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Doctor Who: Flux, Chapter Six: The Vanquishers

"What an awfully big adventure."

Doctor Who: Flux comes to an end and sticks the landing exactly like Kerri Strug did in the 1996 Olympics.

That is, just like Kerri Strug did, if instead of gracefully landing on a badly sprained ankle she had instead landed in a pit of razor sharp spikes, impaled herself upon them, and then slowly slid down their length into a pool of acid teeming with vipers that can somehow live in acid and enjoy devouring young gymnasts.

They didn't stick the landing. That's what I'm saying.

Doctor Who: Flux had a lot going for it, and I've been rooting for it all along. I think that's pretty clear if you've been following my reviews of its previous installments. Therefore, please believe me when I say that I take absolutely no pleasure in the following discussion of how cataclysmically badly this episode fails to bring things to a close.

The defining moment of this entire storyline occurred about ten minutes before the end of this episode, when the Doctor says 'There's one thing left undone' and I literally shouted, 'ONE thing???'

And this is the episode's problem in a nutshell. Going into this episode we had two dozen balls in the air. Of those, it completely drops the nineteen most interesting, completely changes the rules about the next four for the sake of a convenient resolution, and then focuses entirely on the last two. The two most boring balls it could possibly have found to handle.

Yes, you did read that correctly. No, I am not sorry.

The really interesting stuff, the stuff that had been working for this storyline, almost entirely revolved around Swarm, and to a lesser degree Azure. Their taking the side of 'Time' in its war against 'Space' is interesting. The reveal that they had been released by Division in order to destroy the restraints that keep 'Time' running in a linear fashion specifically to hurt the Doctor is interesting. The reveal that Division is literally in the division between this universe and the next one over, multi-versally speaking, is interesting. The idea that the entire universe outside of Earth has been destroyed along with everyone who lived there, and that time is now running wild, flipping between day and night at random, is interesting.

And this episode just throws away every single one of those things in favor of showing us the second Sontaran invasion of Earth that we've seen in the last five weeks.

Seriously, they had six episodes to work with, and they chose to spend two of them on entirely separate Sontaran invasions of Earth, each dealt with by entirely different means within their own episode. Because of course, why would you want to spend time paying off all of the buildup given to Swarm and Azure, who are now literally in an entirely new place that we've never seen before exploring concepts that the show has never before considered, when you can instead show us a bunch of CGI Sontarans saying 'Sontar-Ha.' Again. Exactly like you did four episodes ago.

It's probably worthwhile to separate the abandoned, potentially interesting, plot points into two categories.

First we have the things that they just unceremoniously drop and never mention again, as if they were never relevant and wouldn't have massive knock on effects for the entire show going forward. In this category we have the Division craft, still moving toward the universe next door with its one, lonely Ood occupant and everything Division had packed to make that Universe look like the one they'd just left.

And the fact that they literally showed us what the show itself identified as 'the last living beings in the universe' being killed by Swarm last week. That's probably going to make future adventures that aren't on Earth a bit dull, isn't it? The fact that they clearly established that there's no one left out there to interact with? That might have been worth a mention, or possibly a hand-wave to resolve. But no, let's get back to the Sontarans.

Also in this category – they established not once but many, many times that time was severely damaged. Causality is no longer a thing. Day flips to night and back. This never even gets a mention in this episode. 'Time', i.e. the anthropomorphized avatar being held in the temple of Atropos, mentions that they haven't been released and that's the closest they come to mentioning it. I guess we're just supposed to assume that everything just worked itself out there?

And while we're on the subject, in that freeing 'Time' was Swarm and Azure's whole goal, maybe it would have been a good idea to devote more than three and a half minutes at the end of the episode to that issue? I mean – and call me radical here – devoting your finale to addressing the core issue that's supposed to have been driving the plot of the entire series might be an idea worth exploring. No? No. Oh look, Sontarans like candy.

More egregious than the 'we're just pretending that never happened' group though are the areas where they just blatantly move the goalposts or change the entire nature of what they already explicitly established earlier in the story. We're shown countless times throughout these episodes that space is destroyed. Planets in tiny bits. Not compressed. Not 'softened up for when we really mean it later on.' Destroyed. Unequivocally. But now we suddenly shift gears to 'We have to release the "final flux" which is obviously the real one that we totally meant all along to be the thing that actually destroys things in the universe, so stopping the countdown clock to that is all that really matters.' Which they then fail to stop anyway.

That's a textbook example of moving the goalposts. It's sloppy writing, inexcusable plotting, and I hate it purely on storytelling grounds. If you're going to stake your claim that you've destroyed everything early on – and let's be clear, that's a brave approach to telling a story and is absolutely what they did earlier on – you freaking well don't get to jump in at the last moment and announce that you were just kidding and that the real flux is still to come just because you can't think of a solution to the problem. And you certainly don't get to whistle your way past the audience with it in the hopes that they won't notice that that's what you're doing.

Which brings me to worst example of all of these sins, wrapped up in one flux-y bow. The solution to stopping the Flux is to reveal suddenly out of nowhere that it's made of anti-matter, and so throwing enough matter into it should cancel it out and stop its progress. OK, that's not really going to help the people it's already killed, but fine. In the actual universe we can only theorize as to how anti-matter would react to matter, so representing it as a big pink wave is as valid a way to go as any. Even if it does contradict a handful of previous stories about how anti-matter and matter react in the Doctor Who universe. Several of those contradict each other anyway, so who cares. The problem is more fundamental than that.

The problem is that the Flux, both iterations, were specifically designed by Division to destroy the entire universe. All of the matter in the universe. Let's say that again because it's important: It was designed to destroy all of the matter in the universe. Even if we accept the show's premise that matter and anti-matter are a zero sum game, and that a +5 can be cancelled out by a -5, how is throwing a bit more matter at it in this particular location change anything in the slightest? It's all set to eat everything, moving the pudding course before the entree should mean jack shit in this situation.

All of which might not be as noticeable if they didn't immediately follow it up with a half-hearted use of an idea that is so, so much better. So perfectly suited that it's hard to wrap one's head around the idea that it wasn't the initial plan all along. They shunt all of the flux energy into a passenger form, a being they already established to have basically infinite space inside them, and who are forbidden from this dimension because the rules they play by are just so weird and unlike ours that you could essentially justify any plot function you want. They do this almost as an afterthought to clean up the last little bit of Flux energy, just to underscore how completely they missed the obvious solution to the problem.

Imagine a version of this episode that begins with the Doctor, Swarm and Azure arriving at the Temple of Atropos, and then spending all of their plot time exploring what all of that means, while we simultaneously also see the Doctor rescuing Yaz and company, AND also seeing her simultaneously arrive to recruit Karvanista and Bel into going to find Vinder because he's winning over the allegiance of a passenger form (which is why he let himself get caught by one in this version of the story) which she knows she can use to absorb all of the flux energy, but only if they win it over and it does so willingly. Then, at the climax, we get the reveal that all three Doctors are the same Doctor who's currently existing in a state of – say it with me – Quantum Flux, allowing her to be three places simultaneously in accordance with my layman's understanding of quantum mechanics.

Is that not an infinitely more satisfying way to wrap up the actual storyline than just another Sontaran invasion of Earth?

In the interest of balance, there is a lot of good stuff here. It's just that most of it works against the interests of storytelling as it applies to the entire series. The visuals of the Sontaran, Dalek and Cyber fleets encountering the Flux are fantastic, some of the best we've ever seen on the show. Professor Jericho's final moments and final exchange with the Sontarans are lovely, and very well done. Vinder and Bel's reunion was everything I had hoped it would be. And the decision to have Di ultimately reject Dan because she was just too traumatized by all of these events and blaming him for being late was helping her to process it was both heartbreaking and realistic. I really liked that deliberate veer away from the obvious romantic ending.

Oh, and now that all six episodes are done and we know they aren't going to suddenly make it important to saving the universe in some way, it was just wonderful that Di's limb difference had nothing to do with anything, made no difference in any way, and wasn't suddenly fetishized as 'the key to everything' at the eleventh hour.


Bits and Pieces:

-- Another thing we're just never going to know: whatever happened to all those Weeping Angels in 1967? Did they put the two iterations of the village back in the timestream when they were done playing with them, or what?

-- They killed all of Karvanista's race off screen. That seems like it might have had more impact if we'd seen any of it.

-- I really like that Karvanista was one of the Jo Martin Doctor's companions, and felt like she'd abandoned him. I wonder who the other two companions were in the siege of Atropos sequences?

-- I've grown to really like Karvanista as a character, but his howling after hearing about the death of his race was just a hair on the wrong side of bathos.

-- The sign on the door reading 'Death rays of death' made me laugh out loud.

-- As is probably obvious from the previous reviews, I had absolutely no idea that Joseph Williamson was a real historical figure nor that those caves were real. It's interesting that they didn't present him as 'meeting a famous figure in history' until the Doctor met him in the last episode. Did I just miss the signs?

-- They're clearly setting up the watch full of memories for the big regeneration finale special next year. It was a little clumsy how they put a pin in it for later.

-- Dan continues to remind me of Jamie in the way he just rolls with things and is generally enjoying everything happening around him even if he has no idea what's going on. He and Yaz are a nice combo.

-- That said, it was really well handled here how the Doctor is still really just treating Yaz as her companion. She hasn't really settled in to Dan yet. I hope we get to see the conversation where she tells Yaz everything.

-- Bob Baker and Dave Martin could not possibly have known, back when they wrote 'The Three Doctors,' how often that 'Contact. Contact' inter-Doctor plot update function would come in handy in the future.

-- The Doctor was openly fancying herself, and I am here for it. I wish they'd have been as brave if it was one of the male Doctors.

-- The imagery of the Doctor's 'memory house' continues to be fantastic, as was the effect of Swarm destroying and re-creating it. Man do I wish the episode had been more of that.

-- It does feel a bit like they'd all completely forgotten Claire back in the 60s until her psychic powers would be useful. Not cool, gang.

-- Last time they told us clearly that the center of the collapsing universe was Earth. Now it's the Temple of Atropos. Make up your mind, show.

-- Really muddy handling of where exactly the Passenger Form was when Vinder and Di escaped from it. They kind of just went from one weird conceptual space to another.

-- They called the Sontarans 'Vanquishers' like twenty times in the dialogue. OK, we get it.

-- The series did do a proper job of establishing that the Lupari ships could form a flux proof shield early on so that it could pay off here. I just wish the payoff had been better.


Quotes:

Stenck: "We offer the three fingered hand of uneasy alliance."

Bel: "You knew they’d do that."
The Doctor: "People rarely want to be crashed into."

The Doctor: "I approach everything with caution. Or abandon. One of the two."

Dan: "Do you have any idea what she’s talking about?"
Yaz: "No idea. Normal service resumed."

Claire: "Does this happen a lot to you?"
The Doctor: "You’d be surprised."

Karvanista: "I put a whole universe between us. And then you come crashing back in as if nothing had ever happened."

The Doctor: "Life must win."
Azure: "But why? Why is it better?"

The Doctor: "Oh, am I right? Because you look really cross."

Ood: "Doctor, your existence is becoming too unstable. I fear it will destroy you. Refreshment?"
The Doctor: "Thank you."

Sontaran: "I will now execute you."
Professor Jericho: "I really don’t think you’re going to have time."


I really don't like not liking this. In fact, there's quite a bit to like if you want to dig for it. But it fails so profoundly on its main task, i.e. to satisfactorily wrap up one, large, six part story that it's hard to care enough to do the digging. Why on Earth did they decide another Sontaran invasion was the way to go? Why did they almost entirely dump Swarm and Azure who were not only the most interesting antagonists in the entire thing, but also were supposed to be the main enemy? How on Earth did any of this ever seem like a good idea?

"Flux," as a whole, had so much going for it. And they threw it all away in the last episode without even trying to pay any of it off.

So disappointing.

Three out of thirteen Doctors for 'The Vanquishers.' Eight out of thirteen for "Flux" as a whole. It really did have a lot of good stuff in it, and we shouldn't forget that.

---
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.

5 comments:

  1. Mikey, wow. I haven't been watching Flux but now I want to just so I can truly appreciate your Kerri Strug metaphor.

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  2. Watch the first five chapters and then just assume everything works out all right. :)

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  3. I agree with so much of what you've written here. Flux didn't stick the landing, like I was afraid it wouldn't, because Chibnall can have brilliant ideas but his endings tend to be vague and messy.

    I was going to give him the benefit of the doubt, considering the 3 specials could wrap up parts of the storyline as well, but it looks like we're going to get yet another Dalek New Year's story instead.

    I get putting off the watch reveal until later (and I hope Chibnall will leave it alone because the two remaining specials aren't really enough time to tackle so many memories - and his hints at it so far have been mostly info dumps). There's no room for it in this story.

    Very good point about the Division intending the flux to destroy all matter - it's not going to care that some matter is heaped up in a special spot. And exactly what state is the universe at the end of all of this?

    Also, isn't dumping the flux inside the Passenger basically the same ending as sending all the Daleks into the Master's TARDIS? Aka 6 episodes ago?

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  4. Splendid review, Mikey. All of them.

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