Tuesday 2 November 2021

WHO REVIEW: FLUX Chapter One - The Halloween Apocalypse

Well, that was pretty good. It's hard to say how well it holds together yet, as part one of a six-part serial, the first such structure for decades. (The last time Doctor Who did a six-parter was 1979's TheArmageddon Factor, unless you count Shada's animated redos, but this is more comparable in length to the 12-part epic The Daleks' Masterplan in 1965-6.) 

To be honest, the episode was a bit messy, but this isn't necessarily a bad thing. It jumped all over the place, setting up elements then dropping them to move onto something else, but that's the job of a first part. No one complained when Game of Thrones visited half a dozen different groups of characters per episode with seemingly nothing to do with each other then forgot about half of them for weeks at a time. The proof will be in the pudding, as it were, when we're six weeks in and see if it makes any sense.

"The Halloween Apocalypse" gives us a few firsts. It's the first time we've had a proper overall title for a season since the series came back (the only time other than 1986's The Trial of a Time Lord, and that didn't have episode titles). Beginning series thirteen, it's the first time the Doctor number and series number have matched (unless you're working in a continuous run of seasons since 1963, in which case its season 39, and that's three thirteens so it still seems to fit). It's the first time the series has done a Hallowe'en special, although "The Waters of Mars" certainly felt like one.

It's not as if the episode really feels particularly Halloweeny, really. Other than the reliably spooky Weeping Angels, who had a brief appearance, nothing in this episode is especially ghostly or ghoulish, but then again, it's Doctor Who, so we still have plenty of monsters. And so many monsters! Everyone's turned up, it seems, or will be soon if the trailers and rumours can be believed. Like the Ten/Thirteen team-up in games and comics, there's a temptation to be cynical here: get some popular monsters from the series' heyday back to win back a few viewers. But wasn't it ever thus? Did anyone moan when RTD revamped the Daleks, the Cybermen and the Master for his new vision of the series? Hell, in "Rose," he practically recreated elements of Spearhead from Space shot-for-shot. 

Just the same, the tacked-on Hallowe'en element isn't really any different to the arbitrary Christmassy setting of "The Husbands of River Song" or the entirely pointless Easter egg scene in "Planet of the Dead." It's a hook, nothing more. It's, frankly, a poorer hook than "the universe is ending," as the Whoniverse encounters its own Crisis event that's wiping out planets everywhere. With that in mind, it seems justified that every monster is turning up. And hey, the Sontarans are back, looking like they did back in 1973. A direct update that remakes the classic look with modern methods and realism. More importantly, they're still funny, which is an important a part of what makes the Sontarans work as the clone armies and the probic vent.

I like John Bishop, and while he's hardly the greatest actor the show's ever hired, he's hardly the worst, and he does what he needs to: play the most Liverpudlian bloke in history and be jolly nice. It's interesting we've got an actually, genuinely poor person in the TARDIS, not another essentially middle-class companion. Dan (a fine name) is a decent sort in a shitty situation doing his best to help out and keep his chin up. 

I'm disappointed that we don't get more time with Jodie and Mandip running the show, though. An all-woman team in the TARDIS has never happened, so a Thirteen-Yaz team-up would be interesting to watch. The glimpse we get though, in the unapologetically silly opening, suggests they've been doing this for a while (there's the space for Big Finish's inevitable run of twelve boxed sets) between seasons. At last, Mandip gets to do something with her character, being proactive and impressive instead of just reacting and asking questions. Jodie seems more dynamic too, and I really feel we're missing out on not keeping the smaller TARDIS team for longer. Still, I like that Dan is the damsel in distress and that the two women have to come in and rescue him. 

As for the various new aliens... Karnavista is fun. I like that he's just an ordinary bloke doing a job he's not keen on but he's going to get it done, and the Doctor just keeps hassling him. The serious daffiness of an alien dog for every human dovetails into the reveal of the Flux, the infinity wave coming for the Earth. It's intriguing that Karnavista is, or was, part of the Division, which we'd assumed to be a purely Time Lord organisation.

As for our big bad... well, it's not Davros, in spite of every fan and his aunt's assumption because of the sunken eyes. Swarm (surely that name suggests a composite creature of some sort) is a gnarly skull-faced crystalline guy, apparently imprisoned by the Division donkeys ago. What do you want to bet the Doctor helped lock him up? Are we supposed to know who he is or where he's from? The first thing I thought was Eldrad, but that seems unlikely. Is Chibnall enough of a fan of the Eighth Doctor Adventures to link the Doctor back to the crystalline skeletons of the Council of Eight? Even more unlikely, but it would be hilarious.

Swarm gets out and goes on a little drive to Scandinavia, where he kills some guy who likes chillis and reverses the disguise of a human into his mate/sister/partner-in-crime, whatever, Azure. Swarm's intimidating enough, but the big reveal that the nice lady is actually another crystalline skeleton is a bit of a pointless twist. We don't care enough about her or her husband for it to mean anything, and we don't know enough about Swarm and Azure for the reveal to make an impact. When Ruth turned into the Doctor or O. was revealed as the Master, it was a shock, because the characters had been built up enough and the reveal meant something. This is just... stuff happening.

Claire's story is more intriguing. It's a pretty straightforward update of “Blink” so far, except that we're seeing it from the Doctor's perspective instead. We've a full-on Weeping Angels episode coming, so we'll find out some more then, but right now, it was an effective little tease. Is Claire perhaps being set up as the next companion? We've also the weirdness of Dan's crush Diane being abducted by Swarm and Azure with what seems like some vengeance in mind. This all suggests something much bigger underneath what we're seeing. Everyone has secrets this season, it seems. Is Dan just being cool when he jokes he has a mate with a TARDIS bigger than the Doctor's, or is he hinting at something?

“The Halloween Apocalypse” is, essentially, a string of set pieces introducing various characters and settings. Not much to say about Vinder yet except we know he's going to be a major character. We've still got the real-life mystery of the tunnels under Liverpool's Edge Hill, the promise of Mary Seacole next week and a Sontaran invasion in the offing. So far, it's largely style without substance, but that's OK for a opening episode. It's all flavour. We just have to see if the resolution backs it up.

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