Doctor Who Review: The Halloween Apocalypse

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It’s a hurricane, ripping through the structure of this universe.

In a sense, Flux is what many always expected of the Chibnall era, or at least a lot closer to it than Series 11 and Series 12 were.

Certainly, the received wisdom was that he’d likely offer a more heavily serialised take on Doctor Who than we’d seen before – admittedly probably an assumption based on a slightly superficial reading of Broadchurch, but still. (If you were looking for tea leaves in his earlier work, actually, Chibnall’s plays are somewhat underdiscussed – for obvious reasons, of course, but there’s a couple of details in those that reappear across Series 11.) With his first year on Doctor Who relatively standalone, and his second a little more interconnected, you could quite easily make the case that Flux is both an evolution and a culmination of that: Chibnall finally doing the six-hour movie everyone always assumed he would.

That, though, obscures a lot of what Flux is actually doing, and how fundamentally unusual it actually is. It’s serialised, yes, it’s a six-hour movie, yes, but Flux has relatively little in common with dominant mode of prestige television: typically, if a producer is touting their upcoming drama as “a six-hour movie, really” you can assume the end product will be glacially paced, lacking any sense of what television’s strengths are as a medium and how those strengths are distinct to it. (Chibnall has described the Disney+ Marvel shows as Doctor Who’s natural competitor in 2021, and something like The Falcon and the Winter Soldier – with its formless and lethargic structure – was probably the worst-case scenario for Flux.)

Instead, Flux is structured almost as – well, it’d perhaps be charitable to say it’s a series of vignettes, because this is an altogether more scattered affair than that implies, but there’s a lot of plates spinning all at once, and it’s clear that Chibnall feels no obligation to resolve them (or in some cases even connect them to the main narrative) within the fifty-minute runtime. It’s the slightly chaotic, everything-at-once structure of Resolution or Spyfall writ large, and here as there it gives The Halloween Apocalypse a certain momentum – on this scale, though, it feels unfamiliar, even wrongfooting. Those little asides and gestures to Sontarans and Weeping Angels and 1820s Liverpool are, by any conventional wisdom, probably a mistake to include – but they lend the episode a sort of sprawling ambition, a structure that feels unlike anything Doctor Who has done before and one that it’ll hopefully maintain in the coming weeks.

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What that means it’s not, though, is an episode that’s particularly focused on new companion Dan Lewis.

That’s not a surprise – after all, The Halloween Apocalypse isn’t an episode you could call particularly focused on anything, really – but nor is it straightforwardly a problem. Yes, The Halloween Apocalypse makes for an odd comparison to something like Smith and Jones or The Pilot or The Woman Who Fell to Earth, all episodes where introducing and establishing new lead characters is the primary focus, but we’ve noted already that there’s something enjoyable about how odd this piece is structurally. (The real test – in this area and in many others – will come in six weeks’ time: it’ll likely be more informative, if a little strained, to compare something like Smith and Jones to Flux as a single unit.) For the moment, at least, it works as an initial introduction: John Bishop is an immediately charming screen presence, and Dan’s world is sketched out in a way that still lends it a lot of texture. Volunteering (unofficially) at the museum and (officially) at the food bank are each nice little details, even if neither are revisited in the end – and, if nothing else, Dan is also the sort of character Chibnall clearly enjoys writing, so he’ll no doubt get a lot more focus over the coming weeks.

Encouragingly, given everyone’s immediate concern when Bishop’s casting was announced, none of that comes at the expense of Yaz. It’s not quite right to call this Gill’s best episode yet (indeed, it’d almost be a disappointment if it was), but it’s perhaps the one that finds most space for her most casually – where stories like Demons of the Punjab or Can You Hear Me? would almost announce themselves as “the Yaz episode of the series”, The Halloween Apocalypse simply gets on with it. With Bishop, Gill gets to play experienced and knowledgeable, more in command of the situation than before; with Whittaker, there’s a new dynamic, strains in their relationship appearing for the first time.

It could still be pushed further and emphasised more, certainly; maybe this is damning with faint praise, congratulating Doctor Who for meeting expectations so low it’s almost condescending to remark on it. Still, it’s an appreciable improvement either way. (It’s striking – even in an episode with as cluttered as this – how much Graham and Ryan leaving helps create space for Yaz; more than anything else, that emphasises that having four regular leads was a mistake, and raises a few doubts about whether it’s a good idea to return to that later.)

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Elsewhere, The Halloween Apocalypse returns to some of Chris Chibnall’s more controversial Doctor Who ideas – though notably approaches them from a slightly different angle this time around.

Something that’s obscured by all the arguments about The Timeless Children is the fact that it actually contained two reveals, not one. The first – that the Doctor isn’t from Gallifrey, that she had a number of forgotten, repressed lives, and in the first of these lives she was tortured and experimented on, providing the genetic template (and ability to regenerate) for all other Time Lords – is distinct from the second – that in one of these lives, the Doctor was some sort of spy/assassin/mercenary/police officer for the Time Lords. The two reveals sit together awkwardly: both an identity crisis, but one linked to who she is, the other to what she’s done, and The Timeless Children doesn’t do the necessary work to suture the ideas together.

It’s interesting here to see Chibnall return to the latter idea, after a year of arguments about Morbius Doctors that largely didn’t get into questions about the Division; questionable though the idea is, seeing Whittaker’s Doctor in active pursuit of Karvanista gives the character a sense of agency she’s often lacked, which again is an obvious improvement in dramatic terms. (It owes something to Chibnall’s background in police drama too – in hindsight it’s a surprise he’s not drawn on that more, given “the Doctor investigates something” feels like a natural mode for the programme.)

At the moment, it’s still somewhat lacking in substance, inviting speculation more than anything else. (For the record: Vinder, the observer finally drawn into action, is a Time Lord, if not in fact an early incarnation of the Doctor; there will be a flashback to Jo Martin’s Doctor fighting Swarm and the Ravagers, but she won’t interact with Whittaker’s Doctor again; they will never explain why Karvanista was working for the Time Lord secret police.) In any case, it feels worth extending Chibnall the benefit of the doubt here, however grudgingly; questionable though the ideas are, they are, if nothing else, still going somewhere.

Ultimately, that’s always going to be the only judgement one can offer on Flux: wait and see. Certainly, The Halloween Apocalypse is an impressive enough start – there’s no sense of the production becoming less ambitious to accommodate coronavirus restrictions; little details here and there, like the Weeping Angel that’s seemingly just an actual statue, are only noticeable if you’re actively looking for them – but that’s all it is, a start.

Related:

Doctor Who series 13 reviews

Doctor Who Review: Series 12 Overview

You can find more of my writing about Doctor Who here, and follow me on twitter @morelandwriter. If you enjoyed reading this review – or if you didn’t – perhaps consider leaving a tip on ko-fi?

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