Tuesday 7 December 2021

WHO REVIEW: FLUX Chapter Six - The Vanquishers

Well that's the end of Flux, Doctor Who's first season-long serial since the eighties. After six very busy, sometimes confusing episodes, generally highly entertaining episodes, how did that all hang together?

I wasn't wrong. Chibnall didn't manage to tie everything up by the end of part six. There's still a lot of unanswered questions and hanging threads, and that's not necessarily a problem - we still have three specials left to cover the Thirteenth Doctor's final days, and doubtless much of this will be revisited. Still, there are some painfully dissatisfying elements that niggled at the back of my mind throughout.

Let's start with the good stuff, though. This is a belter of an episode for the Sontarans, more so even that part two, giving the ludicrous space goblins a chance to really stand up to the big league monsters. They're still the butt of jokes - Dan Starkey's chocoholic soldier being a very silly diversion - but they work as a serious threat. For once they're the terrifying military force they're always claiming to be. Murdering the entire Lupari people, barring Karvanista, hunting them down on their own ships and killing them one-by-one, winning through sheer force of numbers - that's the Sontaran threat we've heard of all these years. 

The Doctor's peculiar journey throughout, wrestling with the promise of her lost memories, while she is split into three facets who work together and apart to save the universe - excellent stuff. Yes, it's highly derivative of "Journey's End," which had the Doctor and his duplicate save the multiverse together, but it's not a take-for-take rip-off and that was twelve years ago now. In fact, at times it looks like it's riffing on The Three Doctors, and that was in 1972. Whittaker is on fire snapping and flirting with herself - she's had to spend far too much of her time as Doctor talking to herself, but this makes it into a game. That's not to say she doesn't have serious moments as well, and her eventual reunion and confrontation with Yaz is well worth waiting for.

On the subject of reunions, Bel and Vinder's discovery of each other is a lovely moment. Jacob Anderson is great when he gets solid material, and Thaddea Graham is magnetically watchable in all her scenes. Their storyline seems only tangentially connected to the main Flux plot, but watching the events sweep others up in their path is a solid line for the serial to take. In any case, it seems highly likely they'll be back before the end of 2022. Equally impressive is Nadia Albina as Diane, who finally gets to make a contribution to the plot, even if it's not entirely clear why her character is given such unique treatment by the Ravagers. Still, she's a badass, and we could do worse than having her on side the next time aliens come invading. It's a shame we're unlikely to see Kevin McNally back as Professor Jericho, who would have made a fun recurring character in 20th century settings had he survive, but at least Claire gets a resolution of sorts to her story. We still don't get a full rounding off of the Angels storyline, but not everything has to be crossed off.

Yaz gets to be genuinely awesome as well, showing that she always had the potential to be a brilliant lead character once anyone bothered to actually write her that way. Dan fares less well, and I'm not entirely convinced he's essential to keep on as an ongoing companion, but Bishop remains a fun presence. It's good to see Joseph Williamson get some closure to his story, and he's rather more polite now he's in the presence of ladies. There's no explanation given for the doorways through space/time, but again, that might be something else that will be followed up later. Or maybe not. Either way, while being known forever as the "Mad Mole of Edge Hill" is pretty cool, he's hardly "too important to history" to risk, although if he was killed before he'd finished the tunnels they were all standing in that would a tricky paradox to deal with along with everything else.

Other characters fare less well. Kate Sewart is entirely unnecessary, doing nothing much to contribute to the plot. She's just ort of there, seemingly only to give her an opportunity to meet the current Doctor. Craig Parkinson remains icily cool as the Grand Serpent, but there isn't any clear reason for him to be allied with the Sontarans and he seems superfluous. Still, he gets some excellent moments, particularly his complete dismissal of Vinder whom he doesn't even seem to remember - a mere footnote in his life of power-grabbing and murder. His comeuppance is fairly satisfying, but he's likely being kept alive for a return appearance, which should make his story mean more. Assuming he's not another iteration of the Master, that is. He did turn into a body-snatching snake once, after all.

It's in the overarching plot with Swarm and Azure that things really fall flat. While they look pretty striking, there's not been much to the Ravagers throughout, and their plotline just doesn't hang together. Sure, they want revenge, and apparently they're trying to wage a war on space in the name of time, but it's all just words. None of it really seems to mean anything.  Having the Doctor face a vengeful enemy from a time in her life she doesn't remember is a solid idea, but it needs proper attention, and it's lost in all the other goings on. When we finally discover that Time is a some kind of living entity, we're left with even more questions and no sign of any answers. This isn't a first for Doctor Who - the New Adventures had Time as a godlike figure who played a significant role on occasion - but here it's just one too many revelations thrown at the screen.

Finally, we have to address the Doctor's actions in this episode. The Sontarans, in their ruthlessness, plan to use the Daleks and Cybermen to absorb the Flux, wiping them out in the process. Aside from a complete misunderstanding of how antimatter works - something of a Doctor Who tradition, and more than a little Crisis on Infinite Earths - it's a brilliant play on the ruthless warriors' part. The Daleks and Cybermen seem a little gullible to fall for it, but doubtless they were planning on betraying the Sontarans themselves. It's evidence for how monstrous the Sontarans are - and yet the Doctor, instead of trying to save the Daleks and Cybermen, instead uses the Flux to wipe out both race and the Sontarans as well. It's premeditatedly ruthless by even the Doctor's standards. I'm all for the Doctor being a terrifying bastard, but it sits poorly with the idea that her Fugitive incarnation represents a darker side to her. Why, because she works for a dodgy organisation and carries a gun? Did she just wipe out three whole species? 

It leaves the Whoniverse in an unclear and precarious state. I hardly think the Daleks, Cybermen or Sontarans are actually extinct - this is, at my count, the seventh time the Daleks have been conclusively wiped out, and they're not even pretending it's going to last, since they're back in four weeks. However, the universe is still apparently sitting at 90% wiped out, with nothing but Earth and a handful of devastated worlds left. No mention is made of this at all, and the Doctor and co. leave for adventures without considering there's nowhere left to explore. Surely they've got to follow some of this up?


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