After last week’s absolutely jam-packed premiere, “Chapter Two” offers a better sense of what we can expect from this six-part Doctor Who: Flux miniseries going forward. In a lot of ways, “War Of The Sontarans” could be a standalone hour about the Sontarans waging a multi-front temporal attack across multiple periods of Earth’s history. The main storyline is half historical romp, half present-day alien invasion story, as the Doctor faces off against the Sontarans on a battlefield of the Crimean War in 1855, while Dan deals with them on the Liverpool docks back in the present day. It’s a fine, if familiar, Sontaran story, filled with all the requisite comedy and commentary about the pointlessness of war. And it’s both aided and in some ways overshadowed by the ongoing Flux mystery.
The upside of the Sontaran stuff is that I really enjoyed learning about Mary Seacole (Sara Powell)—a real-life British-Jamaican “doctress” who cared for wounded soldiers at her “British Hotel” behind the lines during the Crimean War. When Chris Chibnall took over as showrunner, one of his priorities was to return Doctor Who to its original educational roots. And as with the focus on World War II-era British spy Noor Inayat Khan back in “Spyfall,” it’s especially nice to see Doctor Who highlight a woman of color who perhaps hasn’t gotten the historical name recognition she deserves. (At one point Seacole mentions Florence Nightingale, a contemporary who’s enjoyed much more posthumous fame for her similarly pioneering approach to nursing.) Powell’s warm performance makes Mary one of those great would-be companions, and, like the Doctor, I hope we see her again before this Flux story is out.
The rest of the Sontaran adventure never quite rises above the sum of its parts. After the TARDIS team inexplicably survive last week’s universe-ending cliffhanger, a mix of flux and vortex energy sends Dan and Yaz barreling towards different corners of time and space. And while that leaves the Doctor with more solo screentime this week, I’m not sure I come away feeling like I know her much better. Sure, she hates war, rails against bullish military figures like General Logan (Gerald Kyd), and stalls her way through the Sontaran crisis long enough to save the day with a plan that involves venting their supplies and forcing them into a retreat (excuse me, strategic withdrawal). But that’s the sort of scenario you could basically slot any NuWho Doctor into, rather than one that allows Thirteen’s unique qualities to really rise to the surface.
If I had to make an argument for what makes this a uniquely Thirteenth Doctor story, it would be the almost shocking amount of faith she places in Dan to singlehandedly save the day from a massive Sontaran army back in present day Liverpool—and even that feels more like a storytelling shortcut than a purposeful narrative choice. In fact, I’m really curious why the show made the decision to separate Dan from the Doctor, rather than keep him by her side and build up their nascent relationship. True, it leads to some fun comedy once the Doctor and Dan are eventually able to communicate across time via Sontaran Timeships. And I did enjoy the payoff of Karvanista once again swooping in to begrudgingly save Dan’s life. But it feels like a missed opportunity not to give the Doctor more time to bond with her new companion while Yaz is away.
Still, at least Dan (sort of) gets to prove himself in a crisis, even if it’s strange that he takes the initiative to enter a deadly alien invasion encampment as casually as he took the initiative to lead a make-shift museum tour last week. Loathe as I am to actively request a damsel in distress be added to a story, I wonder if making Diane a Sontaran prisoner would’ve given Dan more meaningful motivation for risking his life to enter their base. Instead he seems mostly focused on vlogging the experience for the Doctor—a woman he barely exchanged half a dozen words with last week.
Still, the upside of the Flux miniseries format is that the episodic story is balanced out by the ongoing one (and vice versa). Though Vinder and Mr. Williamson don’t get a ton to do this week, it’s fun to see them meet up with Yaz now that we already know a bit about both of their backstories. All three characters mysteriously find themselves at the Temple of Atropos on the planet Time, where officious diamond-shaped robots called Guardian Priests instruct them to fix some broken holographic figures known as the Mouri. In a throughline filled with standard Chibnall-era over-exposition, we learn the Mouri harness time to prevent it from running wild, and the fact that two of them are broken likely explains why the TARDIS has been acting up.
It remains to be seen if all that exposition will pay off in the future. But what does click right away is Yaz’s chemistry with Vinder and Mr. Williamson. Like Amy Pond in “Dinosaurs On A Spaceship” or Clara Oswald in “Flatline,” Yaz has become a full-on Doctor-like figure in her own right. (It’s part of the reason Dan’s early solo mission feels so odd—he hasn’t earned it yet.) And she takes two different approaches with her would-be companions. She’s kind and gentle to the clearly befuddled Mr. Williamson, sussing out what year he’s from and easing him into the idea that she’s from another time. With Vinder, however, she immediately spots a kindred spirit and takes him into her confidence as they try to get info from the Guardian Priests together.
It’s more character building than Yaz has gotten in the past two seasons combined, and it ups the stakes once Swarm, his sister Azure, and their mysterious “Passenger” crash the Temple as well. And while the villainous trio’s air of all-knowingness isn’t really working for me yet, their spooky creature design at least looks cooler in the brighter environment of the Temple than it did in the darkness of last week’s episode. (I referred to them as the “Glam Rock Squad” in my notes.)
How do Swarm and Azure know so much about Yaz and Vinder? Why do they hint at their experience in the Temple of Atropos being cyclical? And just who is their mysterious Passenger? Those are all questions for the rest of the season to explore—along with the slightly more pressing issue of how a Mouri-fied Yaz and Vinder are going to survive a burst of pure time energy. While “War Of The Sontarans” isn’t quite substantial enough to fully sell me on Flux, it succeeds at keeping my interest piqued to see where we go from here.
- For an episode named after them, I didn’t spend much of this review actually discussing the Sontarans themselves. That’s because I find them to be a bit of a one-note villain, although I did laugh at the Commander revealing he chose to stage his attack during the Crimean War because he wanted to ride a horse.
- In fact, I actually thought a lot of the humor in this episode was pretty solid—from the Doctor asking for a pointy stick to lay out her master plan to all the knowingly cheesy wok jokes.
- Speaking of which, while Dan’s parents are fun characters who deliver that wok along with some helpful Sontaran exposition, the way they randomly enter and then vanish from the episode is bizarre.
- There are no check-ins for Diane or Claire this week. We do, however, get a new mystery in the form of the Doctor’s black and white vision of a spooky floating house.
- We also get a shout-out to the Shadow Proclaimation and the fact that the Doctor used to be the President of Gallifrey.
- While Karvanista’s hatred of Dan is funny, I actually find Dan’s dislike of Karvanista to be kind of rude. He just saved your life, dude, be at least a little grateful!!
- “Hit the road, Skaak.”