With just six episodes this season, Doctor Who has had to deal with a bit more chaos than usual when pushing about the proverbial chess pieces of its central mysteries. Who are Swarm and Azure? What is the Flux? Who, what, why, and how are Division? But as its penultimate episode cracks open some of those mysteries, Flux finds us asking a much more grim question: why should we care?
Season 13’s “Survivors of the Flux” shares a problem that has come up again and again — after “The Halloween Apocalypse” flung so many different characters and plot threads to chase at us, the time has come to actually chase them. The need to do so to lay the groundwork for the season finale next week, however, means that pretty much every lingering plot episode five touches feels like we’re not given nearly enough time and impetus to actually be invested in those threads as they play out. Beneath the haphazard flitting about, “Survivors” hangs itself on three major plot threads: the Doctor kidnapped by Division, finding out the organisation’s purpose; Yaz, Dan, and Jericho stuck in the early 1900s trying to figure out a threat to Earth; and then, perhaps most befuddling of all, the return of Craig Parkinson’s Grand Serpent, who is suddenly on Earth and going on a timey-wimey decades-long trip manipulating UNIT from the shadows to open the planet up for invasion. All three plots on their own could have sustained an episode — and arguably, all three of them probably should have — but because of the time constraints and unfortunate events around Flux’s creation, we get a three-for-one deal that gives us the bones of the far more interesting plots these ideas could’ve been.
Let’s start with the least narratively meaty of the threads. After Jericho, Yaz, and Dan spend a few years travelling the world trying to be a much less efficient version of team TARDIS sans-TARDIS (or Doctor for that matter, but Yaz does a pretty solid job of following in the Doctor’s footsteps as the rock of the unit), we finally learn why Steve Oram’s 19th-century industrialist Joseph Williamson has been running about muttering that he has no idea what’s going on for five episodes. Turns out, his famous Liverpudlian tunnel system has, somehow, managed to create a system of doors linking Williamson to different points in time, letting him see glimpses of the cataclysms facing Earth. We don’t get to learn much beyond that right now, which means Yaz, Dan, and Jericho trekking their way across the planet felt like a lot of unnecessary set-ups to such a reveal, but it was at least worth getting to watch Yaz grapple with her feelings of being cut off from the Doctor.
Meanwhile, the Grand Serpent’s here also flitting about through time on Earth! Remember the Grand Serpent? That guy who showed up in Vinder’s memories in “Once, Upon Time,” seemingly incredibly far from Earth or being interested in it and entirely unrelated? Well, that be damned, now he’s space-worming his way into the origin story of UNIT… for reasons. Well, as we learn eventually after he’s assassinated his way through the years and the echelons of the organisation in what feels like a riff on Hydra’s infiltration of SHIELD in the MCU (just with a literal serpent this time!), the reason is seemingly to open the world up to Sontaran invasion. The aliens are still quite upset at the Doctor getting them shoved off the planet during their Crimean War games earlier this season.
But once again, we’re given so little time to invest in this part of the story. We get what amounts to three versions of the same sequence across three different periods, as the Grand Serpent reveals he’s up to no good and uses his invisible snake friend to grotesquely kill off anyone at UNIT who discovers he’s alien (except the returning Kate Lethbridge-Stewart, who’s smart enough to defend herself and break a flip-phone the second something fishy’s going on). There’s no exploration as to why the Grand Serpent is doing this, or how this even links to his past relationship with Vinder. Not to mention the endgame of it all simply being to bring the Sontarans back for round two feels quite empty in the here and now, and just like the arc with Yaz, Dan, and Jericho, a distraction from what should’ve been the real core of the episode.
That is, of course, what the Doctor is getting up to. For as frustratingly brief her part in “Survivors” feels, it’s the densest of the three main threads. We learn that the Doctor’s escort to Division doesn’t just take her to the heart of the mysterious organisation, hidden within the gaps between a multiversal existence, but to a reckoning with her very origins. It turns out that not only is Division a Time Lord creation, it’s the product of the closest thing the Doctor has to a mother: Tecteun (now played by Barbara Flynn), the Gallifreyan who found her as a timeless child and reverse-engineered regeneration to transform Gallifrey’s native population into the Time Lords. Away from the messiness of “Division’s purpose” and “The Time Lords did it,” all of this is fascinating and leads to a brilliant, furious performance from Whittaker.
The Doctor is given the chance to be vulnerable and rail against the life they could’ve had if not for Tecteun’s interference and experimentation (interfering, it turns out, feels like it’s more intrinsic to the very fabric of Time Lords than regeneration was) in a way we’ve only seen her do in moments of profound weakness across the past two seasons. Her anger at the life she could’ve had makes the Doctor feel more human than she ever has been in some ways — thrust into a life of saving mortals, her people and her guardians feel unworthy, to spite them for what was took from her. It gives the Doctor’s quest for an identity and purpose to their heroism a fascinating edge. Or it would… if this conflict between mother figure and abandoned daughter were not cut short by Azure and Swarm showing up to promptly dust Tecteun.
The villainous pair tease the Doctor that her stolen, stored memories — locked inside the same kind of chameleon-arch watch fob we saw the Master’s identity sealed in all those years ago — will never provide the full answers someone like Tecteun could’ve. It’s frustrating, not just because of the shock endpoint of that relationship, but because “Survivors” has to keep cutting away from Tecteun and the Doctor to set up the rest of its chess pieces for next week’s finale. As viewers, we cannot properly care that the Doctor’s mother is killed off as quickly as she’s reintroduced because it all happens so quickly. Plus, after we’ve cut back and forth between two other mystery threads all episode, the answers we’re left with feel half-formed rather than truly revelatory it.
The running theme throughout the three plots of the episode is frustration at getting these stories told so quickly and haphazardly in the set up to a grand climax that we’re not nearly given enough time to sit with them and feel invested. Yaz and Dan’s arc and the Grand Serpent’s alliance with the Sontarans perhaps suffer the least here, as clearly there’s going to have to be more to the Williamson Tunnels next week anyway. Frankly, it’s not the be-all and end-all if we don’t feel quite so as invested in a Sontaran invasion because, well, it’s a Sontaran invasion. Potato people will shoot laser guns, explosions will happen, Earth will fight back, and it’ll be all good and fun in that classic Doctor Who alien attack manner.
That’s fine. Dodgy shoehorning of the Serpent into all of it aside, we don’t really need much more to be excited by the prospect of some explosions. But their presence here in “Survivors” kept drawing away from what really should’ve been the heart of the episode: the Doctor’s reunion with Tecteun. “The Timeless Children” went so far in diving into the potential of the Doctor’s past lives, and the freedom that potentially brought to both the show and to the Doctor themselves. So tying Tecteun into Division’s origins, and seeing so much of the conversations the Doctor has with her cut down to deal with its machinations and the Flux felt frustrating rather than satisfying. The same could be said for seemingly wiping Tecteun from the board entirely, although, as ever, death isn’t always as certain on Doctor Who, so perhaps there’s a chance that Swarm and Azure’s disintegrating dust is less lethal than we’ve been led to believe. But if this is the end of that thread beyond the potential restoration of the Doctor’s memories, it feels like a huge missed opportunity.
And so, Doctor Who comes crashing into a finale with many, many pieces still left on the table. Time will tell if next week will manage to put a satisfying bow on what Flux has set up, and how that paves the way for Jodie Whittaker’s final hours as the 13th Doctor to begin on New Year’s Day next year. But given how the season so far has really struggled in finding the time to focus, maybe hoping we’ll exit Flux with a sense of clarity has all the hopes of Earth being able to overcome a Sontaran invasion right now.
- If I see another title card with a location and year in Chibnall’s time on Doctor Who in this next year, I’ll… well actually I don’t know. But it’s happening too much and it doesn’t give you any sense of international scale, it just feels silly at this point.
- Between Division and the Celestial Intervention Agency, the Time Lords were sucky enough to have multiple black ops manipulative organisations ignoring all the rules they set for themselves.
- The return of Kate Stewart aside, the cute passing nod to the Brigadier’s early UNIT days was quite lovely. And we got an Osgood mention! Maybe we’ll actually get to see her next week now that Kate is apparently leading humankind’s resistance against the Sontarans according to the Next Time trailer.
- Perhaps the sole good thing about the Williamson tunnels arc here is that we get more time to turn Jericho into a quasi-companion for Yaz to steward in the Doctor’s absence — it was very fun. It would’ve been nice to sit with him, Dan, and Yaz a bit more than them just globetrotting every scene, because as a trio they’re a pretty solid unit. Being flung back to the turn of the 20th century will do that to people, I guess.
- Poor Vinder getting zapped into a Passenger so easily, and then immediately meeting the one other person we actually know is inside out of apparently billions, Di. She apparently has become very gun-happy in her time there but hopefully, her arrival means we’ll get to find out some way or another to rescue people out of those things next week. Otherwise, that would be a very weird and unfortunate end to his arc this season.