Doctor Who Series 13, Episode 2
“War of the Sontarans”
Posted by Sage
If my lukewarm take on “The Halloween Apocalypse” bummed you out, please don’t go. While I maintain that the premiere was a misfire, this second chapter makes a compelling case for serializing Jodie’s final season. “War of the Sontarans” begins bringing threads of the previous episode together in a graspable way and even manages to add new elements without sending the whole thing careening off the rails. And who do we have to thank for grounding this great experiment? The universe’s ugliest warmongers, the Sontarans.
I’ve been a sucker for a changed history since I was old enough to understand Back to the Future, so the twisted historical quality of the episode’s A story really worked for me. Chibnall’s Who hasn’t always been strong on its villains’ motivations (read my “Timeless Children” recap to see why I even think he got the Master’s wrong), but of course the Sontarans would march on Earth holding onto the coattails of the Flux. In the reality the Doctor, Yaz, and Dan find themselves flung, China and Russia don’t exist, and the Crimean War is being fought against the alien race. The Doctor knows that this means that the British military unit Mary Seacole (Sara Powell, who’s really fun in the role) and her fellow volunteers are caring for don’t stand a chance. But she’s unable to convince General Logan of that, being that he has too much in common with the enemy that he’s fighting.
Logan is not only the inverse of the Doctor in this — he explicitly acts against her wishes twice, in sending his men into certain death and then blowing up the Sontarans who were about to retreat — he’s also contrasted against Mary. Mrs. Seacole, a real British-Jamaican woman who paid her own way to the front to set up her British Hotel and nurse wounded soldiers, is there against all odds to mitigate suffering and to provide some kind of normalcy and comfort in what is otherwise hell on earth. (If you’d like to learn more about her, check out this piece friend of the blog Amanda-Rae Prescott wrote for Den of Geek.) She and the Doctor are both healers — or at least the Doctor aspires to that — to the point where the Doctor even makes herself of use as a battle nurse, changing bandages and checking on Mrs. Seacole’s patients. (“Me? I’m Mary Seacole’s assistant.”)
Yet, as I’ve felt so many times throughout this era, I feel like Doctor Who missed an opportunity here. It continues to plug its ears and na-na-na away certain traits of the Doctor, including that she has been known to be…let’s just say punitive. She’s no stranger to war, and her track record is not unimpeachable when it comes to taking the high road. And she’s also killed. A lot.
I wouldn’t change any of the Doctor’s actions in this episode, especially not that quick glimpse we get of her caring for soldiers. But there’s something false and preachy about putting this Doctor so above the worst moments of her past, and it still does read as uncomfortably gendered to me. All I’ve wanted throughout these years of Jodie is for Thirteen to get down in the dirt and to deal with her flaws as past incarnations have. It seems we’ll never get that, and tbh, it’s rather insulting. (“Sometimes men like you make me wonder why I bother with humanity. “I am grateful that you do, whoever you are, Doctor.” Come the fuck on, Bridget.)
In lesser sins, Dan and Yaz are sort of hand-waved over to the places they need to be to keep the story moving, but I can forgive that, since the justification for almost everything on this show is, “ummm, the TARDIS?” Dan finds himself back in Liverpool, where he meets up with his rather intrepid parents, who’ve taken it upon themselves to fight back against the Sontarans while everyone else hides in their homes. Why, you ask? Unclear. But what they lack in any sort of justification for being there, the Bishops make up for in folksy charm. (You can see where Dan gets it.) Their main function seems to be getting a wok into Dan’s hands and telling him about the Sontarans’ weak spot—why that information hasn’t been spread far and wide is also unclear, but it behooves me to remind you that if the Tenth Doctor hadn’t erased the memory of a mouthy temp from Chiswick, none of this would have happened.
It’s a good thing that Dan continues to be sweet and brave, sneaking into the Sontarans’ base and accidentally making contact with the Doctor back in the past. He may not know the difference between temporal and tempura, but he and his nemesis/bestie Karvanista still manage to erase the Sontarans from history. And while one reward for that is taking a ride down a Sontaran waste tube, the other is an invite back into the TARDIS. It’s a moment that always gets me, and kudos to John Bishop for this perfectly humble and chuffed reaction.
Yaz has a rougher time of it — when doesn’t she? — getting beamed to the Temple of Atropos on the planet Time (a little on the nose, but sure), which is definitely some kind of nexus for whatever’s going on here. I don’t have much faith that we’ll get any kind of explanation as to whether it was the TARDIS or the Flux that sent her there, though that seems like a pretty important distinction. There, she meets our man Vinder, and the references to his apparently troubled backstory refute the assumption that he’s there by complete cosmic accident. Both travelers are asked to “repair” the temple’s residents, the Mouri, who are gatekeepers to time. Without them, the temple’s guardian priests tell Vinder and Yaz, “Time shall run unstoppable.”
And this is bad, because also: “Time is evil.”
Time is also the force being wielded by Swarm, Azure, and their new friend,
Doctor Doom the Frontman the Passenger. They arrive at the temple (looking fly as hell, obviously) to complete the trap they’ve set for the Doctor and to taunt everyone around them. Swarm zeroes in on Yaz’s biggest insecurity, that she is not and can never be like the Doctor, no matter what she has written on her hand.
We’ve still got two-thirds of this adventure to go, but as of this moment, Swarm and Azure are perhaps its biggest strength. Call it retribution for Tim Shaw. Theatrical and genuinely menacing, they add style to the proceedings, as well as killer lines like, “You underestimate us, you pathetic, temporal hags.” TBD as to whether Chibnall’s writing checks he can’t cash here, but at least it’ll be an entertaining ride.
Timey Wimey Observations:
- I don’t know what that black-and-white vision the Doctor has of the Neibolt House is about, but it looks very cool.
- Could’ve done with more Florence Nightingale slander. That lady suuuuuucked.
- Yaz and the Doctor’s desperation at losing each other…I’m listening.
- Top Hat Man, what is your deal??
- “Ambush by a circular repellent.”
- Erect a statue of the drunk guy who knocked out a Sontaran with a mallet.
- “And also…I wanted to ride a horse.”
- The Doctor and her slingshot! Ace’s influence.
- “Oh, there she comes, now the hard work’s been done.”
- Not that I’m not concerned about the TARDIS, but it’s kind of a baller move to just completely destroy the current interior before retiring it.
- Please no more universe-altering snaps, I’m still fragile from Infinity War.
What did you think of Chapter Two of Flux? Let us know in the comments!
Featured Image Source: BBC