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Well, it’s finally here: the beginning of the end for Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor. The actor will be hanging up her sonic screwdriver at the end of 2022, but not before a victory lap consisting of a Doctor Who miniseries and three specials next year. The reins will then be handed over to returning showrunner Russell T Davies and his Time Lord of choice (for what it’s worth, my money’s on Russell Tovey). “Flux”, as the six-episode 13th series is subtitled, consists of one continuous storyline, a rarity in the Whoniverse. There’s a lot of ground to be laid in seasonal opener “The Halloween Apocalypse” – some successfully, some less so.
The episode opens with the Doctor and Yaz (Mandip Gill) hanging upside down, trapped by – you guessed it – an extra-terrestrial baddie. It’s a classic Doctor Who set piece, having little impact on the subsequent plot but providing some funny lines and the best of the hit-and-miss CGI on offer. They escape back to the Tardis, but then the Doctor has a vision. She sees an alien prisoner overpowering his captors and transforming into a sight even more nightmarish than before, with jagged fangs, sunken eye sockets and metallic spikes protruding from his skull. She watches him control his guards’ minds before turning them into dust, as he looks into the camera to warn: “Trick or treat, Doctor,” just in case anyone forgot it’s Halloween.
The Doctor’s premonition is about the oncoming “Flux” of the series title, “a hurricane ripping through the structure of this universe… a cataclysm of unknown proportions”. Aliens old and new are involved, with brief glimpses of Sontaran soldiers and, most excitingly for fans, the Weeping Angels in their first major episode appearance since 2012. We’re clearly gearing up for an ambitious, complex series with interweaving timelines and it’s interesting to see writer Chris Chibnall play with form before bowing out alongside Whittaker.
The problem is, this opening episode tries to do too much. Rather than gradually bringing in new characters, “The Halloween Apocalypse” introduces everyone all at once. The various years and settings are marked out in the large, overlaid letters virtually compulsory of every Serious TV Show in 2021. We meet a dodgy business owner in Victorian Liverpool, a couple living in the Arctic Circle and a solitary officer on an outposting in space, but learn very little about them. Undoubtedly, they’ll come to have bigger roles later on, but right now, it’s just a crowd.
The shining light of the series premiere is undoubtedly John Bishop as Dan, the proud Scouser with the heart of gold. Dan is your textbook good guy, offering unlicensed free tours at the Museum of Liverpool and volunteering at a food bank while going home to bare cupboards. The comedian may not have much out-and-out acting experience, but he plays Dan with a convincing wide-eyed innocence and sharp comic timing. When a dog-like alien bursts through his wall with a glowing axe on Halloween eve, Dan is thoroughly unimpressed, assuming it to be yet another trick-or-treater. He even manages to make groan-worthy lines (“You defile the sacred legacy of my forebears”, “You don’t look anything like four bears”, etc) almost bearable. And in the few short scenes the new companion has with the Doctor and Yaz (because there’s so much other stuff going on), the trio have great chemistry.
As for what’s next, episode one gives us both too much and not enough to really go off, but it’s refreshing to see Chibnall attempt to shake things up for one of Whittaker’s last spells in the Tardis.