Monday 1 November 2021

Reviews in Time & Space: Doctor Who: Flux Chapter One - The Halloween Apocalypse

Doctor Who: Flux - Chapter 1: The Halloween Apocalypse

Following the events of The Timeless Children (and to a lesser extent, Revolution of the Daleks), Doctor Who has found itself in a somewhat precarious position. As if the divisive response amongst the fandom to that episode wasn't enough, the immediate follow-up to that also had to deal with a real-life pandemic that swept the world. The BBC haven't really made it much easier for themselves either, not only bringing in a new companion to replace the recently departed Graham and Ryan but also announcing that Russell T Davies will be returning to the show to man its 60th anniversary and beyond. For those still invested in the show there's an awful lot to get through in a small amount of time, and for those soured by the previous series it's hard to care when potentially something better is round the corner. But nevertheless Doctor Who is back for its 13th series, and with strict filming rules in place due to COVID it's doing something a little different. Doctor Who: Flux will be a six-part continuous story (the show's first since 1986's Trial of a Timelord), taking the Doctor, Yaz and new companion Dan through numerous adventures across time and space connected by the same cataclysmic event. And it all starts here with chapter one: The Halloween Apocalypse, written by Chris Chibnall and directed by Jamie Magnus Stone.

The Doctor & YazDan Lewis

Whilst tracking down information on her past, the Doctor encounters Karvanista - a dog-like alien that has captured the seemingly insignificant human Dan Lewis, with his species also sending a battalion of ships toward Earth. However the Lupari do not intend to destroy humanity, but rather save it from "The Flux" - a mysterious entity that is destroying everything in its path. Elsewhere a creature known as Swarm has escaped captivity and is coming for the Doctor, but she has no memory of their antagonist history. With Joseph Williamson digging tunnels underneath Liverpool in 1820, a Sontaran fleet posed for battle, a Weeping Angel targeting a woman and a lone spaceman also in the path of the Flux, how are all these events connected?

KarvanistaThe Flux

If there's one word to perfectly describe The Halloween Apocalypse it would be "chaotic". I mean this in both the good sense and bad, as the episode is a balls to the wall action piece with so many different elements crammed into it that there's very little time for any of them to breathe. The number of seeds sown (most with minimum explanation to provide maximum allure) works to its advantage when presenting the episode as the first chapter in Flux's overall story, but also means that it doesn't have quite as much to offer when viewed as a standalone story. That's not necessarily a bad thing considering what Flux is setting out to achieve, but will time will tell on whether it is able to succeed or crumble under the sum of its parts.

There are so many individual threads here that the only thing to do really is dissect them one by one. The main crux of the story is Dan being kidnapped by Karvanista, which in turn leads to the revelation that he's actually trying to protect him from the oncoming Flux. The Doctor is led to Karvanisa because he is possibly the only person who can give her information on the Division, the organisation she apparently worked for in a past life she can't remember. Meanwhile Swarm has been freed and is targeting the Doctor, whilst also releasing his sister Azure who for some reason had been trapped as/turned into a human. Azure also has eyes for Diane for some reason, a friend and possible love interest of Dan. There's also Claire, a woman being targeted by a Weeping Angel, Vinder escaping from the Flux after it destroyed the Observation Outpost Rose he was stationed at and real-life historical figure Joseph Williamson digging under Liverpool. Also the Sontarans are up to something and the TARDIS' door keeps moving about. In some cases it's already clear where these lines intersect, but for others it's the mystery behind them that's perhaps more appealing than the episode itself. Who is Claire and why is she "taking the long way round"? More to the point, how does she already know how to combat a Weeping Angel and where/when has she been sent? And while I'll be saving my full thoughts on the Sontarans' new look until next week's review, suffice to say they are looking extremely promising. 

Don't blinkThe Sontarans return

I hope you've able to follow everything so far, because The Halloween Apocalypse throws all of this at you at rapid speed – some of which comes without any real context. On paper it may sound like the episode is a mad rush to lay all the plot strands out on the table, but that's only half the truth really. The episode is allowed some moments to breathe, but only really in the strangest of places. The cold opening where the Doctor and Yaz evade Karvanista's death traps is the kind of silly Doctor Who fun we haven't seen since Moffat's tenure, but it feels positively laborious compared to how rapid some of the other story beats are. Likewise it's nice to get a fully fleshed out introduction to Dan and his Liverpool roots, but it all feels perfunctory in the grand scheme of things. For an episode with so much going on in it, it's amazing how little has actually happened by the half way mark.

But while the story might be a bit all over the place, the visuals definitely live up to Flux's ambition. If there's one thing that's certain about the current era of Doctor Who it's that it's strived to look and feel almost cinematic, and the fact they've continued to pull that off whilst a pandemic is still ongoing is pretty incredible. From the urban sprawl of Liverpool to vast reaches of a cosmos in the midst of destruction, The Halloween Apocalypse treats its audience with every visual trick in the book. Sure some of the green-screen stuff during the cold opening might have been a little ropey, but that’s part of what makes Doctor Who charming in the first place.

Universe destroying cloud aside (nice to see the Fox interpretation of Galactus still getting work after Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer), arguably the most important thing The Halloween Apocalypse needed to do was introduce the audience to Dan Lewis – the Doctor's newest companion. With both Chris Chibnall and the 13th Doctor's time on the show quickly coming to a close and no indication that Yaz or Dan will be carrying on into the next Doctor's tenure, there isn't a whole lot of time to flesh out a brand-new character. However as was the case with Bill Potts during the 12th Doctor's final series, John Bishop is already doing a great job of it. Right from the get go the audience is able to get a clear sense of who Dan is, and even though he hasn't directly contributed a whole lot to the plot as of yet he's instantly likeable in a way "the fam" struggled with. His dry sense of humour concerning his kidnapping by a dog-like alien worked really well, as did his reactions to everything else going on upon meeting the Doctor and Yaz (his reaction to Yaz being from Sheffield being a particular highlight). 

The 13th DoctorYaz

Dan making such a good first impression is a huge positive for the series, because unfortunately the new dynamic between the Doctor and Yaz leaves a lot to be desired. The story picks up with the pair having travelled without Graham and Ryan for some time, but from the outset it doesn't quite seem like the dream that Yaz was hoping for. As you'd expect from someone with past lives they have no memory of, the Doctor is chasing down answers – but keeping exactly what they're doing a secret from Yaz. The Doctor keeping secrets from their companions is nothing new, but there's almost an animosity between the pair on display here. When Yaz confronts the Doctor about hiding something, she bites back saying that she's allowed to have secrets and tries to justify it on the "wonderful adventures" they've had since Graham and Ryan left. It's an extension of the distance the Doctor has shown since first meeting the Fugitive Doctor in Prisoner of the Judoon, and even though some aspects of it were addressed in Revolution of the Daleks the Doctor is still very much keeping herself to herself. One could equally view the dynamic between the two becoming so close that they argue like close friends would, but it feels like something designed to be built upon and, given that Yaz will also likely be departing the show relatively soon, exploited.

Though the quality of Yaz's development over the previous two series is debatable, one thing it did establish was her becoming the more confident adventurer in time and space in comparison to the others. This has definitely continued on into Flux, with Yaz able to flex her alien experiences and confidently free Dan from captivity. It's an aspect of her character that really has the potential to shine with the Doctor being so secretive around her, and with her also having "veteran companion" status compared to Dan this might finally be the time Yaz finally gets that spotlight she's been so long overdue. Spotlight is something the Doctor also feels like she's going to have to fight for, because with so much going on here she really struggled to stand out. Whether it’s just because of the distance she's showing Yaz or that they were more powerless than usual to stop the destruction at hand, the Doctor felt more than a vessel to move the story (and characters) than usual. Her lack of knowledge about the Flux is a huge asset to both the story and her character though. As a character it shows just how driven she's become in discovering her past, and as a story it's always far more satisfying when the Doctor doesn't have the answers straight away. 


The other key character in all of this is Karvanista, who is perhaps the most "modern era Doctor Who alien" character we've seen in a long time. Love it or hate it there's just something wonderfully silly about a race of humanoid dog aliens paired to protect humanity as "man's best friend", and a species like this wouldn't have looked at all out of place amongst the myriad of weird and wonderful aliens Russell T Davies introduced when he brought the show back in 2005. As frustrating as it is that Doctor Who continues to lack any proper alien companions, the strong ties Karvanista has to both Dan and the Doctor at least ensure this isn’t the last we'll see of him and his tolerance (or lack thereof) of his protected human. Other characters like Diane, Claire or Vinder will surely prove important later down the line, but for the sake of brevity I'll explore them a bit more further into Flux's run when they've made more of an impression.

Which ultimately brings us on to Swarm, who is posed to be the "big bad" of the series other than the Flux itself. The idea of the Doctor having some sort of mortal enemy that they aren't even aware of is an interesting one, but just how invested you're going to be in it will of course wholly depend on how invested you are in the Timeless Child/secret origins of the Doctor storyline. That aside, even without much to do this episode Swarm makes a really good first impression. There are some very obvious Hellraiser Cenobite vibes in both the design and mannerisms of the character (as well as Azure) that make him rather unsettling, but even amongst the body count he's already racking up it's presented with that dash of Doctor Who campness that doesn't make it too scary for younger audience members. For example, the main takeaway I got from this episode was that the guy has excellent taste in suits. How effective a villain Swarm will be is yet to be proven, especially since it looks as though he might just be skulking around in the background for the most part. But for a key character that debuted in what could arguably be called a Halloween special? This definitely hit all the right notes. 


The Halloween Apocalypse may not have been spectacular, but ultimately did exactly what it needed to do - comfortably sow the seeds for the rest of series and present enough intrigue to encourage viewers to continue. The pacing may have been all over the place and the characterisation rather uneven, but it showed a level of ambition Doctor Who has lacked for some time now as well the fantastic visuals to match it. Where the main crux of the story faltered, the mystery of the unrelated parts were there to pick up the slack. Next week some old favourites make their grand return as we embark on chapter two of Doctor Who: Flux - War of the Sontarans.

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