A significant step-up for the long-running sci-fi show, despite some lingering storytelling issues.
What to say about this current era of Doctor Who? Well, you certainly can’t say it hasn’t attracted controversy. With bigoted small-minded idiots taking issue with just about every aspect, it feels bad to criticise when, despite a truly stellar cast and crew, what’s been produced is two series of quite middling storytelling. There are certainly some successes, despite what some may tell you, but overall, we’ve been left with one series that meandered around until it decided to end, and another which dropped some subtle hints about where it was going, then buckled under its own weight as it decided to reveal everything all at once.
The latest series, the show’s thirteenth, or as it has been subtitled, Flux, is a significant step up. It still has some of the characteristics that have bugged previous years, but overall, this is a hit for the Chris Chibnall era of Doctor Who.
Flux throws our intrepid time-traveller into her biggest crisis ever – a universe ending event, the Flux, threatens to wipe out life as we know it. It’s a shifting, never-ending mass that destroys all in its wake throughout both time and space. As our heroes The Doctor (Jodie Whittaker), Yaz (Mandip Gill) and newcomer Dan (John Bishop) try to simultaneously avoid and solve the disaster, they encounter new and familiar foes such as the Weeping Angels, the Sontarans and Ravangers, all of whom have their own plans for the Flux.
This year marks an experiment for the ongoing series – serialized storytelling. In the past, the show has flirted with the idea of a continuing narrative, with overarching stories and multiple-parters, but this marks the first time (certainly in the revived series) that the whole series is interconnected. It’s a bold choice, especially since the last time the show tried something like this was with 1986’s story arc The Trial of a Time Lord, which is infamous for being a bit… meh. However, maybe this is exactly what lead writer Chris Chibnall needed to do to find his groove. Having cut his teeth on ongoing police procedurals like Law and Order: UK and Broadchurch, he’s in comfortable territory, giving one story his complete attention. Also, with a reduced episode count due to the pandemic (cutting the series down from ten to six episodes), there’s less time to get side-tracked. Flux is one, streamlined idea, moving with energy and pace towards something, even if it doesn’t quite stick the landing.
This energy seeps over into characterisation. Essentially, because we don’t have time to indulge in convoluted side-stories, characters must make choices quickly to further the narrative, which ironically gives them much more agency and overall impression in the story. Jodie Whittaker as the Doctor is doing her best work. She’s always been a warm, charismatic performer, as well as an amazing ambassador for the show, but now she’s got the material to be active within the plot. Coming off as more powerful and heroic than we’ve ever seen of this arguably quite passive incarnation, there are moments (particularly when facing off against the Sontarans) that made me want to stand up and applaud. It’s such a shame she’s now winding down to leave the show, as this is exactly the sort of Doctor we should have had from the start of her run.
In the supporting cast, John Bishop is a positive delight as Dan, bringing such wonderful optimism to a dire situation. He continues the stunt-casting previously held by Bradley Walsh, surprising everyone with a real emotional depth and relatability. Dan sees the best in people always, and in a divided time, both in the fictional world of Doctor Who as well as our own, that’s refreshing to see. Bless Mandip Gill; she’s clearly a terrific performer, and again a great ambassador for the se, but once again, she’s left without a character. Her scenes tend to result in her either asking for explanations or being a sounding board for others to bounce their emotional backstories off. It’s such a shame that the amazing work with Jodie’s Doctor couldn’t be done for Yaz too.
I think this speaks to the larger issues with Flux – it’s stuffed to the absolute brim. There isn’t space to carve out more of a personality for Yaz or many other characters, like villains Swarm and Azure, because this thing has so many threads to try and resolve. In a way, this also results in quite a rushed ending, with some emotional closure, but not enough to match Flux‘s massive stakes. The New Year’s special trailers hint at some sort of fallout from the finale, so who knows? Maybe Chibnall can still clean up the messy leftovers. But the biggest issue is the Chibnall-ism that has bugged this entire era in Doctor Who: exposition. Chibnall has a habit of explaining, and over-explaining, everything, to the point that it loses all meaning. As a science-fiction show, explaining complicated ideas comes with the territory, but at this point it becomes ridiculous. It’s the opposite of the basic screenwriting principle of show, don’t tell. Realistic characterisation gets lost in the mix and so does the story – if everything’s being constantly explained to us, it’s hard to distinguish between plot, character, and just general facts that Chibnall wants to tell us.
However, as a Doctor Who fan, I can let it go because, in the end, it was nice to have an exciting story with some pace. Just because it doesn’t quite reach the very high bar that older series of the show have spoiled us with setting, it doesn’t mean Flux is bad. Quite the opposite; this is a fun, gorgeous-looking space opera of a serial. I genuinely thought I’d accidentally put on Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar in episode five, and it’s a testament to directors Jamie Magnus Stone and Azhur Saleem that it rings true when people say this era of the show looks more “cinematic”.
Looking to the future for a moment, we’re about to experience a monumental shift in the show’s creative direction, with the return of Russell T. Davies. While there is a part of me that wishes a new creative voice could be given the reins of the show, it makes sense in the ongoing narrative of the series. After such an experimental, high-concept serial, what the show needs now is to go back down to Earth and give us a grounded narrative, which is precisely the kitchen-sink character drama that Davies excels at. Doctor Who, unlike contemporaries such as Star Trek, is not about finding the humanity in the extraordinary, but finding the extraordinary in humanity. I think as fans we sometimes forget that. But until then, the sheer creativity and experimentation of Flux must be commended, even if it doesn’t work 100% of the time.
Words by Ed Foster
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