Doctor Who series 13 overall review: Was Flux a hit or a miss?
This was undoubtedly Chris Chibnall and Jodie Whittaker’s best series to date – but that doesn’t mean it didn't have issues.
Doctor Who: Flux has concluded after six action-packed episodes, leaving millions of dead Daleks, Sontarans and Cybermen and more disproven fan theories than you can shake a Lupari axe at in its wake. And now that the dust has settled, it’s time to look over series 13 as a whole. Was Flux actually any good?
Well, I’d say it was. From the ashes of the COVID-foiled series that might have been, Doctor Who showrunner Chris Chibnall created his best run of episodes to date, full of exciting cliffhangers, stronger dialogue and (also thanks to co-writer Maxine Alderton) an all-time classic episode with Weeping Angels standout Village of the Angels.
Jodie Whittaker had more agency as the Doctor, John Bishop was a twinkly delight as new companion Dan and even Yaz (Mandip Gill) came into her own as she moved out of the shadow of her former TARDIS teammates (Bradley Walsh and Tosin Cole left the series in January).
However, it was also a series that suffered from familiar problems long seen in this era. Masses of underused characters (what did Yaz and Dan even do in the final two episodes?), complicated sci-fi explanations that didn’t advance the plot, contrived plot points and an unclear character profile for the Doctor were all present and correct at different times, and to varying degrees.
The true triumph of Flux is how well it overcomes these hindrances to make a fairly cohesive, dynamic and entertaining whole. Though of course, that wasn’t the biggest hurdle the series faced when filming began in 2020.
More like this
Because the Judoon in the room for series 13 is, obviously, the coronavirus pandemic. The entire serialised structure of Flux (and the cast of returning characters) comes thanks to COVID-19 filming restrictions that gave Chris Chibnall and the Who team two options.
- Create a series of limited-location, limited-cast stories that didn’t move around much (notably, the approach that seems to be being used for New Year’s Day time loop special Eve of the Daleks)
- Create a serialised story that will allow repeated use of sets, locations and guest cast members.
As we now know, Chibnall took the latter option – and Flux was all the better for it. By chance, the pandemic pushed him into his strengths as a long-form drama writer (as seen in series like Broadchurch), and his penchant for introducing huge crowds of one-off characters was diluted by having them return week after week, allowing for more development than they’d get in one standalone episode.
The ongoing story also allowed for a frenetic, breakneck pace (especially in the first and last episodes) which helped gloss over some of the slight logic gaps and rushed scenes that might have stood out more in self-contained episodes.
Chibnall’s Who era has always been strong on cliffhangers and big moments – remember the Master reveal and the Fugitive Doctor in series 12? – and Flux also lent itself well to these habits. In classic Who style, each chapter ended with an exciting final image, while mysteries swirled online about where the story was going.
Still, there were downsides to that approach. The wide-ranging story threads meant that few episodes had a distinct identity, and in years to come it’s hard to imagine individual Flux episodes being watched and enjoyed out of context, on their own terms. Episodes two and four – featuring the Sontarans in the Crimean War and an army of Weeping Angels in 1967 respectively – come the closest, perhaps indicating stories that were already in the works pre-pandemic.
But other episodes just felt like a mass of different threads, characters, times and places. Episode five (Survivors of the Flux) in particular seemed to me like a dumping ground for scenes and storylines, only existing to deliver exposition and carefully move pieces around ahead of the finale. Episode three (Once, Upon Time) at least came with a strange, dreamlike quality as our heroes were scattered in twisted memories – though this was sandwiched alongside a separate storyline starring Thaddea Graham, seemingly added because there was nowhere else to put it.
Still, with a serial like Flux you have to look at it as a whole – and on those terms I think these episodes can be forgiven. It’s not the most convincing arc the Doctor has ever had – she wants her old memories, until she doesn’t, for unclear reasons – but everything is wrapped up neatly by the end, it’s full of spectacle and decent jokes and features some of the best guest stars the series has ever had.
Kevin McNally and Craige Els were particular standouts for me as Jericho and Karvanista (though I also have a soft spot for Jonathan Watson’s Scottish Sontaran), while John Bishop’s Dan won me over more in six episodes than ex-companions Graham and Ryan did in 22.
Episodes-wise, it’s Village of the Angels that will stay with me. Genuinely terrifying, inventive and with an all-time cliffhanger (albeit one resolved very quickly the next week), it’s another strong monster mash from Maxine Alderton. Long may her Who reign continue – is Russell T Davies taking CVs?
Overall, Flux is the best single series of Doctor Who we’ve had in quite a few years, even if it doesn’t contain the best episodes. Given the situation the team found themselves in, it’s an astonishing achievement – thanks to the pandemic we could have had no series at all, and instead they used all their skill and ingenuity to create a truly unique and entertaining six-episode series that easily stands alongside “normal” years.
It’s far from a perfect series. It has plenty of problems. But frankly, I’m still just amazed by what the team in Cardiff did manage to pull off in truly dire circumstances. Who the flux saw that coming?