Thursday, 11 November 2021

WHO REVIEW: FLUX Chapter Two - War of the Sontarans

 After the frenetic first episode, Flux settles down into something a little more focused. We're still very much in the "chuck stuff at the screen and see what sticks" stage of the proceedings, but there's more time spent on the individual settings so it actually feels like we have some story here rather than mere set-up. 

Having lost Bob Baker - creator of my two favourite fictional dogs - and enjoyed some online looks back at his Who career, it occurs to me that Chibnall is very like the Baker and Martin duo in his approach. He has excellent ideas and an eye for an arresting visual, but not always a solid idea of how to make a story work around these concepts. Chibnall's weaknesses are largely in dialogue, particularly exposition, and plot logic. Doctor Who has never been particularly big on plot logic, but the better stories have been the ones that can distract you from the lapses with wit and panache. Chibnall... doesn't always display those qualities.

I'm trying to get the negatives out of the way before focusing on the good side of this episode. It's one of the Thirteenth Doctor's best and some people are really raving about it, but when it's good like this the weaknesses just jar more. There's some shocking dialogue here, most notably the crashing exposition bombs from Dan and his parents. Dan actually comes out with a line like, "So she's a real historical character, but these Sontarans aren't?" Nobody speaks like that unless they're watching something like Doctor Who. Unless Dan is going to be revealed as some kind of metafictional viewer stand-in, and if he manages to pull that off then hats off to him, then this is just bad.

Equally there are some huge lapses in plot. The Flux, which apparently destroys everything, dumps the damaged TARDIS in the Crimea in the 19th century and plops her passengers down with it. Fine, no problem, it's not like everyone was going to die anyway and the Flux is still a mysterious and unexplained phenomenon. But then some other wibbly effect shifts Dan back home and Yaz seemingly randomly to the temple where Vinder has also appeared, and the Ravagers are infiltrating. Why send them all to the Crimea in the first place if you're immediately going to scatter them again? And why not at least try to throw in some technobabble and a reason for the coincidences into the script, just to pretend you care about plotting.

Jacob Anderson seems lovely but his character has yet to really do anything to make a mark. Was Vinder always in the mix here or did he replace someone else? Is he occupying Captain Jack's role now that Barrowman's persona non grata? Because his character is so generic right now he could be anyone a bit spacey. I hope he gets some proper material soon. At least Yaz is still benefitting from being the lead hero in her sequence. The temple stuff is pretty fascinating and looks incredible. I don't think I'm alone in assuming the Touri and the Planet Time will tie into the Doctor's secret origins, and I'm at least looking forward to finding out what that's all about.

The big triumph of this episode is the Sontaran intervention in the Crimean War. The visual of the Sontaran army battling the British in Sevastopol is wonderful, just the thing Doctor Who is made for. Sara Powell is rather perfect as Mary Seacole, another in this era's commendable line of female figures from history recreated by a talented actress. As with Nora Khan and Ada Lovelace before her, Seacole doesn't get enough time or exploration to really show why she was such a remarkable individual, but she works well as the latest one-off pseudo-companion. 

The newly-old Sontarans are spot-on. Dan Starkey still gets to play various clones, but it's Jonathan Watson as commanders Skaak and Riskaw who really steals it. A gruff Scotsman is somehow just right for a Sontaran warlord. It's gratifying that, while he's made the Sontarans into a major threat again, Chibnall hasn't forgotten that they're also funny. (The horse line is priceless.) 

On the other side, though, the stuff in contemporary Liverpool is pretty dire. Bishop remains thoroughly watchable, in spite of being lumbered with puns that made even me wince, but the plotting around it is totally sloppy. Sontarans mowing down British soldiers before being destroyed in a desperate act of vengeance? That's one thing. One Scouser taking out an invasion fleet with a wok? Taking things a bit far. Even Donna's "Back of the neck!" triumph didn't take things that far. There's also some massive logistical problems with the Sontarans invasion of time. Having them replace Russia and China in history raises huge questions but works, but when we drop into modern Britain the implication is that they've been ensconced as the rulers of Earth ever since. Yet we then learn they've only been there two days. In which time they've set up a national curfew and already generated a resistance movement. 

There's plenty that doesn't add up yet, but that's fine, we're still learning about the mysteries of the story. Things like this are frustrating though. It's a pity, because this is solidly entertaining, with Whittaker at her most Doctorish and some great moments. Yaz looking at her wrist and silently taking in her WWTDD note is perfect. She doesn't need to read it out and translate it; it's only later that Swarm spells out "What Would the Doctor Do?" for the five people in the audience who didn't get it, and this serves to reinforce how he is familiar with the Doctor and their effect on their companions. Chibnall can do it, so it's doubly frustrating when so much clunky material makes it through.

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