Doctor Who Series 13, Episode 6
Posted by Sage
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With only an hour at its disposal, it was clear going into “The Vanquishers” that the finale to this Flux experiment couldn’t possibly follow every plot thread to its sensible conclusion. In fact, it left me wondering why some of those threads were even teased out to begin with and playing the very 2021 game of “what was the original plan here and how did COVID production constraints ruin it?” Pluck the Ravagers out of the story, for example, and none of the big stuff changes. Leave UNIT and Kate on retainer, and the Sontarans would have found another way to colonize the Earth.
That random Ood, on the other hand? Irreplaceable! Couldn’t’ve saved the universe (if we did, in fact, do that) without them.
Messiness I can abide, especially if it’s in service of a bold vision. Series 13’s more egregious flaw is how uneven it is. From Episode 1 of this series on, the individuals who should be important never make a case for themselves, leaving a handful of handy, utilitarian characters to connect the dots. I realize that a lot of sci-fi scriptwriting is creating problems and then inventing solutions to those problems, but Flux is full of so many convenient quick fixes that our heroes have barely anything to do.
True, “The Vanquishers” moves forward at a clip — but it has to, skipping from location to location and back again, in a procession of brief scenes that ensure any emotional payoff is barely felt before we’re on to the next.
Thematically, it can’t decide what it wants to be and therefore doesn’t amount to much of anything. “The Vanquishers” vacillates between Doctor Who 101-type musings (identity is malleable and in one’s own control) and the harebrained (the concept of Time hates the properties of Space??). Swarm and Azure’s motivation is particularly difficult to parse — he offhandedly mentions in Episode 5 that it was Tecteun who ordered their imprisonment, yet it’s the Doctor they decide to torture and sacrifice to their “savior,” Time, dispatching Tecteun in the previous hour without much fanfare. Never mind that we don’t know why they were Division targets to begin with, whether there are any more of their kind or what they even are, or how Azure ended up hiding out in a remote cabin in human form. Additionally, If you follow their storyline back to the beginning, Swarm and Azure sabotage their own plan for no reason. Where the premiere suggested that they captured Diane for a major, Dan-related cause (“We’re going to have fun with you,” Azure said way back when she lured her into the “house.”), it ended up that she was only present to learn the science behind the Passenger form (off-screen, of course), thereby enabling the Doctor to neutralize the Flux.
Diane — like Williamson, the Ood, Tecteun, Claire, and even the Ravagers — are exposition bots. They download information, whether they come by it through their own effort or learn it from someone else, and then pass it on at the opportune time. Diane seems like an addition who’ll illuminate Dan’s character — which would be welcome, since we have so few episodes to get to know him — but her story doesn’t even run parallel to his. And with Dan being such a proud scouser and receptacle for Liverpool history, it’s inexplicable why the show passed up the opportunity to give him familiarity with Williamson’s legacy and the tunnels in his first appearance, just to give us some more grounding there.
Back to the Ravagers for a moment. Let me reiterate their beef, because I still can’t believe we’re meant to be able to contextualize this: Swarm and Azure worship Time; therefore they want to destroy space. Not “space” as in planets and stars — “space” as in the dimensions in which ALL THINGS EXIST. Why, in Chris Chibnall’s wildest dreams, would these concepts be at odds with each other? How could they maintain without each other? How do Azure and Swarm intend to exist after this massacre when they are also spatial objects?!
On top of that, Time appears to be a malevolent entity? Taking form, it destroys Swarm and Azure and then low-key threatens the Doctor. Yet, she’s more shaken by the prophecy (it’s always capital m-Master, Doctor, are you new here?) than she is by the reveal that Time itself is punitive, which seems to fly in the face of the show’s entire philosophy. Time may be relentless, but it doesn’t take sides. Feels like that ought to be a bigger deal in the grand scheme of things.
The Grand Serpent, meanwhile, exists at the other end of the villain spectrum. Instead of having an endgame that’s too high-minded for us to understand, he is the Snidely Whiplash of the galaxy. He was already in a comfortable position of power in Vinder’s flashback, and while I suppose we can assume that the Flux made him a refugee, he at no point explains why he hooked up with the Sontarans or devoted decades to infiltrating UNIT, who are neither seen nor heard from in this finale. (Whatever happened to all those missiles aimed at the middle of the Earth, by the way?) The Grand Serpent enters the plot as a ruthless but practical character who is efficient at eliminating anyone who would stand in his way. He doesn’t appear to be a person who would let a personal vendetta steer him off-course, yet after one encounter with Kate Stewart, he’s willing to risk everything he’s worked towards so far just to destroy her.
Truly, I have no idea how I was meant to feel at the end of this adventure. There’s triumph (and welcome mercy) in Vinder and Bel reuniting, plus the relief that Bel’s pregnancy didn’t lead to some preposterous reveal that would have undercut how actually lovely her relationship is with her unborn child. Jericho sacrifices himself in a moment that would have more resonance if we knew him better. The Grand Serpent gets an “it’s what she deserves” ending, and the rest of the Doctor’s companions remain unharmed. But the Flux is merely stopped, not reversed. Countless planets have been destroyed, along with their inhabitants. The Earth will still, presumably, be a destination for the displaced, something the Doctor seemed disturbingly against in “Survivors of the Flux.” The entire Lupari race has been destroyed, meaning that there are millions of dead dog people floating in space, and the Doctor ignores Karvanista’s complaints that he doesn’t actually want to cart around two people he’s just met in the wake of such a catastrophic loss. Oh, and the Doctor’s plan to thwart the Sontarans leads to the genocide of three races. (Yaz: “Maybe we should warn them.” The Doctor: “Or…”) This doesn’t rate a moment of reflection, and there’s no acknowledgement anywhere in the coda that the universe is forever changed.
It’s a glaring disconnect: the Doctor escaped Division, we have to guess, because she didn’t want to be controlled but also because she couldn’t live with what she was being forced to do. That past and her present are not in conversation, even in a story where we have three of the same Doctor literally having conversations with each other. At least her crush on herself is relatable.
But again, Jodie Whittaker and Mandip Gill are the MVPs of elevating material. And they were giving us Thasmin from every angle in this finale. Is the writing there for that relationship? I don’t necessarily think so. But the direction and the actors’ choices make up for what’s missing, from the way Yaz pauses and sighs before hugging the Doctor back to the single tear running down the Doctor’s face after she apologizes for pushing Yaz away. The sentiments she expresses aren’t any different than what she tells the whole fam in the latter part of Series 12 — and how I wish we could have gotten some new material instead of rehashing conversations past — but Jodie and Mandip infuse that interaction with more time, closeness, affection, and regret. It’s a lovely scene, and it deserved a better episode.
So much is glossed over in this finale, only to bring us to a cliffhanger that fails to intrigue for one simple reason: The Doctor may be interested in the past lives that fob watch contains, but the audience is not. We each have our own concept of the Doctor. We fight over them all the time. And nothing can shake our individual beliefs at this point, especially since we already know that the Doctor rejected that past and made a conscious, reverberating choice about who she wanted to be. So while the contents of that fob watch sound canon-shattering, it would actually be the lowest-stakes of reveals. It simply doesn’t matter what’s in there, and this series has drastically overestimated our investment. Let’s hope that watch stays buried long enough to be totally forgotten.
Timey Wimey Observations:
- If Karvanista was the Doctor’s companion when she decided to desert Division, then where did Ruth’s husband Lee come from?
- I really want to give a shout out to Thaddea Graham as Bel. She turned in such a warm and joyful performance, and Bel’s reaction to meeting the Doctor for the first time was one of those little moments that kept me engaged despite my issues with the script.
- It’s so wonderful to me how impressed Dan is with Yaz. It almost makes me want to forgive him for blundering into the console room when she and the Doctor were about to take their friendship to the next level.
- That being said, what is Diane’s problem?? Her rejection of Dan makes her seem cruel, and we’re given no hint as to where she’s coming from when she shoots him down. Being that they weren’t really dating in the first place, the kinder route to getting Dan back on the TARDIS would have been for her to come to a realization that there’s no romantic interest there. Those scenes just felt off as-is.
- “Paul Hollywood handshake!”
- When Jericho suggests that they retrieve someone they “left behind,” I thought for a moment that maybe they’d rescue the child they left for dead, lol.
- All the original trilogy-style wipes!
- “You know what this ship really needs is lanyards.”
- Bel says her baby is “a good wee helper” but did I miss the part where they tell us what the child tech actually does?
- Passenger forms don’t appear to have any agency or motivation, so what was with the scene where the Doctor taunts it?
- Bel and Vinder’s familiarity with Time Lord technology seemed like it might be important but ultimately had no bearing on anything, and that kind of sums up the lack of payoff in this series.
Were you satisfied by the conclusion to this event series? Let us know in the comments!
Featured Image Source: BBC