Doctor Who Review: Survivors of the Flux

doctor who survivors of the flux review chris chibnall azhur saleem tecteun division barbara flynn jodie whittaker azure swarm unit

Everything you are is because of me. But I understand. You think you could have been something else. Someone else.

It should be said, first of all, that this is actually all very watchable.

Survivors of the Flux has the same sort of breathless momentum as The Halloween Apocalypse, but it’s a little more refined here – not calmer, exactly, but certainly more even-handed. We’ve observed over the years (and over the past few weeks too) how that moment-to-moment sense of sheer constancy tends to help Chibnall: all these plates spinning all at once is, if not a structure he’s conventionally good at per se, certainly the one that most accentuates his skills. That hasn’t always been the case – each part of Spyfall is, in its own way, absolutely dire – but it’s been true of Flux in general, and it’s true here specifically too. This episode zips along, always entertaining and easy to pay attention to even as it finds itself with not a great deal actually going on (Craig Parkinson’s Line of Duty: UNIT subplot is enjoyably nonsensical, for example, as is the Indiana Jones pastiche that only amounts to filler). “Watchability” is an elusive and ill-defined thing, for obvious reasons, but this has it.

Much as Chibnall clearly benefits from attempting a more ambitious narrative structure, though, this does expose a strange stylistic choice of his. Even as he’s writing what is perhaps the most insular and backward-looking version of Doctor Who in years – the Doctor’s secret origins, first hinted at in 1976! – Chibnall aims his scripts at an assumed audience of viewers that are only half paying attention while they’re playing on their phones. It makes for a strange experience: Survivors of the Flux offers only a light recap of The Timeless Children, an episode from a literal pandemic ago, while at the same time has the Doctor repeat exposition from her previous scene in case, just in case you forgot while checking in on Yaz and Dan for a moment.

That’s something that can only be understood as a deliberate and conscious decision. For one thing, that sort of self-referential exposition isn’t present in 42, or any of his Moffat era scripts, or indeed Broadchurch either. No, it can only be taken as a response to the changing state of television: Chibnall deciding that, in 2021, you can’t compete for people’s attention, you have to try and reach this sort of détente instead. It’s a slightly peculiar conclusion to reach – particularly so, in fact, given that this production team has highlighted the Marvel Cinematic Universe content, which expects viewers to watch closely and remember a lot of detail, as both an influence on and a competitor to Doctor Who at present. (Darren Mooney touches on some of the ways Flux takes inspiration from the MCU in his review here.)

So, yes: it’s watchable. But how it achieves that watchability is often at odds with its actual content, and at odds with what Chibnall actually seems interested in – there’s clearly a desire to tell very dense continuity driven stories, yet very little faith in the audience to actually understand and get on board with that on a moment-to-moment level.

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If nothing else – setting aside any other complaints or criticisms about the concept for the character – Tecteun should have been a gift for Jodie Whittaker.

Broadly speaking, Survivors of the Flux offers what I’d once assumed might be the plot of the 60th anniversary: reuniting the Doctor with Tecteun, confronting her past, a grand moment of catharsis or perhaps even forgiveness after learning of the traumas she experienced at Tecteun’s hand. That is very broadly speaking, though – it’s interesting how this episode largely elides much of the ‘Timeless Child’ aspect of The Timeless Children, offering no references to the fact that Tecteun experimented on, tortured, and repeatedly killed this orphan child to discover and replicate the secret of regeneration. Instead, it’s about Division again, both in a way that doesn’t strictly follow The Timeless Children nor really necessitates it either. One wonders how, or even if, they’re going to tie together – the Doctor as the original Time Lord has proven largely superfluous, an incidental detail at best. (Presumably the Doctor’s latent Timeless Child powers are the exact counterbalance to the Flux – it was designed to kill her, after all – and after she reverses her own polarity that’s how she’ll restore the universe next week, or something like that.)

Plot mechanics aside, though, that shift in focus speaks the foundational flaw in Survivors of the Flux. It’s the first time Chibnall’s Doctor Who has made explicit the emotional undertone of The Timeless Children, finally calling Tecteun the Doctor’s mother outright – but then it largely sidesteps the implications of that. You can’t escape the sense that what Chibnall finds really interesting here isn’t the idea of the Doctor confronting her abusive mother – actually, you can’t escape the sense that the show doesn’t even mean to suggest she’s abusive, but never mind that now – but rather that he’s most compelled by… an ill-defined interdimensional cabal of spies. (Given how closely Chibnall riffed on Casino Royale with The Woman Who Fell to Earth, and given they surely at least asked Judi Dench if she was free for this, you wonder if on some level Flux is meant to be his Skyfall.) Tying that so closely to the Doctor’s family if that connection isn’t going to be explored is one thing, of course; suggesting the Doctor’s main problem with the Division is that they “interfered in contravention of all Time Lord directives” makes you wonder, earnestly and with genuine curiosity, what Chibnall thinks his lead character’s main traits are.

All of which means, anyway, there’s precious little substance to the confrontation between the Doctor and Tecteun. We’ve noted in previous weeks that presenting Jo Martin’s Doctor as still broadly heroic undercuts much of the identity crisis Whittaker is given to play, and that continues here (“morality was always your flaw”) – but shuffling Tecteun out of the picture so quickly, and glancing over much of the emotional connection, is even worse. Again, Tecteun should’ve been a gift for Whittaker – something that none of her predecessors have ever played, or at least not substantially, an opportunity to carve out something that is if nothing else genuinely new for the series – but Survivors of the Flux is scarcely even interested. That is always the problem with Chibnall’s Deep Lore storytelling: not that it’s transgressive or blasphemous (if anything, it’s not transgressive enough), but that it has never once served Jodie Whittaker particularly well as lead actor of this show.

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One interesting idea it does throw out, actually, is paralleling the Doctor and Tecteun. At first glance, there’s something quite superficial about that: one of hundreds of “we’re not so different, you and I” villain monologues we’ve seen before, functional only because the hero doesn’t offer the obvious retort. (In this case, “I’ve never vivisected my companions to learn about their biology,” but as noted we’re largely sidestepping that part of Tecteun’s story.) Still, it’s something Chibnall seems committed to beyond this story: much as it’s not really explored here, the same parallels exist in The Timeless Children, Tecteun and the Child a conscious echo of the Doctor travelling with Susan. Perhaps that was a red herring, but given Chibnall returned to that idea while also confirming again that the Doctor is the Timeless Child it suggests not – there’s a genuine effort to equate the Doctor with Tecteun.

It raises an obvious question: how are we to understand the Doctor’s relationship with Yaz (and, to a lesser extent, Dan) in light of that? There’s been a running thread over the past few weeks that’s seen the Doctor being, for lack of a better word, quite mean to Yaz – she’s curt and dismissive, browbeating Yaz and being accusatory rather than opening up and sharing things. Interestingly, some of that dialogue directly parallels what Tecteun said to the Doctor: you’re meant to read the two together, then, to understand Tecteun’s relationship to the Doctor as akin to the Doctor’s relationship to Yaz. Again, Darren Mooney’s review is worth a read, in this case for the astute point that Survivors of the Flux positions the Doctor as having been a companion once, “and that the experience scarred them so severely that they’ve spent thousands of years replaying that horror on unsuspecting mortals” – the last sixty-ish years in effect the Doctor acting out cycles of abuse.

This is a bigger question than Chibnall is likely to get into. In part, that’s because there’s really just not enough time to, both before Flux concludes and before he and Whittaker both leave; more than that, though, it’s because he’s just never been especially interested in writing much for his companions, especially Yaz, to actually do. This episode is a case in point: Yaz gets some relatively fantastic material here, including perhaps the most explicit suggestion yet that she’s in love with the Doctor, but at the same time the episode largely brushes past how three years in the 1900s have impacted her (or Dan, or Jericho). A total re-examination and reinvention of the companion role would, surely, need to have more robust foundations than a character so lightly sketched.

Presumably, the answer to all this is Bel and Vinder: if Bel’s as yet unborn child is indeed the Doctor, then there’s two maternal figures, each with their own companions, to compare and contrast with the Doctor and Yaz. If one is reflective of all her worst qualities, then the other is reflective of her best, and there’s some sort of grace note there – buried alongside a number of other awkward implications, of course. Still, it’ll be interesting to see how this burgeoning theme plays into Yaz’s departure – it’s difficult to imagine her choosing to leave the Doctor in the same way Ryan and Graham did. Perhaps the Doctor, alarmed at how she’s treated Yaz, sends her home herself, deciding that’s better for her? Deliberately severing the relationship for Yaz’s own good? It’d be an oddly dour note, though it’s hard to tell exactly if that makes it a more or less likely choice for Chibnall.

One episode left for Flux. Four episodes left for Chibnall. Let’s see what happens next.

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?

3 thoughts on “Doctor Who Review: Survivors of the Flux

  1. Interesting point about Chibnall aiming the show at people who are distracted by their phones. Perhaps…I had assumed he was operating under the mistaken belief that kids can’t handle complexity. This fits with his deliberate attempt to deliver more ‘educational’ content through the show (at least in the historical episodes).

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    1. Perhaps – and the two certainly aren’t mutually exclusive, you’d probably write for an audience you just don’t trust to understand as you do for one you don’t trust to pay attention – but the sort of self-recapping dialogue (and structure: see how repetitive the Indiana Jones or Line of Duty: UNIT scenes were) to me seems specifically tailored to the distracted viewer.

      Liked by 1 person

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