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If I were to describe the first episode of Doctor Who’s 13th series Flux in one word, I’d choose “chaos”. Where the opener introduced viewers to swathes of new characters and hoped they’d remember them all with little to go off, Sunday’s episode sees some of the plot threads begin to move forward – although others remain painfully static.
The episode, “War of the Sontarans”, sees the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker), Yaz (Mandip Gill) and Dan (John Bishop) spat out by the Tardis into the middle of a battlefield. The bodies of soldiers cover the ground like a blanket. A woman (Sara Powell) with a bonnet and strong Jamaican accent runs out among the cavalry and is recognised almost immediately by the Doctor as Mary Seacole (“Mrs Seacole to you”), a nurse who saved soldiers during the Crimean War. “Doctor is a man’s term,” she tells our hero. Whittaker wrinkles her nose. “It’s fluid.”
But this war isn’t taking place in Crimea and the British aren’t fighting against the Russian army. Instead, they face the Sontarans, shots overlooking the swathes of soldiers simultaneously highlighting the size of the Doctor’s challenge and the show’s shoddier CGI work. A map shows Sontar where Russia and China should be and the Doctor realises that something has gone very, very wrong.
The gang don’t stay together long; Yaz and Dan are swiftly zapped away by the Flux. Dan is taken back to modern-day Liverpool, where a giant Sontaran ship is floating above the skyline. He and his parents sprint around wielding frying pans as the aliens mercilessly kill civilians. “If you have any words, now is the moment… to keep them to yourselves,” one Sontaran soldier tells a crowd of captives, a ba-dum-tss moment before slaughtering them in the street. The spark drains from Bishop’s eyes, Dan now hardened by the realities of this battle.
Yaz, meanwhile, has been transported to the planet of Time, where we’re reintroduced to two of the characters very briefly seen last week. The purpose of Steve Oram’s Victorian factory owner remains unclear, but Jacob Anderson’s lone officer Vinder is more interesting. We don’t know loads about him, but Anderson, always underused in Game of Thrones, is an engaging presence on screen. He has great chemistry with Gill, who is finally given slightly more to do than ask questions. Hooray! Glass-like triangles float through the air and keep asking Yaz and Vinder if they can “repair” Time’s temple after it was breached by the Flux. The ripping apart of the universe has left an unknown species called the Mouri compromised, the alien terrariums explain, although what this means for our heroes is unclear.
A third of the way into Flux, my previous concerns that writer Chris Chibnall is trying to do way too much at once still stand. While some stories underused in episode one actually move forward in “War of the Sontarans”, others feel abandoned. The creepy Swarm (Sam Spruell) and Azure (Rochenda Sandall), who I believed to be the series’ main villains, don’t show up until the end of the episode, when they make ominous warnings at the Doctor but don’t appear to be the ones pulling the strings.
So many threads are being pulled at once that it’s hard to know which will actually end up being important. It’s confusing, but to the show’s credit, it keeps things interesting. I don’t know what’s going to happen next, because, quite frankly, I don’t really get what’s happening now. But (and perhaps this is what a past life as a Doctor Who fan does to you), I’m still quietly positive the show will turn this around. Flux’s self-contained story is a bold choice for Doctor Who and it would be a shame (and a surprise) if Whittaker’s last proper outing as the Doctor was wasted.