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Doctor Who: Flux, Chapter Two: War of the Sontarans

"War is the opposite of normal."

Flux continues, as we take a brief and mostly enjoyable side trip with the re-designed Sontarans.

It's very easy to see how this episode could have been re-tooled to be a standalone story with no connection to the Flux whatsoever. Or rather, one suspects it's more accurate to say that it's easy to see how this episode was re-tooled from being a standalone story to connect up with the larger Flux plot-line.

That's what I liked about it.

As a pitch, it's pretty solid. The Doctor and friends find themselves in the Crimean war. The British are gearing up for a big fight, and over the hill come not Russians, but Sontarans. That would have made a killer cold open, just on its own. The rest of the episode would then reveal that Russia and China have been replaced on the map by 'Sontar,' and it would probably play out more or less as we saw it do here.

It's possible to throw accusations of just bolting an unrelated plot-line into what's supposed to be one big six part adventure. I haven't seen any other feedback on this one as I try to stay unspoiled before I write these, but I'd be surprised if that isn't the crux of at least a couple of hot takes out there. And while it's possible to look at it that way, I think that the way they tied the Sontaran war story into the larger Flux narrative is what made the whole thing work.

At the climax of last week's episode, we see the Sontaran leader starting a military strike to coincide with the arrival of the Flux, and the Lupari shield around the Earth being put up. At the time the relationship between all these events was less than clear to put it mildly. But what was clear was that that was a deliberate choice, and so it worked for me. This week we're presented with the above mentioned seemingly impossible appearance of the Sontarans in world history and the episode gradually works back to give us some explanations. The Sontaran invasion of Earth's history wasn't a direct result of the Flux event, the Sontarans just knew (somehow)about the Flux in advance, and took advantage of it to squeak their way past the Lupari shield of Earth and set up a temporal invasion while everyone was busy with other things.

I like the idea of starting with a premise as large as The Flux appears to be, and then taking time to explore what the knock on effects of such a thing happening might be. It's a nice way to break up a six part story, and it's a pleasant change from having to introduce a galaxy size concept only to have to neatly wrap it all up inside of an hour. Or an hour forty, if you're lucky enough to have a two parter.

From what we've seen so far, it appears that we were introduced to introductory portions to a variety of plotlines in 'Halloween Apocalypse,' and that over the rest of the series we'll be getting what sort of amounts to a plot-line combo pack. In one thread we'll see a story regarding events that were more or less caused by the Flux, if indirectly, and simultaneously we'll be seeing the story of the Flux itself play out in relation to those events, Or to put it more clearly, this episode showed us what happened to the Sontarans because of the Flux, while next week looks to be what happened to the Weeping Angels because of the Flux, and so on.

I give them a lot of credit for how delicately they're managing the connections between what we might call the series plot-line and the episode plotlines in this one. I can't wait to see if they continue to pull off what is a fairly complicated web of interconnections. For example, the adventures of Mary Seacole that we see here have nothing to do with the Flux. But, if the Flux hadn't allowed the Sontarans an opening to get their temporal invasion set up, none of the Mary Seacole stuff would be happening. And if the Flux hadn't been happening, Karvanista wouldn't have been around to show up and save Dan from the Sontarans at the crucial moment. But again, the Flux has nothing to do with how the Sontaran storyline gets resolved. It's just a background condition of the universe that allows the story to be possible.

If indeed that's where they're going, i.e. telling the story of the Flux by spending a small part of the episode telling that story directly and the bulk of the episode bringing one particular 'Knock on effect story-strand,' I think that's a great choice and I look forward to seeing other facets of the big picture.

So let's talk about the Sontaran storyline. As is traditional with Sontaran storylines, the concepts and implied backstory are much, much more interesting than the plot resolution. After spending most of the episode digging into the consequences of Sontarans invading various different periods of history resulting in them appearing to always having been there, we wrap up by having the Doctor and friends swap a couple of tubes around which sorts everything out nicely.

Not that that resolution is without merit or precedent. It's basically the same trick Tom Baker pulled back in 'The Sontaran Experiment' except that this time they can afford to show us how it all plays out. In fact, a lot of the Sontaran stuff we get here are things that we've heard about but never actually gotten to see. We've never actually seen them with their probic vent attached for feeding, for one, although it's certainly been mentioned plenty of times. It was nice to see it.

Similarly, the Sontarans have always had a bit of a 'Worf' problem, in that they're always talked about as being such fierce warriors, and yet every time we see them it involves them getting their asses comprehensively kicked. Taking the time to show the battle in the Crimea, with zero Sontaran casualties as they casually stroll through the field massacring the British troops almost effortlessly went a long way to rehab their reputation as actually competent warriors.

I don't know that I'm a huge fan of the new Sontaran design - Commander Skaak kept reminding me of George C. Scott - but I do like that it was a deliberate nod back to the initial Sontaran mask as designed for 'The Time Warrior,' with the hairs and pock marked skin. Kevin Lindsay, the actor who played Linx in that story and who received a shout out in this episode's script, suffered from heart trouble, and that initial mask caused him a lot of breathing problems. So much so that when they brought the supposed 'clone' of Linx back the following season they'd had to re-make the mask for the sake of his health, and they used that opportunity to clean up the look a lot, removing the hairs and giving the skin a much smoother complexion. That was the general Sontaran aesthetic they used thereafter, and I like the nod to the original concept.

That said, there's a lot of confusion and muddiness regarding the Sontaran's actual plan. Or rather, how far along they are in their plans. We're told that the Crimean War is their first attempt at popping back into history to change it to their advantage. But if that's the case, and that first foray is unsuccessful as we see it is, how exactly did they go back further and replace Russia and China? Was that the result of a potential future that the Doctor subverts? It's all a bit oblique, and they probably could have cleared it up with a line or two of dialogue. It's not a deal breaker, but it is a little unclear.

Meanwhile, in the Flux plot-line.

Information continues to trickle in, almost all of it raising more questions than answers. Vinder, he of the observation outpost, appears to have crashed his escape pod at a strange temple, where floating diamond shapes identify themselves as Priest Triangles. Fortunately or him, Vinder isn't the only humanoid here for long, as Yaz falls through time and space to arrive at the same location, and the mysterious Mr. Williamson is also wandering the halls, still believing himself to be in 1820. Were these the tunnels he was having created in the Liverpool dock area? No, we're on another planet entirely. So, are they connected? Is this before, or after we saw Mr. Williamson last episode, in his personal timeline? And just where does he wander off to after chatting with Yaz? I look forward to whenever we get to that particular plot strand.

But then of course the main event arrives in the form of Swarm and Azure. They're joined by a third friend named Passenger, who doesn't appear to speak. It's not at all clear whether Passenger was already here, or arrived with them, or what. What we do learn is that Swarm and Azure tried to accomplish something in this temple way back in the day, apparently failed - possibly because of the efforts of a pre-Hartnell Doctor, and have come back for a second attempt at whatever the plan was. But there's a hitch. The Flux has damaged the temple and a couple of the ominous looking priestesses, identified as the Mouri, have been destroyed, besides which they're all quantum locked against Swarm and Azure due to their previous visit. Oh, and the building is the temple of Atropos on the planet Time, all of which sounds more than a little ominous.

What do the Priest Triangles mean that time is evil? And that it's somehow held in check by whatever is going on with the Mouri? We're clearly not meant to know yet beyond understanding that Yaz has been set up as a replacement Mouri, is about to have all of time pour through her, and isn't expected to survive the experience. Great cliffhanger.

It's hard to know how to feel about Azure at this point as she's mostly just been doing a pretty standard 'Evil magic queen' riff. Swarm, on the other hand... Swarm is just great. There's something so charismatic and unusual about the performance he's bringing to what, as written, could be a pretty generic monster. His performance can sort of be described as David Bowie, as played by Anthony Stewart Head, if that makes sense, and it's making it very hard for me to root against him. More of Swarm, please.


Bits and Pieces:

-- What was the deal with the floating house that the Doctor saw before waking up in the Crimean? It reminded me of the marketing material for Cabin in the Woods.

-- It was nice that they were able to work in a little education regarding yet another important woman in history about whom the American school system teaches absolutely nothing. Honestly, I'd never heard of her. Do European schools do better there?

-- The image of a Sontaran on a horse is neat, but now I'm going to have to find time to go re-watch The Time Warrior, because I can't remember if we saw Linx do that or not. I did also like them specifically citing that Linx had claimed the planet by planting the Sontaran flag, which we saw happen.

-- It was funny to me that even the priest triangles mention that the temple is getting a hell of a lot of foot traffic today.

-- No sign of either Claire or Diane this week. Although Dan does at least thoughtfully mention Diane's existence. What happened to her after Azure lured her into that house?

-- It was a very clever little visual clue that Dan's house being missing meant that he'd actually returned to the real, genuine world.

-- I kind of loved Dan's Mum and Dad. The solemn way that his Dad handed over the wok was priceless.

-- Swarm has already met Yaz earlier in his timeline and later in hers. That bodes well for her surviving the cliffhanger. Well, that and the way we see her in next week's trailer.

-- I'm not clear how much we're supposed to like or dislike Lieutenant General Logan. He's pretty cowardly during the battle. I feel like he was meant to be much more of a bastard and they just didn't have the episode time to do much with it.

-- Having Dan Starkey back to play yet another different Sontaran and then brutally killing him was a nice move to make things viscerally threatening. We're so used to cute little Strax.

-- Was the implication that the Sontaran timeship that Dan broke into was the exact same timeship that The Doctor broke into at a different point in its timeline, and that's why they could connect through the comms?

-- I did wonder in Chapter One if the Lupari blockade would block out all sunlight and whether that wouldn't be a problem. I never expected them to address it however. Nice connection.

-- Does the 'temporal implosion' at the end mean that the Sontaran ships were never there now? I assume history is back to normal, right?

-- The inside of the TARDIS now has weird spar growths and webbing in addition to last week's black goo. I like the slowly increasing level of menace and wrong-ness that's providing to the overall story.

-- So did the Flux destroy everything that's not Earth? Is that plot point just kind of hanging out there?

-- Atropos was the one of the Fates that cut the thread of your life once it had reached its predestined length. If we're in a temple devoted to her, what are the implications exactly?


Quotes:

Mary: "Doctor’s a man's term."
Doctor: "It’s fluid."

Logan: "Madam, I am at work!"
The Doctor: "I know, I can smell the rum."

Logan: "I have queen and country on my side. That will be enough."
The Doctor: "She here with you now then, the Queen?"

Mrs. Seacole: "Cannonball in the back."
The Doctor: "Ooh, I bet that hurt."
Sontaran: "There is no such thing as pain! A little."

Triangle Priest: "Time is… evil."

Skaak: "The Crimean skirmish seems the perfect place to start. So much conflict. So much opportunity. And also, I wanted to ride a horse."

The Doctor: "What resources do you have?"
Dan: "A wok."
The Doctor: "I’m sorry… what?"

Karvanista: "I’ve still got a human in this fight."

The Doctor: "I’m going to need a pointy stick."


I'm continuing to really enjoy how they're handling this series' setup. The two pronged approach of story of the week paired with story of the season and how they intersect is a winning formula. I do wish that the Sontaran's plot-line hadn't been so summarily cleared up as soon as it had been explained properly, but it was interesting enough while it lasted, and it's not like that's never happened before. The same goes for the Sontarans temporal shenanigans. It's all pretty muddy, but it's nice that they remembered that the Sontarans have temporal technology and have had since their very first appearance. That's gotten forgotten more often than not.

Seven 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.

2 comments:

Nonei said...

I'm enjoying the season so far. Very nice review!

My understanding from the "Crimea is the first place they're trying" conversation is that they had somehow changed time/ memories just in that geographic bubble? And not actually the whole world. Not sure really how that would work. Because if pple had really been fighting the sontarans for thousands of years you'd think they'd know about the lasers and probably wouldn't have been allowed to have their own army. Doesn't entirely stand up to scrutiny lol but it is doctor who.

Anonymous said...

In England we learnt about Mary Seacole a bit for English GCSE as she's mentioned in a poem, but not in a proper history lesson (she was also featured in Horrible Histories). Weirdly in the same poetry anthropology it also has Charge of the Light Brigade (which the Doctor quotes in this episode). Little bit of trivia for you there.