Having now finished broadcasting all six parts of its season spanning story, how coherent a story is Doctor Who: Flux? Did all the pieces fall into place or leave you as confused as the Doctor appears to be throughout the series?
Doctor Who: Flux is perhaps the most ambitious series of Doctor Who since the revival. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the show was only able to produce six episodes. Showrunner Chris Chibnall therefore decided to make the six episodes one multi-part story. Such practice is by no means new to Doctor Who - the show has done it twice before in 1978's The Key to Time and 1986's The Trial of a Time Lord. However both of those Classic Who seasons also followed the standard format of (mostly) self-contained serialised stories making making up the season, the only way they connected was the McGuffin quest of The Key to Time and the fact that most of the serials in Trial are pieces of evidence being watched during the eponymous proceedings. In that respect, a continuous, six part narrative actually has more in common with Classic serials up to the end of the 70s, which could often go up to six-parts (the last serial to be that long was the final serial of The Key to Time).
When I first heard about this series, I was excited. I have long said (since 2013 in fact) that I would like to see a serialised Doctor Who return, and it perhaps would've befitted Moffat's large-scale storytelling style more appropriately. This series of Doctor Who comes more than a year after the last regular episode (March 2020, just before COVID ...), with only the 2021 New Year's Day episode to bridge them. As that episode only briefly touched upon the events of the controversial The Timeless Children, there was certainly a lot of interest as to where this series would pick up.
Depending on who you ask, the first episode either hit you like a refreshing shower or a ton of bricks - but either way you were hit with a lot of stuff. In Halloween's The Halloween Apocalypse, the episode introduced us to the glittery skeletal forms of Swarm and Azure, the Doctor and Yaz in the midst of chasing a dog-like alien for answers regarding last series' Timeless Child reveal, a universe erasing force called the Flux. And on top of this, the introduction of a character called Vinder, a strange woman called Claire and the promise of Sontarans and the Weeping Angels.
The show has laid out a lot of threads - and to consider Doctor Who: Flux, it is helpful to consider it in terms of threads. (Interestingly, the branding for the series heavily used a thread-like ribbon motif ... whether this was deliberate or not is unknown.) The show started off bold - making a lot of promises to deliver on. Fan reaction was mixed, those who reacted negatively did so mainly due to feeling confused or overwhelmed by the amount the show set up.
To an extent, this is true - there was a lot. But others, like myself, were not as concerned, on the assumption that 1/6th of the way into a story isn't necessarily the time to understand everything. After all if you knew how everything was connected half way through the first act, where is the mystery? However, that is not to dismiss the concerns completely - Doctor Who reviewer William "MrTARDIS" Carlisle commented that if Doctor Who had reached a point to alienate the casual viewer, it would be during this season. And it's hard to disagree, especially as it continued. A six-part season directly following on from the events of episodes 20 months ago is hardly an accessible viewing experience to those who aren't dedicated fans.
But - let's not be too harsh just yet - maybe the price of a bunch of viewers is worth telling an epic, multi-layered and intriguing plot. As the series progressed, we pulled at a few of the threads - the Sontarans seemed to pay off instantly the next episode with the warrior race using the confusion of the Flux to invade Earth. One of the definite positives of the season was returning the Sontarans to their threatening roots - for the last few years, Sontarans have either appeared as cameos or in the form of recurring but comic relief character Strax. In a redesign more closely resembling their less smooth Classic appearance, the Sontarans take over the planet across multiple time periods (off-screen, which does diminish this slightly), and in what I felt was adequately dark, efficiently and mercilessly massacre soldiers and execute civilians. The episode also establishes a recurring format for the series of splitting up the Doctor and the companions to have their own parallel stories throughout each episode. I think the move works, but mainly because I never felt any of this Doctor's companions had a strong enough chemistry with the Doctor, certainly less than they had with each other. One could argue this is what they were going for though, as Whitaker's Doctor is characterised by outwardly appearing very open and candid, but consistently keeping those close to her in the dark.
Where this format fails though are through the multiple parts in the season where it is clear the companions or the Doctor are basically having a filler adventure just so they can a. appear in the episode and b. fill up runtime. This is seen in the following episode, where the Doctor, Yaz, Dan and Vinder are all trapped in recreations of moments of their lives. The Doctor's story is the most important to the arc, as we see them relive what appears to be the final mission of the Timeless Child, defeating Azure and Swarm. The scenarios Yaz and Dan go through aren't important, other than to serve as a platform to foreshadow certain elements that are upcoming (the Angels and the character of historical figure Joseph Williamson). Vinder's story serves as a backstory for his character but also to introduce another antagonist, the Grand Serpent. But more on him later. We also see Bel, who is later revealed to be Vinder's pregnant partner. Both Vinder and Bel are relatively well written characters for their screentime, and well acted, but ultimately don't play massive roles in the arc other than being extra hands to help the Doctor. And that's not an issue - it's very consistent with Classic Who, and that is something this season did a lot with its pacing and storytelling. But does mean there isn't much more to say on the characters.
The third episode succeeds in tying together some of the threads we are following and to me, assured me there is a point of convergence for them all. We now know how Swarm and Azure know the Doctor (they stopped them in the past), how the Doctor knows Karvanista (the Lupari they were persuing), how Karvanista knows of the Doctor's past, and we get the reveal of another mysterious figure who declares the Doctor is responsible for the Flux. So a few threads are woven into each other, but we also get two new threads introduced. The episode concludes with an Angel taking over the TARDIS. The fourth episode, Village of the Angels, feels like the most standalone episode of the season. Once again the Doctor is split from their companions, and both have their own adventures, but more connected ones. The episode eventually reveals its tie to the arc, but it's an extremely simple one. The Angels are working for the Division, hunting a rogue Angel who had possessed Claire and is a vessel for containing the history of the Timeless Child. Take that out and the story still works. It is perhaps because of this it appears to be the most well received episode of the season.
The Angels deliver the Doctor to the Division for the penultimate episode, which has three plots - an exposition thread where the Doctor meets the mysterious figure, revealed to be Tecteun (the Gallifreyan who found her); a fun but ultimately filler adventure global trot from the companions, and a sub-plot of the Grand Serpent infiltrating UNIT. To me, the exposition plot helped to explain most of the plot of the season so far, bringing us to where we needed to be before the finale. The Flux was Tecteun's response to the Doctor discovering Division. In what appears to be a case of being genre savvy, Tecteun does not underestimate the power of the Doctor's meddling, and rather than fight them, simply decides to go the easier route of destroying the entire universe, Doctor with it, and moving to another one where they can exert their influence. But then, deciding the Doctor has become too good at stopping the Flux, decides to capture the Doctor and convince them to rejoin the Division.
The Division considering the Universe to be essentially their personal Sim game, and erasing it in favour of a new one seems very in line with Time Lord ethics. So so far so good. The companion story is ultimately filler, other than to get our companions where they need to be for the finale, and explain what the mysterious Joseph Williamson is doing (Williamson is a real person who built tunnels under Liverpool for unknown reasons - a mystery perfect for Doctor Who to incorporate into its premise). His tunnels link multiple parts of space and time together, explaining his random appearances and disappearances in the season.
The Grand Serpent plotline, however, is the concerning one. In the third episode, the character only appears to be part of Vinder's backstory, showing him as being honourable even at the expense of his own freedom. The character being brought back now reinforces another late-story plot line to consider. We see the Serpent appear to UNIT at several points of its history, gaining himself a high-level influence over the organisation (it's also nice they dated the second to last scene to coincide with the last time we saw UNIT in the show, retrospectively explaining their absence until now).
The reason this is concerning is thus - the way I see it, a big, multipart story, with multiple threads can work. But there is a trick to it. You take all those threads, and you knit them together, and as you knit, the threads gradually become more and more intertwined until you have one thread. And for the most part, this was happening, especially with the penultimate episode exposition. It was doing exactly what it is meant to, bringing everything together into one coherent story, getting rid of most of the mystery and theories and providing answers, so that the final episode only has to deal with one thing it needs to resolve. So the introduction of another thread this late did worry me that the show would have what so many other shows often end up having as their fatal flaw - handling too many threads in the finale, not giving the audience enough time to feel like they are on board with it and therefore breaking the immersion. It's the same flaw I felt the finale of WandaVision had - the whole show was building up to something, but the penultimate episode ultimately dealt with all that build up, and then introduced a brand new conflict for the finale.
This, sadly, also happens here. The penultimate episode deals with a lot of the build up, but also sets up a fairly straight forward episode to resolve it. Instead what the final episode does is somehow fray all the threads into their separate parts all over again, and then introduces some new elements. At the end of it all, I never felt like I understood what Azure and Swarm were wanting to achieve, apart from bad-guy destruction. I like to think of myself as a viewer who is able to follow complicated shows and plots quite well, so either this was simply above me, or it was poorly executed, or the show failed to explain them enough early on and any explanation got lost in the confusion of the finale.
A literal confusion, as the Doctor gets split into three beings and jumps between them - when this is first happening it is rapid, but this also happens during a section where Azure and Swarm are exposition themselves, which is fairly important information - I suppose the intent was to make us feel as confused as the Doctor, which would be fine if this wasn't crucial information. And it's a shame - Swarm certainly strikes me as a very intriguing villain from a design perspective - the skeletal mineral appearance, the shiny jacket, the way they hold their body and their casual, calm, controlled way of speaking. I just wish I knew what they were.
As mentioned, the Doctor accidentally gets split into three identical people - this allows them to play a role in all three of the plots happening at the same time. Normally, this sounds like the exact thing that would make for an intriguing Doctor Who adventure (and previous episodes have in fact played with this) - but here, I can't help but think it was simply because Chibnall felt like he needed his main character in all three places at the same time, so he just went ahead and did that. Whereas the previous episodes have had the format of the Doctor doing one adventure and the companions and other characters on other adventures, here the Doctor controls all of them. If nothing else, I think this proves that perhaps the finale had too much plot.
And there was one which could easily be dropped - the Grand Serpent plotline. The Grand Serpent is an extremely menacing and well portrayed villain whose only function appears to be to further the plots of other characters - he first appears to explain why Vinder was exiled, then he appears here to help the Sontarans, apparently as a way to rebuild his own empire although this isn't made explicit. The issue is he ultimately takes up a lot of screen time for playing a relatively trivial role - at one point he decides to make his priority petty revenge on the Doctor and Kate Stewart, and then is promptly captured and stranded on a rock in space. I feel his role in exiling Vinder could have been a more insignificant character. As for the Sontarans - considering they start off this episode exactly where they were at the beginning of the second episode (but without the Serpent's help), one can't help but think a more coherent story would have been to make this the Sontaran's only appearance. The time gained from cutting the Serpent could certainly have been used more to explain Swarm and Azure.
At the end of it (like within the last ten minutes of this 300 minute long story), it is shown they were trying to free the physical embodiment of Time (who is apparently an antagonistic force). Time is kept trapped on a planet which Swarm and Azure were hoping the Flux would destroy (even though the Flux was the result of the Division??? Is this one of the connections I missed???), but the Doctor manages to stop the Flux, rendering the plan foiled. Time destroys Swarm and Azure and then lets the Doctor go, recombining them into one person and letting them leave with the fob watch full of the Timeless Child memories. The surviving extra characters go their own ways, and Dan joins the TARDIS crew (I've not said a lot on Dan - I like the character well enough, especially the grounded humour of Dan, portrayed by John Bishop, simply taking everything that happens with little in the way of shock or wonderment. But also where credit is due, Bishop plays the more sombre moments very well - however due to the separation of the companions from the Doctor throughout the story, we've not actually had much Doctor/Dan interaction to see their chemistry).
The Doctor, after all that, hides the fob watch in the TARDIS from themself, hidden until they decide they are ready. My thoughts before the season were to not rush back into the Timeless Child mystery, let it sit in the background as a self-contained revelation with no impact, show people the show and the character are still the same (which seemed to be the thesis of the ending of The Timeless Children - it didn't matter if the Doctor had a previous life, who they are today is who they chose to be). However, possibly inevitably following the reaction from that reveal, this arc continues where we left off. Having gone through those six episodes, to only now decide they don't want to know, kind of feels a bit deflating.
So what are my thoughts on Flux? The show built itself an ambitious foundation, but one it could easily maintain if it focused itself. Ultimately however the resolution was overwhelming rather than satisfying. I still have questions - including: Wait, so is most of the Universe still permanently destroyed?? The final two episodes left us with the implication Earth was one of a few remaining planets. Not much for the show to explore now then! If the finale focused purely on the Doctor vs. the Division (is the Division still a thing? Or did it die with Tectuen? What happened to the Ood???), this series could have been one of Modern Who's best outputs. But ultimately it failed at the landing.
Doctor Who returns on New Year's Day for Eve of the Daleks and then two final specials in 2022 - whether these will further continue the story, or be fresh plots to end Whitaker and Chibnall's time on the show, we shall have to wait and see.