It's the penultimate part of a six-parter, traditionally the time when all the questions got answered and we settled down for an action-packed finale. This isn't the classic series though, and Flux is very unlike a traditional Doctor Who six-parter. Each episode has had a distinct feel and new content, keeping things as fresh as in any of the always varied modern series while still building towards a single narrative finale.
At least, that's what we're expected. Given that “Survivors of the Flux” continued to drop new revelations on us even as it was answering earlier questions, it's by no means certain that this will all tie up by the end of episode six, “The Vanquishers.” There is, after all, a new episode to come less than a month later, plus two further specials as we continue in 2022. It's a bit of a mug's game reviewing serialised stories episode-by-episode, and half of my questions and ideas will be rendered nonsensical by the time the story finishes, but one thing I am confident in saying: this won't all be over next week.
“Survivors of the Flux” doesn't hang together as well as the previous couple of episodes, and has a distinct feeling of being a bit rushed. The impession I get is that this was originally several episode, but the continued shortening of the season due to COVID restrictions and changing plans at the BBC meant that a lot of storylines got squashed together here. However, Chibnall pulls it off, giving us a rather baffling but highly enjoyable episode. Doctor Who, as I have said many a time, rarely makes sense, and the trick is getting away with it until after the episode has finished. This instalment manages that, keeping everything moving and ratcheting up the intrigue and excitement so that there's no time to go “hang on...” until you've settled down to beddy-byes later that evening.
The adventures of Yaz, Dan and Jericho could happily have stretched to a six-part serial in themselves. A tenner says we get a short story collection on this by the middle of next year. Yaz has now settled down to her status of leader of the team, a substitute Doctor leading two middle-aged white blokes around and generally being rather awesome. Having her pick up her spirits and resolve by replaying the Doctor's message in times of stress is a nice touch. In the end, though, their mission, to discover the vital information of the Earth's impending doom, seems to be forgotten halfway through. Instead, they switch to trying to let Karvanista – still 117 years in the future for them – their location. Why they've suddenly become determined to get off the Earth by any means necessary isn't clear, nor how they expect to go about it, as even the dog-faced space pilot readily notes that he doesn't have a time machine so can't pick them up. No doubt this will be explained away in part six. However, you have to wonder just how the trio financed their way around the world on their myriad adventures, given that none of them had any resources to call on in the 1900s.
Bel and Vinder's story continues on in the background, reconnecting with the grand narrative towards the episode's conclusion. While I'm certain we'll see the star-crossed lovers reunited, I'm not sure just how they're going to fully integrate them back into the story. Bel hasn't met the Doctor at all and Vinder remained an outsider even as he was pulled into events with Yaz and the Doctor. I'm not sure how they'll get their resolution with the little time we have left, which leaves me wondering if they'll stick around as new companions after this serial ends. I still have a worrying suspicion about Bel's baby's eventual identity, but I'm not going to voice it here since I'll either be made to look a fool or, worse, proven right.
An unexpected turn of events comes as the Grand Serpent returns – itself not a surprise, but the manner is a sudden twist. Seemingly a contemporary, albeit alien, character in 2021, he appears in the 1950s at what is revealed to be the early days of UNIT, allying himself with Robert Bathurst's posh army type and then murdering him rather unpleasantly. (“Your career's finished Todhunter, you big lig!” we shouted as he died, because once you've been in Red Dwarf you are forever tarred with the smeg brush.) A lot of questions a raised here. Presumably the Serpent does have a time machine, rather than merely being very long lived, given that he is apparently here in the past after he was a galactic ruler in the present. The history of UNIT seen here doesn't quite fit in with what we've seen on screen over the years, and the valiant attempt to tie in the events of The War Machines only complicates matters further. All these little asides, and that vocal cameo by the Brigadier himself, are lovely, but don't actually add up to anything coherent, but then, UNIT dating has always been a notorious mess. If anything, making it worse seems rather in keeping. It's nice to see Jemma Redgrave back as Kate Stewart, as well, after an absence of six years. It helps tie everything together into one big, long adventure. As fun as it is to see Kate hoarsely taking down Prentis, aka Mr G. Serpent, you wonder why a military officer in charge of an alien-fighting group doesn't have, I don't know, some kind of gun that might be useful against him? When they dissect the body afterwards and find it made out of snakes she's sure to be backed up.
The assassin sent after Yaz's team sports a serpent tattoo, which naturally suggests he is linked to the Grand Serpent, but I can't help but note the similarity to the Third Doctor's tattoo seen immediately after he arrived on Earth, post-regeneration. In reality it was Jon Pertwee's own navy tattoo, but no shortage of fan theories have arisen. Could the Doctor have been linked to the Grand Serpent in that mysterious period between The War Games and Spearhead from Space? Then we have Steve Oram's increasingly bizarre performance as the eccentric Joseph Williamson, with Team Yaz finally catching up with him and his network of tunnels that lead to doorways through space and time. With everything tying together in unpredictable ways and nods to the past everywhere, it's tempting to try to link everything together, no matter how unlikely.
Meanwhile, outside the universe, the Doctor hatches from her stone prison and faces down the mysterious lady in the hat, who turns out to be Tecteun, the universe's nastiest foster mother. Having the mysterious mastermind turn out to be, essentially, the Doctor's mum is a bit of a let down but quite an obvious move, and there was bound to be a confrontation with her eventually. While Whittaker is impressive in these scenes, they fell a little flat to me. Tecteun's motivation was all over the place. To begin with, we learn the Division – or just Division now, it seems – are destroying the entire universe because the Doctor has interfered with it too much and it's the only way to be rid of her and start from scratch. This seems, even given the Doctor's inflated status over the years, to be insanely over-the-top. There must be something more behind it. Then Tecteun tries to bribe the Doctor into joining forces with her in the next universe by promising her her memories back, which goes against the Division's entire stated motive.
This is all fairly baffling, and unfortunately shows up how difficult it is to accept the Division as the all-powerful force they're made out to be. Retconning in something like this is always going to show up some logistical flaws – just look at trying to fit UNIT into the programme's complicated history – but by making the Division the secret power behind pretty much everything, it's hard to accept they're really what they say they are. I can accept that they had operatives all over the Time War, for instance, or that the CIA were really a front for them, but you have to ask where they were when Rassilon, Davros or sundry others were trying to destroy the entire multiverse. Events which were only stopped by the hated Doctor, of course.
Still, on its own terms, the Division is an intriguing and powerful threat, albeit one that has seemingly sown its own destruction in the form of Swarm and Azure. We're still in the dark on their exact motive, beyond good, old-fashioned revenge. A war between Time and Space sounds cool, but it doesn't really mean anything. We shall see though. Events are coming to a head, and it looks like next week everyone will be involved.
One final thought: it's quite right that the Doctor would refuse to accept her memories and the safety of the Earth in payment for allowing the universe to end, and that she'd vow to save the universe and get her past back, thank you very much. Does the Doctor really want that past back, though? While the Fugitive Doctor hasn't been portrayed as significantly nastier than their familiar incarnations, there have been hints at something far worse, especially considering they apparently worked for the Division for centuries. Are they just memories in the fobwatch, or, as in previous uses of the chameleon arch, is there an entire identity and biology in there that will overwrite and destroy the Doctor's existing persona? Does Chibnall have the guts to wipe out the universe and the Doctor's identity and start again? Probably not, but it does leave the Doctor with an interesting dilemma.