Ten years ago, Doctor Who was more popular than ever before. Following the huge success of Russell T. Davies’ relaunch of the show with Christopher Eccleston and then David Tennant in the title role, Matt Smith’s first two series as the Doctor achieved international acclaim, becoming especially popular across the pond. However, Doctor Who has been in somewhat of a downwards spiral since then. Matt Smith’s final series was an uneven mess and – despite his impeccable performance in the role – Peter Capaldi’s run was marred with sub-par storytelling; the fact he wasn’t young and attractive like his two predecessors didn’t help the show’s appeal to certain audiences either.
Replacing outgoing showrunner Steven Moffat, Chris Chibnall of Broadchurch fame opted to use his first series as a soft reboot of the show. The intention was that series 11 would be a jumping off point for new viewers who didn’t want to worry about catching up on over a decade of NuWho. (NuWho being fandom slang for Doctor Who post-2005.)
Chibnall would have succeeded in his aim too, if the series had been any good. The best part about series 11 is that it’s only 10 episodes long rather than the established 13. Initially, series 12 seemed to be a vast improvement, despite a couple of dud episodes. However, any good work was swiftly undone by arguably the worst series finale in the history of the show. Featuring a revelation that fundamentally changed the Doctor’s character, the episode alienated a lot of fans, leaving Doctor Who as a show with little mainstream popularity and an abundance of disheartened Whovians. As both Chibnall and Whittaker’s final full series, series 13 seems to be less about engaging new viewers and more about going out with a bang.
With relatively minimal marketing, the first episode of this Doctor Who miniseries premiered on the scariest day of the year, Halloween. Titled The Halloween Apocalypse, we find the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) and returning companion Yaz (Mandip Gill) in a spot of bother, courtesy of the Chewbacca-esque Karvanista. One surprisingly impressive action scene and title sequence later we are introduced to the affable Dan Lewis (John Bishop), a down on his luck scouser with a heart of gold. His path crosses with the Doctor’s when he’s abducted by Karvanista, who the Doctor is in pursuit of in her seemingly moribund TARDIS.
Around half a dozen new characters are introduced in The Halloween Apocalypse, so much so that it’s difficult to keep track of them all sometimes. Nevertheless, the narrative of the episode is never lost, it’s clear that these extraneous characters are all part of a larger mystery of which we're only currently scratching the surface. One of the more notable new additions is the villainous Swarm, whose exemplary design and sinister performance by character actor Sam Spruell promises to be the Doctor’s next great nemesis.
Other than the occasional ropy green screen effect, the production quality of The Halloween Apocalypse is engagingly high. Long gone are the days of green-painted bubble wrap monsters. The Doctor and her adventures have never looked better with beguiling cinematography, impressive production design and excellent costuming: the retro Sontarans look particularly fantastic.
Often let down by the material she’s given, Jodie Whittaker has never been able to truly stamp her mark on the Doctor in any way other than that she’s the first female iteration of the character. The Halloween Apocalypse suggests her interpretation of the character is starting to move in the right direction. She’s given a purpose; she has her own agenda that drives her beyond just saving lives. It’s an exciting prospect to see more of the edge Whittaker’s Doctor showed so painfully fleetingly last series.
Mandip Gill’s Yaz is unburdened from playing ‘third’ fiddle behind Graham (Bradley Walsh) and Ryan (Tosin Cole). It’s clear that her and the Doctor’s relationship has only grown stronger since we last saw them as Yaz is far more independent and capable, demonstrated by the script actually giving her things to do. John Bishop’s Dan Lewis is what you’d expect a character played by John Bishop to be, no more, no less. However, he’s incredibly likeable and you can’t help but root for him, in spite of Bishop’s somewhat tepid performance.
The best part about the first episode of Doctor Who: Flux is the promise of more. The mystery it weaves is captivating, buttressed by a host of new characters, creatures and returning monsters. While The Halloween Apocalypse’s quality did surprise me, my overall fears for the series are yet to be assuaged. Nevertheless, this is the most I’ve enjoyed an episode of Doctor Who since the Capaldi and Moffat era. The episode is a step in the right direction, I just hope Chris Chibnall doesn’t put a foot wrong.
Doctor Who: Flux episodes 1 and 2 are available on BBC iPlayer.