Doctor Who’s Big New Experiment Is Off to a Very Messy Start

Doctor Who’s Big New Experiment Is Off to a Very Messy Start
The Doctor and a Dog alien, which is fitting because basically everyone and their dog (alien) was in this episode. (Image: BBC)

Doctor Who was born and bred on the serial format. When the show first aired, stories didn’t end in a single episode — they resolved over the course of three, four, five, sometimes as many as 10 installments! The revived version of the show has stayed mostly away from this idea, favouring small threads and arcs across seasons, and the occasional multi-parter. But now the idea is back… and maybe Doctor Who’s forgotten how to do it.

To be fair to “The Halloween Apocalypse,” there’s a lot more riding on it than the serials of Doctor Who old. After all, in those days, a season of Doctor Who could be 26 episodes covering six stories, and season 13 — subtitled Flux for its mysterious new anomalous threat — is just six episodes long, and makes it immediately clear it has a lot it wants to talk about in those six. It’s just kind of a shame that it spends the first of those delivering a hectic and yet half-hearted scattershot spray of ideas and characters. It’s hard to judge its premiere as either a cohesive episode that can stand on its own two feet or as a prepared bit of stage-setting for the story to come.

That is mostly because, in the here and now, “The Halloween Apocalypse” is something of an almighty mess; an explosion of both ideas and actual explosions as it flits between chunks of narrative setup to which it will never consider actually paying off in its own run time. Freed of having to be its own story is, in some ways, exciting — especially as Chris Chibnall’s era of Doctor Who has been defined in part by its own struggle to balance an identity between the series as a vehicle for social commentary and a vehicle for our heroes being chased down corridors by dodgy monsters. But all the premiere really manages to do is breathlessly shout out some names and ideas and then largely run away from them, free of knowing it doesn’t actually have to say anything of substance upon those names because it’s simply “Chapter One” of Flux, rather than really being “The Halloween Apocalypse.”

Image: BBC Image: BBC

It does indeed happen to be Halloween — both within the text and on premiere night itself — during the proceedings, and there is indeed an apocalypse that drives the larger spine of the episode. But beyond that, there’s little more developed here. Halloween itself largely exists to introduce us to our new companion Dan — played by John Bishop, exuding so much “I’m From Liverpool” energy even before the script and set design littered with the paraphernalia of Anfield’s finest screams it for him. He’s a kind-hearted, down-on-his-luck soul who spends his days acting as an impromptu museum tour guide in between stints working at a food bank. He’s uplifted into the weird world of Doctor Who when dog-like kidnapper Karvanista (Craige Els, under some adorably fluffy makeup) barges into his home and scoops him up in an energy cube.

His grounded nature even in the face of the sheer mania unfolding around him at least gives “Halloween Apocalypse” a heart to lean on, even if it rarely has time to do so. The Doctor and Yaz can’t really provide it either, propelled as they are through the seven million mysteries being thrown at them and the audience. It’s clear there’s been some time since Ryan and Graham’s exit in “Revolution of the Daleks,” and not only has it created a much stronger partnership between the duo as monster-fighting heroes, it’s left some conflict that the Doctor is unwilling to talk about, much to Yaz’s frustration. But on top of some perceived frostiness between them, we’re introduced at rapid pace to myriad mysteries for them and us alike to react to with equal parts frustration and confusion.

Image: BBC Image: BBC

There’s the Swarm (Sam Spruell), an ancient evil freed from an eternal prison to Infinity War-style dust people and cackle psychic taunts to the Doctor about how he knows her and she doesn’t know him. There’s the Swarm’s sister, who was seemingly hidden as some kind of sleeper agent in Iceland before deciding to randomly — or perhaps not so randomly — go taunt Dan’s would-be date Di (Nadia Albina) in a haunted house. Speaking of people who know the Doctor, but they don’t know them, there’s Claire (Annabel Scholey), who met the Doctor and Yaz in a past that has yet to unfold for us or our heroes — only for her to be immediately zapped by some out-of-nowhere Weeping Angels, who are back and doing basically the exact scene the Weeping Angels have been doing ever since “Blink” (I wonder, did Sally Sparrow or the Tenth Doctor turn “Don’t Blink!” into a branded catchphrase for use across space and time?).

There’s also the aforementioned Karvanista, who it turns out is both an agent of the Division — the organisation we also saw failing to imprison the Swarm, and briefly glimpsed last season — and a member of the Lupari race, which is “species-bonded” to Earth to protect humanity from calamitous devastation. There’s Game of Thrones’ Jacob Anderson as Vinder, hanging out on a station called Outpost Rose (oh come on, we can’t read too much into that, surely) reporting in eternity about the state of his corner of the universe to some unseen masters. There’s some Sontarans for good measure too, back on their usual warlike nonsense, very excited that the end of the universe might mean there’s a good fight along the way.

Image: BBC Image: BBC

Oh! And then there’s the Flux itself, the aforementioned apocalypse that’s eating its way across the universe which, in a similar manner to the Swarm, Infinity Wars things to dusty bits, just on a much larger, interstellar scale. And this smashes itself into at least three of those plotlines when Vinder is forced to abandon his outpost to it, and Karvanista reveals to the Doctor, Yaz, and now the tagging-along Dan that the Lupari have deployed their shield fleet to evacuate and protect all of humanity from the Flux as it sweeps across our solar system, threatening to even dust-up the TARDIS after it fends off a blast of vortex energy from its heart.

It’s… so much. All this is just flung at the audience, shown and not really told, beyond stating its existence as A Thing That Is Happening before we’re rushed along to be introduced to the next bit of plot setup. Rarely has Doctor Who been so incoherent, even at the twisty-est highs of Steven Moffat’s run on the show, rarely has it been so confounding. Yes, it’s action-packed, and there’s plenty of dazzling visuals (the Flux, in particular, feels grand in a way Doctor Who rarely can show off some cataclysmic, galaxy-scaled devastation) and explosions along the way. But it’s all just noise, and when you cut through it, so far there’s very little substance beyond that noise to chew on. We can’t really do much more than wait to see which of these myriad ideas will stick the landing over the next five weeks.

Is there more to Dan than his abundance of kindness? What is the Swarm siblings’ deal, and what’s going on with the Division? Who is Claire? What are the Sontarans up to, and the Weeping Angels, and the Cybermen, and whoever else might show up along the way? What’s going on between the Doctor and Yaz? All Doctor Who has to offer right now is questions, and with little else among the noise, “The Halloween Apocalypse” will live or die in the wider context of the season on just how those questions are ultimately answered. In the here and now, we’re just left with walking the long way home.

Image: BBC Image: BBC

Assorted Musings:

  • There’s so much going on in this episode that I forgot to say there was also an aside in 1800s Liverpool about a mysterious mining company preparing for Ominous Things to Come by digging a bunch of shafts. That’s… that’s it. That’s all we get told before we’re dragged screaming on to the next bit of setup.
  • Modern Doctor Who has done an interesting job of bringing in companion viewpoints from people across the British class hierarchy — from Rose and Donna’s more working-class leanings to well-off families like Martha and Clara’s managing to waltz breezily throughout multiple careers without really having to care about funds between adventures in time and space — even if it rarely comments on them. So it’s interesting to be introduced to someone like Dan, who seemingly has no stable career, is living on the poverty line, and yet is not particularly ostracised for it in our eyes. It did make the episode making light of Dan’s house — pretty much all he has to his name — being shrunk by one of Karvanista’s traps feel really weird, however.
  • Even the TARDIS has its own mystery set up this episode! What’s causing the ship to be so hesistant in taking the Doctor and Yaz anywhere, and also vomiting doors all over the place? Is it just the Flux itself seeding a sense of wrongness into the universe, or something more?
  • Karvanista and the two agents dusted by the Swarm both have connections to the Division, an agency introduced last season as essentially a Time Lord affiliated black-ops organisation, designed to intervene where Time Lords officially could not. The Doctor, in their “Timeless Child” body, was briefly part of the organisation before their memory was wiped, and elements of it even wanted to hunt down the Fugitive Doctor. So what are they doing here? Are there still Gallifreyans among them after the devastation of the world at the Master’s hands? I guess it’s just one of 300 other things we need to find out in the next five episodes.
  • Much is already being made of Claire’s deal and how she knows the Doctor, knows the Weeping Angels well enough to at least momentarily stop them from trying to abduct her, and her general “I know Time Travel Weirdness” energy, and how she might be everything from the Next Doctor, to the Valeyard, to basically every other Doctor Who theory imaginable. Maybe the hot theory of the season is going to be “everyone’s secretly a Time Lord because you should really believe that at all times, especially when you’ve been told they’re all very dead.” It wouldn’t be the first time they’ve come back from the timey-wimey grave!