On Hallowe’en, all across the universe, terrifying forces are stirring. From the Arctic Circle to deep space, an ancient evil is breaking free. And in present day Liverpool, the life of Dan Lewis is about to change forever. Why is the Doctor on the trail of the fearsome Karvanista? And what is the Flux?
Reviewed by Tim Robins
WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD
Doctor Who is back, this time comprising a six-episode season with a single story: The Flux, about a deadly wave of CGI that threatens to end the entire universe. Some of the events in episode one occur on the night of Hallowe’en, with the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) trying to puzzle out the nature of the apocalyptic trick the Earth, Yaz, (Mandip Gill) and the entire world are being treated to.
Plotting a course through the blizzard of scenes including the horrid beings, the Ravagers, the Weeping Angels, Sontarans, a fluffy dog-headed alien called “Karvanista” (Craige Els), a couple in a house in the Arctic Circle, Claire (Annabel Scholey) a woman thrown back in time, two nineteenth century gents, a guy, Vinder (Jacob Anderson) observing a particularly boring part of the universe, and the introduction of a new companion, was all a bit of a nightmare all on its own.
There was a touch of Douglas Adams about the pre-title sequence, in which The Doctor and Yaz are caught in an absurdly complex trap involving a sea of acid, and the plot later reveals that every human being is assigned their own alien canine “best friend”, who is sworn to protect their opposite number. There were time travel shenanigans aplenty, and many of the conflicts seemed to have gone on for a long time prior to the start of the story.
However… I’m not sure “enigma bombing” the audience is the best way to hook them to tune in next week. As incident piled upon incident, my interest began to flag, as the episode quickly became a collection of potential pre-title sequences, and it was hard to get involved in any of them. Characters just shouted questions at each other, in between smart-alec quips from Joss Whedon’s ‘Big Book of Character Interactions’.
All this was paired with the ever rising music, signalling that things are very bad, and the whole episode became an earache in space.
The cliff-hanger – including a montage of the characters that we had just met – echoed showrunner Chris Chibnall’s work on Broadchurch, which uses multiple shots of suspects to end some episodes. So perhaps Chibnall wants ‘The Flux’ to be a murder mystery; who killed the universe? But it also looked like throwing pixels at a screen and hoping some of them would stick.
This isn’t the best way to establish a mystery. Doctor Who has had its share of longer, better paced, stories. These usually gradually reveal and deepen the mystery as they go along.
Fortunately, the post BBC credit clips featuring Sontarans and the Crimean War definitely made me want to come back next week. Doctor Who is still enough of my life to invite friends around to watch the episode with me, follow critiques of the show on YouTube, and have a few excited phone calls with mates.
It needs to be said that we are fortunate that Chibnall was able to wrest anything, production-wise, from the year of COVID-19. It must have been a logistical nightmare. Some productions had to isolate cast members with their respective make-up artists, and lateral-flow tests were carried out daily. TV production took a massive hit. And yet here we are and with five more episodes and then three specials yet to go.
The Halloween Apocalypse looked amazing. There were some great set-ups, notably scenes of a solitary Weeping Angel stalking Claire. The effects and make-up were excellent, too; I particularly liked the masks on ‘Swarm’ (Sam Spruell) and his sister, Azure (Rochenda Sandall).
The newly-designed Sontarans were spot on, their ‘potato-heads’ recalling their appearances in both The Time Warrior and The Sontaran Experiment. It has to be noted, though, that the 4K cameras continue to ruthlessly pick up even the slightest facial blemishes of the human cast.
John Bishop was introduced as a new companion, Dan Lewis, a Liverpudlian first seen pretending to be a guide at The Liverpool Museum (the exterior of which, by the way, bears more than a passing resemblance to Hadid’s controversially overlooked design for Cardiff’s Opera House). The joke, in which Lewis’ deception was revealed by a friend, was groan-inducingly obvious. They arranged a “date ” and Lewis leaves, promising not to be late. Wha-wha-wha”. These are the jokes that count, folks!
I am unfamiliar with Bishop’s work, but apparently he is a bit of a wag on scripted, comedy quiz shows – my least favourite kind of quiz show. I missed The Doctor’s extended “fam”, even if they never seemed properly positioned around a set. Speaking of which, the TARDIS interior seems to have undergone a make-over and the direction made scenes around the console look more dramatic than ever.
As for the Flux, it was a bit meh, although we did see it consume a planet of green-skinned aliens. As a fan, I felt it would have been fun to show a classic Doctor Who race being obliterated. There is an egregious lack of Monoids in the new show.
Not much use was made of Halloween. A joke involving a bloke called Kev (John May) trick-or-treating for booze didn’t work for me, as I was too confused about what was going on. I thought Lewis had opened a door to a mate who had turned up to spend Hallowe’en with him. It would be funny if he turned out to be the Master. In any event, John Carpenter need have nothing to worry about. Thus, the best Doctor Who Halloween story never made remains the Nigel Kneale scripted Halloween III: The Season of the Witch.
I have no idea how all the elements introduced in The Halloween Apocalypse will fall into place. There’s plenty for fans to speculate about – including a reference to ‘The Division’, of which Karvanista is a surviving member (could the fluffy eared friend be The Master? Are Swarm and Azure the Master and the Rani?). I am sure that I’ll be sticking around to find out. I’m less sure the general audience will be back, but I hope that they are.
Dear reader, a review is an opinion. Other opinions are available, including your own.
• Doctor Who is available to watch on BBC iPlayer | Official Web Site: www.doctorwho.tv
The Doctor – Jodie Whittaker
Yasmin Khan – Mandip Gill
Dan Lewis – John Bishop
Writer – Chris Chibnall
Director – Jamie Magnus Stone
Executive Producer – Matt Strevens
Executive Producer – Chris Chibnall
Doctor Who © BBC Studios
A freelance journalist and Doctor Who fanzine editor since 1978, Tim Robins has written on comics, films, books and TV programmes for a wide range of publications including Starburst, Interzone, Primetime and TV Guide.
His brief flirtation with comics includes ghost inking a 2000AD strip and co-writing a Doctor Who strip with Mike Collins. Since 1990 he worked at the University of Glamorgan where he was a Senior Lecturer in Cultural and Media Studies and the social sciences. Academically, he has published on the animation industry in Wales and approaches to social memory. He claims to be a card carrying member of the Politically Correct, a secret cadre bent on ruling the entire world and all human thought.