Despite having its episode count cut down due to COVID, the first instalment of Doctor Who series 13 (aka Doctor Who: Flux) makes clear that in all the other ways that matter, this will be far from a “smaller” series.
Put simply, this episode starts everything off with a finale – like 2008’s Journey’s End in reverse. There’s a universe-ending apocalypse, the return of an old foe, the coming together of various allies and monsters from throughout the series and a big, CGI workaround that eventually saves planet Earth.
The twist? In classic Doctor Who time-travel fashion, this is all done backwards. We’re essentially getting a crossover preview of what we’re going to get for the rest of the series, before any of it has happened. What’s more surprising is that largely, this works.
The most obvious nod to this theme is Annabel Scholey’s character Claire, a victim of the Weeping Angels (nice to finally get them in a Halloween episode) who knows the Doctor and Yaz (Jodie Whittaker and Mandip Gill) from her past – but they’ve yet to meet her in their timelines.
But there are other examples too. We catch up with Jacob Anderson’s character Vinder, who we know will be a key part of the series (he’s listed alongside the three main cast, above the rest of the guest stars) – but by the close of The Halloween Apocalypse he hasn’t actually met any of the TARDIS team yet. We jump to the past to see real-life eccentric Joseph Williamson digging tunnels in Liverpool, but it’s not yet made clear how this will relate to the wider story.
And perhaps most importantly, we also meet a villain called Swarm (Sam Spruell) who claims to have been “locked in combat” with the Doctor in her earlier days, before being imprisoned at the dawn of the universe by the Time Lords (and if you do need a quick reminder of why the Doctor’s missing some memories, check out our Timeless Child recap). She doesn't know him - but he thinks he's her nemesis, and as the series continues he just might become it.
Like any good finale, it’s chock-full of aliens from throughout the series (Sontarans! Weeping Angels! Lupari! Whatever the hell Swarm and Azure are!), massive, world/universe ending threats (the big, dissolving Flux) and a clever trick from the Doctor that saves us all (the Lupari ship formation shielding Earth – though God knows what happened to the Moon).
And as I say, it pretty much works. As an introduction for new companion John Bishop (aka Dan) it’s a bit frantic, it sets up more than it delivers and there are a few moments of hair-raising acting, but altogether it holds up admirably despite its many moving parts.
As a statement of intent for the new series (“Don’t worry, the pandemic hasn’t stopped us going big!”) it’s convincing, it sets up the new more serialised format by threading through storylines and threats from upcoming episodes, and frankly it’s big, exciting and pacy enough to drag you through any dodgy moments.
The question now is how series boss Chris Chibnall follows it up. Obviously, by design finales can end on a high without the responsibility of a follow-up next week – but Doctor Who: Flux kicking everything off with such a big, complicated story means that whatever comes next needs to match the same energy.
Certainly, ending with a massive cliffhanger (admittedly spoiled by the Next Time Trailer showing the Doctor alive and well) helps push things along – but it’ll be interesting to see whether the reverse-series structure stays in place going forward, delivering themed episodes (with specific locations and monsters) drawn from this series opener.
It certainly seems like episode two will have a more traditional mid-series style, taking place in one historical location and specifically dealing with a Sontaran incursion in the Crimean War (and also functioning as a celebrity historical thanks to the inclusion of Sara Powell’s Mary Seacole). Though of course, serialised elements like Swarm, Vinder and the Flux itself will presumably also play a part.
Later, we might assume that we’ll see the pay-off to Claire’s Weeping Angels adventure (maybe episode four?), Joseph Williamson’s tunnels and the other threads picked up in this opening instalment, before they’re all woven together again in episode six.
If this is the case, and Chibnall and his team can pull off this big, interwoven story, they’ll have really achieved something, delivering a new sort of Doctor Who series in the most challenging of pandemic circumstances.
And if it all falls apart? Well, it’ll certainly be interesting to watch it happen.
Read more about Doctor Who:
- Doctor Who - The Halloween Apocalypse review: Chris Chibnall turns up the heat for a fast, fun-packed opener
- Did Doctor Who just introduce another secret Time Lord?
- Doctor Who's series 13 premiere featured nods to an old Doctor and two classic companions