Doctor Who – Flux Chapter 6: The Vanquishers (S13E06) Review
And so, with THE VANQUISHERS, THE FLUX ends as it was always likely to – with a whimper, not with a bang. Chibnall’s proclivity for starting things he can’t finish returns in full force as he doesn’t so much stick the landing as throws everything at a wall and sees what sticks. There’s spectacle, of course, and a few satisfying beats but much of it feels haphazard and – perhaps Chibnall’s greatest and most frequent sin of all – villains and situations which have been built up throughout the story are disposed of with absurd and unsatisfyingly facile ease.
With the fate of the universe literally hanging in the balance and her friends scattered through what remains of space and time, The Doctor finds herself at the mercy of Swarm and Azure.
Of all the things I expected the finale of THE FLUX to be, I didn’t expect it to be a multi-Doctor story and there’s real ingenuity in how Chibnall manages to subvert and re-energise the multi-Doctor trope without bringing a single previous Doctor back. Of course, how else could The Doctor hope to weave together all the dangling plot threads but to be in three places at once. It’s also a neat way to circumvent Swarm’s trigger-happy dusting ability and prevent the Doctor from being eliminated with the casual brevity that every other significant character has been discarded during THE FLUX.
The return of the Sontarans, invading the Earth for, what? the seventeenth time this series? feels at best the result of production frugality and at worst lazy padding to fill out the episode run time and give some of the characters left milling around something to do. It doubles (triples?) down on its sense of redundancy by arbitrarily bringing in the Daleks and Cybermen only to wipe them out in what must be The Doctor’s umpteenth attempt at genocide since first pondering “Do I have the right?” No doubt it will be as successful as all the other times the Doctor has wiped out the Daleks/ Cybermen/ Sontarans once and for all and we’ll never see them again. Or at least a few weeks. In fact, given the general effects of the Flux and the Sontarans extermination of the Lupari, does THE VANQUISHERS hold the DOCTOR WHO record for the highest number of (and most casual) genocides.
The storyline of the Doctor being teased and tortured by Swarm and Azure is initially more promising, with the prospect of the restoration of all her memories used to tantalise her and the audience up until the point where it stops and both Swarm and Azure – the undisputed “Big Bads” of the series are themselves summarily dusted by the personification of Time, the Doctor’s ultimate nemesis who instead of threatening her just helps heal the triplication issue, drops some leadenly obvious foreshadowing about an impending regeneration and then buggers off. As anti-climaxes go, it’s right up there with When Harry didn’t Meet Sally and the end of CONTACT when Jodie Foster meets her dad. Worst of all, though, is Chibnall’s sudden recollection that Diane is still knocking about somewhere and so to square that circle, he gives a museum curator from 2021 Liverpool the uncanny knack for figuring out advanced trans-dimensional engineering control systems and an unjustifiable chip on her shoulder about Dan missing their date.
If it sounds like I didn’t enjoy THE VANQUISHERS, that’s very much not the case. There are tremendous fun moments, like the Sontaran in the sweet shop or the fanboy teasing allusions to Lungbarrow in the Doctor’s fob watch visions, but the fun and thrills are always tempered by Chibnall’s lack of trust in the audience’s ability to follow what’s going on, so we get endless tautological monologues from the character to explain everything – this time he’s even able to have The Doctor explain what’s going on to herself on multiple occasions. There’s also the casual treatment of characters both benign and malign and the ease with which they’re disposed of. Tecteun, Swarm, Azure and, lately, The Grand Serpent all talked a good game but, in the final examination provided little to no actual threat.
Likewise, Jericho’s sacrifice feels rote, a tick-box exercise that didn’t carry the emotional weight it seems it was meant to, because as great as Kevin McNally’s performance is, we’ve only known him for five minutes. If Kate Stewart had made that sacrifice, that might have hit with the impact Chibnall seems to have been looking for. As for Joseph Williamson, for a character who seems to have been central to Chibnall’s foundational inspiration for the whole story, he sure as shit wasn’t integrated into the story at all, feeling disconnected evenm when he’s at the centre of the action.
Chibnall keeps everything moving at a breakneck pace, more out of necessity than design because if it stops moving – even for just a second – the entire story will collapse under the weight of its own inconsistencies. In his blinkered run to hit the Set-pieces Chibnall has his heart set on, THE VANQUISHERS casually disregards a multitude of logical character beats and utterly ignores any of the long-term consequences in favour of something cool in the moment. In doing so, Chibnall abandons his attempts to emulate MCU-style storytelling in favour of a more JJ Abrams’ STAR WARS fan service approach. Only the only fan Chibnall has ever cared about servicing is himself. He shares with Abrams a pretence of cleverness that doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny and while there’s still a lot of fun in the final chapter (or is it?) of THE FLUX, it’s hard not to feel that THE VANQUISHERS – and by the rule of transitive property – all the chapters which have come before it are less than the sum of their many, many parts.
By the end of THE VANQUISHERS, there are still huge questions hanging over the Doctor Who universe, not least of all how much of it is actually left? Sure, The Flux is stopped (again, in an egregiously convenient way) but none of its effects are reversed. Countless billions are dead and dusted, the universe as we knew it is gone (and after the Eleventh Doctor went to all the trouble of rebooting it) and we’re left with the burnt cinders which centre on the planet Earth – a planet which presumably doesn’t have a moon anymore because the Lupari shield only covered the planet. It really doesn’t feel like a win at all for The Doctor even if the moment when she rejects the opportunity to open the fob watch feels like a real victory for the character herself.
Still, THE FLUX remains the best that DOCTOR WHO has been in many a year (side note: I’d watch the hell out of a Karvanista, Bel and Vinder spin-off) and certainly the high-water mark of the Chibnall/ Whittaker era so far. Perhaps some, if not all, of the huge dangling plot threads left over from THE VANQUISHERS will be resolved in the 2022 specials to come although not before we get a third New Year’s Day of the Daleks once again. Before THE FLUX, DOCTOR WHO was beginning to feel like a chore – afterwards, though, it feels excitingly alive and vital again, even if this denouement didn’t live up to the hype.