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Reviewed: Doctor Who, Flux — The Halloween Apocalypse

The advent of this particular series of Doctor Who has been an interesting one to follow and experience. In a time where the fanbase has arguably never been so divided, the announcement that Russell T. Davies will be returning to run the show he once brought back to life has provided a certain level of calm and unity. When it relates to the current series however one could be forgiven for thinking that this is perhaps one of the lowest stakes in the show’s long history for fans as a direct result. For example, we are no longer worried about ratings failures. Its cancellation is out of the question for now without regard to how this series performs. We know this isn’t the end for this particular Doctor either, or in fact any of the companions. They’re all confirmed for three specials next year.

The knowledge that Russell is returning has had an impact on the perception of the long-term narrative health of the series too. Whatever RTD eventually brings to the show, the perception of the damage which this era may or may not have done has been very much dampened to all those who were concerned by Series 12’s conclusion, as they believe that Davies will just retcon any damage done. Finally, this series suffers from what all third series of Doctor Who these days do, in that by the time we get the final of the now all but mandated three series an actor will do, most opinions are steadfast, whether loved it or hated. I wasn’t as worried as I was going into Series 12, because I liked it, and I’m sure others were far less optimistic than they would have dared to be before Series 12, because they really didn’t.

Having said all of that, the publicity this year has been very good. They may well have left it too late as some have said but the last two weeks or so have given us lots to chew on, an excellent trailer, some good interviews by many of the cast and crew, interesting new cast and character reveals and enough to begin to speculate, without really having a clue. A perfect balance, and something which both this and other eras have struggled with one way or the other. I’ll conclude my preamble by saying that personally I was positive and excited to see what this first episode would bring to us going into it.

What struck me almost immediately while watching the episode we were greeted with was exactly how much there was to undress. We experienced many disparate scenes and met many characters at a break-neck pace, and I was left feeling that we were experiencing something much larger in scale compared to previous years. Long form storytelling has often been considered Chris Chibnall’s best style, as the incredibly popular Broadchurch which got him the job attests, and my early impression of this story is that it will follow that pattern. Despite the vast display of ideas thrown at us, I never felt that the pacing was off and in fact I felt we somehow got to know the players much better here than we have in the previous years of this era during standalone episodes. This can only bode well as we get to know them even better in the coming weeks. 

The episode begins with a breathless action sequence which is, to put it mildly, absolutely ridiculous. We find The Doctor and Yaz in a situation straight out of a 1980s James Bond film, in deep trouble and no way to escape. Aside from the killer sharks all the hallmarks are here. The villain telling you his plan and leaving before he knows it’s worked, the acid water below them, and the timer-based device ready to plunge them into it. Chibnall uses this scene to catch us up with what’s been going on. It’s a little wordy in places but it gets a lot out of the way for later and it was a fun action sequence to cold open us into the episode itself before the real story began.   

The remainder of the episode takes itself much more seriously. We start in 1820 and meet Joseph Williamson, a real-life tobacco merchant and philanthropist best known for a series of excavations which to this day we have no real answer to the motivation of. He provided work for many in the Liverpool area but was widely questioned by his contemporaries over the purpose of the work and as the digging stopped after he died, we may never know if there ever was one. With a bio like that its more of a wonder that Doctor Who hasn’t done this story already and even before the episode dropped speculation was rife that we may get a fun answer to the question of his work in this series. This week we received a short scene which neatly established much of that and, already knowing that new companion Dan Lewis is also of Merseyside origin, how important Liverpool will be to this story overall.

A short 201 years later we meet the aforementioned Dan and if he didn’t immediately enter your heart with that speech about Liverpool, you’re of sterner stuff than I am. With Dan we quickly get something that’s been severely lacking from Chibnall’s Doctor Who. An unassailable criticism of the show as it has been, is that we just don’t know the companions in the way that we were used to under previous regimes. It can be argued that we knew Donna, Rose, Martha, Amy, and Bill for example by the time their first episode had concluded, while it can also be argued that we still didn’t really know Ryan before he left. The same cannot be said for Dan Lewis.

We spend important time with him before he’s introduced to The Doctor’s world to know who he is and what he’s about. John Bishop delivers an earnest and enthusiastic performance that lets him directly into your heart. Dan, who we know from the preview clip earlier this year is a plasterer by trade, is struggling for money and yet dedicates time to other people rather than looking after himself. He volunteers at his local food bank but is too proud to take from it himself despite his fridge and cupboards being bare. He’s a proud Scouser and Liverpool fan and along with the beautiful spanning shots of the city we receive and a few lines of dialogue from The Doctor (Liverpool? Anfield! Klopp era! Classic!) the show has really delivered a love letter to the city this week.

We also learn Dan is hopeless in love (with another winning performance, this time from Nadia Albina as Diane) and doesn’t have time for grifters. All of this we know about him before he even sees an alien. It’s a whole other level, a major step up for Chibnall in that regard, and it helps the rest of the episode immeasurably when you actually care about what’s happening to him. Considering Bishop is a stand-up comic in his day job its no surprise that he’s also very funny and gets many of the best laughs this week.

Karvanista is in the very opening scene though few will have anticipated what we had in store for us from him at that point. From the moment he carves through Dan’s back door and removes his helmet the performance and character are nothing but a delight and exactly the sort of alien the show needs to be creating. He’s funny, interesting, and layered with what looks like a well-developed back story and culture (all whilst looking like a dog: bonus) and I hope we see a lot more of him over the next few episodes. In fact, with the design and delivery as excellent as it is, I wouldn’t mind the Lupari becoming a recurrent species. Karvanista also contains a key to the deeper mystery on The Doctor’s mind about her past and he along with the other members of The Division certainly have me intrigued where the show is heading with this. Also, does Karvanista in helmet not look a bit like the Kassavin in Series 12? Let the alternate universe speculation begin now.

Early on we are introduced to who appears to be this series big bad, to steal a line from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and we follow his progress throughout the episode. From the credits and a blink and you’ll miss it namedrop in his first scene, we know his name is Swarm. There were lots of theories about who or what Swarm could have been after Chris Chibnall dropped the word at Comic Con. Was it going to be a combination of Sontarans, Weeping Angels, Ravagers and The Master? Turns out no: it’s this guy. He certainly looks the part of a principal villain and how you feel about his place and gravitas will likely initially hinge on how you feel about The Timeless Child arc.

He is an adversary from The Doctor’s past, from the time before they wiped her memory, who claims to have battled her through many ages. He starts off imprisoned, where we’re told he’s been since the dawn of time, on the site of the ‘Burnished Rage battleground’ where he was, we can speculate, presumably defeated by The Doctor. We have some fun sci-fi tropes at play here with his senior jailer (again of The Division) briefing her junior on what not to do before immediately doing it herself, which leads neatly to her untimely demise. To counter the heroic levels of cheese in this scene we do have some great special effects and costuming and a decidedly gruesome death for 18.25 on a Sunday. It is Halloween after all and Doctor Who should be at least a bit scary for its primary intended audience.

Swarm appears to be a parasite of sorts (and don’t write off his ability not being potentially linked to regeneration in some way) and returns himself to his prime by absorbing their energy or lifeforce. Swarm is played by two different actors here and Old Swarm (as he’s described in the credits) was the one teased in the short teaser a few months ago who many misdiagnosed as a Sontaran. The younger Swarm, who we saw more prominently in the trailer, is the one we spend most of our time with. He comes across (for lack of better description) as part Master, part Joker, part Lord Voldemort, part David Bowie and part Paul Bettany while looking quite a lot like The Red Skull. Sam Spurell is clearly having the time of his life here and he pulls it off with the time he’s given in this episode. He may well go onto be the best thing about this six-episode run and I honestly hope so. I enjoyed what I saw from him this week, but time will tell. His companion Azure was similarly creepy and charismatic in the limited screen time she received and could be interesting and dangerous. I wonder how Neil Gaiman feels about no longer creating the most Gaiman-esque ever villains in Doctor Who.

The core TARDIS team of The Doctor and Yaz have proven a lot of people right this week. It’s a win and a loss for Chibnall in that they are great to watch and both have lots to do but on the other hand it makes you question why it hasn’t always been this way. Having the time to fully establish Dan while still giving The Doctor and Yaz a more interesting dynamic than they’ve had in the last two years may just be another win for longform storytelling but whatever it is, it’s very welcome and I’m pleased to see it. Yaz shows that she’s come on some way since we last saw her and is now more able (which she always had potential of, albeit it more tell than show most of the time), but also continues to doubt both herself and The Doctor, which is true and fair to her backstory. The Doctor continues to lie and hide things from Yaz, which we can speculate may prove to be the undoing of the two in the long run. I personally find the idea of Thasmin a little hard to see, despite indication in one way in The Haunting of Villa Diodatti and I find it even harder following this episode. The Doctor appears far too preoccupied to consider a new romance though if done well I’ve no quarms with it if I’m proven wrong.

The Doctor’s scenes with Karvanista and Swarm were much more Doctor than we’re used to from her which was a joy to see. I’m hoping this becomes her defining series and that we get much more of the same before all is said and done. The TARDIS doesn’t look well this year. Cloister bells, slime, moving doors and fungus style rot do not bode well for her. Let’s hope Russell gets her contract locked in early.

Along the way we also met a few other interesting faces. We meet Claire from the future/past – who uses the interesting turn of phrase ‘taking the long way home’ (we’ve heard something very similar to that before somewhere – too similar to be a coincidence perhaps?), knows about the Weeping Angels and is thankfully able to talk newer audiences through how they operate. We meet Vinder on Outpost Rose (nice touch) who witnesses the start of the Flux. We meet our new Sontarans who seem to be a nice mix of old and new and we spot our first Weeping Angel who immediately gets to work. I won’t say too much more about them all here because we will certainly know and see much more of them over the next few weeks, but I enjoyed what I saw of them. We also get some cool call backs to classic and new Who, with mentions or displays of Nitro-9, Scottish Doctors, Sontaran tongues, the previously mentioned Outpost Rose and my personal favourite: ‘Nice to meet you Dan. Run for your life!’

The direction from Jamie Magnus Stone here was crisp, entertaining, and coherent and kept the show moving exactly as it needed to. This is a particularly impressive feat in post-covid settings and with such a lot to introduce. The stage design was also excellent, and we didn’t miss those international location filming days too much this episode. Special effects were great, even if the opening sequence didn’t quite pull it off to the level we’ve grown to expect. The remainder of the episode more than made up for it. Chris Chibnall’s writing was the very best we’ve seen from him. I’m not going to pretend it was never clunky, but it was certainly diminished or better hidden here and there was a lot to enjoy. The performances of the actors were all superb. The music or mix has come under some criticism in some quarters. Watching on my basic setup with no true sound system but decently sized television, I didn’t once notice any problems hearing either dialogue or music and truly enjoyed my experience with Segum Akinola’s mix, but feel I should acknowledge that some people did report problems.

Overall, I felt we were given an excellent episode of Doctor Who. The joyous nature of the programme and the sheer amount of fresh and positive ideas within this episode make it more than worth a watch for those sceptical. Many will raise the same criticisms that were raised during last series’ Fugitive of the Judoon and The Haunting of Villa Diodati, that it is much easier to ask entertaining questions than it is to provide entertaining answers. That remains absolutely true. Unlike those episodes however this is a decisive part one to a singular story. Its job is to ask the questions. We would be ill-served to not be left with more questions than we entered with. Can the rest of the series let us down? Of course. But The Halloween Apocalypse delivered on the hype of the trailer, its title, and media attention and I’m very pleased about that. Bring on the next five weeks!

Simon Smith

Reviewed: Doctor Who, Flux — The Halloween Apocalypse

by Simon Smith time to read: 11 min
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