Monday 6 December 2021

Reviews in Time & Space: Doctor Who: Flux Chapter Six - The Vanquishers

Doctor Who: Flux Chapter 6 - The Vanquishers

It's been six action-packed weeks but the end has finally arrived, as Doctor Who series 13 draws to a close - ending both this series' ongoing Flux storyline and signalling the beginning of the end for Jodie Whittaker's 13th Doctor. While there is usually a pretty high expectation when it comes to series finales as the culmination of the show's first series-long story in decades, it's fair to say that anticipation is running particular high when it comes to The Vanquishers. As per the rest of the series, this final chapter was written by show runner Chris Chibnall and directed by chapters three and five director Azhur Saleem.

Sontaran Commander StenckSwarm

The final event of the Flux is approaching, and Earth is at the epicentre. Allied with the Grand Serpent, the Sontarans have taken over the Earth and are about to launch their boldest scheme ever to conquer the galaxy. Meanwhile Division has fallen to Swarm and Azure, who plan to use the Flux for their own nefarious purposes.

As the friends the Doctor has survived through the Flux with finally come together in the same place, time is running out. The Doctor has a plan to stop the Sontarans and save the universe, but she can't be everywhere at once. Or can she?

The cast of Flux......assembled at last

To start this review off as positively as possible, The Vanquishers turns out to be another pretty great outing for the Sontarans – with Flux as a whole firmly re-establishing them as a force to be reckoned with while at the same time not completely eliminating the more comical side of them that's helped them remain popular in recent years. This episode sees the Sontarans make their grandest bid for power yet, luring the Daleks and Cybermen (the two forces which the Sontarans themselves probably realise they have absolutely no chance in defeating otherwise) into the heart of the Flux so that they will be left as the biggest military might in the cosmos. It's the kind of ambitious story-telling the Sontarans have needed, with their multi-step plan turning out to be the central focus of the story (and in turn arguably Flux as a whole). There are definitely some missteps – opinions on a Sontaran commander raiding corner shops because he's addicted to chocolate may vary but I think we can all agree it was downright bizarre, but between this episode and War of the Sontarans it's undoubtedly the strongest outing they've had since Doctor Who's revival. For all its flaws at least this episode even acknowledged the never-ending war between the Sontarans and the Rutans, with Commander Stenck calling out their age-old enemies during his call for amnesty.

However the rest of The Vanquishers is not so commendable. In terms of wrapping up Flux's overarching storyline and giving purpose to all of the characters and plot threads that have been dangled in front of us for the past six weeks, the episode fails time and time again. There's a certain irony to the Doctor being separated from her companions for so much of Flux that she had to be split into three in order for this finale to work, and with three Doctors on hand you can guarantee that doesn’t leave much for anyone else to do. After weeks of carrying the story Yaz and Dan slink back into the background, while Kate Stewart's grand return amounts to her standing around and being another character for the Doctor to talk at. The Grand Serpent? Arguably only here to give Vinder's backstory some closure. And after revealing his tunnels as the next in a line of plot devices, Joseph Williamson was only around to be told how great he was and then he's off on his way. There are just so many plot threads here that are just halted abruptly or don't lead to anything at all that it's hard to call any of them remotely satisfying.

The Sontaran who loved chocolateThe Grand Serpent

Let's start with Bel and Vinder. For weeks we've watched them chase each other across the galaxy, with the constant recognition of Bel's pregnancy suggesting that was going to play into the story in some way. As ridiculous as all the speculation that they could be the Doctor's parents was, at least that would have amounted to something. Here Bel is just an extra pair of hands to help carry out the Doctor's plan, while Vinder just acts as a companion to Diane – a character who we've barely seen at all throughout Flux yet arguably contributes more to saving the day than every other side character combined. Bel and Vinder are reunited and then it's a swift goodbye, who go off on their travels with Karvanista – another character whose story doesn't go anywhere. Not only is his entire species killed off unceremoniously off-screen, but we discover that he's never going to talk about his time with the Doctor because it'll kill him. Not anything interesting like how it would emotionally kill him because the pair were so close in the Doctor's forgotten life, but instead it'll literally kill him because he's got a poison implant which'll inject should he so much utter a word about it. It doesn't come as any sort of shocking revelation, it's just a throwaway line so that the subject will never be raised again. Given the character's popularity it wouldn't be surprising if we saw Karvanista again before the 13th Doctor departs, but at the same time it doesn't feel like there's anything left to do with him – or more there's nothing left Chibnall actually wants to do with him.

Claire makes a comeback to be a psychic plot device for the Sontarans, helping set both theirs and the Doctor's plans into motion. To Chibnall's credit he does a great job of getting all the major players from across Flux all into one place for the grand finale, but as usual the story struggles with so many characters and it means a lot of them are just there to help move things along. Despite Claire being key to this section of the story, her little piece arguably belongs to Jericho instead. In a mere three episodes Jericho proved to be a brilliant addition to the TARDIS crew, so it's really sad to see he won't be joining them for any further adventures. Given that Yaz and Dan spent three years travelling with him, their minimal reaction to his rather unfortunate death comes across as particularly strange and/or cold-hearted. But then death as an afterthought seems to be commonplace here, because the episode never really makes it clear whether half the universe is still destroyed or not. Swarm's plan involves rewinding the Flux, but he doesn't appear to have done so before he meets his end. While there's nothing wrong with not hitting the reset button and restoring the status quo, destruction on the magnitude that Flux implied surely needs some sort of addressing. 

Spaceship overloadGoodbye Jericho

Lastly we come to Swarm and Azure, the two that perhaps had the most potential in all of Flux only to fumble at the most crucial point. As it transpires "The Ravagers" are beings which worship time itself, who plan to destroy space to turn the tide in the stalemate battle time and space. These are very abstract concepts which when combined with the idea that they're two of the Doctor's oldest enemies (that she can't even remember) make for some very interesting characters. But when you break it down over the course of the series they don't actually do very much at all, and spend the majority of The Vanquishers gloating about their plan until it ultimately fails. The history between them and the Doctor isn't expanded upon any further, and between the three Doctors in the story the one stuck with them being tortured often feels like the one pushed to the wayside. Eventually we return to the Temple on Adraposs where the Doctor comes face to face with Time personified, who after "ascending" Swarm and Azure for their failure signals the incoming "death" of the Doctor. What feels like it should have been a big moment instead feels like something we've seen multiple times before, as Time warns there'll be no regenerations this time and to "beware of the forces that mass against you, and their Master". All of this for a far from subtle teaser that the Master's going to be back, quelle surprise.

Of course it all comes back to the revelations of the Timeless Child, which aren't any clearer by the end of the Flux than they were over a year ago. As predicted the end of the episode sees the Doctor ultimately reject the memory of her past lives, burying the fob watch deep within the TARDIS only to be called on if "she really wants it". It's said that the aim of the Timeless Child was to reinsert some mystery back into the character of the Doctor, but if the mystery isn't there to serve a purpose then what's the point in all of this? The Doctor doesn't feel any more mysterious as a potentially immortal being from another universe that's the foundation of Time Lord physiology than they are an alien who just one day decided to steal a time machine and travel the universe. No one expected the Doctor's history to be completely revealed by the end of Flux, but with both Tecteun and Swarm seemingly dead and Karvanista refusing to say anything the series didn't really tell us anything we didn't know or could have inferred before whilst closing off every possible lead the Doctor has. "The Doctor was once a space cop" is about as revealing as it ever got. With the New Years' Day special looking as though it's completely detached from whatever larger story Chibnall is trying to tell there isn't a whole lot of time cover whatever plans he has for the Timeless Child. Or does he even want to? There's every possibility that now that the bomb has been dropped it's simply being left up to future writers whether they want to address it or not.

Vinder & AnneThe Doctor faces Time

Ultimately The Vanquishers may have had the makings of a decent Sontaran story but as the final 'epic' chapter to Flux it's a spectacular failure. Characters are story set-ups poised to have huge ramifications on Doctor Who as a whole turn out to be a whole load of nothing, while the mystery of the Timeless Child continues to be an unnecessary addition to the lore that isn't really contributing anything to the show outside of generating controversy. Ambitious as it may have been, ultimately it feels as though a lot of Flux's lasting legacy will be "well what was the point of all that?". That said there's still time for Chibnall to do the 13th Doctor justice in the three forthcoming specials prior to both Chibnall and Whittaker's exits from the TARDIS, starting with the 2022 New Year's Day special Eve of the Daleks. The Doctor versus Daleks (with brand new Gatling gun weapons!) in a Groundhog Day-esque time loop – what's not to love about that?


CPF said...

If you were the head writer, how would you handle the 13th Doctor's last three specials?

Alex said...

Honestly, I want them to just be fun adventures. Give Jodie a chance to be the Doctor - everyone felt she finally got that chance inn Flux but to me it still felt like she was two steps behind the villains half the time. Eve of the Daleks looks like it may be a step in the right direction in that regard.

The last one is naturally going to have a bit more gravitas but I don't really want to see the Master again. The hints they dropped made it sound like The End of Time 2.0.