, refusing to consolidate them or give them a clear path to being unified, reaches its apogee in The Vanquishers, which attempts to balance the defeat of the second Sontaran occupation of Earth in four episodes, the climax of the Ravagers' plan, the reunion of Bel and Vinder, a last-minute subplot about a vendetta between the Grant Serpent and Kate Stewart and the Doctor's quest to recover her lost past. Ultimately, all of these feel like B-plots jostling for attention in an episode with no actual A-plot. Is The Vanquishers about stopping the Flux? That's done via a throwaway line from a character who has just met the Doctor. Stopping the Ravagers from unleashing Time? That happens incidentally. Overthrowing the Sontarans? Discovering the Doctor's secret past?
For a season that pitches itself as a single story broken into six "chapters", it sure seems to forget what story it is telling from week to week. It has two separate Sontaran invasions of Earth, the first of which is defeated via means that are made out to be hugely important but are never even mentioned the second time around. The Halloween Apocalypse makes a big deal of how the Flux annihilates all matter it contacts, yet later episodes show planets wrecked, devastated but certainly not annihilated by the Flux. The Flux itself is described as being a process of "spatial compression" in Chapter Five, and is then said to be antimatter in Chapter Six. There are two separate bits of obvious foreshadowing of how the Flux can be undone - the Doctor says that what is compressed can be uncompressed, while Swarm's sister Azure says they plan to reverse the effects of the Flux so they can destroy the universe all over again - but the season ends with neither having been paid off.
Even Swarm's plan seems to change from week to week. In the first three episodes, his plan seems to be to topple the Temple of Atropos, kill the Mouri and unleash the blue CGI "time force" that appears to just fly around randomly reducing people to dust (yes, another "elemental force that reduces people to dust"!). After the Doctor stops him (and endures a bit of cackling "but you did exactly what I wanted you to, Doctor!" gloating from Swarm), the Mouri and the time force literally never appear again. When Swarm and Azure summon the embodiment of Time itself at the climax, it is composed of not blue but purple CGI.
I'm genuinely fascinated by the insight this gives into Chibnall's writing style. The constantly shifting, twisting nature of the narrative means that the story never settles on any one element as the main focus. There is no Aristotlean unity, no Chekhov's gun. The closest the show has come to this before is probably something like Asylum of the Daleks, where Moffat threw a bunch of concepts and subplots at the audience without ever really committing to one (the main focus was Oswin, but only if you knew Jenna Coleman was the new companion).
Obviously, we don't know exactly what the impact of COVID was on the writing of Series 13, and Alex Moreland offered the view that we can't draw any grand conclusions about Chibnall's writing style until we do, but I reckon we can. The series is clearly extremely messy - for a show that made a big deal out of being serialised, it frequently looks improvised and absent-minded about what exactly has been set up and needs to be resolved - but it doesn't seem uniquely messy by Chibnall's standards; in fact, it feels entirely consistent with them. It's not so different to episodes like Praxeus, which introduces a bunch of characters (like the bloggers) who play no role in the story or who seem to teleport around depending on where the plot needs them to be. Or Can You Hear Me?, with its irrelevant (and presumably Chibnall-authored) Syrian subplot.
Creating two separate villains with identical motives is not normal plotting. Introducing a new character who gets a title card "Bel's Story" when charitably a third of the episode is about her is not normal writing. Having a character touch her belly (universal visual shorthand for pregnancy) and refer to her "as yet unborn child" is not normal dialogue. Chibnall's Doctor Who sometimes feels like TV written by someone or something that has never met another human being, let alone watched TV drama before.
Look, I enjoyed Flux, for the most part. But I just feel sad when I see fans defend it as being genuinely good. Whether it's because of the natural fan desire to defend the show we've all invested so much time and effort in, or because the past two seasons of Chibnall Who have lowered our expectations, or just that some fans don't watch a lot of (or any) TV other than Doctor Who and have nothing to compare it to, but I feel embarrassed when I see fans apparently willing to accept this. Flux is fundamentally broken, in exactly the same ways Chibnall Who has been from the start.