For Flux sake! — My review of Doctor Who: Flux

Promotional poster for Doctor Who Flux featuring from left to right: John Bishop, Jodie Whittaker and Mandip Gill.

Chris Chibnall, current showrunner of Doctor Who, opted to make the most recent series of the show a single story split into six parts. It was a decision I still admire; I’ll always appreciate efforts to try something different with the show. However, the season’s conclusion failed to deliver on all the promise of its early parts.

As I have so many thoughts, I decided I’d post them here. Consider this my first TV review on this blog.

Whilst I don’t spoil everything from the series in this review, there are some big things I either explicitly mention or hint at. I couldn’t really give my full opinion without some major spoilers. So if you’re not caught up, I’d recommend giving this review a miss. This is your one and only spoiler warning.

Peter Capaldi as the Twelfth Doctor says "Spoilers"

Also, I hope it goes without saying, but if you disagree with me and thoroughly enjoyed the series then that’s great. I sincerely love that for you. I’m happy to let you enjoy things if you’re content to let me not enjoy things. 

Okay, but surely it wasn’t all bad?

Not at all. In fact, there were several good things worthy of praise in this series.

1. Good performances 

I dare say that this series gifted us Jodie Whittaker’s best performance as the Doctor yet. Even if she was still dealt a bad hand with the scripts. Too often she was asked to breathlessly expo-dump, often combining incoherent technobabble with recapping events we’d already just seen. But some scenes offered her the chance to demonstrate a bit of range. The finale in particular gave us some great scenes with Whittaker as Thirteen.

Yaz was sidelined again for other characters, but I do feel Mandip Gill has grown over the years. I just wish we’d had more time with her. Perhaps the next three episodes will give Gill more to work with.

John Bishop’s performance was also a welcome surprise. Whilst he also suffered from insufficient screentime, he did offer some good humour and a few memorable quotes.

John Bishop as Dan Lewis saying "What's the point of being alive?"

I also thought most of the special guests really brought their A-games to their roles, even if many didn’t get as much time to shine as they deserved. Kevin McNally’s portrayal of Jericho certainly won many fans’ adoration. Sam Spruell and Rochenda Sandall also had a compelling presence when they were, well, present.

2. The crew are incredible

Flux looked absolutely stunning from start to finish. Although I wasn’t sold on the design for the Ravagers initially, I was completely won over by the second episode. And although I’d sacrifice quality cinematography and effects for stories with greater substance any day, I would never disparage the impeccable work of those behind the scenes. The crew deserve a great deal of appreciation for the amount of soul they imbue into this show.

3. Experimentation 

It didn’t always pay off, but I will always advocate for Who to be more experimental. I’d love to see more episodes like “Chapter Three: Once, Upon Time.” Sure, it divided opinion and was far from a masterpiece, but I have a lot of respect for what it attempted. 

Jodie Whittaker as the Thirteenth Doctor looks into a mirror and sees the Ruth Doctor, played by Jo Martin.

4. Cliffhangers 

Arguably, there were only two or three strong cliffhangers, one of which will probably go down in Who history as a standout — whether some feel it was earned or not. And I honestly do love a good cliffhanger. They’re a big part of what I love about NuWho’s multi-part stories and they were a staple of the classic show I was raised on. Plus, as a Big Finish fanatic, cliffhangers really help to make Doctor Who the compelling piece of media it is.

Jodie Whittaker as the Thirteenth Doctor turning into a Weeping Angel

So what sucked?

Now we delve into the problems. 

I’ve tried to avoid listing any problems that are just things I would have preferred to see. For example, I do think more Jo Martin would have improved the series, but if that wasn’t the story Chibnall wanted to tell then I don’t feel it’s fair for me to make that criticism.

So here are some of the key problems with Flux (IMO):

1. Far too many characters

This has been a recurring problem since the inception of the Chibnall era. Too often the main cast is sidelined for side characters introduced in each standalone episode. People say having three companions isn’t irregular for the show, but it really is too many if every week you’re also trying to flesh out one-off characters.

I had hoped, what with Chibnall having six episodes to play with and reducing the number of companions, that he’d have more time to develop characters rather than cramming in too many. But the man just can’t help himself.

John Bishop’s Dan was fun, sure. He’s certainly a likeable character. But there were so many other characters that Chibnall needed to introduce that we never got to spend enough time with Dan to really work out what made him tick and what kind of arc he might have had. As far as I can see, he had no arc. It felt like the series was just one long introductory episode for him.

I suppose Yaz had an arc of sorts: “WWTDD.” This stands for “what would the Doctor do,” implying that she’s trying to become more like the Doctor. This would make sense as she spends most of the series separated from Thirteen and must stand on her own two feet. It was also hinted at several times in Series 12. But it’s such an undercooked arc and was better explored with Clara and Twelve in Series 9.

WWTDD written in ink on the hand of Yasmin Khan.

I liked Vinder and Bel, too, but their impact on the overall plot was minimal, to say the least. Fan theories gave their characters more intrigue than we got. Did we really need them?

Jemma Redgrave is great as Kate Stewart as always, but she didn’t do anything substantial. It feels like she existed to bait the audience. “Look, you like this character, don’t you? Remember UNIT? UNIT was cool, wasn’t it? Let’s bring that back.”

The Grand Serpent was also an interesting B-plot villain, acted well by Craig Parkinson, but he was ultimately a non-threat by series end. He achieved very little and wasted valuable screentime that could have been dedicated to the Ravagers or any of the other side characters. 

2. The Ravagers were done dirty

Swarm snaps his fingers and he, Azure and Passenger vanish.

This one makes me a little mad if I’m honest.

Swarm and Azure were meant to be the big bads of the series, and they displayed immense levels of power. Very high stakes were promised with these villains, and it was teased that Swarm and the Doctor were once long-time foes. A new villain we could all get invested in was what we wanted. But Chibnall did not deliver.

For much of the series, they stood around and monologued ominously, always teasing something more. Yet when their final scene came, it was so unceremonious and lacklustre that I feel it was offensive to their characters — what little character they had.

Another issue is that their motivations were very wishy-washy. In the final episode, Azure proposes she simply has a different belief system to the Doctor. It’s a belief system that is averse to the existence of “spatial objects” and so they aim to destroy Space and unleash Time. (All very abstract ideas that have no tangible meaning to me).

But then she says that they’re going to trap the universe in a never-ending time loop of destruction as revenge for what was done to her and Swarm. 

So what was their motivation: zealotry or vengeance? Am I to assume both? If there’s a clear answer, Chibnall failed to communicate this coherently to the audience.

3. Division

The leader of The Division describes it as “simple and indescribable.” Meaningless contradiction aside, Division turned out to be very simple and very dull. Most people guessed what Division was and were correct.

The reveal — if you can call it a reveal — of multiverses was also ridiculous. Alternative dimensions have existed in Doctor Who since the 60s. This is not only common ground for the show, the “second universe” was less inspired than what has come before.

We were promised something bold and universe-altering, but what we got was very standard Who

4. Still so many questions

The series spent more time teasing answers to questions than delivering them. 

At the end of Series 12, we learnt that the Doctor’s personal history is not what we — or the Doctor — believed to be true. The implications of which have really split the fandom.

Jodie Whittaker as the Doctor asks "So, was what the Master told me true?"

Part of the problem is that so much is still cloaked in mystery. Fans debate about what it all means and have differing theories because there’s still much to be explored. And Chibnall spent the series dangling the answers to “The Timeless Child” in front of us like shiny keys on a chain. But once Thirteen finally had the answers in her hands, she hid them away from herself and us — at least for now.

For the answer to a mystery to be satisfying, the mystery itself must be a good one. Chibnall already has a difficult job of delivering on the divisive mystery he’s created. Prolonging those answers won’t work in his favour.

But those aren’t the only questions we as the audience still have.

Who exactly were the Ravagers? What was this long history with the Doctor that Swarm mentioned? Why was Azure on Earth? We presume it’s where she was imprisoned, but why and what did that imprisonment really look like?

Is the universe still fluxed by series end? Was there some reset that wasn’t explained to us?

Who really was the Grand Serpent? Was there more to his plan than we got to see? How did he go from the dictator of wherever Vinder was to infiltrating UNIT? He appeared not to know who Vinder was in the final episode, so is Vinder’s past the Grand Serpent’s future? Or are we to presume that Vinder was so insignificant to the Grand Serpent that he forgot Vinder entirely?

Is there some significance to Bel and Vinder’s baby? 

For a series that was so heavy on expo-dumping, it’s astounding I’m still left with so many questions left unanswered.

5. Killing is bad, unless the Doctor does it

Side-by-side image. Tecteun on the left says to the Thirteenth Doctor: "Morality was always your flaw." On the right, the Doctor replies: "Morality is a strength."

Another recurring issue in the Chibnall era is the Doctor’s inconsistent moral philosophy. She’ll chastise anyone who suggests or commits murder, but mass murder is just another day at the office for Thirteen.

Gamers sometimes talk of dissonance in video games, whereby the cutscenes of the main story don’t line up with your actions as a player. For example, the protagonist is a moral hero in the cutscenes, but in gameplay you’re gunning down NPCs like a serial killer with an insatiable bloodlust.

Thirteen feels a little like that. A moral paragon when she’s monologuing but might do a genocide in the next scene.

Moral dilemmas are not new for the Doctor, and there is a multitude of stories that have explored the character’s misdeeds and challenged their hypocrisies. For example, the entirety of Series 6.

But in the Chibnall era, the moral greys are ignored for a binary of good and bad. Only what’s good and bad isn’t dictated by moral principles, rather whatever the Doctor does is always good.

If you’re the Trump-impressionist Jack Robertson, then shooting and killing a giant spider is morally reprehensible. But if you’re the Doctor and you trap a whole army of spiders in a vault to slowly starve to death then that is morally sound. Likewise, the Sontarans committing genocide is unequivocally evil. But the Doctor committing a few genocides at once is just pure genius.

It’s true that genocide isn’t exactly new territory for the character. It’s also true that Daleks and Cybermen are considered the show’s most acceptable targets for slaughter. But in the past, we’ve seen the Doctor struggle with these decisions. The show hasn’t always treated acts of mass murder with such lightness.

6. Overly reliant on self-referencing and lore

I’m a nerdy Whovian who has grown up on this show. I try not to be insufferable about it and keep my obsessions with the classic series and extended media to a minimum. I won’t pretend adding to the lore and revisiting classic stories, characters and monsters doesn’t intrigue me.

Sontaran Commander Skaak taking off his helmet whilst on horseback.

However, I know this is not what a lot of audiences want. It’s also very alienating for a lot of casual fans who don’t care much for the expanded lore of Doctor Who. They just want good stories, and this reliance on self-referencing and lore-dumping is just bad storytelling.

When Chibnall took over, he made a statement with Series 11 that the show would not be bogged down in its history. It didn’t quite work out, but I found the intention commendable. 

Series 13 sits at the polar opposite end of that spectrum. Flux was heavily reliant on bringing back old monsters we know and love. And whilst I enjoyed the return of the Sontarans and Weeping Angels, I can’t help but feel their inclusion had more to do with fan service than delivering something of substance. 

But some lines also feel reminiscent of lines from the RTD era. The final episode’s warning that Thirteen’s time is ending soon and baiting the return of the Master is very similar to Russell T. Davies’ “He will knock four times.” It just feels like Chibnall is trying to replay the hits without the original substance that made these old scenes carry so much dramatic weight.

***

There are probably more issues than I’ve listed, but I think this post is long enough.

I will say that the New Year’s Day special does promise a lot of fun, judging by its short trailer. Unlike some fans, I’m not so bothered by the return of the Daleks. I don’t really suffer from Dalek fatigue, even if we have had several mediocre stories in recent years. 

Short trailer for “Eve of the Daleks”

I’d also just like to finish with a personal highlight to come out of the series: Doctor Who Poop’s “Evil Dan” videos, which have amused me a great deal.