Doctor Who Series 13 Episode 2 Review
Warning: this Doctor Who review contains spoilers.
As was teased by last week’s cliffhanger, we begin on something of a gloomy note as the unstoppable Flux completely obliterates the Doctor, her companions and the TARDIS. It’s a shock move by Chris Chibnall that ends the series for good with a thirty-second climax that no-one saw coming. Russell T. Davies is really going to have his work cut out retconning this one.
No, hang on, I’ve turned over two pages at once. The Doctor, her companions and the TARDIS are still in one piece, more or less, although the Doctor gets a brief and unsettling vision of a seriously twisted flying house before she comes to. It’s only a glimpse, but it’s quite a tantalising visual even so. Is it a metaphor for the TARDIS, effectively the Doctor’s home, being increasingly contorted? A fragment of memory from her days with the Division? M.C. Escher’s garden shed? We don’t know just yet.
Once she wakes up, the Doctor finds herself, Dan and Yaz lying strewn around outside the TARDIS, with Yaz reasoning that they must have been ‘thrown out’. Hmm. Everyone’s seemingly fine, although they appear to have arrived in the aftermath of a particularly bloody battle, and soon get taken for corpse-robbers by none other than Mary Seacole, played here with gusto by Sara Powell. This clues the Doctor into their new location – the siege of Sevastopol near the end of the Crimean War.
At this point, Plot Happens, as Dan begins to fade away like he’s one of the McFly family and Yaz isn’t far behind. “Collision between Flux and Vortex energy,” the Doctor exclaims, which is a doozy of a logical leap considering she has no idea what the Flux actually is. All this really serves to do is shuffle the companions off to where the story needs them to be, which is an odd structural choice given that we don’t really know how they woke up in Crimea to begin with – would the story really have suffered if everyone had woken up in isolation and the Doctor had met Mary by herself?
Either way, we soon learn that the Sontarans are behind the slaughter. We’ve seen quite a lot of them since the show’s revival, but mostly as part of a larger alliance or, thanks to Steven Moffat’s love of Strax, comic relief. This is the first time since ‘The Sontaran Stratagem’ that the series has set them up to be a credible threat. They’re something of a fusion here, returning to the lumpier, asymmetrical aesthetic of the classic serials while retaining the technology and traditions of their more recent appearances, and the older design definitely helps sell the idea that these are battle-hardened soldiers with more than a few war wounds on display.
Despite having grown a surplus of doors last episode, the Doctor soon finds that the TARDIS has an unexpected shortage of them this week, and since she can’t get inside she’s forced to flee given that there are Sontarans on the loose. There’s always something unsettling when the TARDIS leaves the Doctor in the lurch like this, and it’s good to get the occasional reminder that as close as the Doctor has become to her stolen time capsule, it still doesn’t mean she knows everything about it.
Determined not to be left out of the ‘People Who Somehow Survived the End of the Universe’ WhatsApp group, Vinder wakes up in an alien temple where he’s soon approached by a flying, gem shaped alien who demands to know if he’s here to help repair the place. Yaz likewise arrives at the temple soon after, though her first encounter is with Joseph Williamson, the second historical character in the episode, who’s wandering the halls in some distress. (Savvy Den of Geek readers were quick to point out that Williamson was a real person; a philanthropist who actually did excavate tunnels underneath Liverpool for unknown reasons.) It’s implied his mysterious passageways may somehow connect to the temple, though we’ll have to wait and see. Having been accosted by yet another panicky Guardian Priest, Yaz soon joins Vinder in the repair efforts.
What they’ve agreed to fix turns out to be the temple’s inhabitants themselves, or at least some kind of proxies for them. These are the Mouri – quantum-locked humanoids whose job seems to be controlling, or perhaps constraining, ‘evil’ time so that the universe proceeds in an orderly fashion. The Project Managers of the universe, in other words. Two of these apparitions have been damaged by the Flux passing through, leaving Yaz and Vinder scratching their heads and wondering just how much they’ve bitten off by agreeing to help.
These early scenes have a really alien feel to them, a slow-burn sense of discovery as the pair start to uncover the temple’s purpose through exploration and deduction. Watching the two characters poking at the workings of something they don’t understand, especially without the Doctor being there to wave the sonic around and blurt out the answers, makes for some great sci-fi. It’s a shame that this plot thread plays second fiddle to the Sontarans, who admit they merely took advantage of the Flux to do something they were planning on attempting anyway.
Dan, meanwhile, finds himself conveniently outside his house – well, the spot where his house used to be. Less conveniently, it turns out that Earth is in the grip of yet more Sontarans and Dan is breaking their curfew, though he’s saved by the arrival of his Mum and Dad. (He did allude to their visit in ‘The Halloween Apocalypse’, so that’s one less coincidence to worry about this week.) He spends quite a lot of time sneaking through the shipyards of Liverpool, which have been co-opted by the Sontarans to build more ships that will send them to other battles in Earth’s past. It’s good to see that Dan’s not afraid to get stuck in, but these scenes of him scurrying about don’t do an awful lot to move things along.
Out of options, the Doctor is forced to retreat to Mary’s ‘British Hotel’ where she meets both the arrogant General Logan and an injured Sontaran, whom the Doctor convinces to help her in exchange for information on the whereabouts of… herself. The scenes between Whittaker and Dan Starkey (this week playing the disgraced Svild) are an unexpected treat, partly because the Doctor’s a lot more measured and guileful here than Thirteen’s usual demeanour, and partly because Starkey’s just great at bringing depth and nuance to his portrayal of different Sontarans.
When it comes to stepping into the potato make-up, though, Jonathan Watson is no slouch as the Sontaran leader, Skaak. His brief confrontation with the Doctor portrays him as a lot more experienced and cunning than most Sontarans, even possessing something of a sense of humour, and his line about the horse was a laugh-out-loud moment.
The battle against Skaak’s troops, however, is less satisfying. The Doctor warns of a massacre and that’s really all we get – lots of laser blasts and soldiers falling over for a minute or two. We knew that the human forces were never going to triumph, of course, but you don’t have to be budgeted like Lord of the Rings to pull off a hopeless battle that still has a sense of flow to it.
Mind you, this is an issue that the show has always had with the Sontarans. Doctor Who has no shortage of alien species who all follow same kind of “cannon-fodder” approach to combat. Even on the rare occasions that Daleks and Cybermen – at least, modern-day Cybermen – are facing opponents capable of destroying them, their drone mentality means they’ve no problem snuffing it so long as it gets the job done.
It’s implied that the Sontarans are great military strategists, ruthless and cunning tacticians, but often all we see of their warfare is that they walk forward firing until there’s no-one left to shoot. “A Sontaran never turns his back on an enemy” is their edict, after all. It may be a sensible philosophy for a race of endless clones, but it doesn’t make for particularly enthralling battles.
By now, the Doctor has conscripted Mary as a temporary companion and while the Sontarans are out having some war, they sneak aboard one of their ships to use its computer. This allows the Doctor to get in touch with Dan, who’s done the same thing in the future, and she rather blithely states that stopping the 21st century Sontarans is entirely on him. Which is a bit of an ask, honestly. Granted, UNIT has been defunded, but does this mean Kate Stewart, Osgood and co. have just given up on saving the Earth when it needs it?
Fortunately, Dan is still under the species-bond protection of Karvanista, who has doggedly (sorry) followed him aboard the Sontaran ship and shows up just in time to save his pet human from a Sontaran execution squad. Karvanista promptly commandeers the ship and sets it on a course to ram the rest of the shipyard, as this will create a huge temporal shockwave that will handily erase every Sontaran on Earth from existence. Dan’s okay with this, because it saves him from having to take them out one at a time with his wok, which is about the only option the Doctor left him with.
Dan and Karvanista escape the implosion by jumping down a nearby tube that drops them neatly into the Mersey, and if that sounds like a threat-free and unsatisfying conclusion to their part of the adventure… it is. The Doctor’s side of the plan is rather more involved, however. Having learned from Mary’s careful observations that Sontarans enter a Borg-style replenishment cycle every 27 hours, she teaches General Logan and the surviving soldiers how to sabotage the process and force their enemy to either retreat or suffocate.
Not that the Sontarans have chance to do much retreating, as Logan has sneakily planted enough explosives to demolish their fleet. The Doctor’s righteous anger at this action is pretty predictable at this point in the show’s run, but given that the place they’d have evacuated to would still have been Earth, albeit 21st Century Earth, the General’s actions to protect the future of humanity are not exactly irrational, even if he does cite revenge as his main motivation.
Having reunited with Dan, the Doctor’s torn TARDIS is yanked to the Temple of Atropos – presumably by Swarm, Azure and their new friend, The Passenger. The three villains turned up halfway through the episode and began to troll Vinder and Yaz, reading their minds and daring Vinder to try and shoot them, all before dusting one of the remaining Mouri and a few of the Guardian Priests as an afterthought.
This trio, not the Sontarans, are the aliens that are driving the Flux plot arc forward, but they’re also the most frustrating characters to watch as they languidly potter around the universe. Did we need to see Azure slooowly destroy not one but two Priest Triangles, or watch them repeat the same teleportation trickery half-a-dozen times? It’s one thing to bait the audience with lingering unanswered questions, but we’re now a third of the way through Flux and the lack of any defined agenda or motivations for Swarm feels like the script is stalling, not teasing. The entire episode can be accused of being slightly padded, in fact. It’s a full hour long, but unlike ‘The Halloween Apocalypse’, it doesn’t feel like it needs to be.
To summarise, then: we’ve a solid, if conventional, Sontaran adventure with the Doctor, a fairly aimless side-plot with Dan, and an intriguing sci-fi set-up in the Temple of Atropos that’s brought to a crashing halt by the arrival of the bad guys. There are some great performances to enjoy here, but the story lacks a real focus and having established an improved dynamic in the last episode, the companions do suffer by being split up this time around. Hopefully, the now that the band are back together, they’ll stay that way – and maybe get a few answers – next week.
Doctor Who: Flux continues next Sunday the 14th of November on BBC One, BBC iPlayer and BBC America.