Something Old, Someone New.
Fresh off the news that former producer/writer/showrunner Russell T. Davies is returning to the “Doctor Who” franchise, current producer/writer/showrunner Chris Chibnall returns for a six-episode event called “The Flux,” which began on Halloween night with Episode 1, titled (appropriately enough) “The Halloween Apocalypse.” This was our first look at the slightly pared-down series, which said goodbye to two of its companions (Graham and Ryan) while bringing in comedian John Bishop as “Dan Lewis,” a down-on-his-luck, middle-aged working class guy who, like so many other companions before him, falls into the Doctor’s circle entirely by fate.
Since this mini-season of Doctor Who will be a continuous arc, it doesn’t make sense for me to review the remaining five until after they’re finished, but for Halloween’s sake (my favorite holiday), I decided to do a full review of “The Halloween Apocalypse,” the first episode of this series (which has nothing to do with the fact that Halloween is my absolute favorite holiday, of course...).
We’ll see how the rest go from here…
“The Halloween Apocalypse.”
The episode begins with Yaz (Mandip Gill) and the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) handcuffed, upside-down, suspended from a hovering platform over an ocean of boiling acid in a ridiculously convoluted ‘death sentence’ being passed on them by an as-yet-unseen nemesis named Karvanista (Craige Els), who is, to put it mildly, a mite upset with the two of them. A timer counts down until the two are dropped into the acidic ocean, while a fleet of killer drones stand by in case they attempt to escape. Karvanista, we learn, is part of a vast, universe-spanning conspiracy that erased any traces/memories of the Doctor’s existence as “The Timeless Child” , prior to her first memories as the Doctor. In a suspense-free moment, the Doctor deactivates their handcuffs and arranges for the two of them to fall straight into the waiting doors of the TARDIS, which is conveniently waiting for them on a hill safely above the acid ocean. Oh, and did I mention the lasers from the killer drones conveniently miss every time they fire?
Note: While fatally predictable, this not-so-great escape does offer a funny little exchange between the Doctor and Yaz, who have developed a kind of bickering “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” rapport since we last saw them. No mention is made of the budding crush that Yaz seemed to be developing for the Doctor, either. Maybe this thread will be picked up later on…?
Safely back inside the TARDIS, the Doctor receives a disturbing psychic message from (yet another) dark, bone-faced, booming-voiced alien; this one is named “Swarm” (Matthew Needham). Swarm remembers the Doctor, and seems to have a long history with her as well. The Doctor, of course, has no memory of Swarm, or of the bizarre timeless place from where he’s reaching out to her. The Doctor is shaken by the ‘call’ but refuses to let Yaz in on exactly why she’s upset, as she doesn’t really understand it herself. After a black goo leaks inside the ship, the Doctor sets the TARDIS to land on Earth, Halloween night of 2021…
Note: While the makeup job for “Swarm” is typically well executed, its design is derivative of so many other Doctor Who foes we’ve seen during the Chris Chibnall-era. They almost all look like some variation of Marvel Comics’ villain “Red Skull” (sans red color) from the Avengers. In fact, when I saw Swarm I almost mistook him for one of several other villains the Doctor had faced earlier…
After a seemingly pointless flashback to Liverpool, England of 1820 where we see two older fellows arguing about a series of tunnels being made for as-yet-unspecified project, we then cut to Liverpool of 2021, where middle-aged everyman Dan Lewis (John Bishop) is giving a tour of the local museum. The attendees love the man’s affability and charm–except for a museum employee named Diana (Nadia Albina), who pulls Dan off the tour, reminding him that he doesn’t work for the museum. Dan, an excessively proud Liverpudlian, meant no harm. Won over by his good nature, Diana accepts his offer of drinks later on, after his shift at the local food bank. After packing up food for various needy locals all day long, the working poor Dan goes home to an empty fridge and a lonely existence.
After giving out handfuls of candy to trick or treaters, the kindly Dan’s temporary solitude is shattered by a canine-faced humanoid alien whom, we learn, is the previously unseen Karvanista. Without waiting for compliance from Dan to return with him, Karvanista traps Dan in a glowing energy box, which sears marks into the floor of Dan’s house…
The Doctor and Yaz then arrive in Liverpool, Halloween night of 2021. Before they begin their investigation, they are met by a mysterious stranger named Claire (Annabel Scholey), who seems to recognize the Doctor from somewhere (somewhen?). The Doctor tells the young woman that they’re just too busy right now to engage in smalltalk. Using her sonic screwdriver, the Doctor detects traces of an alien weapon’s energy signature coming from Dan’s house. Stepping inside, the Doctor and Yaz see still glowing remnants of the energy cage used to imprison Dan before he was transported to Karvanista’s ship. The two then notice a laptop with alien graphics on the screen (shades of “Independence Day”?) and they realize the laptop computer isn’t Dan’s, and that it’s counting down (!). Running out of the house, the entire house is then miniaturized into the size of a Christmas tree ornament. The Doctor then takes the shrunken house with her, as she goes off in search of the house’s alien-abducted occupant…
Note: The Doctor shows a mysterious lack of curiosity about Claire–you’d think she’d at least ask the woman why she was there as well, especially since Claire recognizes the Doctor from a past (future?) adventure–all of which might be relevant to the Doctor’s current investigation.
Meanwhile, two guards check in on the imprisoned Swarm, who taunts them by announcing his escape. One of the guards reminds the creature that he’s been imprisoned since the dawn of time and that he’s not going anywhere…until he does. As his surrounding forcefield begins to collapse, Swarm turns both guards into ashen embers before imbuing himself with their essences, altering his appearance. The creature then escapes his confinement and makes his way to an Arctic Circle base, where he does the same to a husband and wife pair of researchers (Sam Spruell, Rochenda Sandall). Draining their life-force subtly alters Swarm’s appearance (now played by Spruell), as he then uses the female researcher’s essence to revive his own sister, the evil Azure (now played by Sandall). The two then move on…
Posted on a lonely space station outpost named “Rose” (callback to Rose Tyler?) at the edge of the universe, sole occupant Vinder (Jacob Anderson) is recording yet another log entry when he detects a massive spacetime calamity–a “swarm” of energy–that seems to be wiping out the universe with a massive shockwave. Vinder is barely able to get himself into an escape pod before doing the unthinkable and abandoning his post…
Note: The “Swarm” phenomenon which is obliterating the universe looks an awful lot like the “nexus” ribbon of “Star Trek: Generations”. I also noticed that a lot of screen time is spent on establishing Vinder; I assume he’ll be a lot more important in subsequent installments of Flux. As things are, Vinder, and almost everything else seen in “The Halloween Apocalypse,” are all setup with no immediate payoff.
As the swarm begins to envelop the universe, we see Diana (whom we met earlier), waiting to meet Dan for drinks, assuming she’s been stood up. She then hears her voice called and her own feet involuntarily take her into a dark nearby house, where she disappears into a blinding light. The mysterious Claire, who was seen earlier when she recognized the Doctor, has also had an introduction to a Weeping Angel; one of the creepy-as-hell gothic statue-species which move only when a victim’s gaze is briefly averted, even in the blink of an eye. Claire, who seems to know how the living statues work, struggles in vain to gain entry into her home, as she fumbles for her keys. However, in a fatal second, she blinks…and the Angel whisks her away to some unknown moment in the past, where, presumably, she will meet the Doctor (it’s complicated…see the 2007 Russell Davies-era episode, “Blink”; one of the best Doctor Who episodes ever made).
Later, we see the Sontarans mobilize against a massive invasion fleet on its way to Earth, with one of the Sontarans contacting a psychic member of its species (like the Weeping Angel, the Sontarans seem completely random in this episode, but presumably this is just more setup for the remaining installments).
Note: While the presence of the Weeping Angel in this episode feels almost random, it’s not at all unwelcome, since the Weeping Angels are easily the best and scariest foes of the modern “Doctor Who” era. In fact, the scene where Claire struggles in vain against her involuntary urge to blink is one of the few moments in this Halloween special that qualifies as genuinely scary, let alone Halloween-themed. In fact, one could argue it wouldn’t be a proper Halloween adventure without the Weeping Angels. I may be jumping the gun a bit here, but I’m guessing the Weeping Angels and the Sontarans will be instrumental in (somehow) defeating the Swarm later on…?
Meanwhile, the Doctor and Yaz have tracked the abductee’s energy signature to the fleeing starship of their earlier nemesis, Karvanista, who has ‘his human’ Dan in an electrified cage in his cargo hold. The Doctor also sees the massive incoming fleet from Karvanista’s doglike species–the aptly monikered Lupari–on its way to Earth. Materializing the TARDIS aboard Karvanista’s ship, she sends Yaz to free Dan, who is initially distrustful of his rescuer, and unsure if she’s yet another alien (her Yorkshire accent gives her away; she’s human enough). Gaining the reluctant Dan’s confidence, Yaz de-electrifies his cage, and sets him free…
Note: Couple things here; the name “Lupari” for Karvanista’s dog-faced species is clever wordplay on lupine (wolflike), or lupinoids–werewolves–one of the few other Halloween touches in this episode. Also appreciated the seemingly Pierre Boule-inspired image of a man caged by his own “best friend”–a large, bipedal dog; it’s like the Han Solo/Chewbacca dynamic, only backward.
Still angry at her earlier imprisonment and near-execution by Karvanista, the Doctor angrily confronts the Lupari captain before eventually settling on a truce in order to get to the bottom of their mutual problem–the imminent destruction of the entire universe by “the Swarm.” Asking why Dan was abducted, she learns that humans and Lupari are pair-bonded; one Lupari for one human, since dogs are “man’s best friend” (cute). Karvanista was merely ‘rescuing’ his human, Dan, from the Swarm that is now entering Earth’s solar system–plowing through planets like so many dried leaves under a giant rake. Taking Karvanista’s word that his ships can survive the Swarm, the Doctor requests (demands) that he order the massive Lupari fleet approaching Earth to envelop the planet in a protective shield.
Note: One thing that puzzled me about the cute, if totally ridiculous notion that each human and Lupari are somehow pair-bonded across light years of space; if the Lupari are humanity’s space-guard dogs, then why was Karvanista going to drop Yaz into an ocean of acid earlier? Wouldn’t Yaz also be ‘protected’ by another member of the Lupari? Was Karvanista violating some kind of sacred rule of his own species by nearly killing her?
With the Lupari fleet providing temporary protection to Earth, the Doctor, Yaz and Dan watch through the open door of the TARDIS (protected by its enveloping air bubble) as Earth’s solar system is utterly obliterated by the Swarm…
The End (of Part One, anyway).
Note: A nice callback to the Doctor’s 2005 introduction to Rose Tyler when the Doctor meets new companion Dan and says, “Nice to meet you, Dan. Run for your life!”
What the Flux?
Overall, Doctor Who Flux: “The Halloween Apocalypse” is a mishmash of elements we’ve seen many times. Structurally, it reminded me very much of “The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End,” with a pending universal apocalypse that shakes up characters both new (Swarm, Azure, Karvanista) and old (the Sontarans, Weeping Angels) while pushing everyone into the path of yet another cataclysmic calamity which will undo the entirety of the cosmos (much like Davros’ ‘reality-bomb’ in “Journey’s End”). While I appreciated the introduction of the likable John Bishop as Dan, there is just so much event piled into the hour-and-change running time, that it feels too frantic to fully absorb that sense of impending doom we felt so keenly in “Stolen Earth/Journey’s End.” This has been a complaint of mine throughout the Chibnall era; there is a lot of stuff happening, but too little of it has great resonance or depth–it’s just busy.
These universe-ending apocalypses are, frankly, a cliche at this point. They also make me miss the smaller, more intimate scale Doctor Who stories, like when the Doctor aids a few colonists on a remote planet, or just helps a luckless kid face off a few nasty monsters from their nightmares. To be fair, “The Halloween Apocalypse,” which is filled to the brim with setup, still has a few key moments that work very well, specifically the Weeping Angel cameo, the introduction of everyman Dan, and the Doctor’s hilarious confrontation with Karvanista later on.
So while “The Halloween Apocalypse” is not objectionable in any serious way, its universe-ending ‘peril’ also feels a bit less than special at times. Perhaps some of that will be redeemed when the the other six pieces of the puzzle are finally fitted together. We’ll see.
Where To Watch.
“Doctor Who: The Flux” can be viewed on BBC, BBC-America and on the streaming service AMC+. To my readers, I once again wish you and all of your loved ones good health and strength during the current COVID pandemic. The current number of COVID-related deaths in the United States are over 750,000 as of this writing, with over 5 million deaths worldwide, so please wear masks and get vaccinated (including booster shots) as soon as possible to minimize infections and protect your loved ones. Take care and be safe!