Doctor Who Series 13, Episode 5
“Survivors of the Flux”
Posted by Sage
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Well, folks: if you were counting on this whatever’s-in-the-pantry crockpot stew of a series adding up to some kind of meaningful revelation about the Doctor, “Survivors of the Flux” is that hope dead and buried.
Nothing that we learn in this penultimate episode is remotely surprising, nor does any of it have an ounce of emotional heft. (Yaz moonily rewatching her hologram of the Doctor aside.) Characters who, until this point, served no purpose but walking through scenes muttering something cryptic turn out to be — gasp — nothing but plot devices. And it’s all built on an addition to canon that’s not that popular anyway.
Personally, I don’t care all that much that Chibnall’s invention of the Timeless Child changes what we thought we knew about the origin of the Doctor, though I can see why others do. What continues to plague me about it is that it puts Thirteen, already perhaps the most passive Doctor in the history of this television program, back in the dark again. It puts her in the position of the story happening to her, when she should be the one driving it. It gives us an episode like this one, in which all Jodie is required to do is ask another series of questions (some of them almost word-for-word retreading her scenes with the Master and the Fugitive Doctor in last season’s finale) and then react as another character info dumps on her.
Would that I had a TARDIS to go back to the day that our first woman Doctor was announced and tell my stupidly optimistic self to temper those expectations a bit.
I don’t like feeling this way about Doctor Who!! It’s not fun, and it doesn’t make me feel cool or superior to write a negative review, let alone several in a row. But when I decided to add a second major in Media Studies in college, I was required to take one (1) basics of film production class. And I was taught in that single semester what a propulsive script looks like and that you need to prove to your audience why you’re telling your story in the medium of film and not in prose. Maybe Flux would make a passable Doctor Who novel, but it doesn’t measure up to the standards set by previous serial television arcs, nor even the standards set by my professor, who had to show me three times how to use a light meter.
It would be a waste of my time and yours to actually recap the events of this episode. People go to the places they’re supposed to go, meet the people they’re supposed to meet via sheer coincidence, and hit the marks necessary to drag us forward to the next eventuality. In the case of a character like the Grand Serpent (who should be paying residuals to Colony Sarff), a plot thread that should have been gradually teased out throughout the season is compressed into one episode, which only highlights how repetitive and unimaginative it is. Kate Stewart finally returns, and it’s honestly insulting that Jemma Redgrave had to get out of bed for this. Surely by now she’s established herself as more than just Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart’s daughter, but Chibnall goes in on that dead horse again. (He’s not the only showrunner guilty of being overly sentimental about the Brig, but honestly: enough.) And frankly, whatever’s going on with UNIT only heaps more confusion onto the pile, along with diluting the threat of the Flux. Is Earth going to be destroyed or not?? Is whatever the Grand Serpent’s setting up with the Sontarans the downside to the Doctor saving the planet from Division’s weapon? If so, it’s not being communicated clearly. The stakes seem to fluctuate every episode, leaving me unsure of what it even is that the Doctor’s meant to be trying to prevent.
But nothing about this series has been more disappointing than the reveal of Division and the Doctor’s role in it. And again, it’s not because I’m precious about canon that’s already a house of cards. It’s because I have no idea how the Doctor feels about it. We know that she’s upset about the not knowing, which is understandable. But there’s certainly more to it than that. Is she concerned about what she may have done as a Division operative? Is she at all troubled by the ethical shitstorm that is the Time Lords stealing her biology to further shore up their ruling class status? And how does this all connect back to Ruth’s story and “Fugitive of the Judoon”? Will we ever hear from the Fugitive Doctor about why she decided to run? Because last we saw of her in her Division post, she appeared to be pretty darn comfortable there. It seems to me that she’s a more important player in this story than our Doctor, and these conversations with Tecteun would be much more powerful if it were the Fugitive Doctor having them. The Fugitive Doctor is the one who took action and changed the course of the Doctor’s life again — but we don’t even get to hear from her about it? No wonder these scenes lack bite.
Tecteun’s devotion to Division runs up against some interesting concepts, and the Doctor raises points about exploitation, but those ideas go largely un-investigated. The Doctor is the poster child for interfering, so it’s weird to position that as the aspect of Division that she simply cannot accept. And Tecteun certainly has a point about the Doctor selfishly collecting companions, knowing that their lives will be irrevocably altered (and sometimes ended) by their relationship with her. Only Thirteen has rarely exhibited any selfishness, thoughtlessness, or really any characteristic one might associate with the “lonely god” conception of the Doctor — one conversation with Roy Kent in “The Tsuranga Conundrum” aside — so that argument falls flat. This Doctor is so Good with a capital G that it’s laughable that we’re even expected to wonder whether she’d be tempted to trade the universe for her memories. Tecteun accuses her of being moral to a fault, and that is sometimes the truth of that character. (And other times, morality goes in the garbage so that the Doctor can chase a personal vendetta, but we’re not allowed to talk about that anymore, I guess.) But the Doctor brushes it off with a response so cringe-worthy that I cannot bring myself to type it here. This era has retconned the Doctor into being an infallible moral authority — what could possibly be more boring than that?
Then Tecteun is obliterated by Swarm anyway, leaving us all wondering…So what? What was the point of any of this?
All the while, Yaz, Dan, and Jericho are on their own mission, after leaving a 10-year-old girl marooned by herself in 1901 to her own devices, and that mission does have its moments. Who wouldn’t want to watch our friends go on a very The Mummy (1999)-inspired quest across the globe? Trapped when they are, they still have more agency than the Doctor. Even so, their hard-won discoveries are overshadowed by plot contrivances. And I don’t know about you, but I still don’t know anything about Dan other than that he’s from Liverpool and that this is what makes him necessary. How is this journey changing him? When you start with a character who’s seemingly perfect — selfless, heroic, humble — what even do they need the Doctor for? Save that spot in the TARDIS for any of the rest of us, who need a transformative experience to be our best selves.
Alas, I will try to end this on a positive note. The only (and I mean only) scene in this episode that I found even remotely moving is one I mentioned at the top of the recap. Because if Yaz isn’t in love with the Doctor (and vice versa), then why does she look at her like that?? I don’t know if that hologram was meant to be a “Parting of the Ways” callback, but I’m absolutely taking it as one. Mandip Gill has been putting in the work since Series 11, making every moment count, and I think we have her to thank for giving us more than just what’s on the page. The relationship between these two is the rare vital and exciting element of this series, and I am really hoping that the finale and the upcoming specials don’t drop the ball on giving Yaz and the Doctor the dramatic conclusion they deserve.
Timey Wimey Observations:
- The way that I knew they would immediately undercut last week’s cliffhanger. “Made me one of you,” the Doctor says to the Weeping Angels. “‘Cept you haven’t.” Okay cool, great. Glad we did that then. Totally worth it, not manipulative at all.
- I don’t know why this bothered me so much but why did we need two establishing shots of the ocean liner that Yaz, Dan, and Jericho were passengers on? They were even sitting in the same compartment.
- “My friends are never lost.” Uhhh, Doctor, check your diary.
- “You can’t fight the future.” Mulder and Scully would like a word!
- WHAT A WASTE OF AN OOD.
- I don’t quite understand the point of Dan still, but man do I like the guy. He especially endeared himself to me comforting Yaz about the Doctor, because he’s a sensitive, perceptive person, and he can see exactly what’s going on there.
- The snake on his tie? The Grand Serpent dreams about being a Bond villain instead, and it shows.
- “What’s the news from down there? Who’s kissed who?”
- Joseph Williamson is the most baffling character, because Chibnall has done the bare minimum to integrate him into the story, but I do enjoy that his response to the question, “Are you a ghost?” is physical violence.
- This Doctor Who era is so nice and inoffensive that it’s really disorienting when it drifts into a tone that’s more apropos for Torchwood, i.e. Yaz calmly explaining how to dispose of a dead body.
Did “Survivors of the Flux” work better for you? If so, I’d love to hear why. Leave your thoughts in the comments!
Featured Image Source: BBC