Doctor Who: Flux ★★★★
The return of the six-part serial format brings chilling highs and confusing lows as the Time Lord takes on the Flux and the Ravagers, and learns more about her own mysterious past
As a destructive storm cloud called Flux rips across the universe, Ravagers Swarm and Azure, ancient enemies of the Time Lords, break free of their bonds and pursue the Doctor. Sontarans take advantage of the crisis to invade Earth across its history. The Doctor and Yaz befriend Dan, a Liverpudlian who has been rescued by a canine Lupari, Karvanista. Their adventures take them to the Crimean War, the Temple of Atropos on the planet Time, and to a village in Devon, 1967, beset by Weeping Angels. Yaz, Dan and scientist Professor Jericho become trapped in the early 1900s, while the Doctor is “recalled” to the mysterious Division, where she meets Tecteun, the woman she once called “Mother”. Tecteun holds the secrets of the Doctor’s lost past in a fob watch and reveals that Division unleashed Flux to extinguish our universe as they move on to another. As Swarm and Azure gain control of Division, the Doctor is trisected across time and space where she and her various allies strive to avert the ravages of Flux, while enemies such as Sontarans, Daleks and Cybermen die in the conflagration…
First UK broadcasts
Chapter One: The Halloween Apocalypse – 31 October 2021
Chapter Two: War of the Sontarans – Sunday 7 November 2021
Chapter Three: Once, Upon Time – Sunday 14 November 2021
Chapter Four: Village of the Angels – Sunday 21 November 2021
Chapter Five: Survivors of the Flux – Sunday 28 November 2021
Chapter Six: The Vanquishers – Sunday 5 December 2021
The Doctor – Jodie Whittaker
Yasmin Khan – Mandip Gill
Dan Lewis – John Bishop
Professor Eustacius Jericho – Kevin McNally
Karvanista – Craige Els
Swarm – Sam Spruell
Azure/Anna – Rochenda Sandall
Diane – Nadia Albina
Vinder – Jacob Anderson
Bel – Thaddea Graham
Grand Serpent/Prentis – Craig Parkinson
Claire Brown – Annabel Scholey
Joseph Williamson – Steve Oram
Kate Stewart – Jemma Redgrave
Fugitive Doctor – Jo Martin
Awsok/Tecteun – Barbara Flynn
Mary Seacole – Sara Powell
Ritskaw/Skaak/Stenck – Jonathan Watson
Kragar/Svild/Sentag/Shallo – Dan Starkey
Old Swarm – Matthew Needham
En Sentac – Sarah Amankwah
K-Toscs – Charlie Oscar
Wilder – Richard Tate
James Stonehouse – Paul Leonard
Wilma – Heather Bleasdale
Kev – John May
Jon – Gunnar Cauthery
Eileen – Sue Jenkins
Neville – Paul Broughton
General Logan – Gerald Kyd
Passenger – Jonny Mathers
Priest Triangle – Nigel Richard Lambert
Sonya Khan – Bhavnisha Parmer
Police officer – Chantelle Pierre
Reverend Shaw – Alex Frost
Gerald – Vincent Brimble
Jean – Gemma Churchill
Mrs Hayward – Penelope McGhie
Namaca – Blake Harrison
Peggy – Poppy Polivnick
Farquhar – Robert Bathurst
Millington – Nicholas Blane
Waiter – Guy List
Kumar – Kammy Darweish
Alfie – George Caple
Scouser – Sonny Walker
Cybermen and Dalek voices – Nicholas Briggs
Mouri voice – Amanda Drew
Weeping Angels – Barbara Fadden, Isla Moody, Lowri Brown
Ood – Simon Carew
Ood voice – Silas Carson
More like this
Writers – Chris Chibnall, Maxine Alderton (4 only)
Directors – Jamie Magnus Stone (1,2,4), Azhur Saleem (3,5,6)
Producer – Pete Levy
Executive producers – Chris Chibnall, Matt Strevens, Nikki Wilson
RT reviews by Patrick Mulkern
The Halloween Apocalypse
Have you been drooling? With Russell T Davies poised on the horizon – in magnificent saviour mode – preparing his banquet for Doctor Who’s Diamond Jubilee in 2023, unlucky series 13 had all the allure of a tray of stale sandwiches few fancied at the wake of the unlamented deceased. But, as the BBC publicity machine went into hyperdrive – hawking its wares, rather than hiding them, as was the way in recent years – there was a sense of mounting anticipation. Could the maligned showrunner Chris Chibnall drizzle his sweet pumpkin juice over these Halloween offerings and conjure some spooky magic? Well, yes, it seems so. Would watching The Halloween Apocalypse feel like Sunday-night homework? Not a bit of it.
Flux – Chapter One: The Halloween Apocalypse gets off to a rollicking start. Mid escapade. High peril. No hanging about. Well, unless you’re Yaz and the Doctor, who, as we join them, are dangling from a “gravity bar” over an ocean of roiling acid. The pace is set for a fast, fun-packed opener, impressively achieved by Chibnall and his team in the face of COVID. Shorn of former sidekicks Ryan and Graham, the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) and Yaz (Mandip Gill) make good sparring partners, fielding a balance of amity and antagonism, and falling into the trad pattern in which the Time Lord withholds vital information, imperilling the companion’s life, who in turn proves to be plucky and resourceful.
It’s great to have this show fronted by two heroic women. In times long gone, Doctor Who producers sometimes described their female co-lead as “something for the dads”. Oddly, in 2021, the dad-pleasing equivalent may be that endangered TV beast: Middle-Aged White Man – in the shape of John Bishop. No worries that he’s a comedian. He’s following a fine Doctor Who tradition of casting performers more established in light entertainment: Roy Castle, Bernard Cribbins, Jon Pertwee, Catherine Tate, Matt Lucas…
Bishop is an instant hit as handy Dan. “Official Scouse”, he’s down on his luck on the work front and in the romance department. We first meet him exuding pride in his city, posing as a guide at the Museum of Liverpool. Dan Lewis is the kind of guy who helps out at a food bank, even though his own fridge and cupboard are bare. A good soul. And a creditable addition to the series.
As it transpires, the comedy foil is Karvanista, a dog-alien played with funny bones and a Northern twang by Craige Els (another Liverpudlian). Not so much a villain but a saviour of mankind – “Man’s best friend” – he’s one of seven billion canine Lupari, each with their own “designated human” to rescue from the incoming Flux. His Wookie bearing and shih tzu fizzog are an adorable, semi-comic creation, while particularly impressive are new aliens the Ravagers.
Known prosaically as Swarm and Azure, they are mighty creepy and will chill younger viewers. Their method of dispensing death is nasty – simply meeting one of them seems to be a shattering experience… Swarm, an aeons-old menace with regenerative powers and a crystalline blue appearance, reminds me of Eldrad, last of the Kastrians, from Sarah Jane Smith’s 1976 swansong, The Hand of Fear.
Toss in some Sontarans (still not very menacing and mostly comedic; their commander likes to wear a helmet in his own spaceship) and a lone Weeping Angel (a tensely staged sequence), and Chibnall has a few juicy elements frothing in his hubble-bubble cauldron.
What is the relevance of Vinder, the officer at deep-space Observation Post Rose? Where does real-life 19th-century philanthropist Joseph Williamson fit in? (To this day his tunnels under Liverpool’s Edge Hill remain a curiosity.) Why has Azure lured Dan’s date Diane into a gloom-hole? Who is the Angel-beset Claire and how does she already know the Doctor? We’re pointedly reminded of all these disparate strands in a weak montage in the crescendo of an otherwise strong cliffhanger as the maelstrom of the Flux ravages through the Tardis and towards Earth.
In all, The Halloween Apocalypse is an engaging appetiser and revives my dimensionally transcendental taste-buds. Apologies for all the culinary terms. Maybe I am hungry. Maybe I’m just quite taken with the publicity shot of John Bishop brandishing a wok. Dan and his pan… Wallop! This is Chris Chibnall’s Halloween-night stir-fry. He’s turned up the heat. Let’s hope he can keep his pan sizzling across all six weeks.
War of the Sontarans
Their battle cry may be “Sontar-ha!” but this is more “Sontar-huh!” – so what!? The second episode, or rather Chapter Two of Flux, has potential. Sontarans en masse. Sontarans with a robust, tweaked design. Sontarans looming over Liverpool Docks and fighting in the Crimean War. Sontarans claiming Earth as an outpost (as Linx once did in The Time Warrior) and invading time (as they did in, er, The Invasion of Time). Sontarans played by quirky actors: Dan Starkey (in such roles since 2008) and Jonathan Watson, who I loved in BBC comedies Bob Servant Independent and Two Doors Down.
Despite all that, a lot of this hour-long conflict is pat and flat. Too much battle waffle and not enough action. The “War” promised by the title is a flash in the pan, although the brief CGI aerial shots are done well. I’m not expecting graphic massacre and screaming agony at teatime, but this war is anaemic. It has largely happened already or happens off-screen. The Sontarans, among Doctor Who’s most sadistic foes, have become comedic grunts, lousy shots and are easily thwarted. The potato-heads are still SpudULike not SpudULoathe.
Chapter Two runs 10 minutes longer than the first and the one that follows and, at its best, is intriguing without for a moment rising to levels of excitement. Intriguing, that is, if you’ve the patience to follow where this protracted yarn is slowly leading.
It gets off to a good start, though. The Doctor comes to in a black-and-white wasteland, seeing a nightmarish crooked house in the sky. She’s reunited with Yaz and Dan on the corpse-strewn battlefield of Sebastopol, where they soon meet a miraculously un-grubby Mary Seacole (Sara Powell). A Sontaran commander clomps through mist on a horse. Yaz and Dan fizzle out of time in a blue haze, and the Doctor is unable to find any door into her police box.
Soon, she has one of her time-worn clashes with a military nitwit, who to her disgust (like her long-ago chum the Brigadier) eventually blows up the invaders. She also turns yet another historical figure into an ersatz companion. Good that it’s Mary Seacole when it could so easily have been Florence Nightingale. And handy that Mrs Seacole has so few wounded to tend, she can stand around nattering and act as an overnight observation scout for the “Doctoress”.
Fittingly, the heroes do the decent thing and exploit the Sontarans’ weaknesses in both time zones. We’re told there’s been a “temporal implosion”, but does that mean that in the 1850s the Empire of Sontar no longer overwrites Russia and China, and that in the present their forces are no longer all over the planet? Unclear.
Elsewhere, or to be precise in the Temple of Atropos on a planet called Time, Yaz and Vinder encounter prissy floating lights (akin to the Megara in The Stones of Blood). They’re led into the domain of the Mouri, “creatures who hold time in this universe together”. If you say so. Nice of them to do so. Funny we’ve never heard of them before. Vinder (Jacob Anderson) has yet to make much impression.
As the Sontar-scenarios sag, it’s a relief when Chris Chibnall puts his newly minted aliens back on the chessboard. I’d almost forgotten them. Doggy Karvanista – or Bungle-from-Bolton as I now think of him – is still sniffing after Dan, and their developing bond, despite initial antipathy, is amusing. I’m also rather taken with sinister siblings Swarm and Azure – excellent masks/make-up and delicious performances from Sam Spruell and Rochenda Sandall as swishy fiends just on the edge of camp.
On balance, I’m enjoying Doctor Who’s return to the serial format with tense cliffhangers. Each episode of Flux offers two. There’s a quasi-hanger before the title sequence, which would work better with that “Eeaaoowwhh!” musical sting, instead of a muted segue into the sludgy current version of the theme tune. The closing cliffhanger is also robbed of effect when, moments later, the Next Time trailer reveals the heroes alive and well in a completely different setting.
Once, Upon Time
Chris Chibnall’s Flux has crossed the threshold into Chris Chibnall’s Delirium. If Chapter One showed the first signs of fever and Chapter Two a momentary lull, Chapter Three is like waking up in the night with the full-blown screaming ab-dabs. Once, Upon Time is one of the most dizzying and blatantly confusing episodes of Doctor Who – and I’ve sat through a fair few – which makes it tricky to engage with.
Calling the overall six-part story Flux, establishing that space and time are disrupted and having characters stricken by "temporal haze" (flitting in and out of phase from one person and body to another, and between locations and times) may excuse a lot of seemingly random events, but there has to be the hope of coherence, a glimmer of internal logic. Of course, there can be pleasure in obfuscation and rewards from delayed explanations, and this instalment does start to make sense towards the end, maybe because the standard human brain has jettisoned much of the nonsensical detail that has gone before.
At a time when Doctor Who needs to broaden its appeal, alienating its potential audience rather than drawing it in is a risky business. Viewers poised between Countryfile and the Strictly Results show couldn’t be blamed for fretting that their BBC One signal is on scramble or for turning elsewhere.
Devoted fans will probably derive satisfaction from sifting through and unpicking this kaleidoscope of images and information, especially the notes on the Doctor’s past lives, forgotten deeds and involvement with "the Division". Followers who abhorred The Timeless Children (the series 12 finale in 2020), especially the dismally "Mastersplained" new backstory for the Doctor, will likely throw up their arms in horror as those missing chunks of the Doctor’s past are given further currency and legitimised by the events of Once, Upon Time.
But this is where some of the gems lie. One glistening jewel is the unexpected return of "Doctor Ruth" (the “Fugitive Doctor” as she is billed), the past incarnation played majestically by Jo Martin. Any excuse for another glimpse of her, please. The same can be said for Barbara Flynn, who elevates everything she touches. She only has one scene, as the enigmatic Awsok, some superior being (wielding a screwdriver, note), who teases the Doctor with snippets about the origins of the Flux.
Jodie Whittaker sails through all these encounters and is on top of the confusion, but I’d love to have been a fly on the wall when the cast first received this script. "Um, who am I now, where am I now and what is this all about…?" perhaps. It’s hard to pin down Yaz and Dan in this piece. Some of the time they aren’t quite in character or are possibly avatars for other people.
There’s sharper focus on Vinder, the lost commander. I like his look, his changing hairdos, his jackets… he can even rock fingerless mitts. Jacob Anderson maintains sensitivity and charisma, even while Vinder’s backstory becomes staggeringly dull. He’s engaged in a crisis of conscience alongside a subdued Craig Parkinson (from Line of Duty) as the Grand Serpent (more of a Limp Grass Snake) and two bored-looking non-speaking-artist aliens. It’s charming when Vinder sends his love message across time to Bel. Appealing played (and narrated) by Thaddea Graham (from Netflix’s The Irregulars), she reminds me of the lone fugitive types that used to populate Blake’s 7. There’ll surely be more of their fractured romance as Flux proceeds.
The delirium calls forth hovering gold Daleks, easily picked-off Cybermen (one of whom is unexpectedly talkative; nice work for Nicholas Briggs) and a flutter of Weeping Angels. Chibnall has certainly delivered some banging cliffhangers. And Chapter Three’s hits home as the Angels penetrate the Doctor’s inner sanctum. “The Angel has the Tardis!” she cries, and it is deeply chilling. Roll on, Chapter Four, which with any luck will be a blinking nightmare. In a good way.
Village of the Angels
After last week’s needlessly complicated, off-putting concoction, it is a relief to turn to Chapter Four and heap praise: thrilling storytelling, faultless production, terrific performances and a jaw-dropping conclusion… in sum, or by multiplication, this is several orders of magnitude greater than anything that has Fluxed before. Expertly directed by the fittingly named Jamie Magnus Stone, Village of the Angels is an hour of drama that is coherent despite its complexity, exciting and satisfying as a slice of TV sci-fi.
Showrunner Chris Chibnall and his co-writer for one week, Maxine Alderton, make a strong partnership. (She wrote the 2020 episode The Haunting of Villa Diodati, one of Jodie Whittaker’s finest outings.) It must have been both daunting and a buzz to be the first Doctor Who writers other than Steven Moffat to be allowed to play with his nightmarish creations, the Weeping Angels. Not only to honour what’s been established in the past but to flutter their wings further.
These "quantum-locked" statues gain more mobility and agency. An Angel has hijacked the Tardis! They’re in alliance with the Division (shady Gallifreyan operatives from the Doctor’s forgotten past). We’ve long known "an image of an Angel becomes an Angel" – now one can emerge from a 1960s telly, even from a torn-up pencil sketch. A cluster of Angels have the power to take the whole village of Medderton "out of space, out of time", while mounting an attack on Professor Jericho’s house, bashing down his doors. "Are they really ringing my doorbell?" he gasps. We also learn what happens if you’ve already been Angel-zapped into the past but, like elderly couple Gerald and Jean, are foolish enough to stray near an Angel again. Instant petrification and disintegration.
There are reminders of The Time of Angels in Matt Smith’s first season 11 years ago, when Amy Pond had an Angel in her mind’s eye and saw her arm turning to stone, and when the Angels first found a means to speak (through dead cleric Bob). These aspects are developed through Claire Brown, a "percipient" with second sight – as the Doctor says, "You had a premonition of an Angel in your mind and now it’s living there." Claire’s arms turn to stone and she sprouts Angel wings.
The blue-stonewashed encounter between Angel-Claire and the Doctor is riveting (superb performances from Annabel Scholey and Jodie Whittaker). Here the imagery starts to become biblical. This rogue Angel is like Satan, the fallen angel, tempting the Christ-like Doctor, if not in the desert, on a beach where the sea is parting. She dangles the one prize the Doctor desires: her erased memories. Temptation also comes elsewhere in the form of Azure, high on a mountain, enticing the dispossessed masses, while Bel leads Namaca (Blake Harrison) not into temptation and is his saviour. Here endeth the lesson.
Kevin McNally is strong as Professor Eustacius Jericho and is no stranger to Doctor Who. He was one of the few plus points in Colin Baker’s debut stinker, The Twin Dilemma, 37 years ago. Jericho is steadfast in the face of unimaginable horror, having been "one of the first British soldiers into Belsen", albeit insulted by an Angel via his TV set as "loveless, childless, hiding in academia for fear of the real world… a life of failure". He and Claire are like a 20th-century Doctor/companion pairing, also extremely close to Dougray Scott and Jessica Raine's characters in the 2013 episode Hide. They're people we'll want to spend more time with as Flux enters its latter stages.
Village of the Angels presents the quaint English setting of Medderton cut off from the outside world and is very John Wyndham (The Midwich Cuckoos). It is of course redolent of 1971-vintage Doctor Who. The Jon Pertwee classic The Daemons saw the village of Devil’s End isolated and beset by a living statue that vaporised the locals. (Bok the gargoyle, who terrified me as a nipper, was a clear antecedent for the Weeping Angels.)
I’ve no qualms about referencing Who’s ancient past when Chibnall does it freely himself. He peppers Whittaker’s dialogue with the fan-pleasing catchphrases of her predecessors: Pertwee’s "I reversed the polarity of the neutron flow" and Patrick Troughton’s "When I say ‘run’, run!".
Chapter Four brims with tense sequences (the Angels’ pursuit of the Doctor’s party in Jericho’s "assignation tunnel") and impressive visuals. The illusion of Medderton teetering on the edge of space, and the split-screen between day and night and 1901/1967 are excellently achieved by CGI. There are smaller, precise FX such as Claire’s pupils suddenly dilating "on camera". The most striking image is saved to last with the hideous petrification of Whittaker’s Doctor into a Weeping Angel. It elevates this segment into "stone-cold classic".
As a final Flux flourish, the credits roll is interrupted (a rare event; Nick Frost’s Santa did it at the close of Death in Heaven in 2014). It bleeds into an extended scene with Vinder. Finally, the trailer for Chapter Five flings out a mini-reveal of Jemma Redgrave as Kate Stewart, the Unit leader introduced by Chibnall in 2012 and last seen six years ago. More on her next time…
Survivors of the Flux
Chapter Five screams "penultimate". It’s nowhere as exciting as Chapter Four but it does advance the Flux storyline and Chris Chibnall’s wider myth-making scheme, while showing Grandmaster Chibs placing characters in key positions on his multi-dimensional chessboard, poised to make his last moves.
Among several holding patterns, the most impressive is 'Around the World with Professor Jericho', who is in full Phileas Fogg mode with his companions Yaz and Dan. To be fair, it’s more sharp-as-a-tack Yaz and her blundering associates Jericho and Dan. Stranded in the early 1900s, the trio are doggedly pursuing a vague directive from the Doctor, which leads them from Mexico to Constantinople to Nepal to the Great Wall of China, and thence back to Liverpool (looking spectacularly un-sooty for 1904). The joke’s on them; they could have stayed in Blighty.
Lots of fun is had along the way, with counterweight-pulley pratfalls in an Aztec tomb (surely a little nod to the pulley system made by William Hartnell’s Doctor in The Aztecs, 1964); a mickey-taking hermit halfway up the Himalayas; the graffiti-message-across-time daubed at the Great Wall; and Dan getting ribbed for being repetitively Scouse. The time-hopping tunnel-builder Joseph Williamson falls into place, too. On an ocean liner, there’s also a tender moment when Yaz watches her Doctor-hologram for clearly the umpteenth time and we observe how much she adores and misses her friend.
The Time Lord, meanwhile, overcomes last week’s cliffhanger – petrification into Weeping Angel – with remarkable ease, while the Angels themselves are fast dispensed with like last week’s cat litter. Beyond our universe, the Doctor is in the company of an Ood and that mysterious taunting figure from Chapter Three. "I’m the one who found you," she now chooses to reveal. "I brought you to Gallifrey and raised you. I am Tecteun. The woman you used to call 'Mother'." These exposition-laden moments, teasing about the Doctor’s origins, are altogether less tedious than equivalent scenes in The Timeless Children – and gain import and grandeur in the hands of Barbara Flynn and Jodie Whittaker (both magnificent). Flynn is so fabulous as Tecteun that I flinched when that camp swine Swarm swanned in and, with a stroke of his glove, made her "sashay away".
Not content with expanding the Time Lord’s backstory, Chibnall wades into Unit’s already messy timeline… and muddies it further. In his new potted history, the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce (latterly Unified Intelligence Taskforce) has been malignly influenced by the Grand Serpent aka Prentis (Craig Parkinson). Far more menacing than in Chapter Three, he’s been bumping off big wigs for decades, although it isn’t clear how his sickening serpent gets inside his victims to begin with. Also, how did Jon Pertwee’s exiled Doctor never bump into Prentis during his many years at Unit or spot the fully functioning Tardis they’ve mothballed? In a sweet, fleeting aside, circa 1967, the man who would become the Brigadier is heard off-stage (a snippet of Nicholas Courtney from Terror of the Autons). But surely he could never have served as a corporal, as described; Lethbridge-Stewart was always officer material.
Prentis’s encounter with the Brig’s daughter, Kate Stewart, shows what a shrewd operator she is – and Jemma Redgrave is on redoubtable form, returning for the first time since The Zygon Invasion/Inversion six years ago. I was dismayed when Chibnall summarily terminated Unit in 2019’s Resolution. Especially because he had told me in 2012: "As a writer, you’re eternally grateful to everyone back in 1968 who came up with that idea because it’s a brilliant storytelling mechanism. Unit is embedded into the family history of the show." Now the time is ripe for Kate and Unit to regain their former status – and save planet Earth.
In further Chibs chess moves, Vinder is paired up with Dan’s date Diane inside a Passenger, while Bel is "hyperjacked" by Dan’s dog-man Karvanista. Earth has become – as ever – the focus in the universe for ultimate destruction by the Flux, the Division and marauding Sontarans. And, of course, in another dimension the Ravagers are dangling the Doctor’s lost memories in a fob watch. Are we all keeping up…? Is everyone poised? Only one more Chapter to go…
In the face of adversity may we find what makes us strong. This has certainly proven so for Chris Chibnall, the man with a show to run in the face of a pandemic. Forced to scale back, to operate in a climate of fluctuating COVID restrictions, he redrew his parameters in pursuit of the best Doctor Who he and his team could deliver. In that respect, they have achieved an impressive feat in the six-part Flux.
Returning the programme to its original serial format has been the key win. It has allowed an engaging, occasionally gripping, series of storylines to evolve and interweave, build to effective cliffhangers, and then to resolve satisfyingly in this sixth and final episode.
At times, it’s been apparent that everything but the kitchen sink, the dog basket and the loo brush was being chucked into the mix. Multiple locales, time zones, Doctors… A barrage of old foes dusted down and given a chance to play outside again… Sontarans chiefly, but Daleks and Cybermen too – all looking foolhardy in this final conflagration… Even a friendly Ood joined the fray, while the Weeping Angels polished their badges as Who’s chill-supremoes.
Note that none of the creations from Chibnall’s past two series were called upon: no Stenza, no whispering-rag Remnants, no froggy Solitract, no shimmering Kasaavin, no Pting, no Dregs… Consigned to oblivion, perhaps. What’s positive is that he has now fashioned memorable opponents in the Ravagers, Swarm and Azure. Outstanding performances from Sam Spruell and Rochenda Sandall allied to fabulous costume, masks and make-up – “Condragulations!” to the design team. RuPaul’s Drag Race champions, eat your hearts out!
"We have everything we need – Division, the power to destroy your universe… and you!" gloats Swarm. They not only relish destruction ("The end of all spatial objects," purrs Azure helpfully), they long to replay the final throes of our cosmos, in a constant loop. Their finest moments involve tormenting the Doctor: Azure proffering the MacGuffin fob watch, "It will break your mind"; Swarm literally tearing the house down, as he rips apart and reassembles the crooked building that represents the Time Lord’s missing past. Then Azure finally steps from her sibling’s shadow to discuss with the Doctor their diametrically opposed faiths: life versus obliteration.
There’s an anti-climax when the ghastly pair meet their comeuppance and are frittered away by the embodiment of Time. They seem ecstatic about their exit. "Ascension…" coos Azure as she disintegrates. Maybe she is going to a better place. When Time takes on the form of the Doctor, with Jodie Whittaker’s benign face, I half-expected a reference to Kronos the "chronovore" from The Time Monster. It portends doom for this Doctor and heavy-hints a rematch with the Master.
Way before this, we’ve seen a fresh spin on The Three Doctors. "Wow, you’re cute!" she says to herself. "I’m being trisected across disparate dimensions. I’m split across three realities now. It’s quite draining and confusing and breaks every known law." It would be easy to take the mickey here, but Chibnall and Whittaker handle all this guff confidently, and provide a clever, new and very Who-ey way of telling a story and spinning plates.
Chibnall’s Flux has trodden an eventful if uneven path, with one swill-bucket of bad dreams (Once, Upon Time) and one bona fide classic (Village of the Angels) along the way. The greatest triumph of this six-parter is that, while frenetic, it has given its characters space to breathe and come alive, which can’t be said of the usual, limited 45-minute format. We might not know much more about them at the end than at the start but they’ve become familiar and likeable and we root for them.
Warrior-lovers-reunited Bel and Vinder go off to make babies, in the company of Bungle-from-Bolton Karvanista, now the last of his kind. 'Claire-voyant' survives the Sontaran mind probe and arrives back in her own time with her 2021 hairdo miraculously restored. Resourceful Diane "may just have saved what’s left of the universe", but she still turns down Dan. The Grand Serpent gets hissy with the Doctor but she tames him ("I’ve put you on the very naughty step") and he’s abandoned on a minuscule asteroid.
With so much going on, Kate Stewart draws the short straw. So strong is Jemma Redgrave’s presence, there are scenes where I’m willing her to intercede with more than the few lines she’s allotted. She signs off with: "I like this regeneration. Hope I meet it again." Let’s hope that transpires in the coming specials. Kevin McNally is the other winner, in a way. His have-a-go-scientist, old-soldier Jericho is a splendid old chap but was always destined to be the one hero sacrificed in this piece. "What an awfully big adventure..." We salute you, Jericho.
A bedazzling CGI Flux-obliteration of planets, spaceships and archenemies is all conveniently hoovered up by one of those Passengers, whose silhouette still hits me as 'Ena Sharples in gimp mask'. Straggly ends are tied in a leisurely but satisfying wind-down. Dan (John Bishop) has earned his place among the Tardis crew, and the Doctor makes peace with Yaz (Mandip Gill). As it should, the focus narrows in on this pair, their heartfelt 'womance' and a well-placed tear. Both characters/actors have benefitted from this revised format.
In the final moments, though, Chibnall offers another reset, possibly just a pause. The Doctor drops her fob-watch memories into the heart of the Tardis – determined to remain “Doctor Who?”. Perfect.