Flux’s fourth chapter falls into the usual trappings of a standard Chibnall episode. Aggressive scene hopping, people standing around explaining stuff to one another, new plot lines tumbling into the mix for the sake of “generating mystery”, B plots struggling to interlink with A plots, and seemingly random twists masquerading as enigmatic developments. Despite these shortcomings, Survivors of the Flux isn’t anywhere near as rubbish as it sounds on paper. Sure, it’s convoluted and messy, particularly during the first portion of its runtime, however as the story progresses, it seemingly settles into itself, dishing up a story that’s quite enjoyable.
The episode is essentially broken up into two separate stories. On the one hand, we get Yaz (Mandip Gill), Dan (John Bishop) and professor Jericho (Kevin McNally) gallivanting across earth in the early 20th century, searching for the answer as to when the world ends. Not entirely sure what they are going to do with this information when they get it, but that’s their task this week, as established by the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker). Speaking of which, her presence in this story is delegated to standing about in a room as various exposition chunks as to what’s going on with the Flux and her concealed past are hurdled at our faces. The third core plot concerns the Grand Serpent (Craigh Parkinson) last seen in Once, Upon a Time, who’s set up camp on earth whilst he infiltrates Unit’s timeline in a bid to rear earth defenceless so the Sontarans can smash it up yet again. There’s also some other stuff going on regarding Bel and Vinder, but as has been the case for the past three weeks, they mainly just seem to be here so they can offer us some eyewitness accounts as to what the wider universe looks like in a post-apocalyptic reality.
All of this makes for a pretty standard episode, yet seeing as for the most part we’ve been getting absolute chaos hurtled in our direction during three of the past four episodes, there’s a bittersweet relief in all of this. After weeks of overwhelming viewers, Chibnall appears to finally be easing his foot against the brakes. It’s still messy and convoluted, but at least the script appears to be taking some sort of shape. We’re getting at least something resembling an explanation now. It may not be brilliant or capable of reshaping the mess that’s come before it, but thank the heavens it feels like we are actually getting somewhere!
This all sounds like deminished expectation. Perhaps that’s because it is. Flux has been a trainwreck for the most part. Scenes and plot developments have been flying from all directions, that’s made made for a chaotic month of television which is exhausting to behold. To finally have some of that chaos calm it’s nerves and play out infront of us – even if that is in the form of characters explaining the plot like they are reading a wikipedia synopsis – is a breath of fresh air compared to the usual practice of going being as random and unpredictable as can be. This topped off with the fact Chibnall seems to be willing to give us something of an explanation as to what on earth is going on is a staggering improvement. Let’s just hope to god he continues this trend for the final episode next week!
Multiverse Hopping with Mum
After years of wondering whether they’d actually take the whole Timeless Child twist anywhere, we finally get a week in which the Doctor confronts her past and tries to get at least a slither of blood out of that stubborn stone she’s stumbled across. We don’t quite get all the answers we want here – we still don’t know exactly why her memories were erased, nor do we know exactly what actions she committed during her pre-Hartnell days – yet we’re getting somewhere here.
We now know that she was still heroic prior to having her memory rebooted. Tecteun (Barbara Flynn) states the very reason the Flux was engineered (another answer!) is because the Doctor went around inspiring the socks off of its inhabitants, creating a universe that didn’t bend to the Division’s desires. We also know how her mind was reset. Her previous life was suppressed through the chameleon arc, presumably explaining why she relived her Childhood prior to pinching a TARDIS and skipping off into the stars with her Granddaughter. There’s also a reason given to the whle point of the Division. They are a Timelord agency dedicating to manipulating various timelines to bend to their will. All good stuff, at least it is when it comes to the getting answers in an era that’s been obsessed with dropping mysteries to the point of seeming nonsensical.
I’m genuinely quite surprised Chibnall is sticking with the literal idea that the Doctor had countless lives prior to her “first” incarnation three faces prior. I’m not one of those people who thinks the Timeless Child revelation of Series 12 ruins the concept of the show, however I am one of those people who thinks it’s a twist that’s incapable of adding anything interesting to the show in general. The Doctor had lots of faces we’ve never seen before. Ok, fine, but how does that transform our experience and understanding of the show? Other than it meaning the Doctor is some special superbeing that’s responsible for the Timelords becoming infinitely powerful, it doesn’t actually do all that much other than imply there were lots more stories that came before 1963’s An Unearthly Child. Adding more faces to the canon doesn’t change the fact that there will always be more faces added to the canon going forward. This whole idea sounds like the overenthusiastic musings of a teenage fan, excited at the idea that the Doctor had a secret past that pre-dated the stories preceding the first ever episode of the show.
It was for this reason, I was certain Chibnall was going to pull the rug from under our feet. Lead audiences to believe the Doctor was special and brilliant and immortal, then reveal that in fact, she isn’t any of these things. She’s just a regular Timelord after all. One who’s been fed a false past for conniving reasons. Was the Fugitive Doctor a lie, a trickster, a Doctor from an alternative Timeline? Surely everything isn’t as it seems on the surface? Well, if this episode is anything to go by, the Doctor actually is an immortal alien that’s had her previous lives suppressed for reasons we’re still yet to learn. I know there is still some time to yank that rug from beneath us, yet we are so exceptionally late into the game, the fact the show has just spent an hour assuring us that the Doctor is indeed the Timeless Child seems to indicate that Chibnall really is intent on making this fannish dream of his canon.
Fine, if you want to make a dull as dish water twist part of the show’s official history, fill your boots. Future showrunners can simply ignore it and let it be something that’s debated between fans for the rest of time. Changing the show’s mythology is a habit head writers have been doing on this program since the dawn of its inception. The 1996 TV movie made the Doctor half human. Future showrunners made him non-human in the slightest. Still, if you’re going to do all this, then at least make the whole revelation of it all interesting. Don’t just have the Doctor and Tecteun standing around a control panel for 60-minutes discussing the Doctor’s past. Show us something! I know Chibnall is bad when it comes to showing as opposed to telling, but this is getting ridiculous now. Think all the way back to 2007’s Utopia, when it started to become clear that professor Yana (Derek Jacobi) wasn’t Professor Yana at all, but was in fact, the Master. The revelation wasn’t made with the Doctor standing around explaining how everything they are working on must be a trick, and the unsuspecting man standing in front of him was a murderous Timelord from the Doctor’s home world. Instead, we had shots of chameleon arches, flashbacks to the Doctor concealing their memory several episodes earlier, the horrified reactions the moment the Doctor clocked onto what’s going on, the shift from confusion to awarness in Yana’s expressions. Drama, flashbacks, character reactions gradually assemble a puzzle through the components on offer through the televisual medium.
Yes, it’s great we’re finally getting somewhere with this goddamn twist, however it’s not that exciting, both in terms of what the twist is, as well as its execution.
A Snake in the Cogs of Unit
Perhaps one of my favourite story lines in here is the plot strand concerning the Grand Serpent. An alien sneaking into earth’s history and working to dismantle Unit HQ in 2017 so the Sontarans have a means of re-invading serves up the ingredients for a solid Doctor Who episode. The Serpent’s ability to murder his victims by having a snake crawl into bodies and rip them apart from the inside is both a terrific and horrifying mode of attack. It’s even resembles the master’s ability to possess bodies in snake-form from the Doctor Who movie (1996). I’m a huge fan of this storyline, particularly considering how it ties into various plot strands that before and after its airing. It pays off the closure of Unit first established all the way back in 2017’s Resolution. It even helps to reposition War of the Sontaran’s place within the Flux narrative; turning what felt like an awkwardly isolated story into what looks to be a key player in the upcoming final.
Perhaps what lets this part of Survivors of the Flux down, is its tendency to serve as a side note to a bigger – and arguably less interesting – main plot. This is the sort of idea that should have operated as an A plot. Have the Doctor, Yaz and Dan feature in this story. Get them chasing down the Grand Serpent throughout history as he attempts to unravel Unit during its century of operation. Delegating this kind of concept to filler really does not do this kind of idea any justice. Yet again, Chibnall has thought up something teeming with potential, only he’s decided not to utilise it to its fullest potential.
Around the World in 60-Minutes
Another plot running alongside everything in Survivors of the Flux concerns Yaz (Mandip Gill), Dan (John Bishop) and Professor Eustacius Jericho travelling the globe during the early years of the 20th century, trying to figure out when and how the world will end. It’s a mission set up by the Doctor prior to her abduction, and one that doesn’t really seem to lead anywhere significant. Other than a few tie ins to members of the Grand Serpent’s henchmen trying to kill them along the way, their contribution to this story doesn’t quite lead to a resolution of any sort. They don’t avert the apocalypse, nor do they find it out in time for them to relay the information back to the Doctor. Instead they just galivant about the place, finding clues and conversing with various residents of early 20th century earth.
On the surface, Yaz, Dan and Jericho’s plot looks and feels appropriate to Flux’s overall style. It’s colourful, energetic, adventurous and hefty in terms of its scale. This is a flashy, swashbuckling romp that certainly looks the part. The problem is, it’s all window dressing. There’s nothing significant or noteworthy about this plot strand. It doesn’t feed into the wider resolution to the episode, and it certainly doesn’t feel as though it moves the plot in any significant direction. Instead, it serves as a sort of narrative crèche for the Doctor’s companions to play in whilst the main protagonist tries to extract some answers from her adopted mother about that enigmatic past of hers.
Perhaps next week’s story will force me to eat my words regarding this plot strand. For all we know, Yaz, Dan and Jericho’s 20th century exploits may well result in some grand resolution that helps the Doctor undo all the atrocities that have unfolded over these past six weeks. As far as this episode goes in terms of being a standalone story, however, all this feels like pointless globe trotting without a proper end goal to justify its existence.
Survivors of the Flux certainly has its problems. It emphasizes the wrong plots, occasionally runs its narratives into dead ends and has a habit of side-lining stories that probably would have benefited from being positioned front and centre of the overall episode. Despite all this, it’s far from terrible. The script slows itself down enough to feel slightly less manic and turbulent to other additions to Flux’s serialised nature. Furthermore, it’s willingness to actually edge toward genuine answers to a series of mysteries laid down in prior weeks and years feels like an oasis in a desert. Not great in any sense of the wod, but as far as arc-heavy stories in the Chibnall era go, it’s sort of a step in the right direction.
- This has already been mentioned by other people elsewhere, so forgive me if it sounds like I’m stealing another’s words, but the idea that unit took the thirteenth Doctor’s TARDIS after she was taken by the Angels causes a massive plot hole regarding the third Doctor’s exile to earth in the 70s. Seeing as his TARDIS was deadlocked by Gallifrey as punishment for fleeing his homeworld, surely at some stage he’d learn a future version of his vessel was available and unlocked, allowing him to pop off for a couple of joyrides in it while his sentence plays out.
- I’ve seen some online forums predict that the Grand Serpent is the Master (Sacha Dhawan) in disguise. The call back to the 1996 TV movie certainly helps add a little weight to the theory, however I think if the master really was going to be a part of this story, then his big reveal would have been at the end of this episode. While I’m confident Dhawan’s Master will be back before the end of Jodie Whittaker’s era, I recon Chibnall will be saving his presence until the last episode set to air later next year.
- Swarm and Azure (Rochenda Sandall) are up to their usual villainous antics again this week. They’ve kind of just been pottering about in the backdrop for most of this series, rearing their head from time-to-time without really remaining centre stage for too long. Seeing as next week is the final, we better get more of an explanation as to who on earth they are. Also, if they don’t clarify what that alien alarm system kicking up a fuss in her garage was back when she thought she was human, I’m gonna knock a dustbin over in frustration.