With Season 13, Episode 5 following the triumphant return of The Weeping Angels last week, it was always going to be difficult to continue to wow an excited returning audience. Even with some of the series mysteries receiving huge answers, and a likable TARDIS crew, this latest chapter of the Flux arc manages to fall short of being a truly memorable episode.
What could have been a fantastic outing, turns into a familiar mush of too many plots, characters, and ideas to keep up with. What’s there is enjoyable, it’s just too jumbled to appreciate as a stand-alone offering.
Doctor Who airs on Sundays on BBC One (UK) and BBC America (US), and is available to stream on BBC iPlayer in the UK.
Story – Two Time Lords and an Ood walk into a bar
In a grand turn of events, The Doctor gets to act as Ms. Exposition this week. Yaz, Dan, and Professor Jericho get to lead the action while stuck on Earth in 1904.
It was so nice to see the companions get some time to show what they can do with a proper plot supporting their personalities—especially Yaz. If War of the Sontarans was Dan’s opportunity to win audiences over, this is Yaz’s. She takes the lead in the trio’s Indiana Jones-style adventure of charting the globe. The team are on the hunt for a date to the Flux’s apocalyptic arrival on Earth. This is the best example yet of transporting viewers to another time period this season. While it leans heavily on fictional depictions of the era, it gels well with Doctor Who’s fantasy themes. The gang really does feel like a ragtag group of adventurers. The only significant issue is that their story has to share the limelight with so many others. I would happily listen to a whole series of Big Finish tales following their adventures.
After her incredible transformation into a Weeping Angel at the end of last week’s Village of the Angels, The Doctor is transported into an area outside of the universe. An Ood makes a welcome appearance, but it’s Thirteen and the mysterious Time Lord Tecteun that lead this arc. The exposition could have been handled with more grace than an infodump, but it was great to finally get a lot of answers. Viewers learn what The Division is exactly, and what its goal in unleashing the Flux is. Audiences also get to see the Doctor’s extracted Division memories stored in a familiar Time Lord pocket watch. Whether or not it’s going to be opened would have been a tantalizing thread to speculate over until the finale airs. However, the preview for next week spoils its fate. It’s a little disappointing that the trailers for Season 13 keep deflating a cliffhanger’s tension.
Then there’s the inevitable overstuffing of cutaways to Karvanista, Bel, Vinder, and The Grand Serpent. It’s unclear right now whether The Grand Serpent/Prentis has been rewriting time, or is being inserted as a villain who has been a part of U.N.I.T. since the start. Vinder gets himself captured by a Passenger, and Bel and Karvanista have an explosive run-in when the Lupari discovers Bel is piloting one of his race’s ships. The plots themselves are fine, they just don’t flow well into each other. Every time we cut away from 1904, or The Doctor, it feels like we’re missing out. It all seems very rushed. I hope everybody teams up in a single storyline in the finale next week to try and stick a plaster on this reoccurring issue.
Characters & Performances – What would The Doctor do?
Mandip Gill should have had more time with Yaz in Season 13. She really elevates the simple material she’s given this week. Gill really sells Yaz as an adventurer and leader in an unassuming, funny, and sweet, performance. Her vulnerable conversation with Dan after listening to The Doctor’s recording was quietly the best scene in the episode. It’s a shame it took five weeks to have even these small segments for viewers to finally connect with Yaz. It’s still a ridiculously small amount of content for a full-time companion to receive, but it’s something. Dan and Professor Jericho compliment Yaz very well. As stated in the story section, I would definitely watch this trio go on more adventures. Especially the already iconic Professor Eustacius Jericho. He’s such a great, bumbling character, played to perfection by Kevin McNally.
Sam Spruell continues to smash it as the campy, delightfully evil Swarm, and Rochenda Sandall’s Azure is becoming just as fun to watch. Barbara Flynn is a fantastic actor, and British TV icon, but Tecteun is just a bit too stereotypical to be a truly memorable villain. Perhaps when she gets more to do than provide quietly menacing exposition, we’ll get to see more of what Tecteun can offer. At least her rustic, farming-inspired outfit is a refreshing look for a Time Lord. Flynn also has good chemistry with Jodie Whittaker, who gets some meatier material to work with this week. She’s fantastic, as always, but Once, Upon Time still remains her greatest performance of Season 13.
Craig Parkinson as The Grand Serpent does a solid job, but his storyline just felt like one too many. There’s nothing he does that the other villains don’t provide. Tecteun, The Ravagers, and even The Sontarans are more compelling than his lackluster arc involving U.N.I.T.
Editing & Pacing – Too many cooks
There are at least five stories packed into this episode. Which is more disappointing than surprising at this point of Season 13. However, it’s not just quick cutaways anymore, as there are important plot points occurring in every narrative thread. So, when big things start to happen with characters like Tecteun and The Doctor, and then we cut to Bel and Karvanista—only for big events occurring in their story to cut to another significant moment in 1904…it feels frustrating and unnecessary. The editing could have been constructed with a lot more finesse.
It’s not all bad, and some cutaways are handled well. Like the scene with The Grand Serpent yelling at a subordinate to get a doctor, and then transitioning to Thirteen. However, there are more moments that feel out of place than those that flow well. For example, Bel and Karvanista have an important scene split in two that could easily be left as one. It feels like all these separate adventures should have been their own episodes. Instead, they are stuffed into Survivors of the Flux. As mentioned in last week’s review, this might be due to Season 13’s episode count being reduced to six. Saying that, because the episodes were reduced, perhaps the scope of The Flux story arc should have been as well. Did we really need five villains and eight heroes across five plots in this one 50 minute episode?
Cinematography & Sound – You love to see it
There are some beautiful shots provided by returning director Azhur Saleem. Unfortunately, due to the fast-paced nature of the pacing, they are not allowed to linger. It’s a real shame, because Saleem clearly has a flair for constructing a pretty setup. He knows when to go for a simple closeup, or give Tecteun’s tree-looking ship an appreciative panning perspective. I noted in my review for Once, Upon Time that he was the best director so far this season, and that remains true. It sucks that he just so happened to helm the two messiest episodes. Hopefully, the editing showcases his natural talent more next week.
The weird sound mixing issues from Village of the Angels have thankfully disappeared. Survivors of the Flux also features perhaps the best score of Season 13. It certainly stands out the most, anyway. The track playing in the background of Tecteun’s ship is appropriate to her Time Lord status—it’s grand, it’s totally alien, and it’s beautiful. Composer Segun Akinola is at his best when constructing softer melodies, rather than noisy action tracks.
Special credit needs noted for the costume, set design, prosthetics, and CGI departments. Tecteun’s ship is gorgeous, with a wonderful alien design. Yaz, Dan, and Professor Jericho’s scenes feel like the 1900s in large part due to the trio’s clothing, and Vinder’s outfit portrays his soldier/explorer background perfectly. Any shot of space could be set as a desktop background, and Swarm and Azure remain the best designed Who villains in quite some time. If only these elements could be part of a more coherent structure, Season 13 could have been a truly stand-out piece of Doctor Who’s history.