Doctor Who – The Halloween Apocalypse review: Chris Chibnall turns up the heat for a fast, fun-packed opener

John Bishop is an instant hit and the new blue aliens are a "shattering experience".

Doctor Who
4.0 out of 5 star rating

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 has gone into hyperdrive – hawking its wares, rather than hiding them, as was the way in recent years – there has been a sense of mounting anticipation.

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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. Will Chibnall’s Flux (make up your own jokes) provide a palatable filling for BBC One viewers poised between Countryfile and the Strictly Results show? That remains to be seen.

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…

John Bishop plays Dan in Doctor Who: Flux
BBC

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.

Doctor Who S13

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.

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Doctor Who continues on BBC One on Sundays. For more, check out our designated Sci-Fi page or our full TV Guide.