TV Review – DOCTOR WHO: FLUX (2021)

DOCTOR WHO: FLUX (2021, UK, Colour, 6 x 49-60m) ***
BBC One
Adventure, Drama, Sci-Fi
Chapters: 1. The Halloween Apocalypse ***; 2. War of the Sontarans ***; 3. Once, Upon Time **; 4. Village of the Angels *****; 5. Survivors of the Flux ***; 6. The Vanquishers **
Exec pr. Chris Chibnall, Matt Strevens; pr. Nikki Wilson (1, 2, 4), Pete Levy (3, 5, 6); w. Chris Chibnall, Maxine Alderton (4); d. Jamie Magnus Stone (1, 2, 4), Azhur Saleem (3, 5, 6); ph. Robin Whenary (1, 2, 4), Phil Wood (3, 5, 6); m. Segun Akinola; ed. William Webb, David Head; pd. Dafydd Shurmer; cos. Ray Holman.
Cast: Jodie Whittaker (The Doctor), Mandip Gill (Yasmin Khan), John Bishop (Dan Lewis), Jacob Anderson (Vinder), Craig Parkinson (Grand Serpent), Craige Els (Karvanista), Kevin McNally (Professor Jericho), Annabel Scholey (Claire Brown), Jemma Redgrave (Kate Lethbridge-Stewart), Thaddea Graham (Bel), Rochenda Sandall (Azure), Sam Spruell (Swarm), Steve Oram (Joseph Williamson), Barbara Flynn (Tecteun), Nadia Albina (Diane), Jo Martin (Fugitive Doctor), Jonathan Watson (Sontaran Commander Stenck / Skaak / Sontaran Commander Ritskaw), Dan Starkey (Svild).
Ambitious and epic in scope this thirteenth series of the revived Doctor Who was also complex, confusing and populated by too many characters. In Flux, the Doctor and her companions navigate a Universe-ending anomaly called the “Flux”, while dealing with enemies and secrets from the Doctor’s past. The story is told in six inter-linking chapters. The result is a decidedly mixed bag. The chapters that could, with some slight tweaks, serve as standalone episodes – the almost traditional “War of the Sontarans” and the deliciously creepy “Village of the Angels” (superbly directed by Stone)  – are the ones that work best. As for the rest we had the enjoyable but overly frenetic scene-setting opener “The Halloween Apocalypse”, the baffling and confusing “Once, Upon Time”, the slightly less baffling “Survivors of the Flux” and the largely unsatisfying conclusion “The Vanquishers”, which left as many unanswered questions as answered ones. The production was certainly the most extravagant ever attempted by the series – crossing various timelines on Earth and locations across (and outside) the Universe. Each of these settings was superbly realised by excellent visuals and great CGI and the series has never looked better. The technical team can hold their heads high. The lead performances were, overall, good. Whittaker has settled into her Doctor well and at times showed the gravitas that had been missing in the previous two seasons. Gill had much more to do, and Yasmin became a stronger and more pro-active character. Bishop provided some good laughs and was likeable as was Els’ dog-like Karvanista. McNally was also extremely likeable as Professor Jericho and he played the role with conviction. Parkinson’s Grand Serpent was enigmatic and the Sontarans have never looked better. The side story concerning Anderson and Graham’s characters, however, felt phoney and could easily have been excised. Where the story was really lacking, once again, was in the writing. Chibnall has had problems throughout his run in creating engaging drama and logical plots. That malaise continued here despite the additional space. Instead of letting the story breathe, he decided to fill it chock full of confusing exposition and too many peripheral characters. The best stories of the previous two seasons had been those from other writers and the best story of this series included the considerable contribution of Maxine Alderton – the others were all written by Chibnall. Playing loose with the show’s mythos through adding more back story to the Doctor with the use of Flynn (as the Doctor’s “mother”); the re-appearance of Martin as another incarnation of the Doctor; and the mysterious Swarm and Azure holding the Doctor’s memories in Gallifreyan watch. But none of this is resolved in the finale with the Doctor fractured across three timelines. Chibnall may well address these loose threads through the specials to follow, but the immediate problem is the story concluded with the big questions remaining unanswered and it asks a lot of casual viewers to stick with it. When Russell T. Davies finally takes back the reins in 2023 my biggest hope is he takes the programme back to its core roots with more straightforward and engaging plots that use temporal physics as a travelling device rather than a central plot premise. History has shown that the episodes which play with temporal themes and settings are those that tend to satisfy the least. For now, we are left with a third successive frustrating series, albeit an improvement on the previous two, and the prospect of a New Year’s special which once again will put time at the centre of its plotline.

TV Review – INTERGALACTIC (2021)

INTERGALACTIC (UK, 2021, 8 x 45m) **
Sci-Fi, Action, Adventure

net; Sky One; pr co. Babieka / Moonage Pictures / Tiger Aspect Productions; d. Kieron Hawkes, China Moo-Young , Hannah Quinn; cr. Julie Gearey; w. Julie Gearey, Laura Grace ; exec pr. Paul Gilbert; series pr. Nick Pitt.

cast: Savannah Steyn (Ash Harper), Eleanor Tomlinson (Candy), Natasha O’Keeffe (Emma), Sharon Duncan-Brewster (Tula), Thomas Turgoose (Drew), Oliver Coopersmith (Echo), Imogen Daines (Verona), Diany Samba-Bandza (Genevieve), Hakeem Kae-Kazim (Yann Harper), Craig Parkinson (Dr. Lee), Parminder Nagra (Rebecca Harper), Neil Maskell (Wendell), Samantha Schnitzler (Captain Alessia Harris).

The year 2143. Climate change has screwed the planet and the world’s cities, now mostly underwater, are controlled by a pseudo democratic government called the Commonworld. After sky cop Harper (Savannah Steyn) is set up for a crime she had nothing to do with, she is placed on board prisoner transport ship the Hemlock bound for an off-planet prison. On board she is thrown into the melee of a mutiny stirred up by a band of hardened female criminals who threaten to kill her if she doesn’t fly them to safety.

Intergalactic must be one of the biggest wasted opportunities to hit our TV screens in recent years.  Backed by Sky with a top-notch production design (by Mark Geraghty); more than acceptable visual effects; and a solid-gold premise inspired by one of British TVs best sci-fi adventure series (Blake’s 7) this should have been a celebration of what is great about British TV. Unfortunately we had to deal with characters, who for the most part were very difficult to like and left us with no-one to root for; incessant and overly gratuitous use of foul language; banal and cliched dialogue and storylines; and a finale that wasn’t. The latter is partly explained by the fact there were two more scripts to shoot before production was curtailed by the pandemic. The producers, directors and writers must take the blame for the rest. Tonally, the series veered from witty and tongue-in-cheek to violent and abrasive – often in the same scene. The former losing out increasingly to the latter as the series progressed. That would have been okay, as the stakes were raised in those later episodes, but what we were left with was a depressing tale of self-centred characters whose cause and motivations were never fully explained to any logical or believable level. The performances were almost universally one-note and ranged from the awful (Duncan-Brewster, who simply snarls her way through her entire performance) to the passable (most of the rest) . Only Turgoose managed to inject any depth into his character, whilst Coopersmith struggled to bring some Han Solo-esque charm to his. The series had admirable qualities in its use of a diverse cast and its pushing most of the leading roles to females. There are also the occasional amusing and witty lines of dialogue that shine like beacons amongst most of the writing (Turgoose remarking the one planet they visit was “worse then Bolton”). Stereotypes are much in evidence, however, and the story becomes increasingly predictable and derivative of other, better productions (and that is saying something when one of the inspirations was Con-Air). The design of the Hemlock, the prison ship stolen by the mutineers, is genuinely impressive and it is a shame it is not peopled by characters we would like to spend more time with. The camera work is good, but the direction often feels amateurish and the cast seem unable to bring any level of empathy to their characters.  There is a backstory for each that feels like it was taken from the “bumper book of prison characters” and there is insufficient subtlety in the writing to present these backstories in anything other than flat monologues. For an example of how to write a sci-fi show about a group of misfits and a totalitarian government, Geary should have looked no further than Firefly, which attacked similar themes with much more style and wit as well as characters you wanted to spend time with, rather than wince at every aggressive use of the “f-word” – instead she did not even look to the strengths of Blake’s 7 and landed much closer to Con-Air – more is the pity. It is hard to see the series being picked up for a second run, which is a shame in that it will likely kill off any further attempts to create a rebirth for British sci-fi TV for the foreseeable future.