Doctor Who: Flux is not just the title of the Time Lord’s epic adventure aired in late 2021, but also a pretty apt sitrep. In the run-up to the show’s diamond jubilee celebrations, the audience figures have continued their steady decline, with a change of lead actor, showrunner and production team all in progress.
The man who re-launched Doctor Who in 2005 and made it a major global phenomenon – Russell T. Davies – is coming back to try and work his magic all over again, partnering the BBC with production company Bad Wolf (which recently had a majority stake acquired by Sony Pictures Television) in an effort to try and create a brand and presence which can stand up against the challenges being posed by streaming services and other franchises, like the resurgence of Star Trek, which is continuing to grow and expand.
The television landscape has changed and shifted during the last 17 years, and in an interview early last year when doing publicity for It’s A Sin, Davies opined that Doctor Who could have a series of spin-offs, noting just how commonplace it is nowadays, and that he had been a decade too soon. As it was well before the news that he was returning, it may give some idea of his lofty aspirations for empire building. He also has a job ahead of casting a new Doctor, plus shouldering the huge responsibility of overseeing the 60th anniversary.
As the big announcement of Davies’ second coming broke in late September, it was already known by then Chris Chibnall and Jodie Whittaker would both be departing after the next series followed by a limited run of specials, so all of this news had tended to somewhat overshadow the then-forthcoming special event story, Doctor Who: Flux. Pity poor Chibnall and Whittaker: theirs are probably the only jobs where as soon as they start, everybody then starts asking them when they will be leaving.
Dictated partly by the requirements of TV production in the era of COVID, Doctor Who: Flux reflects something of a shift away from the pattern of late, with a single story being told over a six-episode series. The move also perhaps marks the growing trend towards doing narratives across the course of a bingeworthy season, with Star Trek doing more serialised storytelling, and continued with programmes like The Book Of Boba Fett and Hawkeye.
Of course, this is nothing new for Doctor Who, as way back in 1986, it had one storyline which filled an entire 14-episode season, in the rather self-aware ‘The Trial Of A Time Lord’, at a time when the series’ future was in jeopardy. In something which would subsequently come to be extremely ironic, the BBC show Open Air featured the appearance by a number of fans, who harshly critiqued this bold experiment, with one of them being a member of a Liverpool-based fan group, by the name of Chris Chibnall.
Doctor Who: Flux certainly has been quite a departure from the norm, especially as Chibnall has taken on writing duties almost single-handledly, with only Maxine Alderton being co-writer for one of the episodes. Seeing as how Chibnall’s scripts have not been particularly well-received, it looked as if this would be either a brave or a foolhardy move; while not being entirely successful, it certainly felt as though Flux was more accomplished than many of his other contributions to the show, although that seems a tad like damning with faint praise.
Chibnall has aimed to make Flux feel grand and epic, epoch-making stuff, picking up on his hugely controversial (well, to fans, at least: nobody else probably gives a monkey’s about it) mythos-shaking ‘Timeless Child’ arc, where he revealed the Doctor had a whole series of lives which had been erased from her memory, and that not only was she not the native-born Gallifreyan she had always thought, but that she was in fact the original source of the Time Lords’ power of complete bodily regeneration.
Flux picked up on this, with the Doctor being on a quest to learn more about her lost past, which ended up seeking her out, in the form of the evil Ravagers, Swarm (Sam Spruell) and Azure (Rochenda Sandall), who have the advantage of knowing her, while she is unable to remember them. Once again, the fate of the entire universe hangs in the balance, making Flux feel like a six-part season finale, whilst trying also to up the ante by making the Doctor’s backstory wholly integral to the events which are unfolding.
If anything, Chibnall has been overambitious, throwing into the mix so many disparate elements which, sadly, fail to tie together satisfactorily. All of the time-hopping can be a bit giddying, and the story has so much which it sets out to do, from introducing new companion Dan Lewis (John Bishop); to expanding on the mystery of the Doctor’s hidden history; bringing back old monsters like the Daleks, Weeping Angels, Sontarans and Cybermen; placing all of reality in major peril; and telling the love story of separated couple Vinder (Jacob Anderson) and Bel (Thaddea Graham).
It would take someone far more capable than Chibnall to be able to make all these elements work in conjunction, such as former showrunner Steven Moffat, who seemingly revelled in overly complicated plots and story arcs. At times, it almost felt like Chibnall was trying to ape Moffat’s style, ending up taking a stab at delivering the form without fully grasping or understanding the function. Moffat-lite storytelling aside, the structure also felt flawed at times, with the whole fifth episode – ‘Survivors Of The Flux’ – coming across like a big exercise in treading water desperately.
As well as sending three of the characters on an ultimately pointless quest, it focused upon ancillary baddie the Grand Serpent (Craig Parkinson), whose abilities and motivations seemed muddy at best, other than just being generically evil, and only really in there to provide Vinder the chance to face closure to his story, having fallen foul of the Grand Serpent previously. Other than that, he felt completely superfluous to events, and the story may have worked far better if he had been completely excised from the climax, as he added little of merit.
Some of the performances were tonally all over the place, in particular Steve Oran’s turn as the real-life historical figure Joseph Williamson, which veered wildly between measured and sympathetic at certain points, up to an embarrassingly cartoonish and exaggerated delivery, which felt far more in keeping with The League Of Gentlemen’s grotesques. The Sontarans were, sadly, reduced to being mainly comic relief for much of their screen time, which minimised their basis as a credible menace, despite glimmers of hope from Jonathan Watson as multiple Sontaran commanders.
However, in terms of acting, there were definitely far more bouquets than brickbats in evidence, with some standouts amongst the cast. Kevin McNally imparted a real humanity to an ostensibly stuffy man of science, Professor Eustacius Jericho. Relative newcomer Thaddea Graham offered some true verisimilitude to Bel, making what could have seemed mawkish actually come across as credible and full of heart. Annabel Scholey’s engagingly twitchy, nervy performance as Claire Brown drew the eye every time she was on screen, and cries out for a return engagement.
Thankfully, the two main antagonists – Swarm and Azure – happened to be acquitted beautifully, certainly making the most of what was perhaps some rather thin gruel at times in terms of actual material; Spruell in particular excelled as the apotheosis of evil, with a silky, urbane villainy. John Bishop was clearly not needed to be anything other here than John Bishop, with his Scouse charm filling in for the many, many blanks in Dan, who was less a credible personality, and more a list of characteristics. As his run on the show appears to be limited, we may not get to see any character development, nor a need to stretch his acting capabilities.
It just seems an awful shame that it has taken three series for the Chibnall era of Who to truly get out of first gear, let alone hit its relative stride. Whittaker in particular appears rather to have been shortchanged, as she has come into her own, being given some definingly Doctor-ish moments for her to really get her teeth into. As ever, the fault seems to lie not with her portrayal, but what she has been given to work with; one can only wonder how she would potentially soar if she was given the chance to continue in the lead role under Davies’ tutelage, but alas we shall never know.
With many nu-Who DVD and Blu-ray releases suffering in comparison to the loving attention afforded to the classic series, especially the Doctor Who: The Collection range of complete season box sets, expectations are now somewhat low when it comes to the contents accompanying each new series. For Doctor Who: Flux, however, it appears there has been a reversal of fortune, at least in terms of volume if not substance or duration. For Flux, it comes across as getting far more bang for your buck than for the last few series on home media.
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While all the featurettes are rather brief, running to between around five and fifteen minutes apiece, they at least attempt to give a little more insight into the production. Despite the ‘electronic press kit’ nature of the contents lacking some of the in-depth approach which is typically found being applied to classic Who bonus features, there is still a nice selection of extras here; however, if you need a feature just to explain the story, which Chibnall does here, it would tend to suggest that just a little more work on the scripts might have perhaps not gone amiss.
Doctor Who: Flux is a flawed, imperfect, but still surprisingly entertaining endeavour, delivering at least one instalment which will likely be seen in future as a classic, in Chibnall and Alderton’s story ‘Village Of The Angels’. Rather than playing it safe, Doctor Who should keep pushing the envelope, and it would be far better to risk falling short with experiments like this than ploughing the same furrow ad infinitum. Although in this case the whole was perhaps not greater than the sum of its parts, Flux has at least tried to shake up the status quo, for which it should be applauded.