We are engineered to root for the underdog: think about all the films about sport, adventure, music and war. We are cheering for the little person or group to triumph against the odds. And there are always bumps along the journey, small victories, big setbacks, but in the final chapter we are praying for it all to go well…
For me, that’s been the story of Flux, both on screen and off screen. It seemed to me the announcement of Russell T Davies coming back as showrunner was rushed through. I suspect the BBC issued a press release before the news was leaked. It would be an odd choice to drop that bombshell about what’s to come in 2023 just as the Doctor is about to face ‘her most epic adventure yet’, and all the pre-publicity it needed.
But it did do Flux a favour. It took the pressure off. This was not going to be a make-or-break season. Jodie Whittaker won’t be the last TV Doctor before an inevitable revival in a decade-or-more. Doctor Who will return for its 60th anniversary with the promise of ‘seasons to come’. Whatever you think of RTD (love him and his work, personally), just that assurance was great for Chibnall and his team. Sure, it felt a bit like ‘we’re bringing back the most successful showrunner’ (bit of a slap-in-the-current-team), and I am not sure what will happen after RTD2.
But now, it seemed, we could all sit back and enjoy Flux. It promised to play to Chibnall’s strength as a writer. His most successful non-Doctor Who work in Broadchurch was long-form drama and 9 to 10 million viewers each season (growing with each one) seemed to put him at the top-flight of TV dramatists.
I know this era has many fans, and I have often enjoyed the freshness and several stories in particular… But for me it has been much harder work than under RTD and Moffat. Chris Chibnall just doesn’t seem to elicit that edge-of-the-seat, sometimes jaw-dropping excitement that his predecessors managed (more regularly and consistently). But we have had some highlights, and Chibnall’s determination to make sure diversity and inclusion not only on-screen but off it as well in his choice of writers, directors, and other creatives, should be lauded.
I approached Flux after seeing the love expressed for the McCoy Season 24 box set earlier this year, and watching the behind-the-scenes extras and interviews with the actors and crew. Now, we all know 24 is a season that many consider was the time that Who hit rock bottom. But more than 20-years later we’re kind of forgiving of it. It’s not on TV, we are not challenged in the playground about how bad it is and have to defend it, or forced to shamefully agree. We can just enjoy it for what it is, and it isn’t quite as bad as we remember. And, from the Blu-ray extras, we know that no one set out to make bad TV; in fact, they had a ball making it and thought it was pretty good. It also paved the way for Ace and the Doctor in Seasons 25 and 26, something I – and many others – consider a very late comeback for the original run.
And I have been watching and willing Flux to do the same. But it’s been a bit of a roller-coaster ride. By that I don’t mean, edge-of-the seat thrills-all-the-way. More like one of those cranky old roller-coasters where there’s moments of genuine excitement, and other bits where you are being slowly cranked up to a height, staring out into the adventure park, wondering whether the two-hour queue was worth it.
I don’t want to go in details of what I thought of every episode but – for me – the first was interesting and compelling (if a little convoluted), the second had fun and adventure but seemed a little inconsequential, the third was a lot of exposition, too much talking and not enough drama – but it was intriguing and showed there’s more to Flux that meets the eye. Then last week, Village of the Angels, was a blinder. Okay, it seemed to be a jumble of Blink, Hide, Time of the Angels/ Flesh And Stone – but at least it rehashed all the best bits. And was scary, fun, and more coherent in a solid Doctor Who way.
Now we land at Flux: Survivors of the Flux. And I’ve read plenty of reviews that basically tell you the plot points while tossing in a few thoughts and opinions. Well, if you haven’t guessed by now, I am not going to do that. But I am going to tell you this…
I’ve watched it twice. Once with my wife who’s not as big a fan as me, but watched Who as a child and has loved (mostly) the new series. We arrived home late in the evening on Sunday, so we dispatched the kids to bed with the promise that they could watch the next day. Then my wife and I watched it together. She fell asleep towards the end, which is more about a tiring day and a bit of a cold than a comment on the episode.
Next day, we watched it together as a family, us two joined by my son (10) and daughter (7). My son has watched all of new Who up to this point, my daughter all of Jodie’s time and Eccleston and David Tennant’s first season. We generally only have to pause watching an episode if someone needs the loo, more snacks, or has spilled milk (the kids, not us).
But we had to pause Survivors of the Flux about five times when the kids started talking over it, asking questions. At which point we had to explain just about everything that was going on as far as we could work out: who was Prentis/Grand Serpent and why was he on Earth in 1958 (no idea), what was he doing at UNIT and why that mattered (struggled with that one, honestly), why Yaz, Dan, and Jericho were crossing the world at surprising speed (considering rapid air transport was not possible) all in 1904. Oh, and who was Tecteun and why did it matter who Tecteun was (had to look that one up for clarity). And because my wife was asleep for the last bit of the first viewing, it was mostly left to me. I was out of my depth, frankly.
This is not to suggest that in the RTD and Moffat eras there were not complicated stories and arcs. But, by and large, the kids understood emotionally and instinctively what was happening because they loved the characters, the emotion, the humour, the thrills and scares that built to a big coherent experience. There were points of all of these in Survivors of the Flux – not quite enough scares and thrills – but it felt like lots of bits, lots of sets, lots of talking, lots of backstory and continuity. I don’t entirely know what I think about the Timeless Child revelations in terms of pulling the rug under established Doctor Who history, but if it had been done within a series of well constructed stories and felt like it had consequences, people would have accepted and maybe even loved it.
I’m frustrated, you will probably have noticed. I’ve seen Jodie on stage and in other TV and film performances and she is quite brilliant, and she’s the best she’s ever been in Flux. I hope this story will put a full-stop on a few things about the Doctor’s origins and just give her some rip-roaring stories in the next three specials.
Yaz is also the best she’s ever been in this six-parter, this episode in particular. She looks commanding and comfortable in her Edwardian garb and jaunty hat. Dan comes across as a likeable everyman and supercharges not-quite-so-funny lines into proper belly laughs. I love Kevin McNally as Professor Jericho — can we keep him?
In her few small scenes, Jemma Redgrave gave Kate Stewart some Line Of Duty-level intensity, when much else felt like junior TV antics. And Craig Parkinson is the best Doctor Who villain we should have had. Imagine him given free reign as the Grand Serpent in a proper adventure, not an unmemorable series of bump-offs. And I don’t believe a Colonel Blimp-like bumbling dimwit was tasked with (and succeeded in) creating UNIT.
Last week, as a family, we all stood up from the sofa in disbelief when the Doctor was turned into a Weeping Angel. What will happen now, we thought? Will she stride across time and space in a new evil form, but inside, desperate to escape? Would her companions even recognise her? They certainly can’t come near as she won’t send them back in time; they will simply die. What did we get? The Doctor emerged seconds later in human form, perfectly fine. That was a stunning idea wasted. And it can never happen again.
I wanted to be more positive about this. And I hope – please, please – that this all comes together for The Vanquishers. I want Chibnall the underdog to come out on top. But there’s a lot to get through: Sontarans, Daleks, and Cybermen; UNIT, Kate, and the Grand Serpent; Yaz and her adventure crew; Vinder (remember him?), Bel, and their baby (what’s the gestation period for this sprog? Why doesn’t she have a bump?); Swarm, Azure, and Passenger; Dan and Diane; the memory-containing fob-watch, the Timeless Child business, Tecteun (if returning) and the Division; Karvanista and the fate of the earth and our universe; that Joseph Williamson and the tunnels business. All in an hour.
My pause button will break, my wife will be asleep, and I’ll have to explain everything for weeks in post-it notes, charts, and diagrams. But I don’t quite know or care enough. I want some thrilling adventures that kind of make sense, that don’t have too much going on (but too little substance). I want Paradise Towers on Blu-ray. Pity me!