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Doctor Who: Flux, Chapter One: The Halloween Apocalypse

"Too much out of the ordinary tonight..."

Well, they certainly went big. I liked it.

A point of clarification, before we begin. 'Flux, Chapter One: The Halloween Apocalypse' was initially simulcast on BBC America at the same time it was aired on the BBC in the UK. Which means, thanks to the time difference, it aired in the early afternoon here in the States. This isn't exactly prime real estate, and BBC America clearly would have preferred to air it in the evening. They couldn't, however, not air it at the same time as the UK broadcast for a variety of reasons. Their solution to the situation is kind of deviously clever.

British programs, as most of you know, aren't designed to be interrupted by commercials the way that American shows are. Which means that most if not all British shows that get re-aired here get around 5-6 minutes ruthlessly hacked out of them to accommodate the additional commercial breaks. I should point out in all fairness that BBC America almost always airs the complete program the first time it airs, and then swaps out the edited version for replays which fit neatly into a sixty minute footprint.

For a 60 minute slot, the actual program generally runs a little over 42 minutes. The official runtime for 'Halloween Apocalypse' is just over 50 minutes. Their solution, and again it was pretty clever in a fiendish way, was to air the shorter version during the early afternoon simulcast, and then make a big deal about airing the 'extended cut,' i.e. the complete version, as its own special event in the evening timeslot. Thus subtly encouraging people to watch it twice, since nobody was likely to resist watching the edited version earlier in the day if they were at all excited about the premiere.

For the record, this review, once I get around to the review part of it, is based on the 'extended cut.' If I reference something you don't recall seeing, that would be why. I don't know what was missing from the shorter edit, I was working that afternoon.

That established, was this worth all the wait? Yeah, I'd say it was.

The last time they aired part one of a brand new six part story was January 20, 1979. It was 'The Armageddon Factor,' if you were wondering. They had quite a task ahead of them here, and they mostly succeeded. The task was made even bigger by the announcement that this was the beginning of the end of the Whitaker/Chibnall era.

In fact, 'big' appears to be the operative word all around this week. They went to considerable effort to make everything feel larger than usual. Swarm feels like a properly ancient and powerful threat in the way that, for example, neither Fenric nor the Daemons really did, just to pick two previous attempts to pull off the same trick.

In a way, the thing that feels like the biggest complaint about this episode is actually the episode's biggest strength. They're allowing themselves to introduce characters, concepts, and situations here that feel incredibly underexplained and seem to have no relation to one another. Because of course they don't, that's the entire point of an episode that's part one of six. And they're doing it confidently enough that never once did it feel to me like there's not an answer to be had or a connection to be explained later. For the first time in ages we get to spend six weeks slowly receiving more pieces of the puzzle until we finally get to see the complete picture at the end.

The core of this episode is a fairly delightful misdirect which I'm about to spoil, so if you haven't watched the episode yet... well, I can't imagine why you'd be reading this. But fair warning in any case.

For roughly the first two thirds of this episode we appear to be watching an invasion of Earth by aliens that look like dogs. One of them has, for reasons unknown to us, kidnapped new companion in waiting Dan. The Doctor has become involved, it's slowly revealed to us, because she really, really wants to have a chat with Karvanista, the dog-alien who did the aforementioned kidnapping. In an admirably well structured plot junction we simultaneously find out why she wants to talk to him and get the main misdirect of the episode revealed.

The Lupari, to give the dog aliens their proper name, aren't invading the Earth, they're rescuing humanity, albeit in the grumpiest way possible. The concept is that every Lupar is bonded to one specific human being, and are responsible for saving that human and that human only. This, while clearly not being terribly resource efficient, is kind of adorable. I can see how some people might find it a bit twee, but the realization that when Karvanista had been telling Dan 'You're mine,' he wasn't making some weird supervillain gloat, he was simply clarifying that Dan was his pet, really worked for me. Sure, the 'dogs treat humans as pets' idea could come off as eye-rolling, but they didn't overplay it enough for it to become irritating, and it worked as a nice rug pull at just the right moment in the story.

Because that's the same moment in the plot where we learn that the reason the Doctor wanted to talk to Karvanista is that he's the last living member of The Division that she can find. The Division, of course, being the Time Lord dark ops/wetwork agency that the Doctor worked for before trying to leave their employment, getting captured by the Time Lords, having their memory of that time wiped, and turned into William Hartnell just in time to feature in a long running BBC sci-fi series.

Here I'm nearly gleeful to report that I was wrong in my prediction that that entire plotline would probably not come up in 'Flux.'  Quite obviously it's the entire heart of 'Flux.'  Swarm, we're shown, was some sort of arch-nemesis of the pre-Hartnell Doctor, and while she no longer remembers anything about him, he clearly isn't going to let that get in the way of some juicy vengeance for whatever went down between them. To that end he reaches out to her telepathically so that he can simulcast to her his big escape from his Pandorica-like holding cell on the remains of the Burnished Rage battleground.

Does that event trigger the black goo leaking into the TARDIS that they haven't yet explained? We don't know. Did the black goo lead to the multiple external doors showing up in the console room? We'll find out, one assumes. Did Swarm trigger the Flux, or was it always going to happen and its onset allowed him to escape? We're not told for sure yet. How does any of this relate to Claire and her Weeping Angel troubles? What was Mr. Williamson having built in Liverpool, 1820? What do the Sontarans hope to get out of any of this? Why does Swarm's sister Azure lure Dan's love interest Diane into that creepy house? Who was Officer Vinder working for at Observation Outpost Rose? Because it doesn't seem like he can be human unless the Flux is active in multiple time zones. What caused the time distortion that caused Karvanista to get shunted to Earth a few hours ahead of his fleet? Because you know that's going to be relevant at some stage.

There's just so much to think and theorize about with this one that it's all I want to do for the week.

Which is not to say that the episode is without flaws. As is almost always the case with Chibnall, it's a little too easy to identify his source material. It's tempting to compare the Flux to the wave of anti-matter we saw in Crisis on Infinite Earths, but there's actually a much closer comparison in Who-history, which I will now be referring to as Whostory. It's the wave of entropy from episodes three and four of 'Logopolis,' but done with better effects and enough screen time to properly show the process and its consequences. Honestly, part of me wonders if that's actually what it will turn out to be. Chibnall is a hardcore fanboy at heart, and the cloister bell we hear in this episode as they watch the deadly wave did make its first appearance in 'Logopolis.' Coincidence? Possibly.

But that sort of thing creeps up a lot in this episode. At too many points do you, as the viewer, think things along the lines of  'Oh, that's just like in Guardians of the Galaxy.' Or 'Ah right, that fight from Revenge of the Sith.' It's not a huge flaw, but it is a consistent issue in Chibnall's scripts. Of greater concern to me here is the sheer number of callbacks to Who itself. We already mentioned the Pandorica. About half of Claire's dialogue is lifted directly from Moffat's script – mostly 'Blink.' Although they make this an advantage by having Claire mutter the basics of how the Angels work while backing away from them, just on the off chance anyone at home wasn't familiar with them, which they really did need to do. The Doctor's first line to Dan is identical to their first line to Rose back in episode one. And so on, and so on. I'm willing to let it slide in the spirit of 'Big Premiere enthusiasm' manifesting as fan service, but I hope it gets dialed back in the rest of the series.

My other complaint is that Dan feels just a little bit too 'lovingly hand crafted' to be a companion. He's clearly poor, but works at a food bank – one imagines as a volunteer. His one main flaw is 'being too informative and helpful at the museum.' He's in danger of becoming whatever the middle-aged man version of the 'Manic Pixie Dream Girl' trope is, and I hope that's just a symptom of his character notes bleeding into his introductory episode and not a long term issue.

Bits and Pieces:

-- For what it's worth, I'll restate my position on the whole 'Pre-Hartnell Doctors' thing. I like it. I think it makes a lot of older stories more interesting in surprising ways. If you dislike it to the extent that you can't get past it, I suspect that will probably ruin most if not all of 'Flux' for you, and that's a genuine shame. But I'm not here to tell you how to feel.

-- I really appreciated that Diane, Dan's potential love interest at the museum, either has had an amputation or was born with a limb difference and it never once came up or was important in any way. Please don't make me retract that by having it be some kind of plot point later on, show.

-- Somebody clearly wanted Karvanista and Dan to work as a buddy double act. They're given almost all of the good banter between them.

-- You can tell all the extra love and effort that went into this one just from the shot where the Flux is devouring an alien world and they take the time to cut away to the people living on that planet dying in fear. They could have saved a bunch of money by not including that moment, and I really loved that they did.

-- So far Dan and Yaz seem to have a nice chemistry, but I honestly wish Claire was going to be the new companion. I liked everything about her in the brief time we spent with her in this one.

-- I kind of respect that they made so many jokes specifically about football and Liverpool, which I was never going to be able to understand. Not everything has to be for me.

-- Dan's cupboards are bare, but he does (did) own a house. Which means he was financially okay at some point, doesn't it? I'm curious to hear his backstory. He later confirms that he also has family on Earth, so he's not completely alone.

-- Yaz says that she's formerly of the police department, which seems to indicate that she's given up her career in favor of traveling with the Doctor. I suppose realistically she would have had to choose one or the other at some stage, but that made me sad.

-- I really like the way that Yaz and the Doctor's dynamic has developed in the absence of Ryan and Graham. Yaz is far more likely to push back against the Doctor's unwillingness to open up to her when it's just the two of them, and when the Doctor tries to essentially bully her out of asking questions in a very Eccleston-esque moment, Yaz is taking none of it. That dynamic really works for them. Similarly, the way that the Doctor is constantly shooting off in ridiculous directions leaving Yaz in a state of perpetual exasperation is a good look for them.

-- There was a nice shout out to Nitro-9 early on, but even nicer was the way Sophie Aldred almost immediately tweeted about seeing it, which means she was watching as a fan, which made me feel warm and snuggly inside.

-- They tell us that the two guards Swarm kills are working for Division, so apparently the Doctor was unaware that they or the prison existed.

-- Another good fake-out was that woman living in the arctic circle turning out to be Swarm's sister – she's listed as being called 'Azure,' but I don't think they said it on screen. That warning message they got had to be from Division as well, didn't it? I can only assume that the vaporized husband was Division as well?

-- Claire's scene with the Doctor and Yaz was literally Sally Sparrow's exact scene with the Doctor and Martha, seen from the other perspective. I liked that a lot, and you could really only do it in a story with this many episodes to let it play out.

-- All of the asymmetry in Swarm's design really works for the character. It makes him feel fundamentally 'wrong' to us. Azure's design was a little too Día de los Muertos for my personal taste, but I've only just this second realized that this episode aired on the first day of the holiday, so I suppose that was a deliberate choice.


Dan: "Wilma, who likes soup? Really?"

Karvanista: "You defile the sacred legacy of my forebears!"
Dan: "You don’t look anything like four bears!"

Dan: "I’m going to report you for kidnapping. What do you think about that?"
Karvanista: "Well, that’s what’s happening, so... fine."

Vinder: "In all other respects, I conclude this report with my usual sign-off request that you all go to Hell."

Dan: "Hallamshire. What, like Sheffield?"
Yaz: "Why, what’s the matter with Sheffield?"
Dan: "Too near Leeds."

Karvanista: "Just because we have to save them doesn’t mean I have to like them. They’re infuriating."

Dan: "What, is it alive?"
Yaz: "No idea. But they do chat."

A solid part one of six. It introduces us to mysterious events, gives just enough of a hint of what's happening, and leaves you with plenty to think and theorize about while you wait for part two. Some of Chibnall's recurring scripting issues still linger, but generally I felt like my prediction that his natural inclination toward stories told over a longer run of episodes would serve him well here has panned out.

I'll go with eight out of thirteen Doctors.

Mikey Heinrich is, among other things, a freelance writer, retired firefighter, and roughly 78% water. You can find more of his work at the 42nd Vizsla. If you'd like to see his raw notes for this and other reviews, you can find them at What Was Mikey Thinking.


  1. This is the first episode that I've seen in awhile, (stopped about midway through Jodie's first season) and I had a ton of fun. It did admittedly take me far too long to realize that Karvanista was both the hooded guy in the beginning and the dog-alien. I got there eventually! But it took me a second.

    The Swarm is very creepy. I highly approve of the creepy. I was under the impression that Swarm WAS the Flux somehow. Or at least an extension of it since his touch was making people disintegrate. Excellent effect on that, by the way.

    I also am hesitantly curious and intrigued about Claire. Obviously, timey wimey things are happening, but I like where it is going.

    Didn't even notice that Diane had something going on with her limbs. Nice. Thanks for pointing it out!

  2. Great review, Mikey. I enjoyed the episode, too, Fangirl. Even though I'll readily admit that I was thrown by the completely overwhelming number of introductory and flashbacking plots.

    Until Dan showed up and said that it was bigger on the inside, it was just the Doctor and Yaz in the TARDIS. Is that the first time in Doctor Who history that there have been only females in the TARDIS??

    Mikey, thanks for the explanation re: the extended version. That was something they did with Highlander way back when. The streaming and DVDs have all of what the fans called "Euro minutes," but when it initially aired on TV, it was occasionally choppy and you could tell something was cut.

  3. Fangirl - it took me ages to realize that as well actually. You're not alone. :)

    I'm also unclear as to the exact relationship between the Flux and Swarm. You're right, the effect certainly does look the same. I'm also curious about how Swarm travels exactly.

    Billie - you're not wrong about the number of introductory and flahsbacky plots. I felt a bit overwhelmed too. But then I thought that there were probably just as many unrelated things introduced in episode one of Broadchurch, it's just that they were ordinary domestic things that we're conditioned to understand and not need context for. I'm not sure where I fall on whether it's OK to apply the same rules to far out sci-fi as domestic drama.

    That was indeed the first time it's been ladies only in the TARDIS. I wish I'd thought to mention that!

    The worst example of trimmed for repeat viewing was coming late to Buffy and only being able to see the hacked down version of Once More with Feeling. I think they had to cut about 20 minutes from it.

  4. Hahaha I told my wife that Azure looks like a sugar skull. I like the look though.


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