Doctor Who Review: War of the Sontarans

doctor who war sontarans flux review chibnall jamie magnus stone whittaker riskaw skaak crimea seacole

Time is Evil, and it will seek its own.

Last year, there was a fairly persistent rumour that Series 13 would feature an episode about Mary Seacole (possibly though not necessarily written by Malorie Blackman). It was first suggested not long before Revolution of the Daleks was broadcast, certainly long before we knew anything about the six-part structure to Series 13, and perhaps even before they’d even realised it was a necessity.

Evidently there was some truth to this (last night’s episode, guest-starring Sara Powell as Mary Seacole, being something of a clue in that regard), though whether the Mary Seacole episode was always going to be a Sontaran episode is another question. We know that Chris Chibnall had already planned for their return at the start of 2020, but the production team have also indicated that a lot of Flux was written relatively late in the development process, with previously planned for scripts needing to be abandoned in favour of the serial structure. (That said, it’s not actually clear where people got the idea that Blackman was involved in the first place – unlike Ed Hime, for example, who had a Series 13 episode listed on his CV at one point. It’s a reasonable assumption that, if Blackman had and much of her material had been used, she would’ve received at least a thanks in the final credit.)

In any case, I raise this because I don’t know how much I’d say War of the Sontarans is actually about Mary Seacole (the title perhaps being something of a clue in that regard), and it’s interesting to ponder how Covid influenced the production of Flux. Was this always the plan, or did Chibnall have to write the six-part story around the demands imposed by actors already cast, prosthetics already designed, locations already budgeted for? Was the starting point the story or the shopping list, partial drafts of abandoned episodes used as ballast to construct the new ones? (That sort of speculative archaeology is, in fairness, rarely particularly instructive in lieu of actual behind-the-scenes sources we won’t have access to for some time. Still, though, it’s interesting to me.)

You could reasonably criticise this episode for not actually being “about” Mary Seacole in a meaningful sense. Admittedly I’m not massively inclined to, much as I wish the episode had found a bit more for her to do in this almost-companion role (what was the Doctor actually doing when she left Mary to watch the Sontarans, anyway?). There’s a nice, offbeat energy to it all, a better version of the same idea from Spyfall – if anything I’d like Flux to lean into that energy more, the opening joke of The Wedding of River Song becoming the spine of this. On its own terms, at least, I think War of the Sontarans does better for its historical lead than The Haunting of Villa Diodati did for Mary Shelley (the detail about her caring for a Sontaran, the same way she did wounded Russians in the actual Crimean war, is a clever little inclusion).

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Really, though, as we’ve already noted, this episode is largely about the Sontarans. About them (or entertained by them, if you prefer the distinction) in a way the series hasn’t really been since 2008, their appearances across the Moffat era essentially restricted to one well-delivered if perhaps too often repeated joke. (Which is fine, really – I’d defend The Sontaran Stratagem and The Poison Sky, which gives them something of a conceptual edge they otherwise lack through contrast with incel Luke Rattigan, but the comedy Sontaran angle is obviously a strong one.)

With little competition, then, War of the Sontarans is probably the definitive Sontaran episode of the new series. Certainly, it seems like Chibnall is more enamoured by them than his predecessors, offering a more straightforward and serious take on them than Davies or Moffat did. (Telling, really, is the moment where the Doctor entertains the notion that the Sontarans might’ve caused the Flux – here it’s played straight, where previously the idea would’ve been met with faint embarrassment.) Thankfully though there’s never the faintly desperate sense of the episode trying too hard – as there was when we ended up with Cybermen with actual spikes – and there’s still an appreciable willingness to use them as comic relief.

There’s a sense in which the Sontarans are perfect for Flux, actually. Compared to last week, War of the Sontarans is an altogether calmer chapter of this six-part story: the competing plot strands are pared back considerably, and the resulting structure resembles a far more conventional A-Plot, B-Plot, and C-Plot composition. (There’s still the occasional oddity, like eccentric philanthropist Joseph Williamson makes a brief appearance before promptly disappearing, and you’d never describe it as intricately plotted, but contrasted with The Halloween Apocalypse it’s almost restrained.) What this episode needs, then, is an antagonist that can be sketched out quickly, a simple idea that poses an obvious threat but offers an easy solution, something memorable but not necessarily complex: the Sontarans are perfect for that role, but it’d be easy enough to switch the Sontarans out for the Stenza or the Sycorax (apt, given how this episode borrows from The Christmas Invasion at the end). Indeed, they might even have benefitted from the briefness of their appearance here – would this have sustained a full episode, or even a two-parter, in a normal Series 13?

Arguably “the definitive Sontaran episode” demonstrates their limits as much as it does their strengths, but it’s still an impressively efficient execution of the core appeal of the most basic concept – and there’s a good horse joke, too.

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Elsewhere, our wider series arc – the Chibnall Masterplan, if you like – continues to clarify itself, marking the first episode so far in which the Timeless Child concept makes its case as a story worth telling.

The danger it always posed, more than anything, was one of redundancy. The Timeless Children offered a rejection of established canon, a leisurely scroll through a newly-updated Wikipedia page – but what that rejection relies upon, in lieu of the intimate character-drama about an identity crisis Revolution of the Daleks largely sidestepped, is something new and compelling to replace it. If the ultimate conclusion is that the Doctor – rather than being a Time Lord from Gallifrey – turns out to be an entirely different time-sensitive alien, one that coincidentally also happens to look human and can regenerate into different forms, it’s hard not to question what the point of the whole endeavour is.

It’s not that Flux has ruled that possibility out entirely, of course. (For instance, it feels like there’s a strong possibility the Doctor will turn out to be a Mouri – after all, what’s does it mean for a child to be Timeless if not having lost their home planet Time?) What it has done, though, is contextualised the idea in terms of themes Chibnall keeps returning to: where Moffat often alluded to Time as a sentient force, Chibnall hasn’t just committed to that but taken it a step further, suggesting it’s a malevolent, villainous force. It’s in keeping with the aspects of Chibnall’s vision for Doctor Who that feels, if not explicitly religious, certainly much more theistic than either of his predecessors.

It also, finally, feels like something that’s written for Whittaker’s Doctor rather than just around her. The Temple of Antropus imposes a linear structure on Time; in threatening that, Swarm becomes more distinct, not just a nebulously evil figure (at risk of the same redundancy – how’s he different from the Master?) but one with a meaningful goal. It’s a question of Order vs Chaos – in many ways the perfect challenge to Chibnall’s Doctor, a version of the character that’s more of an arbiter than an interventionist, someone who from her first story has set out to sort out fair play across the universe, less chaotic and more orderly than ever. (It’s also characteristic of Chibnall the writer, an obvious resonance with the law and order themes of his crime dramas.) Finally, the Timeless Child is finally starting to cohere as the outline of a story rather than just a plotline.  

The Timeless Children was never all that interested in the colonial undertones some read into its story, nor really the identity crisis it gestured at either. The newly-canonised Morbius Doctors and Jo Martin’s Doctor didn’t radically redefine the character, but offered instead something irreducibly wedded to an obviously narrow and limiting status-quo. It was always a backwards-looking, insular idea – until War of the Sontarans suggested something of a coherent vision. It could still go wrong, but it’s encouraging to see Chibnall, in his last few episodes, really committing and making a big swing.

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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