Doctor Who Series 13 Episode 5 Review
Warning: this Doctor Who review contains spoilers.
If there’s one thing you can say about Flux, it’s that no two episodes have felt quite the same. For better or worse, each chapter has worked to establish its own tone and tempo, which has helped add to the sense of scale the story possesses. It also means members of the audience will appreciate some episodes more than others, depending on which flavour of Doctor Who they prefer. A selection box rather than a king-sized Toblerone, in other words.
This week, we’ve gone from the creeping horror of Weeping Angels in misty Devon to an Indiana Jones-style, globetrotting adventure that’s heavy on banter and physical comedy. The breakneck pace, unfortunately, means that there’s little or no attention given to wrapping up some dangling plot points from last week’s episode and we’re left to infer what happened for ourselves. Did the Angels bother to return the village to its place in time and space? They must have done for UNIT to recover the TARDIS, but we don’t get to hear about that, nor do we learn the fate of young Poppy.
When we last saw the Doctor, she was involuntarily recruited into a stony squadron of Weeping Angels, which made for a corker of a cliffhanger, though her transformation turns out to be entirely temporary. It’s only going to last for as long as it takes for the Angels to ferry her to their final destination, and they really just did it to mess with her. (This year’s stories have really made a point of emphasising how cruel the Angels like to be, and I’m all for it.)
As for the Doctor’s companions, we re-join them after a full three years trapped in the early 20th century along with Professor Jericho, with Yaz going full-on Lara Croft as she rappels down into a tomb in search of a particular pot. This cross-continental excursion has apparently kept them busy since the last episode, though given that the trio arrived in 1901 with nothing but the clothes on their backs, some hint at how they’ve been surviving would have been appreciated. Maybe they ransacked the empty village and made a few trips to the nearest pawnbrokers?
Having being dropped off by the Angels, the Doctor comes face-to-face with an Ood (Jodie Whittaker’s woozy line-reading of “Ood…!” made me laugh far more than it should) and appears to have arrived in a kind of arboretum. She’s reunited with the mysterious old woman from ‘Once, Upon Time’ and welcomed back to what turns out to be the Division’s HQ – which makes sense, given all the talk of her being recalled to Division, but still seems to catch the Doctor by surprise.
Yaz, Dan and the Professor have travelled to some sort of bazaar to get the pot’s inscription translated, and it’s worth calling out that each of these locations are presented and framed in a way that feels really authentic to old swashbuckling serials. As is Doctor Who tradition, some of the sets may be slightly wobbly – the chamber Yaz raided wouldn’t look out of place on The Crystal Maze – but Azhur Saleem, in the director’s chair for three episodes of Flux, does a fine job capturing the look and feel of a classic adventures. (Tropes like fizzing sticks of dynamite and assassins disguised as waiters don’t hurt, either.)
Since this is not an episode that likes to sit still, we then take another time-hop to 1958 to meet, rather unexpectedly, Vinder’s former sovereign gadding about on a country estate. The Grand Serpent is on Earth, going by the name of Prentis and cosying up to none other than the founder of UNIT, which can’t mean good things for the planet’s future. It’s not as if this story has a shortage of bad guys, and the Serpent’s scenes with stuffy military types don’t crackle quite as much as his previous conflict with Vinder, but at least this sets up their inevitable reunion and gives his former subjects a solid reason to fight for Earth. It’s not often we see a companion feuding with someone who hasn’t already clashed with the Doctor.
It’s at this point in the episode that we start getting some answers – lots of them, in fact, not just for Flux but for things that have happened throughout Chris Chibnall’s time as showrunner. Some of these answers make a lot of sense, while others are going to be a lot more contentious, no matter what may happen next week.
To begin with, we learn that Yaz and company are roaming the world on the Doctor’s say-so, via a holographic message instructing them to find the exact date and time of an inevitable post-Flux attack. The Doctor’s savvy enough to realise that with Earth quite possibly the last unspoiled planet in the universe, scavengers are going to come calling sooner or later, but is confident that with the flow of time this badly damaged, someone will have the future knowledge they need to prepare.
Through Vinder’s eyes, we also see that Swarm and Azure aren’t just collecting the galaxy’s survivors to use as hostages. They’ve set themselves up on a massive, claw-like structure in deep space, and are now dusting swathes of their prisoners to use as a power source, possibly in a similar way to how Weeping Angels feed on potential time to strengthen themselves.
The greatest revelations this week, however – and definitely the most divisive – are of course saved for the Doctor’s story. The old woman first introduces herself as, effectively, Acting Head of the Division, then informs the Doctor that they’re no longer within the confines of our broken universe, and are in fact making tracks for the nearest available replacement. Also, the Division grew beyond the purview of Gallifrey and has become a shadow society running pretty much everyone and everything from behind the scenes. More than that, the Flux was unleashed deliberately because Division would rather wipe out the universe than let the Doctor run free and get up in their collective faces. Oh, and this old woman is actually Tecteun, the amoral scientist who previously invented regeneration by torturing the Doctor through countless lives.We’ll need to come back to all that.
Here is where things start to get a bit wobbly as far as Team TARDIS are concerned. They go and visit a mountaintop hermit in a light-hearted scene (one that gets a bit overshadowed by all of the exposition we’ve just received) and he tells them to “fetch your dog”. This whole exchange gives them the idea of daubing a giant message to Karvanista demanding that he come and collect Dan from 1904.
The question is – why? We’ve established that getting home again isn’t Yaz’s main concern; they’re looking for information regarding future events because that’s what the Doctor told her to do. And as Karvanista himself complains, he hasn’t got a time machine, so the entire ‘find the prophecy’ sub-plot just kind of… fizzles out. It feels like a remnant of an earlier draft where the companions really were just searching for a way to get back to the 21st century, rather than for information, which would have ultimately led them organically to Joseph Williamson’s time tunnels.
As it is, Williamson himself has to randomly wander into Yaz’s cabin for their story to suddenly spin off in a completely different direction. We don’t even find out who was trying to kill them, although my money’s on the Grand Serpent. It’s a shame, because the characters had so much more agency this episode, some good jokes, and Kevin McNally fits in so well he could shine as a full-time companion.
What works better is the slow burn of the Grand Serpent infiltrating UNIT over the decades (including a wonderful nod to the Brigadier) as he goes around bumping people off by manifesting a giant, spiky snake inside them. There’s no blood, of course, but the creature still looks really quite nasty as it wriggles its way out of people’s bodies and back to Daddy. (Perhaps he’s a relative of Colony Sarff?)
Fans of the Lethbridge-Stewart lineage were understandably upset when UNIT got ‘defunded’ off-screen back in 2017, and while it’s doubtful that Chibnall had this planned in mind back then, it’s nice to see their closure used for something more than narrative convenience. It’s also nice to see Jemma Redgrave return as Kate Stewart for the first time since 2015’s ‘The Zygon Inversion’, and hopefully she’ll go a second round with the Grand Serpent at some point before Vinder gets to him.
Quite how that’s going to happen is still up in the air, as Vinder himself is currently trapped inside a Passenger along with Diane, having missed Bel by a matter of seconds because her stolen ship was yoinked to Earth by Karvanista. Bel gets embroiled in a brief firefight with her canine captor but the two soon find themselves on the same side when the Lupari come under attack, so with any luck they’ll be tearing stuff up good and proper next week. One thing that Flux has done well is to combine and recombine its sizeable cast of characters in different ways, exploring the various chemistries in play.
Despite the threat of a second Flux wave that will finish what the first event started, the Doctor is increasingly distracted by a Gallifreyan fob watch – the kind last seen in ‘Utopia’, which Tecteun claims holds her missing memories. She tries to use it as leverage to have the Doctor accompany her to a new universe, only to be unexpectedly interrupted (also: killed) by Swarm and Azure. They’ve used the power they’ve been accruing to break out of our doomed universe and board Division, which will offer them both revenge and access to the multiverse to do, y’know, more bad things.
The episode ends not with the Ravagers, but with the surprise return of the Sontarans, who flood into Williamson’s tunnels and also materialise a space fleet to assault the Lupari. Judging from the next time trailer, it looks like they’re a bit more successful at conquering the Earth this time around, but there’s plenty to pick through before then. Starting with the return of Tecteun…
Personally, the reveal that Division still persists as an illuminati-style force left me cold, because introducing all-seeing shadow societies almost always does. For one thing, they create the same kind of problem that Chibnall was trying to sidestep when he wrote out UNIT in the first place – having to explain all the times they didn’t show up. Now we’re left to ponder why the Division didn’t step in when the Daleks built a reality bomb, when Rassilon called for the end of time, or the hundred other times the universe was under threat by anything that wasn’t Division itself. And if they really were secretly masterminding the universe, what was their ultimate goal?
Beyond that, though, I share the Doctor’s incredulity when she asks if Division would really wipe out the entire universe just to avoid her giving them some grief. If they were that worried about her finding them, and really are that powerful, why did Division allow the Master to tell her everything? Things are only muddled further when Tecteun suddenly changes her mind and starts trying to bribe the Doctor into joining forces – hold on, Division, aren’t you only wiping out the universe because it’s the ultimate way to get away from the Doctor? Also, having imprisoned him originally, were Division really responsible for releasing Swarm, as he implies? They certainly don’t seem to need him for their plan, nor are they in cahoots, so again – why?
Not only were Tecteun’s motivations very messy, they’re also largely meaningless now that she’s been bumped off. We may never get any clarity. All that said, Thirteen’s identity as the Timeless Child and the chance to confront the person that did all this to her have provided a foundational character arc for Whittaker’s Doctor, so it’s good that she got the chance to stare her tormentor in the face and condemn her actions, however briefly.
The Doctor now seems confident she has the tools to fix the universe (and you can bet the seed vault will come into play) but there’s still an awful lot to tidy up next week, now that the mystery at the heart of Doctor Who: Flux has been exposed. The story behind the Flux itself may not be all that solid, but hopefully sorting out its consequences will bring the saga to a satisfying end nonetheless.
Next week: basically, everything.
Doctor Who: Flux concludes on Sunday the 5th of December on BBC One, BBC iPlayer and BBC America.