Monday, 8 November 2021

Reviews in Time & Space: Doctor Who: Flux Chapter Two - War of the Sontarans

Doctor Who: Flux Chapter 2 - War of the Sontarans

After The Halloween Apocalypse kicked off Doctor Who: Flux in spectacularly manic fashion, it's now time to truly get into what series 13's continuous storyline has to offer. Despite the series only running for a total of six episodes and having its work cut out for it introducing new villain Swarm, it wouldn't be Doctor Who without some classic monsters making a reappearance. War of the Sontarans marks the first title appearance of the cloned warrior race since 2008's The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky, with subsequent appearances either having been cameos or centred around the commander turned nurse turned Paternoster Gang butler Strax. This episode however firmly re-establishes them as an enemy of the Doctor though, along with giving them a whole new look – again their first redesign since 2008.

Mary SeacoleThe Sontaran Army

After the TARDIS was ravaged by the Flux's energy, the Doctor, Yaz and Dan wake up in the midst of the Crimean War. After meeting with savvy healer Mary Seacole the group quickly realise something is wrong. The British are no longer facing the Russians, and are instead being decimated by Sontaran forces.

As the aftermath of their Flux encounter transports Yaz and Dan to different points in time, the Doctor is left alone to face the might of Commander Skaak's army. While Dan is faced with a concurrent Sontaran invasion taking place in present-day Liverpool, Yaz is transported to a mysterious temple in need of repair. There she meets with Serving Commander Inston-Vee Vinder, but it soon appears Swarm also has plans for the temple.

Yaz and VinderDan

It's no secret that I haven't been the biggest fans of the Sontarans' portrayal in the modern iteration of Doctor Who, in fact I wrote a whole piece about it back in 2014. Largely due to the introduction of Strax and the numerous appearances he made across the 11th and 12th Doctors runs, it felt as though the Sontarans had purely become a source for comedy and lost some of that more ferocious edge they had in their initial appearances. While there will always be something inherently silly about the Sontarans, striking the balance between portraying them as a fearsome race of clones bred solely for war and short potato-headed people that can be easily knocked out by a hit to the back of the neck is what made them work so well in the first place. Veer too far in either direction and it just doesn't feel right. However against all expectations War of the Sontarans manages to pull it off flawlessly, making the episode easily their best outing in modern Doctor Who – and easily rivalling some of their classic appearances as well.

Even from the little they appeared in the previous episode the considerable improvements made to the Sontarans could be seen. Gone was the bright blue armour, replaced with a more battle-worn take on their original spacesuit-esque uniforms and new face prosthetics. Even little mannerisms like that weird thing Sontarans do with their tongues were present, which shows how much the production team had looked back at their early appearances for inspiration. War of the Sontarans may have sadly robbed us of yet another opportunity to see them fighting against their age-old enemy the Rutans, but nevertheless it still showed them doing exactly what they do best. Rarely (if ever) have we seen full armies of Sontarans out on the battlefield, and their brutality was shown the best way a family-orientated show going out at 6:15pm on a Sunday night could. As well as overwhelming their opponents with superior military tactics and advanced weaponry, these were Sontarans that even showed a firm hand to their own when their honour is at stake. This is perfectly counterbalanced by some of the sillier moments of the episode, such as Dan and his parents taking out troops with a careful blow to the probic vent from kitchen utensils. The highlight though was definitely Commander Skaak's explanation of why the Crimean War was chosen as the pilot for the Sontarans' temporal invasion plans, adding that on top of all of the bloodshed from that particular period in history that he also just wanted to ride a horse.

The Doctor faces Commander SkaakCommander Skaak

Much like the previous episode War of the Sontarans was a story that pulled in many different directions as it tried to address Flux's numerous plot strands whilst introducing its own self-contained ones, but what set them apart was how much more focused it was in its approach. Part of this owed to the brilliant idea of splitting the main cast up for the majority of the story, allowing them to all follow their own paths instead of constantly battling for the spotlight. With Yaz and Dan off doing their own thing the Doctor had far more breathing room to be the Doctor, acting as a commanding presence both against the Sontarans and the attitudes of the British army's General Logan. Sara Powell also puts in a fantastic performance as Mary Seacole, with her not only making the perfect one-off companion but the attention to her exploits during the Crimean War giving the episode that ideal historical feel as well. With so much going on elsewhere the resolution to this storyline does feel a little rushed/convenient, but even then it's not without its impact.

If the Crimean War setting was an opportunity to portray the Sontarans at their most ruthless, then Dan's concurrent encounter with them in Liverpool is a chance to sprinkle a little more humour on the proceedings. The Halloween Apocalypse already did a great job of introducing Dan to audiences but here we get to see his more light-hearted reaction (at least in comparison to Yaz) to time travel and alien invasions in full force. Whether its him storming the Sontaran stronghold armed only with a wok or his parents explaining how they were able to discover their one key weakness, this storyline is chock-full of working class/Northern humour that'll really resonate with audiences. His rocky relationship with Karvinsta continues to be a good source of humour as well, and while they'll inevitably come to respect each other over the course of the story their matter of frankness toward each other is particularly good.

Karvanista and DanWWTDD?

Last of all that leaves Yaz, who's been tasked with job of building upon Flux's main storyline while the Doctor and Dan are off galivanting on the tangential Sontaran plot. As well as providing the perfect opportunity to bring Vinder into the fold Yaz's storyline is the one that poses the most questions of the whole episode, not all of which are related to this mysterious temple on the planet Time. Last week we saw a headstrong Yaz able to rescue Dan without the aid of the Doctor and while that continues here to some extent, there's also clearly an insecurity to Yaz's actions – noted by the fact she keeps "WWTDD" (what would the Doctor do?) written on her hand but kept out of sight. Vinder's backstory or relevance to Flux are still to be explored, but for now he makes a great pairing with Yaz. While it is a shame that the mysteries of the temple weren't a focal point of the episode, it served its purpose in creating suspense and anticipation for chapter three. After all, we still don't know why Joseph Williamson is also caught up in all of this and why he also briefly appeared at the temple.

With the Sontarans taken care of (for the time being), the conclusion to the episode fell swiftly back to Swarm who continues to be a delightfully creepy villain. He and his sister are now also joined by the beefier Passenger, whose silence in this episode was a curiosity in itself. So far Swarm just ticks all the boxes for the perfect Doctor Who villain – unsettling in both speech and mannerisms whilst also threatening in that he continues to be multiple steps ahead of the Doctor. 

PassengerSwarm

Of course it would be remiss to not once again mention just how good this episode looks. After opening up with an black and white vision of an ominous floating house, War of the Sontarans continues with an impressive set of visuals that gives each element of the episode its own unique look. The Crimean War offers vast misty landscapes with epic shots of Sontarans en masse, while in the present day Liverpool is transformed into a neon-lit nightmare as the Sontarans take their occupation. Finally the temple brings in all the hallmarks of modern Doctor Who set design, using open space to accentuate the central elements whilst bathed in a golden yellow light that just feels synonymous with Chibnall-era Who. Again, this era has always looked particularly cinematic but for Flux to shine so brightly whilst being produced in the midst of a pandemic is especially impressive.

The mysterious houseLiverpool under Sontaran rule

War of the Sontarans was many things - a single chapter in a larger story, a good old fashioned alien invasion story and part historical. Many other episodes have struggled to pull off so many components, but this was one that managed to do them all in a satisfying manner whilst retaining that same manic energy Flux has had since its beginning. The Sontarans were on top form, and by splitting the core characters up each of them was able to shine without getting in the way of the others. Next time Swarm’s secrets are sure to be revealed, as Cybermen AND Weeping Angels wreck havoc in Once, Upon Time.



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