It’s clear that show runner Chris Chibnall is gunning to make his final full series on the show his most ambitious yet. Doctor Who Flux’s opening chapter, the Halloween Apocalypse, begins with the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) and Yasmin Khan (Mandip Gill) dangling above an ocean of acid that’s set to boil them alive the moment their captor, Karvanista (Craige Els) sets sail for planet earth. From this moment on, viewers are whisked into the past, introduced to ancient evils known as the Swarm (Sam Spruell), made to watch a Sontaran soldier mock a fellow comrade, bear witness to a cluster of Weeping Angles terrorise a woman into the past, watch Dan Lewis (John Bishop) argue with a talking dog, and learns of a universe annihilating phenomena known as the Flux. Considering this is the opening chapter to a six hour story, you’d be forgiven for expecting something a little less rapid in pace for the debut. The fact it goes from 0 to 100 before the episode even has time to begin is quite staggering, especially when you consider just two seasons prior, Chibnall kick-started his era with a story that unfolded at a snail’s pace by comparison.
Opening on a firework display of such calibre does have its benefits. For one, it’s a surefire way to thrust audiences back into the world of Doctor Who after having so little of it on our TV screens during the past couple of years. Flux is a busy, dazzling display that behaves as if it’s making up for lost time. The Halloween Apocalypse operates like the continuation of a story we’ve been watching unfold for several months. There’s no buildup, no gradual introduction to the general premise. It just hits you like a freight train the moment the episode begins, working to create an atmosphere that feels as though the show has been airing on a weekly basis for quite some time.
Furthermore, starting on such a rambunctious note helps to frame the scale of Flux, which has been talked about for some time as Doctor Who’s most ambitious project to date. The creative team working behind the scenes are trying to sell this as the Chibnall/Whittaker era at its grandest; not merely just another series, but an event that will place this period on the map, so to speak. In turn, such an opening assists in building excitement for the weeks which lie ahead. If chapter one of Doctor Who’s ‘biggest story to date’ is hurling everything at you before its title sequence has even had time to roll, goodness knows what weeks two, three, four and so forth will have in store! The Halloween Apocalypse is working to establish a gargantuan and explosive scope for series 13.
I’d say that for the most part, the Halloween Apocalypse does a fairly decent job of this. Not a single sequence in this episode feels as though it’s being wasted. Every shot and character exchange appears to transform the story into something completely different to what it was before that scene began. While there is certainly a lot of character exchanges and imagery that don’t quite make much sense at this stage in the game, it all does seem to be building toward something. For example, we’ve no idea what the alarm system kicking up a fuss in the Artic Circle is all about, but considering it seems to attract the likes of the Swarm, we’re guessing it’s something pretty huge. Likewise, we may well be completely clueless as to why Vinder (Jacob Anderson) is vlogging form a spaceship at the other end of the solar system, yet his presence as a character trapped in the eye of the storm makes it obvious he’s going to become a key character. The only point in the episode that does act like an isolated little character-moment is when we’re first introduced to Dan Lewis in the Museum of Liverpool, yet even then, this sweet moment still goes ahead and introduces a brand new companion to the show. The story bursts with imagery and events that twist and turns the story at every opportunity.
There are a few drawbacks about going this big so early on in the game, however. For one thing, there are times in which all the imagery and zigzagging across the cosmos can get somewhat exhausting. As we shift between people getting stalked by Weeping Angels, Sontaran fleets gearing themselves up for battle, ancient beasts breaking out of impossible prisons, galaxy-devouring monstrosities tearing worlds to shred, dog-men reluctantly rescuing humans from the apocalypse, laptops shrinking homes, our heroes being chased over acid oceans whilst clinging to jet-propelled structures, and Victorian workers constructing mysterious vessels in 1820 Liverpool; it can at times make you want to have a ruddy good lie down. Catapulting what feels like half a dozen Doctor Who stories at your face, all while you’re trying to figure out what on earth is going on can be a tiresome experience. Doctor Who is a show packed with big ideas and racy plots. Many watching are more than capable of plowing through this story without experiencing too much fatigue. Be as that may, as far as opening stories go – particularly one which introduces a new companion – this is certainly an episode unafraid to put its viewers through one heck of a swift ride.
There’s also a few couple of character shifts in here that don’t quite feel right, which I think may have perhaps benefited from a slightly slower narrative. The most prominent example of this is the character of Karvanista, who opens this story as a villainous maniac apparently overjoyed at the thought of boiling our heroes alive in a sea of acid. Except by the time the episode comes to a close, he feels like a completely different character. On paper, Karvanista’s transition from monster to anti-hero is a great way of subverting expectations. He enters the tale as a classic Doctor Who baddie (he’s even got a daft helmet to compliment the part), only for his character to soften and develop as the story progresses. In practice, his mannerisms and method of phrasing things when interacting with the Doctor, Yaz and Dan don’t quite add up with the version of him we see during the final scene. Throughout the episode he threatens to execute Dan, cackles at the thought of the Doctor and Yaz’s demise, lays a series of murderous booby traps intended to kill the Doctor, and seems to tease the Doctor when he talks of earth’s pending destruction. Sure, he’s certainly not a full on good guy by the end of the episode, yet the fact he expresses genuine concern when he realises the Doctor is going to be engulfed by the Flux feels completely at odds with the character we’ve come to understand. The issue here appears to be the speed in which he goes from actively trying to murder the Doctor to voicing concern for her death. Had we spent more time getting to see the Doctor and Karvanista interact and bond throughout the story, this change in tone may well have felt a little less forced. The fact they’ve both be dashing about in a plot that’s running at a 100+ miles per hour makes this feel a little implausible.
The one villain who does shine bright amidst all the mayhem, however, is the Swarm. He’s an utterly terrifying addition to the Doctor Who cannon, and not just in an aesthetic sense of the word either. The ruthlessness in which he enters a given scene and reduces his victims to dust makes him a ruthless entity. None of his victims have time to plead or fight. In he comes and sends them too oblivion before they’ve even had time to react to his presence. I think it’s here in which the Halloween Apocalypse’s swift nature works in its favour. It’s a story that needs a villain who can burn everything to the ground without stopping to answer questions. The mysterious relationship the swarm holds with the Doctor helps to furthermore hook audiences into this character; making him as enigmatic as he is frightening. A classy Doctor Who baddie shrouded in mystery and menace, what’s not to like!
I’m general, I’d go as far to say that the Halloween Apocalypse is a fairly decent episode for Flux to begin with. The speed in which Chibnall tries to get all his chess pieces lined up in time for the cliff hanger can be a tad strained at times, not to mention somewhat incredulous when it comes to developing certain characters. Having said this, it’s also exciting to witness a Doctor Who story willing to go as bold and bonkers as it possibly can for its opening week. This is a loud, chaotic and quite spectacular affair that is more than capable of enticing its audience for future instalments. While the overall quality of this episode won’t be fully understood until the rest of the Flux storyline plays out over the coming weeks, it’s a promising start. Doctor Who feels like event television again, which is far from a bad thing.
- I really like Dan. Not only am I relieved to learn that John Bishop is not a terrible actor, I love how he’s essentially chosen to tackle the role as a Doctor Who sceptic from within the confines of the show itself. He’s a character all too aware of the ridiculousness of it all, which lights up every scene he’s in. He’s a bit like a dad commenting the show from the back of the living room while his kids are trying to watch it.
- The Doctor handing Dan’s miniaturised house back to him is so surreal, it’s brilliant. It reminds me of the scene from Flatline, in which the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) uses their hand to drag a miniaturised TARDIS off of a railway track from within the vessel itself.
- Does anyone else find Dan’s habit of pretending he works at the Museum of Liverpool a touch peculiar? It’s just a shame they won’t hire the guy, especially considering the fact he’s experiencing some money troubles.
- Does Halloween drinks mean Dan and his friend are going to be making spooky cocktails together? Or are they just using October 31st as an excuse to get proper drunk?
- No mention of the Timeless Child this week. Although Yas did confront the Doctor about hiding something, which implies this arc will come into play at some stage later on down the line.
- Speaking of the Timeless Child, the Swarm and the Doctor have a hidden history together. I’m guessing this is a villain she’s come into contact with during her pre-Hartnell days before her memory was wiped. Either that, or it’s a red herring of sorts.
- The Weeping Angels are well executed here. Chibnall has essentially stripped them back to their more basic, pre-Time of Angels form, which is when they were at their most terrifying. I’m looking forward to seeing more of them throughout the rest of this series.
- The mysterious woman from the Doctor’s future certainly intrigues, particularly considering she doesn’t fully know how or why she knows the Doctor. Chibnall has certainly started to embrace the timey-wimey madness of the Moffat era in recent years, which I think he’s actually pretty good at doing.
- Not to sound like a pedantic plum, but did the scene in which the Doctor hit the TARDIS console in a bid to make the ship vomit vortex energy at the Flux feel a little concerning? I mean Rose (Billie Piper) had to resort to using a pickup truck to get it open the last time. Considering how dangerous that stuff is, the idea of the Doctor spurting time energy into the control room after hitting the panel a tad too hard sounds like one heck of a health & safety concern to me.
- Interesting that Yas refers to herself as a ‘former officer’ in this episode. Did she go back and quit the force? Or has she been travelling with the Doctor for so long now, she just considers that something she did way back when? I guess now she’s seeking the thrills she’s always yearned for during her time in the TARDIS, there’s little interest in her pursuing a career as a police officer.
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