Doctor Who #1036: The Vanquishers

"I get how that ego appeal thing works now."

TECHNICAL SPECS: Flux Part 6. First aired Dec.5 2021 (the day on which is takes place).

IN THIS ONE... The Doctor and her allies destroy the Flux.

REVIEW: At the end of Part 5, I was asking myself how alllllll these plot threads would (could?) come together in a satisfying finale. The disappointing answer is that they can't and don't. It's not a total wash, but some disappointments are felt very keenly indeed. The biggest among them, I think, is the role played by Vinder and Bel. In a normal season, their story would have been a single episode, reuniting them to face the Grand Serpent, and we wouldn't have thought about them twice. Weaving them in as pseudo-protagonists, giving them mid-credits scenes, and so on flagged them as something more important. And off to the message boards fans went, unfolding their theories as to their unborn child's identity. Could it be Susan (which Doc13 would have delivered to Doc1, possible thanks to the temporal crunch)? More believable still, could it be the Timeless Child, later abandoned near a wormhole? Nope. Nothing like that. I'd be very surprised if Chibnall was to make this happen in his last episode, not the way he ended things here. Because after all the hoo-haa with the fobwatch and tempting the Doctor with the knowledge she's been seeking about her former lives... she dumps the watch into the TARDIS guts with orders to make it disappear forever, unless a future showrunner wants to do something with it (I'm paraphrasing, but barely). In the previous episode, Chibnall covered his bases by having the Doctor question whether she came out of the portal, was left there from this side, etc. It's so noncommittal.

I think Chibs fell prey to the way fandom works nowadays. I don't mean the screaming fanboys who knee-jerked their discontentment at the Timeless Child reveal. He was always fine with that and it shows. Rather, he understood the need to introduce mysteries that would keep the fans guessing and talking, but was also afraid the solution would be guessed before the end and opting for surprise above all else, gave us something no one guessed, but also no one can be excited about. I think that was also the flaw in his Broadchurch solution. And that's how a complex, exciting, intriguing story like Flux ends with such a shrug from the audience.

And yet, there's a lot to like. The Doctor split into three and helping the various groups and succeeding the way only a Time Lord can, juggling various eras simultaneously (prefigured in Part 3) - even the editing within her scenes is jumpy to match her experience. Kate Stewart as the leader of the human resistance against the Sontarans. The Doctor mocking the Grand Serpent's name (it's my favorite trait of hers, it started with Tim Shaw). The Sontaran plan to destroy the Daleks and Cybermen used against them and to finally deal with the Flux. Having the Passenger eat the rest of the anti-matter. It's well epic.

But then the Grand Serpent is just a side-villain, coming in late to ally with the Sontarans like a wannabe-Master (if only, that might have given the subplot some interest). The Sontarans RE-invading the Earth so quickly feels like a step back from Part 2. Their sudden and silly obsession with chocolate. The Lupari genocide given in dialog, unnecessary sadism to make Karvenista another "last of his kind". Jericho and Claire are too likeable to be stuck on a Sontaran ship staring intently (or in Jericho's case, being sacrifice - and with so little impact on Yaz and Dan who traveled with him for three years). The fobwatch contains surreal imagery, but doesn't work like the one in Human Nature (she's initially resisting, or the Ravages are blocking it?). Swarm and Azure's plan is insane, but ends with Time Incarnate "rewarding their failure" with what Azure calls Ascension... Another noncommittal anti-climax. And for all the work the 7th Doctor did for the Web of Time, it's kind of a jerk to the 13th - more mumbo-jumbo. Diane rejecting Dan is realistic, but it makes her just a guide for Vinder inside Passenger, but he says he's specifically trained to handle kidnapping by a Passenger so...? At least Williamson's time tunnels are instrumental to the plot, getting everyone together on the right date, etc., but his goodbye 20 minutes before the end is rather cursory.

At the very end, what's changed? Vinder, Bel and Karvenista are set up for Big Finish audio adventures and sent on their way. Dan is officially asked to join the TARDIS crew, but that's absolutely no surprise. (And as a personal grievance, he's told where the bedrooms are, but Chibnall can never spare any budget to show some other part of the ship, and I'm left wondering why the Doctor and Yaz have a mattress in the console room.) The Doctor admits she hasn't kept Yaz in the loop, but doesn't now either. And then we jettison the stuff that intrigued some of us so much, without answers or consequences. And there's another question on my mind...

THEORIES: What's left of the universe after this story? The Flux's "final event" is prevented and that's where it's destroyed, which would imply everything it did, weaving in and out of time, happened. Time itself was "repaired" or "stabilized" in Part 3 , but all those planets, all those planets, space itself looks a mess, and much shrunk from the original (not that it's not infinite enough for the show, I'm reminded of Logopolis). The two first specials of 2022 take place on Earth (as far as we can tell), which provides no answers. All those refugees the Doctor mentioned as possibly heading to Earth, are they going to be a big concern? And how is that different from the way it was before? Seems like we're just back to the post-Time War with "Flux" being the new excuse. As with so much of Flux, I theorize this will be ignored, not just in the next era of the show, but in what's left of this one. Looks like Chibnall has just one story to prove me wrong.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium - An exciting resolution hampered by having to tie up too many loose ends.

- Flux made Doctor Who appointment television again, and to me proved Chibnall should have been doing long-form storytelling since the beginning of his reign, coming hot off Broadchurch. However, the story's refusal to change the status quo (and even walking some of the changes back), are maddening.


daft said…
It think I probably audibly groaned when the fobwatch was being quite literally dangled, at least dunking it inside of the console kind of felt like the Doctor was finally learning, no longer so tangibly manipulated by others (I wish the audience had the same luxury). Of course, it was simply a thematic device to put the investigation upon hold to facilitate the stand-alone nature of the NYE special.

Given the latter was written in apparent haste over a two-week period, I get the feeling that the seeming late addition of the Centennial Special, or at least its confirmation meant the next China Seas based epic, seemingly a stand-alone adventure from the trailer, was intended to be the NYE special, with the finale shown shortly there afterwards, or maybe Easter. And so, the relevance of having the Master turn up in Flux felt a little premature in light of this, and so, The Serpent was duly substituted.

Given the desperate circumstances the episodes were shot in, I think it's remarkable just how well everything eventually came together.
It's genuinely a really fun, inspired idea to set-up the dual narrative/in-story dilemma of 'how is the Doctor going to conclude all of these disparate plot elements?' with 'science fantasy magic splits her into three!'
Honestly, it makes me wish it had been an inciting incident of Flux just so Jodie could be on-screen way more/to give us a central POV.

But yeah, so much of the other episodes banked on the ending and then we get a squib.
I really respect the drive to experiment with the format by making a big season-long event - I also think it's unfortunately telling that the widely agreed best bits of it were the two episodes most like standalone anthology Who.

I'll admit to bursting out laughing when I realized that we were doing a repeat of the Tennant's era death prophecy. Less so because it's an idea I didn't care for the first time, but more because 'he will knock four times' is poetic-sounding and ambiguous and this era's version of it is to have a character bluntly say the words 'regenerate' and 'Master.'
Not only do I really wish Chibnall would attempt more original concepts for the sake of it, it's REALLY unfortunate when a scene comes off as a shallower echo of decade-old material.
LiamKav said…
I'd add that "he will knock four times" allowed us the swerve when both the Doctor and the audience realise at the same heartbreaking moment who the person knocking actually was.

Random thoughts:

It's a small thing, but it really annoyed me when the Doctor did the "I knew they'd have shields to prevent ramming because that's an obvious thing to have" when the climax of an episode shown three weeks earlier hinged on those exact same ships NOT having shields to prevent ramming. And it's such a simple fix. Make it "they've upgraded to avoid the same thing happening" and it works fine. But don't be smug and make out that EVERYONE has anti-ramming shields when they clearly don't.

I really don't think the abrupt tone shift from "your entire species has been killed. All your friends, family and colleagues are dead. You are the last of your kind" to "watch out for the fun adventures of Bel, Vender and their delightfully grumpy dog."

I don't see how the Grand Serpent went from "head of some sort of galactic species doing evil negotiations" to "time travelling guy messing up UNIT for some reason." Maybe if Vinder had actually defeated him in some way in his first appearance rather than just writing a strongly worded letter... And what does he get out of ruling a decimated Earth in a desolate universe?

There's another reminder of Chibnall's inherent conservatism as the Doctor becomes the defender of the Status Quo, arguing against the "change" that Azure and Swarm would bring. While, yes, the "change" in this case is "killing everyone", the Doctor usually works better as a rogue element, making people and societies better, rather than the current "yes, 1950s America was pretty racist, but whatcha gonna do?" approach.

Finally, I really don't get the logic of the ending. I know so much sci-fi stuff relies on an ending that FEELS like it makes logical sense (as, after all, the writer is making up the rules as they go along), but nothing here did. The Flux has eaten most of the universe... why would the Dalek and Cybermen ships slow it down? Does a Passenger really contain as much matter as a universe? If you're looking for something of potentially infinite space that has also existed in-universe for ever and would also tie the resolution more in to the title character, why not use the Tardis instead? And are we really ending on laughs and jokes when trillions of trillions of people are dead? I'm not expecting the show to explore the ramifications of wiping out half the universe, but there should maybe be something? (Hell, I'd have preferred a cop-out reset than this.)

Overall thoughts: I'm impressed by the show being made during the pandemic and unless you're looking for clues it's not obvious. A lot of the space shots were amazing considering the shows budget. JW got to actually do stuff. Dan was charming. The early episodes were intriguing. But it does all kinda fall apart at the end, with the worst bits of "tell, don't show" and the show thinking that we're all desperately curious about random bits of lore rather than focussing on stuff like "characterisation".
LiamKav said…
I recall something I read on Twitter:

"This is what people who don't watch Doctor Who think Doctor Who looks like".

It's mentioned a lot about how one of the cleverest things RTD did when he brought the show back was to set it in the same world as Eastenders and other "normal" TV shows that people watch. And then one of the criticisms of Moffat was that he wrote too "clever", asking the audience to pay attention and being too insular. (Which was never fair. Moffat tease big revelations about the characters, but they were almost always used to make points about characters rather than wiki entries. Who's the Hybrid? Doesn't matter, the story is about showing the lengths the Doctor would go to for Clara.)

Chibnall's problem is that he's the worst of both approaches. He simultaneously writes as if the audience is only half watching and so has characters Say What They're About To Do Very Clearly Repeatedly, but then he also makes plot points hinge around obscure bits of lore than hardly anyone cares about. (Ooh, the Brains of Morbius Doctors are cannon again please contain yourself).

The end result... wanking about lore and putting off the casual fan whilst also not doing anything clever with that lore and annoying the more hardcore fan. And then it's all dressed up in faux-"wokeness" than completely crumbles under any sort of examination that shows it to be way less woke than the prior two eras.

(I tried to like it. I like liking things. But... no. Just no.)