I imagine there are a number of very disgruntled Doctor Who fans ranting and raving on social media at the moment. Not that this is in any way new. The internet is pockmarked with zits of anger and boils of rage – all directed at a show these people profess to love – and it is impossible to travel very far, wherever you happen to be going, without running into pustules of self-righteous indignation, seemingly desperate to be lanced or popped. Getting angry at Doctor Who is very fashionable. I should know; I’ve done it myself.
But this week’s anger is liable to take a specific form, and comes as we learn, more or less unambiguously, that two particular fan theories from the last couple of years have basically fallen at the wayside. The first (and by far most popular) is that the Master’s revelation halfway through ‘The Timeless Children’ was an outright falsehood. For a number of people (I’m not going to say ‘many’, because I suspect they’re probably just a particularly vocal minority) the prospect that Gallifrey’s public enemy number one was lying through his teeth was a far more appealing one than the likelihood that Chibnall genuinely wanted to see this through to the bitter end, even if it meant rewriting history. “The Master lies,” we’re told, over and over. “You can’t trust him”.
Well, no. You can’t. As far as unreliable narrators go, he’s up there with Keyser Soze. But…really? Is that something you’d honestly see Chibnall doing? Inserting new Doctors – including the first person of colour to land the role, if you don’t count Lenny Henry – only to turn round and say “Sorry, folks, this doesn’t count”? Or “We said there were loads of Doctors, but we were only pulling your leg”? Not only is it the sort of negligent trolling I don’t think even he’s capable of, it discards everything we’ve seen over the last three years; it also severely undermines the BBC’s (admirable) diversity agenda, and hence it isn’t the sort of trick he’s about to pull. I mean, Davies might. But that’s entirely up to him.
The other theory that has now failed to bear fruit is an expanded version of this: that Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor inhabits a parallel universe, and is most likely herself a parallel Doctor. Hence everything that’s happened over the past few years, from angry Ptings to mysterious to TARDISes buried near lighthouses, has been a series of adventures chronicled by another set of adventurers. You know, a different Doctor. Not ours. Not the real one. And thus the timeline may be restored without prejudice and everybody’s happy (and by ‘everybody’, I mean that small-but-vocal contingent I previously mentioned). Capaldi regenerates into someone else and series 11-13 were only a dream, an imagined memory, half-human on its mother’s side. Isn’t it brilliant when you can strike the stories you hate from the continuity?
But as we saw in ‘Survivors of The Flux’, the Doctor really is the Timeless Child, and this really is our universe – something that’s not just a passing observation but a major plot point. The moment comes at the midway point in what is essentially a fifty-minute infodump. After a visually striking (if pedestrian) opening scene where the Doctor walks through a field of Angels, she then spends the rest of the episode confined to a single room where a middle-aged woman dressed like a post-apocalyptic Amelia Earhart fiddles with a set of controls and sneers at her. There is an Ood in the corner, who is there for no reason other than the fact that Chibnall clearly wanted an Ood, and whose reasoning the Doctor is able to affect in thirty seconds flat. She gets it on side by explaining that the universe it’s about to blow up contains other Ood, and that killing them is murder. How the Ood was unable to reach this conclusion on its own is left unexplained, but we should probably be used to that by now.
That the mysterious woman turns out to be Tecteun, the Doctor’s long lost mother, turns out to be no great shock. Nor are we surprised when she tempts Whittaker with a set of restored memories, presumably detailing all the times she was stomping across the universe doing Division’s dirty work. Nor do we care when the Doctor turns the offer down flat. Even the cliffhanger, in which Swarm and Azure pop up out of nowhere just in time to disintegrate Tecteun out of existence, is something you could see coming a mile off. The net result of this is that a series of uninteresting twists are heaped together in an attempt to make the whole more than the sum of its parts, in which respect it fails miserably. This is a wobbly tower of nothingness: reveals are dumped on top of reveals until they cease to have any impact, a layer cake where every layer is jam.
It’s as if Chibnall sat down to write this week’s episode having woken up in a panic in the realisation that he had ninety-four minutes of screen time left and enough unexplained material to fill about six hours. The only answer is to dump it all into a single speech and leave the audience to fill in the gaps. Which I wouldn’t mind, had it been even slightly entertaining – but most of the exposition is as dry as a desert. “Colossal,” beams Tecteun when the Doctor asks about the extent of Division’s influence. “Across space and time, its influence is unparalleled. Its reach is unlimited. All from the shadows. It achieves its aim beyond our wildest dreams.” It reads like a BBC press release. Barbara Flynn does the best she can with the dog’s breakfast she’s given, but when your job is primarily to tell everyone what’s been going on, how much life can you really inject?
There were good things. Craig Parkinson oozes venom (quite literally) as the treacherous Prentis, a sliver of white in his hair and a snake living on his back. His rise to the top of UNIT might almost be Machiavellian were it not for the fact that we’ve seen him before, in a very different setting, and it is clear that this is probably the same man, either immortal or carrying a TARDIS (or a working vortex manipulator). He manages to off anyone who gets in his way, with the notable exception of Kate Lethbridge-Stewart, who lights up the screen in what is the episode’s single best scene, before vanishing into the darkness as UNIT is defunded and her house is blown up. It’s all good fun until you realise that Chibnall’s effectively turned a Brexit gag into a significant plot point, but Jemma Redgrave is always fun to watch, so perhaps it’s churlish to complain.
Then there’s the companions, who mercifully have a bit more to do this week, having spent the last three years backpacking round the world in search of artifacts that might help them predict the year of the coming apocalypse (spoiler: it’s 2021); Around The World In Eighty Days with touches of Indiana Jones. They even get their own montage, hiking to Nepal (presumably Wales), red dotted lines charting their progress as the music swells in the background. All this is before they realise that what they were searching for was right under their noses the whole time, which really is a bit Wizard of Oz. Still, it’s nice to see more of Kevin McNally, who slides into the role of temporary sidekick with aplomb, sparking well with Bishop and Gill, whether he’s running from an obviously-placed stick of dynamite or shoving a corpse over the edge of a boat. The scene with the farquhar is likely to split the fandom. Personally, I was chuckling.
Four years ago Emily and I were watching series three of Twin Peaks. It was twenty-five years in coming and in retrospect I wonder whether the sense of anticipation led us to overlook some of its shortcomings. For every wonderful, crowd-pleasing moment (when Kyle MacLachlan looks to camera with a reassuring smile and declares “I am the FBI”, it’s difficult not to cheer) there are moments of unfulfilled promise: James Hurley’s half-visited storyline; the scenes with Ed and Norma and Nadine that basically come out of nowhere…it’s a mess. A god-awful glorious mess, but still a mess.
And the reason it works, despite being a mess, is that we’re dealing with pre-conceived characters we knew well. Lynch knew he’d told us all he really wanted to about these people, when we lived their lives and visited their homes in the early 1990s. All that remains is to drop in a coda (in the case of Audrey Horne, an interrupted cadenza). We don’t need to see any more of Ed and Norma, because we know their story and they deserve the happy ending they’re given. This isn’t the case with Flux, where Chibnall slingshots around a host of new and vaguely-connected characters in different times and places, offers the flimsiest of sketches and the barest character development the running time allows, and then ties them all together at the eleventh hour with string so old and frayed it could snap at any minute. There’s still at least one episode to go (possibly more, if he elects to draw this out into the specials) but it’s become apparent that this year’s Big Event is a story where plot is directing character, rather than the other way round: where they decided to wipe out the universe and stick in a bunch of half-formed people to see how it would affect them. Which is par for the course in Doctor Who, at least some of the time – but when it’s been hyped up so much, and when it’s all the new content we’re getting, you can’t help wishing they’d managed something a little more substantial.