Sunday 12 December 2021

Does Doctor Who survive the Flux?

Doctor Who: Flux has concluded its 6-part timey-wimey run on BBC One, BBC America and AMC+.

Whilst we wait for Eve of the Daleks, Nick Smith, our US-based Whovian par excellence, follows up his review of Revolution of the Daleks with a considered look back at Jodie Whittaker's ambitious final series as the titular Time Lord.

Does the TARDIS fam survive the Flux unscathed?

Guest post by Nick Smith

Doctor Who is far more than a ‘monster of the month’ TV show. At its best, it explores scientific concepts, displays imaginative visuals and above all, features characters we care about and trust. With its narrative device of time and space travel, it has so many possibilities. But after almost 60 years of tootling around in the TARDIS, how many possibilities are left?

Thanks to Doctor Who: Flux, the answer is many more. As with The Timeless Children, showrunner Chris Chibnall drops a couple of lines of dialogue and concepts into the show that stretches its already stretchy envelope. We’ve already visited parallel worlds in stories like Inferno and Rise of the Cybermen; Flux helps make the idea of pocket and coexisting universes more tangible, suggesting that there will be surprising new places to see and things to do in future seasons.

Chibnall set himself a daunting task with this season. He could have played it safe by rehashing successful stories like Rosa and focusing on answering the mystery of the Division. Instead, he is creative and ambitious. He gives us underground portals, ESP, an anthropomorphised guard dog, a shrinking house, literal bodyguards who keep people in their bodies and myriad other ideas. The narrative isn’t as perfectly paced as, say, Silence in the Library, which also had several ideas and plotlines vying for attention. But amazingly, the mélange works.

Compared to other shows on TV and the undoubted pressure to keep Doctor Who marketable, I’ll take a stream of consciousness epic with the head writer letting his imagination run wild over ‘safe and commercial’ any day.

Running at about 6 hours, Flux is the equivalent of 12-13 episodes of the classic Doctor Who. At that length, the most direct comparison would be The Daleks’ Master Plan, a similarly picaresque story that took William Hartnell’s Doctor to many distant worlds, separated him from the TARDIS for a while and proved that companions were vulnerable. Flux even has Dalek cameos to strengthen the comparison. But while watching the new season, I was reminded of another epic, the combined Jon Pertwee stories Frontier in Space and Planet of the Daleks.

While intended as two connecting 6-part tales, the middle is a confusing mess and the glue that holds them together is desperately thin. Frontier in Space, especially, is overlong with at least one capture-and-escape too many. But the overall adventure gives the Doctor plenty of chances to be heroic.

Flux is far more successful in being cohesive and it never feels too long. However, Jodie Whitaker’s Doctor is more passive. Information is given to her by the bad guys. The focus instead is on the consequences of her actions, whether she remembers them or not. She admits that she doesn’t know how to cope and apologizes to Yaz (Mandip Gill) for not being open and honest. It’s all very human. Fortunately, in the finale episode The Vanquished, the Doctor gets less ordinary and more proactive.

Whitaker gets to stretch her acting abilities in Flux, with more opportunities to display different emotions while always remaining Doctorish. You can really believe she’s out of her depth and out of options at some key points in the narrative. Her character is also funny and brilliant – there’s a believable sense that her supersmart brain is running overtime, with Yaz never afraid to admit she’s having trouble keeping up.

Yaz gets her moments to shine, taking the lead when she’s split from the Doctor. Dan (John Bishop) and Kate Stewart (Jemma Redgrave) don’t get enough to do but add an extra aspect of relatability to the mind-boggling proceedings. Professor Eustacius Jericho (Kevin McNally) is adorable. This gentleman explores different cultures and takes his oh-so-English sensibilities to alien worlds with gusto, hearkening back to Doctor Who’s H.G. Wells roots.

It’s a joy to see so many alien worlds in a show that’s so partial to London. The places depicted are a far cry from the Cardiff-centric early days of Nu Who. Still, the grounding reality of Liverpool versus exotic foreign countries and other worlds is highly effective.

One could argue that Flux has one main villain too many (Grand Serpent, I’m hissing at you) and the ending is too neat and tidy after a season of chaotic destruction. Yet, there’s no doubt that Chibnall’s final season is entertaining, refreshing and full of surprises – just like the Thirteenth Doctor.

What did you think of Doctor Who: Flux? Let me know in the comments below.

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