Good news! This week’s Doctor Who figured out that having two plotlines is much clearer than having 84. Not really bad but just kind of fine news! It’s maybe still not quite learned how to focus in its return to a serialized format, however.
“War of the Sontarans” is another weird episode for season 13, but far from weird in the ways its predecessor “The Halloween Apocalypse” was. They both found themselves at odds with disparate parts of each other, yes, but as previously mentioned, the second episode starts off on a considerably stronger foot by only really having two parts of itself to be at odds with each other — rather than the vomit of plot lines dumped out and left for later musing in last week’s messy premiere for Doctor Who: Flux. Instead of the problem being an empty, chaotic setup here, the problem is a little more existential: can Flux be a serialized Doctor Who tale over six parts and also be a season of Doctor Who where you get fun, silly, one-off adventures? The answer is… maybe. Mostly because it has to be; because it’s what we’ve got.
But the Just Kind of Fine news is that if it’s going to try, “War of the Sontarans” is a mostly acceptable attempt at doing such a one-off romp, even if the existential struggle still lingers throughout. Set primarily in the midst of the Crimean War, the Doctor, Yaz, and Dan — who has adapted remarkably well to the sea of chaos that is life with the Doctor already — find themselves dealing with a rather peculiar ramification of the Flux. Just as the Lupari shield fleet’s defences wrapped themselves around Earth at the climax of the season 13 premiere, a Sontaran war fleet snuck in and decided to play time havoc on humanity. They not only invade in the 21st century but build a fleet of ships to go back and wage war throughout humanity’s long history of conflict. The Sontarans apparently go about this by erasing Russia and China off the map so the aliens can replace Russia at the Siege of Sevastapol in 1855. That’s quite a highly specific plan!
But before we can get too far into Sontar shenanigans, the strains of Doctor Who’s re-jiggered format already begin to make themselves apparent. No sooner than the Doctor, Yaz, and Dan are introduced to our guest character of the week Mary Seacole (played by Sara Powell), the British-Jamaican entrepreneur and medic who, famously, established her own field hospital on the front lines of the Crimean War, they’re torn apart, the fracturing of time itself whisking Dan and Yaz away. Dan, at least, still gets to engage with the main thrust of the episode, thrown back to contemporary Liverpool to try and see what the Sontarans are up to, while the Doctor is left in 1855 to try and stop the Sontarans from completely annihilating the British forces.
Yaz, meanwhile, is pulled onto a different tangent altogether, and it’s here that the story gets both the most interesting and the most frustrating. Yaz’s plotline for the rest of the episode is almost entirely unrelated to the events of the rest of “War of the Sontarans,” as she finds herself pulled — alongside Vinder and that 19th-century businessman from last week, the latter of which is seemingly here just to remind you That Plotline Exists before wandering off 30 seconds later — to a mysterious temple called Atropos. As we are jarringly yanked between the Sontaran skirmish in the Doctor and Dan’s plots, which naturally gel together, and the mystery of Yaz’s time on Atropos, we learn what is, presumably, going to be the actual driving thrust of Flux as a wider story. Turns out Atropos is home to a conclave of priestesses called the Mouri, who has spent all of existence on a planet literally called Time controlling the chaotic nature of Time itself. Now that they’re failing — in part by being killed off by the Big Flux Villains, the Swarm and his sister Azure, who also show up uninvited to Atropos to turn Yaz and Vinder into bait for the Doctor — time is running rampant across existence, undoing reality as we know it.
And here’s the thing: the Doctor and Dan fighting the Sontarans is perfectly fine. It’s full of fun, camp slapstick, and whizzbang action — cleverly and conveniently mostly disguised by large seas of fog and night scenes, because, well, you try to film the Siege of Sevastapol but the Russians are potato aliens with laser guns on horses on a BBC budget. While it’s mostly empty fluff, it’s the good kind of empty Doctor Who fluff that every season of the show needs. Sometimes you just want some laser guns to go off, some woks to be flung against probic vents, and for the day to be saved by some large explosions and maybe an ethical compromise or two (one that the show doesn’t even have time to linger on in the case of “War of the Sontarans,” showing you how much it actually cares about setting such an ethical conflict up).
It’s the kind of adventure that you watch once, are mostly fine with, and then move on from in your Doctor Who life — the humdrum glue that ties a season of adventures in time and space together. But the stuff on Atropos with Yaz, time itself, and enough proper nouns to give you a mild headache? That is fascinating and full of potential and clearly something Flux wants to hang itself around. But “War of the Sontarans” doesn’t know what to do with it because it’s mostly trying to be an episode about, well, the Sontarans. So every time we cut to it, we’re dragged away from the fun fluff of Sontaran action, but never really long enough to chew on the mystery being set up. It’s certainly less messy than Doctor Who’s approach to setting up threads for the rest of the season last week, but being offered something much more intriguing to chew on and then being told “oops, the episode’s over now, we’ll get to it next week!” is a different kind of frustration.
So there lies the problem in Doctor Who’s current experiment: it wants to be a big interconnected story about this grand idea of Time itself running rampant. On its own, that’s exciting considering the Time Lords themselves are currently occupied with being Very Dead, along with all the calamitous reveals from last season that could be drawn on here. But it also has to be a season of Doctor Who, with the ups and downs of one-off creature features and big stakes stories that you’d usually get — something that, with just six episodes to itself, Flux has to be very picky over. We won’t be able to tell until its grand climax whether or not it was worth spending more time with the Sontarans here rather than Atropos — but in the meantime it just makes Doctor Who feel a bit more fleeting than usual, exploding space ships or otherwise.
- “Oh maybe next week we’ll focus and get a lot on Swarm and Azure and what they’re ab-oh no, the Weeping Angels” was literally all I could think of watching the Next Time preview for “Once, Upon Time.” Great episode title though.
- I joked earlier about a lot of the actually really clever ways this episode did things to maintain its larger-than-life scale on Doctor Who’s not-larger-than-life budget, but… can we talk about how the shot of Dan and Karvanista sliding out of the Sontaran time ship into the docks of Liverpool might actually be the worst CG effect of the show’s modern era?
- Very interesting to learn more about Swarm and Azure’s silent butler, who I mentally took to calling “Discount Darkseid,” given that they were so out of focus every time we caught a glimpse that their face mask just looked like the dread countenance of DC’s cosmic supervillain, but distinctly out of reach of a Warner Bros budget. Who are they? Where did they come from? Is Flux not doing enough that we just need to roll out new characters sneaking into the background unexplained like they were really always there?
- Speaking of questions: Dan’s parents seemed to get really good at being charmingly bumbling Anti-Sontaran resistance fighters considering they’d only been on the planet for… two days? I kind of like the unstated idea that Doctor Who’s Earth is so used to being invaded now people do just get on Facebook and read what some random person has discovered about repelling the latest alien attack.
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