Fluxury goods? – Oxford WhoSoc’s opinion of Series Thirteen

Williamson_Tunnels_-_The_Banqueting_Hall (1)

Image Credit: Kyle J May (CC BY-SA 4.0Wikimedia Commons)

Image Description: The Williamson Tunnels’ banqueting hall

It’s almost the end of an era, as Thomas Barker reveals what the society thought of Series Thirteen

From the Arctic Circle to deep space, an ancient but familiar type of Tides of Time article is breaking free. What did WhoSoc members think of the six-chapter Series Thirteen of Doctor Who, and did it amount to a fitting final full series for Jodie Whittaker’s Thirteenth Doctor? Read on to find out!

As Publicity Officer for the Society, I was once again tasked by a shadowy organisation (not Division, but the High Council of WhoSoc) with collating the opinions of the Oxford Doctor Who Society on the latest series of our favourite show. Every member was asked via an online Google Poll to rate each chapter of Series Thirteen out of ten. Ten out of ten meant that the episode was in the top ten percent of NuWho, and one meant it was in the bottom ten percent. This system may prove familiar to regular Tides readers, though Series Thirteen necessitates a slightly different perspective when consulting the data. Each episode was styled as a chapter, part of a larger whole in a way somewhat reminiscent of a Classic serial but in practice still maintaining enough individual identity per episode to allow us to comment on the parts before scrutinising the whole at the end. Thankfully, many respondents graciously gave their two cents on why they did or did not like the chapters, excerpts of which will appear here for posterity. Join me as I journey into the six chapters of Flux and, as a nice bonus, examine the New Year’s Day coda, Eve of the Daleks.

Disclaimer: We are about to experience the waves of the Flux in prose form. If you haven’t watched Series Thirteen, then go and watch it before going any further!

Right! This is gonna be fun!

Chapter One: The Halloween Apocalypse (6.21 | 29 respondents)

We hit the ground running with the spirited and energetic opener, The Halloween Apocalypse, which proved an enticing beginning to the series for those who elaborated on their numerical scoring. Whilst not the highest rated episode of the series, clearly the opening chapter of this experimental series at least provided enough to interest WhoSoc members and gave a good introduction to the serialised Series Thirteen. It was not without flaws, though, and, as we shall see, there remained some fears that the hypothetical Jenga tower would eventually collapse in on itself. Was “too much crammed in” or was it a “promising start to Series Thirteen”?

The overall mood music was one of optimism and warm feeling towards this Chibnall-penned romp. “I loved it!”, wrote one member with much fervour, claiming that Chapter One proved a “great opener with lots of potential to set up a really exciting series. It had a solid combination of humour and serious threat, and I loved how many interesting characters and returning villains we’ve been introduced to already. I am very excited for the series ahead!”. Others thought likewise, writing of an “entertaining”, “jam-packed”, “action-packed”, “ambitious”, and “eclectic” romp with “amusing dialogue and strong incidental music”. Despite the COVID-19 restrictions, the production team, as always, brought out the big guns and created something “very Doctor Who”.

Much of the praise was directed towards our leads. One amusing comment centred on man’s best friend, Karvanista, who is described – among other things – as a “very good boy”. “My friendship started with the Cats of New Earth, and it has progressed to the loveable Lupari”, another adds with similar affection for Craige Els’ endearing character. Mandip Gill’s Yaz also comes in for some strong praise, described by one reviewer as being “much more rounded and sparky with Thirteen”. Indeed, a strong theme was the perceived “drastic improvement on the previous two series”, perhaps bolstered by the new serialised format and the smaller TARDIS team allowing for more Thirteen-Yaz interplay. John Bishop was equally seen as “incredibly likeable”, too, with newcomer Dan giving another “Donna vibes”. High praise indeed, and subsequent WhoSoc discussions have taken the online ‘Evil Dan’ meme to heart along with Bishop’s strong performances throughout Flux.

One potentially ominous, but nevertheless recurrent, theme of our polls was how the overall feeling of members towards this and the subsequent chapters would ultimately prove contingent on the resolution provided in Chapter Six. One describes the stakes here as being “lots of plates spinning”, adding that their hope was that the show can “keep [them] spinning and be resolved in an interesting way”. Others riffed on this theme, noting it’s “difficult to judge [The Halloween Apocalypse] in isolation”, that “opinion will ultimately change depending on what future episodes do with the many, many plot threads that were set up here”, and that this “jungle of as yet unrelated plot lines” will need to be handled carefully in the subsequent episodes to be worthwhile. This weaving of plotlines, and central players, did come in for criticism, though, with early doubts expressed by one commenter that the inclusion of Vinder, Claire, Diane, Sontarans, Weeping Angels and other elements could be either “the cleverest set up ever or the biggest display of unnecessary padding. Who knows?”. Another member wittingly surmised these fears with the enigmatic metaphor that “if it were a cocktail there’d be every spirit mixed in, but it remains to be seen whether the overall taste will be fruity”. Will Flux prove a fruity drink for WhoSoc? Read on to find out…

Chapter Two: War of the Sontarans (7.58 | 24 respondents)

The goodwill and warm reception towards Flux continued in the next episode! “Sontar-HAPPY” encapsulates the positive mood of our 24 respondents – who may or may not have participated in the first poll.

Succinctly summarised by one member, War of the Sontarans was “an absolutely amazing reintroduction for the Sontarans, a great outing for Dan, and a showcase of Jodie’s ability as the Doctor”. Jodie, while beloved for her turns in previous series, receives special praise here, most notably for her confrontations with the Sontarans. “When separated from her companions, she gets an epic face off that is easily a top tier Thirteen moment”, one writes. The Doctor was “feeling like the Doctor”, “assertive” even if “famless”, two others concurred. Dan’s experiences in contemporary Liverpool earned much praise both in the survey and in online Society discussion, particularly the iconic wok and quips that have since been forged into the internet legend of ‘Evil Dan’. “And now I’ll wok out of here” was singled out as the takeaway line.

Others were keen to draw connections between this chapter, which reintroduced the titular Sontarans, with previous outings. The overall Flux format was already being compared to The Keys of Marinus or The Chase, but one commenter especially “had fun spotting the call-backs to The Sontaran Stratagem and The Time Warrior” peppered throughout the script. Swarm, one of the big bads of the series, was also compared favourably to Eric Roberts’ TV Movie Master in terms of performance, too. Perhaps staying true to Sontaran tradition, however, was one commentor’s disbelief towards the lax level of Sontaran security – was it “really that bad?”. Perhaps, but there was general praise for the Chibnallian approach to the iconic villains all round.

Described as “one of the best episodes of the Chibnall/Whittaker era so far” – and indeed this is, as we shall see, borne out in the numerical rankings – War of the Sontarans was clearly keeping up the Flux momentum for the majority who commented. Criticisms were levied towards the sidelining of Mary Seacole as the guest historical character, as well as the “slightly fudged ending”, the sidelining of Yaz, and the sense of overladen exposition at points. One warm tribute to the showrunner, however, was put succinctly by one commentator: “Jeopardy, humour, great FX and an adorable shaggy dog – Chris Chibnall hits on a winning formula four episodes before he leaves”. Would this be maintained as Flux continued?

Chapter Three: Once, Upon Time (5.84 | 19 respondents)

We voyage further into deep lore with Once, Upon Time, which technically marked the mid-way point of the series. Thoughts were more mixed here, spanning confusion, a mixed but moderate “quite enjoyable, if a little confusing”, to the “crazy, bold, ambitious, complex, I loved it!”. There were common criticisms that cropped up in subsequent polls, perhaps accounting for Flux as a whole as well as the individual qualities of this chapter.

“Who thought such an ambitious and complex storyline would work after they’ve been struggling to get the basic stories right for three years?”, one commenter lamented, followed up by another arguing that “confusing does not equal good writing”. Whether the plot was confusing or, for another, “strange but enjoyable”, there was some criticism both in and out of the polling towards the treatment of Jo Martin’s Doctor, with many in the Society wanting to see much more of her rather than “simply a cameo”.

As Flux approached the mid-way point, some comments reflected on the themes espoused by Chibnall so far. Comparisons were made to Can You Hear Me? and the exploration of the protagonists’ timelines in a similar fashion, albeit in a more timey-wimey fashion. The Society’s predictions for Flux – both correct and incorrect – can be found elsewhere, but some mild speculation took place regarding Vinder’s identity and a potential parental connection to the Timeless Child (i.e. the Doctor), the dream house that resembled the famous House of Lungbarrow, and other potential plot points featured in responses. Some praise was given towards the script’s handling of the ravages of the Flux, such as the Dalek and Cybermen zones. Meanwhile, there was also praise for commentary on imperialism and the exploitation of disaster for strategic advantage. Finally, one comment argued that there was “lots to be said about Bel and her essentially talking to her lover who has sent her a video message”, perhaps subtly linking to our common experience of communicating with our loved ones over Zoom during the COVID-19 lockdowns.

Chapter Four: Village of the Angels (8.00 | 20 respondents)

The long-awaited return of the Weeping Angels generated much hype among Society members, and accordingly Village of the Angels was the highest-rated episode of the series. Most of the polling took place within hours or days of the episode airing, however, so while this rating appears set in stone for now, future members may agree or disagree as time recedes. It’s clear that much of the praise was down to one particular moment still lingering in the minds of members….

The tone is best encapsulated with one reviewer’s euphoric reaction to the ending – “just *keyboard smash*”, despite the overpowered ability of the Weeping Angels. Indeed, other criticism compared the seeming omnipotence of the Angels to their simpler introduction in Blink, but there was near universal praise of the “frankly awesome” cliffhanger of the Doctor being turned into a Weeping Angel as she was recalled to Division. “The visual of Thirteen turning into an Angel is so haunting”, one wrote, with another commending it as “one of the best in NuWho”. This iconic moment was the culmination of a suitably atmospheric episode, with comparisons to, appositely, The Time of Angels and Flesh and Stone, The Dæmons, and The Stones of Blood in terms of the “spooky” and “genuinely unnerving” rural atmosphere and Gothic influences – another compares it favourably to ITV’s supernatural Sapphire & Steel series. Signs of a future reappraisal of this episode may come with criticism of the treatment of Yaz and Dan, with the latter being described here as being “more [Yaz’s] companion than he is Thirteen’s.” Away from the two companions, much praise came for Kevin McNally’s “fantastic” Professor Jericho. Rather sadly, one individual proclaimed that “if the professor dies, we don’t riot, [we] just get extremely mad!!”. Despite his ultimate fate, McNally’s “marvellous performance” earned WhoSoc plaudits, which surely displaces his previous appearance in The Twin Dilemma in the 1980s.

As for the Flux arc, while “not reaching the heights of War of the Sontarans” for one individual, others “genuinely [couldn’t] wait until next week to see what happens next!”,finding the episode “the right balance of standalone plot and continuation of the overall arcs”. This, too, begs the question of how far this episode was initially a pre-Flux standalone episode, and whether a “prepandemic version may have been slightly buttressed by an expanded plot/coverage of 1901”. Such speculation would have to wait, though, as we were kept on the edge of our seats to find out what would happen to the Survivors of the Flux in the penultimate chapter…

Chapter Five: Survivors of the Flux (6.94 | 17 respondents)

Time flies when a new series of Doctor Who is on! As the finale of Flux approached, many responses turned to this penultimate episode’s positioning of the various characters in preparation for the (hopefully) action-packed and rewarding finale. To that end, one response noted that “much of its running time is spent juggling multiple plot threads, but at least everything seems to be finally coming together in time for next week’s finale. I hope that Chibnall manages to stick the landing”. That optimism was tempered by another simply wondering “how the hell are they going to wrap all this up in one episode?” (We’ll find out in a moment!). The overall perception of this chapter was that it served as a “chess piece moving episode”, “with sequences there to move people into place for the finale, combined with some interesting character beats for the main cast” (especially Yaz, they noted).

On that note, much praise was directed towards our two companions and the various subplots operating alongside the big Tecteun sequences. “Mandip Gill and John Bishop carry the scenes on pure charisma”, one claimed, “while the UNIT stuff is entirely unnecessary but fun”. Or, to put it another way, “Grand Serpent and Tunnel Man great, other plots meandering”. As for the big (and much-awaited) confrontation, one reviewer admitted that “the Doctor and Tecteun scenes, while never quite going for the emotional throat as you might hope, are still pretty good in my book, and I’m sure some future writer is looking forward to getting to play with Thirteen’s abandonment issues at losing an abusive parent she doesn’t even remember”. It’s a shame, then, that Tecteun was erased by Swarm and Azure, presumably without the luxury of a functioning Matrix backup. Time will tell if this is the last we see of her.

Others were also comparing this chapter to its predecessors. In particular, they focused on the red herring of the ‘Angel Doctor’ of the cliffhanger, the return of the Sontarans (again) as another big bad in a way reminiscent of The Invasion of Time, and the merits and demerits of separating the Doctor from her companions (whose globetrotting, for one, “felt rather big for big’s sake. What is learnt?”). Thankfully, for one individual, Survivors of the Flux marked the “first time I’ve enjoyed this being part of a series of six, rather than being irritated by the excessive characters (Part One), confused by the time skips (Part Three) or thankful that I could ignore the arc (Part Two, Part Four)”. A good mixture of reactions, then, as always, and a good deal of crossed fingers for the outcome of The Vanquishers

Chapter Six: The Vanquishers (5.70 | 16 respondents)

The epic finale chapter of Flux arrived. But when the finale is here, who can you count upon to rate and review it? WhoSoc members, of course! It should be noted that while Chapter One got 29 respondents, here we received only 16 responses. This complicates how comparable these results are, though they could still be taken as a sampling of Society opinion. Sadly, the finale was the lowest-ranking episode of the series – though whether this changes on rewatches is yet to be seen.

Described by one individual as “Chibnall’s Journey’s End”, this epic and fast-paced finale did earn credit for an “elegant” solution to the Flux debacle, though with some ambiguity as to how much of the universe was destroyed or left in ruins. Character moments were also lauded, including “Whittaker’s exceptional performance, some amusing lines and strong individual moments, such as the Doctor having a face-to-face with Azure” and Kevin McNally’s performance (“Rip Jericho”). “Excellent visuals” and the ‘Three Jodies’ rounded out the praise.

Criticism centred around the “predictably convoluted resolution to a series creaking under the weight of its plot threads”, as well as the general feeling that “it doesn’t feel like Flux has stuck the landing”, despite (one clarifies) excellent acting and direction. Another felt that Chapter Six “needed a dialogue polish, was uneven in tone, and had underdeveloped ideas”, having bitten off “more than [it] could chew” in what was felt to be a “messy ending to a messy series”. “I’d like the next era of Doctor Who to be a bit more straightforward please!” was the final cry, and with the more standalone 2022 specials acting as a separate coda to Flux, hopefully this member’s request was, in some form, met.

Musings on Flux:

Before turning to the (largely separate) Eve of the Daleks, I thought it would be useful to recount some general Society musings on Flux as a series and as television produced during the COVID-19 pandemic. Only eight respondents answered the poll to rate Flux out of 10, rank it alongside the other Chibnall-Whittaker series, and offer some general thoughts. They gave an average of 5.88, which contrasts to the actual average of 6.71 (taken from all the scores above, divided by 6), of which more in a moment.

It’s worth quoting some of the responses at length, to let members speak in their own words:

  • “There’s a lot going on in Series Thirteen, which is its strongest and weakest point. So much is introduced that it feels fresh and exciting, but lumbers it with a plot heavy finale. Overall, a fun series despite its structural issues.”

  • [On their favourite Chibnall-Whittaker series] “Flux, for consistency […], Jodie’s angrier performance, Mandip having more room to develop Yaz, John Bishop belonging in a way Bradley Walsh never did, and guest performers of dedication, especially Annabel Scholey, Kevin McNally and Thaddea Graham.”

  • “Flux is definitely my favourite 13th Doctor series out of the three. Despite being rather messy in terms of writing, the overall arc helped make the entire series feel cohesive and all the plot threads did at least come together at the end. Each episode was very consistent in quality, with no real duds or major blunders. Crucially, it also has Jodie Whittaker’s best performance as the Doctor, as she was clearly giving 100% every single week. The fact that we not only got a series of Doctor Who filmed under pandemic conditions, but also that it was actually rather good is something we should all be grateful for.”

  • [On their favourite Chibnall-Whittaker series] “Series Thirteen, as the most consistent, even if it didn’t reach the era heights of Rosa, Demons of the Punjab, Fugitive of the Judoon or The Haunting of Villa Diodati.”

  • “Despite having far too many plot threads than it could reasonably handle, I really enjoyed the rollercoaster ride of Flux and can’t fault it for being ambitious. There were plenty of strong individual moments (the Doctor transforming into a Weeping Angel being the standout visual), and lots of memorable characters such as Karvanista, Jericho, Dan, and both Swarm and Azure hamming up every scene they appeared in. My hope is that TV historians will look back on this series as a positive example of how COVID-19 impacted filming back in late 2020/early 2021, while fans will remember the fun they had when they tuned in every week.”

Wise words to end on. So, reader, please indulge me a little while longer as we take a sideways trip into 2022 specials territory, with Eve of the Daleks.

Eve of the Daleks (7.25 | 12 respondents)

Beginning the victory lap of Jodie Whittaker’s era, Eve of the Daleks provided a chance to escape the universe-ending prospects of the Flux in favour of a smaller-scale but nevertheless deadly threat. Eve of the Daleks scored higher than the preceding New Year’s Day Dalek specials (Resolution at 6.25, and Revolution of the Daleks at 5.69), albeit with different voters each time. So, what was there to enjoy about this post-Flux offering?

One praised the episode for its apparent departure from previous outings, praising it as a “a lot of fun and [featuring] some strong Dalek action, with emotional connection rarely found in the Chibnall era”. This sense of fun, anchored by a “genuinely funny atmosphere” (besides the constant looped death) perhaps provided a tonic to the rather cataclysmic aftershocks of the Flux. These New Year romps have, of course, featured our favourite pepper pots, the Daleks, in what was, for one respondent, another “entertaining Dalek romp with a fun twist, strong pacing, and some good one-liners”.

Many commenters were quick to praise the further developments in Yaz and the Doctor’s relationship, with one being “very glad that the writers have confirmed Yaz’s feelings…and not just left us guessing!” John Bishop, again, earned praise for his comedic timing; Jodie Whittaker was “on fire”, again; and the surprise return of Karl from The Woman Who Fell to Earth was singled out as a refreshingly unexpected moment.

Criticism was mainly directed to the handling of the Nick/Sarah relationship, which one individual thought “could have been handled better so that Nick didn’t feel unintentionally creepy”. Another concurred, noting it felt like it was “going through the motions” as a New Year’s special. Indeed, despite the overall higher poll rating, another thought Eve was “not the best Dalek or festive special I’ve seen”.

Legend of the Sea Devils (4.00 | 4 votes)

While we had had fewer responses for this Easter special than any other episode, we still gained some insight into what the membership were interested in – though the low number of votes make it hard to compare. The main topic was, of course, the “touching scenes between the Doctor and Yaz.” Another member acknowledged the “baby steps towards positive LGBTQ+ content in an episode which is otherwise just fine.” The plot, another thought, “made no sense” but was otherwise “excellent fun to watch.” Comparisons were made to the previous special and, sadly, not favourable ones, as one member called it a “real disappointment” in comparison.

A more measured take was delivered, too, with one respondent summarising the episode as “a shallow but enjoyable swashbuckling distraction for the whole family that at least looked impressive aesthetically.”

Comparisons to Series Eleven and Twelve

The diversity of thoughts and feelings towards both Series Thirteen and Flux are, like all WhoSoc poll ratings, interesting to examine and, hopefully, will provide future WhoSoc members with a guide to Society opinion in the ‘Dark Times’. But, with that in mind, just how does Flux compare to its predecessors?

If Series Eleven’s mean average (with Resolution included) is 6.87/10, and if Series Twelve’s mean average (with Revolution) was 6.86, then Series Thirteen with Eve of the Daleks comes in at 6.79 with Eve included, meaning it ranks slightly lower down from the other series – though with less episodes, it’s more prone to higher or lower numbers. Eve, of course, could also be ranked with the forthcoming 2022 specials, but that’s for another time. Above are the current Chibnall-Whittaker era Society rankings as they stand…

Whatever our different opinions, to get a full series of Doctor Who in such challenging circumstances, and with great production values, performances, and general fan hype surrounding it, Flux will surely go down in Who history as a landmark series of television made in the most testing of circumstances. There is much to celebrate regarding Series Thirteen, from Jodie Whittaker’s phenomenal turns as the Doctor; a great reintroduction for the Sontarans and the Weeping Angels; John Bishop’s Dan and the growth of Mandip Gill’s Yaz; the frightening Swarm and Azure; great direction and scoring; and much more besides. With Legend of the Sea Devils and Jodie’s regeneration episode to come, it’s safe to say the era will go off with an exciting bang, filled with the same sparkle that has characterised her run thus far. Here’s to more Who

Rank Episode Title Mean Rating
1 Village of the Angels 8.00
2 War of the Sontarans 7.58
3 Eve of the Daleks 7.25
4 Survivors of the Flux 6.94
5 The Halloween Apocalypse 6.21
6 Once, Upon Time 5.84
7 The Vanquishers 5.70
8 Legend of the Sea Devils 4.0

Tides 48 is, at time of publication, available to buy through this link

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