The Invasion of Time
There are elements within War of the Sontarans that I admire. Firstly, it’s more structured than the previous week. While I enjoyed The Halloween Apocalypse to a reasonable extent, it did function primarily as setup for future instalments. Flux’s follow up chapter is more concerned with buckling down and getting on with telling an actual story; one with a beginning, middle and end. Obviously this is a good thing, allowing for an episode that feels as though it can stand on its own two feet within the grand scheme of things.
Furthermore, I think the general premise of the episode is both fitting and bubbling with potential. Sontarans threading themselves into the history books all so they can play the game of war is a scheme these villains are notorious for cooking up. We were first introduced to the Sontarans back in 1973’s the Time Warrior. Back then, commander Linx embarked into the middle ages, where he bewildered a group of medieval soldiers by planting a flag upon their soil and declaring planet earth as property of the ‘great’ Sontaran empire. Right from day one, these were the sorts of amusing-yet-murderous space trolls who would happily soil all over the history books if it satisfied their thirst for domination. Substituting the Russians with Doctor Who’s most notorious potato-headed beasties within the Crimean war therefore feels fitting. It’s a plot brimming with potential. You could even squeeze a meaty two-parter out of this story if you wanted to. It’s also the sort of idea that would allow the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) to riff off some educational facts about how history should have gone down, while simultaneously throwing a heap load of fantastical concepts at the screen. Certainly a nifty little trick to combine the education and the entertainment quotas in a manner that would make even Lord Reith crack a smirk.
What we have here are the ingredients for a good standalone story that would sit comfortably in the midst of a standard Doctor Who series. It’s is a solid blueprint for an enjoyable romp that could have functioned as a terrific 60-minutes of television under the right circumstances. The problem is, this current version of Doctor Who isn’t built to accommodate a story as specific as this. While Flux chapter two certainly needed to focus on a more structured script to elaborate on the groundwork laid down last time, such a focus needed to prioritise its attention on moving the series arc in a reasonable direction.
The six episodes airing between October 31st and December 4th 2021 have been established as a serialised story in which each part functions as a chapter to a larger narrative. So why suddenly decide to make a self-contained romp that only has what appears to be a fleeting connection to the avalanche of plot threads hurled our way last week? Bombarding audiences with half a dozen arcs in week one is one thing, but opting to just veer off and do a Sontaran standalone for a whole hour seemingly derails the entire point of Flux. It was difficult enough when Moffat use to take us on arc detours during his 13-week-series, but to pull that kind of stunt in the midst of a six chapter story is downright hazardous.
Okay, sure, the Sontaran invasion sort of has a connection to the Flux, except the explanation we get here suggests there’s just the tiniest of correlations between the two . They use the pending collapse of the universe as a sort of reason for earth’s alternate timelines, but at best this just feels like a consequential connection more than anything. If this was an arc playing over 13+ epiosdes, or over multiple seasons, fine. Except it isn’t. This is a 6-hour story that’s already packing an outlandish quantity of ideas that it needs to wrap up before it’s final. Nothing about the main plot reveals anything about the Flux, the Swarm (Sam Spruell), the Arctic Circle, Claire’s (Annabel Scholey’s) relationship with the Doctor, Vinder’s (Jacob Anderson’s) reasons for being stranded aboard an observation vessel, the Division, the Timeless Child, or anything intended to be explored within this mini series. It’s almost a side note that Chibnall has decided to blow up into a sixth of Flux’s narrative.
It feels as though this is a story that should have been held onto until the 2022 specials. It’s a premise with plenty of potential. I even think Chibnall fully knows how to write for the Sontarans; laughable but dangerous fools who lure you into a sense of ease before tearing down your civilisation. There’s so much fun to be had here. Sadly, not much of it fits right now, which is a huge shame.
Past, Present and Future
Further convoluting this story is the fact we essentially have three plot strands that don’t seem to link up to one another. Two of them technically do, but even that’s questionable. The Sontarans have invaded earth’s history. This is the Doctor’s story, and functions as the main plot driving the episode. A Sontaran fleet has travelled back into earth’s history and established themselves as key players within humanity’s timeline. As the episode opens, it’s implied this is the plot in which all three of our protagonists will be spending their time dealing with. Except before long, Yaz (Mandip Gill) and Dan (John Bishop) are pulled at of time and jettisoned to different parts of time and space. At this point, the episode spirals off into three separate strands, which is where things start to get wibbly wobbly (albeit not in the good, timey-wimey way).
The second story concerns another Sontaran fleet, which has invaded Liverpool in November 2021. This is Dan Lewis’s sub-plot, as he’s been transported back to his home 48-hours after he was kidnapped by Karnavista (Craige Els). On the surface, this looks connected to the Doctor’s plot, except the residents of Liverpool only recall the fleet arriving after the events of last week’s story. Unlike the residents and soldiers of the Crimean war, no one mentions anything about the Sontarans always being a part of their past. So what’s going on here? Are the Crimean Sontarans a product of the Liverpool fleet successfully sending their ships into earth’s past? Or are we experiencing two alternative timelines playing out with the same fleet? Do the residents of Liverpool not remember history in the same way as the Crimean residents due to the Flux generating multiple timelines? If this is the case, could the episode at least establish this as a mystery of sorts that will be addressed later on down the line? I’m not saying it needs to be solved this week, what I’m saying is, lay down the ground work to establish this as something important. For an episode stuffed to the nines with exposition-heavy dialogue, it’s a surprise there wasn’t a moment where the Doctor queried why the past and present timelines aren’t syncing up.
The third subplot is perhaps the most unconnected and frustrating of the three. What makes this extra frustrating is it does relate to the main story arc (or at least some of it) established last week. Yaz has found herself transported – for reasons not yet explained – to an enigmatic temple in which a gang of shouting triangles search desperately for a cosmic mechanic to fix some holograms. The main issue with this subplot is it does not tie in with the main portion of the episode, acting instead as a side-note for a later story. We get entire scenes that add nothing to or interact with the sequences surrounding it. The entirety of episode two should have dedicated its time to focusing on this story, as opposed to the Sontaran plot. Considering plot number three has more of a direct connection the Swarm (or so it seems), not to mention the catastrophic phenomena occurring throughout the universe, this is where we should be spending most of our time. Instead, the third subplot sits at the sidelines, being all enigmatic and function as filler between a story that’s made the Sontarans its star. If you’re going to insert whole scenes that relate to a story arc, you need to ensure they weave into the main story. Series five’s Time of Angels understood this, making the crack in the universe a pivotal part of that story (on the flip side, during that same season, Chibnall wrote an episode in which the crack arc was bolted onto the end of his story without linking it to the main plot. Though seeing as Moffat was head writer at the time, we can’t quite blame Chibnall for that one). It also would have been useful to make this plot interesting. Just waffling on about how time is evil whilst Philanthropists from the 17th century wonder around in a dazed state isn’t quite enough to get audiences hooked.
Let’s jump back to the primary plot for this episode for a moment, shall we. The British military are no match for the Sontaran fleet. Of course they aren’t, their technology is much too primitive to withstand advanced alien weaponry. The Doctor comes up with an alternative plan that’ll weaken their armour and have them scarpering back off into the stars before teatime. While the plan works, General Logan (Gerald Kyd) decides to pull a full on Harriet Jones by lighting them up with gunpowder. My main issue with this plot point is how contradictory it feels sitting alongside the resolution of the Liverpool subplot. While the Doctor scolds General Logan for his acts, companion Dan aids Karnavista in executing the exact same plan back in 2021 Liverpool.
If you’re going to hammer home a philosophical point about how reverting to violence when a peaceful alternative exists taps into the darker side of humanity, don’t have a hero commit a similar act and have it be fine! There is nothing wrong with having the Doctor grow angry at humans for taking the more aggressive path. We saw this happen in the Christmas Invasion in a way that was interesting to the point in which it reshaped future series of the Russel T Davies era. The problem here isn’t the Doctor’s decision to condemn Logan’s actions, it’s the fact it happens in this particular context. This sort of hypocritical point making feels lazy, poorly thought out and void of any self awareness.
I really want to like War of the Sontarans. I also really want to like the Chibnall era, despite occasionally moaning about various parts of it. As a whole, Flux is a premise and structure which I believe suits Chibnall’s strengths as a writer. Doing a six-part story in which a continuous narrative gradually unfolds each week is a great idea. Furthermore, buckling down and telling a linear story that fleshes out particular plot threads is a great way of adding substance to the series. Sadly, War of the Sontarans does all the right things in all the wrong places. It’s a story doesn’t quite feel as though it belongs amidst all the setup we found ourselves absorbing during week one. It’s a seemingly incidental side-quest forced into a serialised run that already has an absurd quantity of ideas in desperate need of unpacking. Not only have we still got the whole Timeless Child arc to pay off from series 12, we have a heap of narrative threads laid down during the Halloween Apocalypse that require context. Six hours to work through all of this stuff isn’t a lot of time. So why on earth is Chibnall wasting time writing a partially-connected story that would have worked better as a standalone piece outside of this series?
War of the Sontarans is an out-of-place sidenote that’s unfortunate more than it is bad. Any attempt to marry this story up with the primary arcs established at the heart of Flux feels ham-fisted. The clock is ticking, and with just four episodes left to call the curtain on everythin laid down last week, things are starting to seem a little concerning.
- Still a massive fan of Dan. Watching him sneak around Sontaran ships, clobbering them with a wok is a delight. John Bishop is nailing this role. Funny, likable and a dazzling screen presence. Easily my favourite addition to the Whoniverse in a long while.
- The first time we saw a fleet of Sontarans firing at Dan and Karnavista with zero success, it was quite funny. The second time it started to feel implausible. The third time it cheapened the fear factor. There’s no point setting up these enemies as deadly threats if you’re going to have every one of their shots miss our heroes in moments of so-called peril. I’m not suggesting they murder a companion, just have Dan and co do something more inventive to avoid getting filled with bullets. Yes, the Sontarans are idiots, but considering we’ve just watched them slaughter an entire military regiment, we know they can fire a gun!
- What was the deal with transporting Dan and Yaz to the same place as the Doctor, only to have them whisked away moments later? How come Dan got to go home (or at least where his home use to be) while Yaz is sent to a mysterious time temple? For that matter, why’d Vinder end up in the same place as Yaz? I’m guessing the Flux is engineering some sort of cunning plan.
- The Doctor has another vision this week. This time, it’s of a contorted, floating house. No hints or explanation are offered as to what it is at this moment in time.
- I appreciate Chibnall isn’t a natural when it comes to comedy, but it has to be said, the “did someone steal your house” line is utter rubbish, even by his standards. The joke makes no sense. If anyone saw someone’s house vanish after an alien invasion, their first thought would never be “blimey, someone must have ran off with that”.
- We get another glimpse of William Joseph again this week. Instead of defending his digging project in 1820s Liverpool, this time he’s knocking about in the enigmatic time temple. No explanation as to how he got here is given. Despite being eager for more context on various plot strands, I’m actually starting to enjoy the mystery surrounding this character. He makes no sense at this point in time, but in a way that feels more like a puzzle than just some random imagery.
- There is admittedly a difficulty in reviewing these episodes as they air. For one thing, a lot of the issues I’m raising here about certain stories not seeming important or making sense may well turn out to be vital pieces to the finished puzzle by the time episode six airs. It will probably be wise for me to do a series-wide review to look back at everything once all is said and done.
- Next week, those pesky Cybermen are at it again. Let’s hope their inclusion in the plot is more central to the whole Flux story arc. If not, this serialisation looks to be in some serious trouble.