Before you read on, there are spoilers ahead for this week’s review of Doctor Who. Serving as the first part of six, the “Flux” story arc breaks the mould of a conventional Doctor Who series, and it’s something to be admired. It’s also easy to forgive the overwhelming number of story strands this first episode establishes. We’ve got the aforementioned Flux, a single Weeping Angel, time-travellers, and sinister aliens with unclear associations to Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor. We’re further treated to the return of the Sontarans, supporting a key story of the Doctor’s secretive mission to uncover the truth behind the Division, first established in the latter half of Series 12. It’s a great deal to digest, so a second viewing is advised.
Let’s begin with lovable, dippy Dan. John Bishop was a surprising casting choice, perhaps more so than Bradley Walsh as Graham the Granddad. There was once a time where actors were hired for the roles in Doctor Who, so it certainly caught me off guard to learn the news that they’d hired a comedian with little acting experience. That being said, Bishop appears entirely comfortable in the role and his performance feels natural, honest, and human.
Sticking true to his Liverpudlian roots, Bishop is both proud and humble, if also a bit of a loner. He’s working at a food bank while his cupboards and fridge at home remain empty. In his spare time, he poses unsuccessfully as a Museum tour guide, proudly talking about Liverpool’s cultural achievements and historical significance. There’s even a blossoming romance with a museum employee, Diane, on the cards, so it’s not all bad. Soon enough, his life is thrown upside down by the arrival of Karvanista, a giant, walking humanoid resembling a dog. Mistaking the alien for a trick or treater, Dan brilliantly gives Karvanista a piece of his mind, and his other job as a comedian pays off dividends at this point.
Karvanista is at the centre of a much larger story at play, the Doctor’s mission to discover the truth behind the Division? The intriguing Pre-Hartnell story arc was first established during Series 12, where we met members of The Division. Considered as some sort of top-secret, off-the-books Time Lord black ops agency, those involved include Gat (Ritu Arya), and Jo Martin’s Fugitive Doctor, Ruth. The story arc further involves Gallifrey, the Timeless Child, and an origin story into how the Time Lords gained their ability to regenerate. Much was left unanswered by the close of the last series, whereas Series 13 looks set to answer the questions remaining.
Karvanista as we learn, is the only living operative of The Division the Doctor can find alive, and she wants answers, but the alien is not playing ball (no dog pun intended). What we do learn, is that Karvanista is one of the Lupari. Along with a fleet of seven billion ships approaching Earth, the Lupari are species bonded to humans. For every human, there is a paired Lupari guardian. Their goal is to save the humans from what they call the “ultimate crisis”, better known as the Flux. This storyline is as daft as Karvanista, who felt far more threatening during the episode’s opening moments. All in all, Karvanista felt little more than a comedic punch line.
The Flux, to a degree, mimics the Big Bang story arc from Moffat’s Series 5, presented as a devastating tidal wave of time/space energy that’ll consume the universe, something so deadly that it has a philanthropist in 1820s Liverpool, and Jacob Anderson’s character, Vinder, stuck aboard an observation outpost in deep space, both extremely concerned. With the Flux consuming everything in its path toward Vinder’s craft, he’s forced to abandon ship. The philanthropist, Mr. Williamson, is excavating tunnels for unclear purposes, clearly in a bid to survive or fight against the Flux.
Then we have the Sontarans (the best aspect of the episode), who in the far future are preparing to relish in the devastation and suffering posed by the Flux. They’ve adopted the appearance of the Sontarans from the 1970s, from classics including The Sontaran Experiment and The Invasion Of Time, and they look brilliant. Their interactions are full of humour and delightful menace that we’ve come to love from the potato-headed men of Sontar.
The Doctor is already juggling handfuls of problems from the Flux to searching for Karvanista but has to further contend with the arrival of some mysterious faces from her past. There’s Claire, a woman with the ability to time travel, who similarly to River Song, appears to be meeting the Doctor in the wrong order. She knows the Doctor, but naturally, Whittaker’s Time Lord has no recollection of her, so everything’s a bit wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey. Odds are she’s connected to The Division, or perhaps another of the Doctor’s forgotten incarnations in association to the Timeless Child arc. Claire, however, won’t be sticking around in present-day Liverpool for long, as she’s unexpectedly sent back in time moments later by a Weeping Angel. Are you following this?…, me neither.
Then we need to contend with Prisoner Swarm, a sinister alien with the face of a Fabergé egg who escapes from an asteroid prison and consumes his victims to renew his life force. His connection to the Doctor and the Division are unclear in equal measure. It’s worth noting the asteroid prison holding Swarm is manned by two Division agents. The plot thickens indeed, but it’s as clear as soup right now.
Prisoner Swarm is reunited with his sister Azure, posing as Annie, a human living on an Arctic base. Sad to say, these two characters are pushed to the side much like every other story thread. Swarm is a classic example of Chris Chibnall’s flawless ability to create some disturbing alien adversaries, only to squander their potential within the same episode. Perhaps I’m being harsh as we are only one episode down, but the sheer volume of plot fighting for screen time during Episode 1 left Swarm and his sibling looking in on the rest of the story from the outside, and that’s disappointing.
Every moment fights for screen-time, and this is the episode’s ultimate downfall. I fail to remember a time where I was overwhelmed by so much in one episode and left feeling both underwhelmed and confused at the same time. If there was ever an argument that throughout Jodie Whittaker’s tenure of Doctor Who, that the show had been underwhelming, then that argument would be well and truly quashed after watching “The Halloween Apocalypse”. The first “chapter” of Series 13, entitled “Flux”, was so overwhelming my head was about to implode, and not in a good way. The episode’s top moments include the Sontarans, Kragar, and Ritskaw, John Bishop’s heartwarming performance as Dan, Claire and the lone Angel, and the menacing Prisoner Swarm. “
“The Halloween Apocalypse” is a strong start for Whittaker’s final run as the Doctor, but it feels too cluttered. We’ve got too many villains, one too many subplots struggling for space, and the Liverpool references failed to feel authentic or even necessary. What do you think of the thirteenth season of Doctor Who so far? Give us your thoughts in the comment section below!