Doctor Who Review: The Vanquishers

doctor who flux review vanquishers chris chibnall azhur saleem jodie whittaker mandip gill john bishop division timeless child swarm

I think you might be getting the hang of this.

I’m not convinced that would stand up to much – really any, actually – sustained critical scrutiny, but then equally I had quite a lot of fun with it, so who’s to say if it’s bad or not?

The Vanquishers moves with the same breathless momentum of previous weeks, but here Chris Chibnall pushes that even further: there’s a sort of accelerated constancy to it all, Chibnall at his most Chibnall. (Well, presumably – I would’ve said The Halloween Apocalypse was the furthest Chibnall could push that approach, and then I would’ve said Once, Upon Time was the furthest Chibnall could push that approach, and so on and so forth. Whether the October 2022 Lord Reith celebrity historical, Regeneration on Ranskoor Av Kolos, manages to take it further again remains to be seen.) Again, it’s a mode he works well in, turning in an hour of pure adrenaline and motion – it’s not even remotely sophisticated, granted, but it’s still basically reasonably entertaining. There’s a certain sort of “wait, look, over here” type quality to The Vanquishers; to describe it as a sleight of hand would suggest a script that’s considerably more graceful than it actually is, admittedly, and certainly one that’s more deliberate in its haphazard structure, but the effect its just about the same. As soon as the episode starts to falter or slow down, it’s already somewhere else, doing something else, with different characters entirely. It’s no surprise that’s proved alienating, in fairness, but it’s easy to appreciate the contrast to Chibnall’s duller efforts.

Granted, while it’s an admirable experiment, The Vanquishers does start to expose the limits of that approach. It’s not incoherent, exactly, but there is a certain fuzziness to it all – you get the sense that Chibnall, juggling with one hand and spinning plates in the other, was starting to lose track of the various different plotlines he’d introduced. (Forgetting to include the technobabble to restore the destroyed bits of the universe is a notable omission, though admittedly not to my mind a particularly significant one.) It likely functions better as a piece of television on its own than as a conclusion to a six-part miniseries – why is this about a distinct second Sontaran invasion, rather than a continuation of the first? Why does Joseph Williamson just leave, and why didn’t we see that scene from Once, Upon Time from his perspective? What’s the answer to any number of character/emotional questions you might have? – but, again, it’s difficult to summon the will to complain particularly. The writing is a little (a lot) all over the place, it’s probably Azhur Saleem’s weakest direction of his three episodes, but it kept me entertained for an hour (twice!) so sure, why not.

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After last week’s very continuity-dense episode, full of Deep Lore Reveals and Canon Intrigue, it occurred to me that probably the funniest thing The Vanquishers could do would be to reject all that entirely and just be a broadly normal episode.

Which is of course exactly what it then did.

Again, that does admittedly come with the sense that this perhaps works better as a piece of television on its own rather than a conclusion to a six-part miniseries: I’m yet to watch them altogether, but my suspicion at the moment is that given how important the Division was in previous episodes its almost total absence here will be quite keenly felt. But equally, I don’t know that I mind particularly either – I’ve never much cared for Chibnall’s more continuity-driven storytelling, both because his more fannish instincts largely diverge from my own and because I don’t think he’s ever done a very good of foregrounding the emotional journeys in amongst that. (I was already dreading another archive footage montage in lieu of a character beat this week, so if nothing else I’m glad we avoided that.) Sidestepping most of Flux’s big plotlines in favour of a Sontaran runaround is, on paper, a mistake – but I know I had much more fun with the Sontaran runaround than I would’ve another fifty minutes of strained exposition about pre-Hartnell Doctors. Critically speaking, I’d probably argue it’s a flaw, but I can’t deny the flaws lead to me enjoying it a lot more than I would’ve otherwise.

Perhaps the only real loss is in spending less time with Swarm and Azure. Sam Spruell and Rochenda Sandall have been a consistent delight over the past few weeks, their performances dripping with not just menace but style – that, coupled with some of the best design work of the Chibnall era, made them instantly engaging to watch. There’s also something admirable, here as admittedly in Ranskoor Av Kolos, to Chibnall’s efforts to build finales around new concepts rather than returning classic monsters – even if that didn’t really last long. Part of me wishes it did; Division aside, Swarm and Azure are an expression of some of Chibnall’s most interesting and genuinely distinct ideas about the show, and I think I’d have really loved a closer exploration of that here.

But, you know, equally, the Sontaran chocolate joke was fun, so sure, fine, why not.

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It’s worth taking a moment to talk about Jodie Whittaker, since there are fewer and fewer opportunities for that left, and I probably don’t take that chance often enough.

In a sense, The Vanquishers is quite a good lens through which to view her performance, indicative of all the different tensions that it embodies. There are bits of it that are fantastic here, like the interrogation scene with the Grand Serpent; again, it feels like a desperately obvious thing to highlight, to the point that it really just feels like describing the concept of acting, but Whittaker is always strongest when she’s playing against a strong guest star like Craig Parkinson here. There’s a welcome edge to that interrogation scene which livens up proceedings nicely – even as it also, by comparison, draws attention to how adrift Whittaker sometimes is when given reams of technobabble to deliver to a greenscreen environment. (Or, indeed, how Chibnall underwriting his companions undercuts Whittaker too. It would’ve been great to see her against the more active Yaz of last week, but immediately Chibnall gives Mandip Gill the most basic expository dialogue again – complete with an almost cruel “normal service resumed” quip to highlight the regression! – and, with one exception, there’s very little for Whittaker to latch onto.)

More than anything else though what’s interesting it that Whittaker gets the chance to do something here that she’s genuinely never had before. It’s not playing three (well, four) versions of the character here – most of the fun of that comes from the Doctor experiencing the same narrative structure we’ve been watching for the past six weeks, it’s not really an actorly showcase for her by any means. Indeed, there’s an odd unwillingness, or maybe Covid-related inability, to actually show the two Doctors sharing the screen – it’s really only a step away from the weightless technobabble we mentioned a moment ago. No, what’s interesting actually is that it’s the first time we’ve seen attraction and romance scripted for Whittaker to portray. It’s something that Chibnall has largely eschewed, in contrast to his two predecessors (for whatever reason – small c fan conservatism seeming to me equally as likely as a reluctance to deal with the media response), and as a result the character Whittaker’s been given seems, well, smaller on the inside than before, offered less of a range of emotion to play even as it’s clearly something she’d be good at. You can see her coming to life in those moments, both flirting with her other selves and in that stumbling intimacy with Yaz at the end, and it’s fantastic – even as it also emphasises how much of a shame it is we’ve never got to see it before now. There’s rightfully been some critique of the ‘Thasmin’ plotline in recent weeks, but I was entirely onboard with it surprisingly quickly – if (big if) that’s something they’re going to properly commit to over the next three episodes, well, it’d at once be too little too late but also difficult to complain about our two leads finally getting something new and interesting to do.

I don’t want to overplay my hand here: there’s a lot of The Vanquishers that doesn’t work. Equally, I’m not even sure how much I mind anymore. It’s probably my favourite episode of Flux so far – a full series review will follow in early January, after Repetition of the Daleks – and certainly my favourite of Chibnall’s three finales. Ironically, it’s the first that’s made me think I’d almost quite like to watch another year of his version of the show: it’s taken three years, nearly thirty episodes, and a pandemic, but I think Chibnall might’ve finally got the hang of this.

(Or maybe I’ve just finally got the hang of Chibnall.)

Related:

Doctor Who series 13 reviews

Doctor Who Review: Series 12 Overview

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