Doctor Who: Flux, the third (and final complete) series for Jodie Whitaker’s Doctor and Chris Chibnall’s reign as show runner, is a compact representation of the 13th Doctor’s era. Some great ideas, some fine character beats, some awkwardly forced relationships, and some messy and loud storytelling. Was it enjoyable? For the most part, yes. Would I recommend this season of Doctor Who to anyone who hadn’t watched Doctor Who before? Absolutely not. I honestly haven’t thought of Doctor Who as a really great show in years and years. That’s painful to write, but the show has maintained an enjoyable middle ground. But we’re a long way from the heartbreaking sundering of the Doctor/Rose team. Or Donna’s tragic fate. Or the beautiful family formed with River, Amy, and Rory.
What was once a sci-fi show that could have fun, explore some big and bold concepts, and give us characters who felt real and struggled through very human things has been replaced by a show that leans too heavily on plot and theatrics. I wouldn’t call Doctor Who a bad show. It’s just a show I feel less and less connection to as time wears on. I don’t think familiarity has bred contempt or anything like that. I still love the format. I really liked both Peter Capaldi and Jodie Whitaker in their roles (with some caveats) but I often found myself wanting to like the show more than I actually did.
From here on out, Spoilers for The Flux abound. Fair warning.
Can You Please Just Stand Still?
Don’t get me wrong. There’s joy in the current version of Doctor Who. One could argue that it’s more like it’s old self, in some ways, in Flux where companions are generally afterthoughts and plot is king. The problem is, one of the hallmarks of the new series has been that it’s obsessed with always defining who the Doctor is. During Russell T. Davies generally excellent era, the 10th Doctor did start to grate a little with is huge speeches about who the Doctor was. He started to become a little too big and grand for my liking. This didn’t really let up during the 11th Doctor’s era. And by 12 and 13 it seemed written into the Doctor’s DNA, along with the fact that he or she would be sort of frantic at times. Even Capaldi’s “darker” Doctor succumbed to this. What worked so well for 10 and 11 has started to really rub me the wrong way.
I think Whitaker’s Doctor actually works best (and feels the most Doctorish) when she’s not TRYING to “Doctorish.” As soon as she stops mugging and frolicking about she has the gravity and sense of purpose you’d want. In the quieter moments where she’s relaxed around her companions, I buy their connection utterly. It’s just when she’s whirling about talking about “Fam” (mercifully absent this season) and the like that it just feels like there’s more effort being put forth than I want to see on the screen.
You’re All Very Likable But I Don’t Particularly Care About You
Doctor Who is fun. I don’t mind it being fun. It’s one of the things that helps separate it out of the sci-fi crowd. But I just want a little more emotional meat on the story’s bones than Flux can provide. The wrinkle introduced last season with the Fugitive Doctor and Division was interesting. Not everyone liked it, and there is the danger that modern Who can disappear up its own bum at times. But I thought it walked the line well, and was an interesting little mystery/puzzle and I liked how it affected the Doctor. The Flux starts out interestingly by quickly dangling answers in front of the Doctor, who wants them desperately. But, ultimately, it’s really just playing with us. Will the secrets be revealed in the next three specials? Maybe? But spending six episodes kicking that can down the road wasn’t particularly satisfying.
It wasn’t just that Flux was needlessly complex. I’d say it was, with way too many characters introduced to care about fully, but I think its worse sin was just the way it was presented. The introduction of Bel with the title card “Bel’s story” and having her presence kind of just wandering around for some episodes went nowhere emotionally or story-wise is one example. Yes, you could argue that she and Vinder were in opportune places to keep the plot moving, and yes they had their reunion, but there was both too much time spent on them and not enough time. I felt zero emotional attachment to them. In fact, you can say pretty much the same for everyone except Jericho, who made an emotional impact more through performance than writing.
I would have preferred more time with Dan, and with giving him a more substantial storyline. Or give me more with Yaz. The way the story bounced around, I was left being annoyed when we moved to a storyline I didn’t care that much about. I still don’t really understand the Grand Serpent’s role in all of it. I understood what he did, just not why he was necessary at all in the story. I loved Kate Stewart’s reintroduction, and retroactively explaining why UNIT was shut down was fun (I hope it’ll be back now). But in the end he was just there to give Vinder some semblance of a story arc and explain why UNIT wasn’t around. The latter could have been explained in one line, and the former had zero emotional impact because my lingering impression of Vinder was “he looks cool, and he’s wandering around a lot.” Also, he already had his storyline with Bel. Also, did they just exile him to a tiny asteroid? Does he not have to eat? Maybe I missed that detail.
Oh, Interesting Villains They Sure Are a Threat and…. Oh, Never mind.
Then we have our two “main” baddies, Azure and Swarm. They had intriguing visuals. The concept of these two people who worship Time (and of Time being some sort of consciousness with motives and an agenda) are interesting. But I would have liked more context around them. I only vaguely understand them. Maybe a re-watch would help this, but I’m not sure if I’m up for one. What the show did do was establish them as a very credible threat to the Doctor’s existence. It’s too bad they were dispatched in about the most boring way possible.
“The Village of Angels” was the strongest episode of the series, because it really amped up the stakes and made me think we were in for a different kind of Doctor Who story that was going to take some big swings. I should have realized, when the angel-ification immediately melts away at the start of the next episode that I should lower my expectations. Because what we got was pretty much emblematic of current Doctor Who. We’re going to be told a lot of nonsense technobabble, things will be resolved by doing technobabble stuff without much ingenuity involved, and the emotional beats will be lost in the chaos. Jericho’s sad passing and Karnavista’s reaction to his people’s deaths were great moments. As one the Doctor’s apology to Yaz. But these aren’t really integrated with the actual plot. They are all just side effects.
Until Next Time, Doctor…
But then the pocket watch was introduced! What effect could that have on the Doctor? Wait, and see (maybe), I guess. Not since the end of the Titanic have I been more annoyed with someone dropping an object. The story didn’t really give a good reason for the Doctor to do this. In fact, if Time’s warning is true, knowing her past would have been a blessing, one would think. Maybe there’s a clue in there about what Time was talking about. But the Flux isn’t about that. In the end, it’s just another old-school DW baddie come back to wreak havoc story, only to be blown up by the Doctor until their next appearance. With a lot of toing and froing to eat up time. Which, is emblematic of my least favorite part of old-school Doctor Who.
Is there anything wrong with this? That’s where the debate comes in. I’m sure there will be loads of people who enjoy it for what it is. I wouldn’t argue with them. It’s not that the show is badly produced. I even think the writing is fine for what it is. I just miss when there was more to connect to emotionally along with the big spectacle.