Flux, ed. Paul Driscoll

The six-part 2021 season of Doctor Who was produced under pandemic conditions, and by the time it ended, I was myself recovering from my bout with COVID and didn’t feel inspired to write about it. A year later, after the broadcast of The Power of the Doctor, I returned to Flux and wrote:

So. The 2021 six-part story, Flux, was a mess. There’s no kind way of putting it. I actually like John Bishop as new companion Dan Lewis; I love Barbara Flynn, whatever she is in; I was really thrilled by Thaddea Graham as Bel, the first semi-regular Irish character in almost sixty years [of the show’s history]; and there were some good spine-chilling moments, such as the destruction of Dan’s house and the Doctor being transformed into a Weeping Angel.

But unfortunately the plot made very little sense, and the climax took place largely offscreen. Of course it was filmed under serious constraints due to the pandemic, but that doesn’t excuse the writers from sitting back and thinking about what they were really trying to convey. For all their faults, Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffatt generally remembered that they needed to please their audience as well as indulging their own inner impulses. I felt that Chibnall had lost the run of himself.

I rewatched it again for this blog post, and felt very much the same. This time around I had various plot summaries to hand, which helped me make a little more sense of it; but TV science fiction at its best, unlike say opera, is not normally one of those art forms which requires the consumer to follow along with notes. I love Whittaker as the Doctor, but there are far too many moments where she is attempting to carry the full burden of audience interest through facial expressions and body language, and not helped by the dim studio lighting, the lack of other actors to interact with, or (crucially) the script.

Once again, I did like the fourth instalment, Village of the Angels, much more than the rest – a coherent plot which is more than adequately explained, higher production values, and interestingly the only episode of the six for which a co-writer (Maxine Alderton) is credited alongside Chibnall; and it ends with one of the best visual cliff-hangers ever, as the Doctor herself becomes a Weeping Angel. Interestingly, when I surveyed the Internet Movie Database for the top-rated episode of each era and spinoff of Who, Village of the Angels was a clear winner for the Thirteenth Doctor.

In his editorial foreword, Paul Driscoll explains that the fact that there are six very tightly linked episodes provided a challenge for the Black Archive series. What they have done is to commission six essays from six different authors, topped and tailed with shorter pieces by Alasdair Stuart.

Stuart’s introduction reflects on the terror of the time, when Doctor Who became to an extent a pandemic coping mechanism.

James Cooray Smith’s essay on The Halloween Apocalypse, ‘Apocalypse? Now!’, starts by reflecting on Chris Chibnall’s previous career and how different his Doctor Who turned out to be from his previous work, looks also at the importance of Liverpool as a setting and 31 October as the date for the episode, and recognises the weaknesses in the characters of Karvanista, Swarm and Azure; as I like to say, their means and motivation are never made entirely clear.

Emma Reed’s ‘A History in Flux’, looking at War of the Sontarans, examines the role of history (and fictionalised history) in Doctor Who, especially the Chibnall era’s emphasis on women in history. It also explained to me what the Temple of Atropos stuff was meant to be about, a point which had escaped me on both viewings of the story.

In ‘The Primordial Division’, Once, Upon Time is examined by Philip Purser-Hallard. I found it a thoroughly confusing episode on both viewings, and rather hoped that everything would come out right with the rest of the show. Purser-Hallard explains to me much better what is going on than the actual script did. He makes a number of interesting observations also about the role of double identities in the story and the Jungian resonances, but basically he enjoyed and was interested in this episode and I didn’t, and he doesn’t sell me on it. The second paragraph of his piece is:

She’s perfectly correct, as ‘The Halloween Apocalypse’ has already shown: in the Ravagers’ introductions, Swarm was confined to a cylindrical energy shield, supposedly ‘since the dawn of the universe’, while Azure was reduced to ‘Anna’, a human woman living with her partner Jón in the far north of Iceland, without recollection of her extraterrestrial past.

Village of the Angels was broadcast on the worst day of my bout with COVID in 2021, and I did wonder when re-watching if it would hold up to re-watching. I’m glad to say that it did, and as noted above it’s my favourite episode of the series. I therefore had high hopes of Oliver Tomkins’ analysis, ‘The Angels Have the Goggle Box’, and they were fulfilled – it’s an in-depth look at the Weeping Angels, where the come from in terms of story and what they mean, why they are frightening and what they do, and how they break the fourth wall. Tomkins also looks at how the Bel plotline integrates into the Flux story.

‘Doctor Who’s Mother’, by James Mortimore, looks at Survivors of the Flux, considering the colonial framing of the Time Lords (vis-à-vis the Shobogans, and the rest of the universe), and looking at Tecteun and representations of motherhood in the show.

Finally, we get to The Vanquishers. In ‘The Three Doctors… and a Sontaran Stratagem’, Matt Hills is disarmingly frank about its failure to provide satisfactory narrative resolution, and puts this down to Chibnall’s emphasis on surprise. He then looks at the triple-Jodie Whittaker Doctor in the episode as a tribute to The Three Doctors, and reflects on how a fannish show-runner reacts against fannish expectations. It’s a good explanation of what the episode was trying to do, though again I do not feel that it succeeded.

Alasdair Stuart’s conclusion, ‘You are the Universe, Doctor’, defends the whole sequence of episodes, though as will have become apparent, I am not convinced.

Incidentally there are six ways of arranging three different things, and I have arranged the episode title, essay title and essay author’s name differently in each of the previous six paragraphs.

In sum, I did learn quite a lot from this Black Archive, largely because it explained to me what several of the episodes were supposed to be about. I’m afraid that underlines to me that the entire thing was a failure of art. I prefer to understand my TV at the time that I watch it, rather than waiting until I read serious analysis two and a half years later. But you can get it here.

From here on in, I’m switching to doing just one Black Archive write-up per month, as I am catching up with current releases all too quickly.

The Black Archives
1st Doctor: Marco Polo (18) | The Dalek Invasion of Earth (30) | The Romans (32) | The Massacre (2)
2nd Doctor: The Underwater Menace (40) | The Evil of the Daleks (11) | The Mind Robber (7)
3rd Doctor: Doctor Who and the Silurians (39) | The Ambassadors of Death (3) | The Dæmons (26) | Carnival of Monsters (16) | The Time Warrior (24) | Invasion of the Dinosaurs (55)
4th Doctor: Pyramids of Mars (12) | The Hand of Fear (53) | The Deadly Assassin (45) | The Face of Evil (27) | The Robots of Death (43) | Talons of Weng-Chiang (58) | Horror of Fang Rock (33) | Image of the Fendahl (5) | The Sun Makers (60) | The Stones of Blood (47) | Full Circle (15) | Warriors’ Gate (31)
5th Doctor: Kinda (62) | Black Orchid (8) | Earthshock (51) | The Awakening (46)
6th Doctor: Vengeance on Varos (41) | Timelash (35) | The Ultimate Foe (14)
7th Doctor: Paradise Towers (61) | Battlefield (34) | The Curse of Fenric (23) | Ghost Light (6)
8th Doctor: The Movie (25) | The Night of the Doctor (49)
Other Doctor: Scream of the Shalka (10)
9th Doctor: Rose (1) | Dalek (54)
10th Doctor: The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit (17) | Love & Monsters (28) | Human Nature / The Family of Blood (13) | The Sound of Drums / Last of the Time Lords (38)
11th Doctor: The Eleventh Hour (19) | Vincent and the Doctor (57) | The Pandorica Opens / The Big Bang (44) | The Impossible Astronaut / Day of the Moon (29) | The God Complex (9) | The Rings of Akhaten (42) | Day of the Doctor (50)
12th Doctor: Listen (36) | Kill the Moon (59) | Dark Water / Death in Heaven (4) | Face the Raven (20) | Heaven Sent (21) | Hell Bent (22)
13th Doctor: Arachnids in the UK (48) | Kerblam! (37) | The Battle of Ranskoor av Kolos (52) | The Haunting of Villa Diodati (56) | Flux (63)