Doctor Who: Flux Doubles Down On Spectacle And Set-Up With A Tricky Premiere, The Halloween Apocalypse

"Doctor Who" has returned, and this time, it's trying something new. Though, that's part of the whole appeal of "Doctor Who," isn't it, that it's always changing and experimenting with new genres and tones? But "Doctor Who: Flux" is probably one of the show's flashiest experiments: one long multi-episode story that will serve as the final season for Jodie Whittaker's historic Thirteenth Doctor, before she regenerates in a series of specials ahead of the show's 60th anniversary. And as the first episode of that multi-part story, "The Halloween Apocalypse" has the toughest job: it has the set-up.

It's hard to rate the premiere of "Doctor Who: Flux," because it's so overstuffed with storylines and characters and monsters that are being introduced left and right. Not to mention the lingering questions over the mysterious Division that the Doctor is still investigating after the controversial "Timeless Children" revelation. But for all the messy structure and plot of "Doctor Who: Flux," it's still a hell of a lot of fun. The energy and comedy that has been sadly absent in the Chris Chibnall era are here in spades, with jokes aplenty and a mile-a-minute pace that makes up for the shoddy plotting. Not to mention a Very Good Dog (alien).

Trick or Trap

The Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) and Yaz (Mandip Gill) are in dire straits — they're handcuffed and dangling upside down over an acid lake, and the Doctor "can't help but feel like some of this is my fault." "Some?! All of this is your fault!" Yaz angrily bites back, setting the stage for a fun new dynamic between the Doctor and Yaz after the departure of Ryan and Graham — and the most personality that Yaz has been granted since she first stepped into the TARDIS. While I was worried that Yaz would get pushed to the background again with the introduction of John Bishop's new companion Dan, "The Halloween Apocalypse" makes a concerted effort to show that Yaz is more than just the Doctor's "Yes Man" — her disappointment with the Doctor in the New Year's special "Revolution of the Daleks" has carried over, and she's now constantly questioning and probing the Doctor, who is clearly holding some secrets close to her chest. There's conflict in the TARDIS, and Yaz isn't just there to point out that weird rock over there anymore. Plus, because this is "Doctor Who," she now has some sweet hacking (and TARDIS-flying) skills.

Speaking of Dan, John Bishop makes an immediate impression as the Scouser who loves nothing more than living in Liverpool. A plumber by trade, Dan frequently sneaks away from his day job to give tours at the local museum — much to the chagrin of the actual tour guide Diane (Nadia Albina), who lets Dan off easy if he'll make it on time to their date that night. You can tell Dan's a swell dude; not only does he volunteer at the local food bank, but he's got a good-natured twinkle in his eye, whether he's enthusiastically gushing about Liverpool history or kindly giving candy to costumed kids. Bishop is a longtime comedian, but like many a past comedian to star in "Doctor Who" — Catherine Tate, Matt Lucas, Bradley Walsh — he shows the promise of an actual emotionality beyond the witty one-liner.

But despite his cheery attitude, things aren't going well for Dan. He's living with an empty fridge and pantry, and a strange dog-like creature just burst through his wall commanding him to obey. This is Karvanista, a monster who looks like a friendlier Chewbacca, the same creature who had strung up the Doctor and Yaz over an acid lake and threatened to travel to Earth "in its final hours." But curiously, that takes Karvanista to modern-day Liverpool, where — after Dan insults him by petting his face and honking his nose — he kidnaps Dan and takes him away on his spaceship, leaving only high-tech booby traps for the Doctor and Yaz to find.

Taking the Long Way

There are so many plot threads that "The Halloween Apocalypse" introduces without much of a clue for where they'll lead. There's a short sequence in Liverpool, 1820, where a man named Williamson has a grand plan to excavate something "cataclysmic" and "impossible." There's Vinder (Jacob Anderson), a bored operator at the Outpost Rose space station who notices something strange happening to the stars. There's a couple in the Arctic Circle who anxiously ignore the alarm emanating from a small spaceship in their garage. There are a pair of Sontarans happily reporting of a coming cataclysm. There's the mysterious woman named Claire, who stumbles upon the Doctor and Yaz investigating Dan's house and seems to know the Doctor from her past — or was it her future? A later encounter with a Weeping Angel proves that there's something timey wimey going on with Claire, though it's hard to tell what. For now, cue the wild theories that Claire is actually Clara (she's probably not), especially with her "taking the long way home" remark.

But of course the biggest plot thread apart from the Karvanista kidnapping is Swarm (Sam Spruell), a creature (whose design looks a lot like a version of the season 11 villain Tzim-Sha except less toothy) being kept prisoner by the Division, and who has somehow been able to establish a psychic connection with the Doctor while she's flying the TARDIS. Within minutes of meeting Swarm by way of two stone-faced guards (RIP), Swarm breaks out of his prison and disintegrates the two guards with a touch, breaking the fourth wall by looking into the camera and leering, "Trick or treat, Doctor." Yuck.

This vision disturbs the Doctor, who keeps it secret from Yaz, but describes it as a "glitch" in her head, only earning more concern from her frustrated friend. But they have little time to linger on the secrets — there's " too much out of the ordinary tonight," the Doctor remarks worriedly. The TARDIS is leaking a black substance, the doors to the ship keep popping up in newer and stranger places, and something is happening to the planets.

What is the Flux?

Breaking into Karvanista's spaceship, the Doctor confronts the dog alien to make her usual speech about the Earth being protected, yada yada, call off your invasion. But Karvanista is confused; this is no invasion, this is a rescue operation. The 7 billion Lupari ships hovering at the edge of Earth's atmosphere aren't there to attack humanity, but save them from something called the Flux, "a cataclysm of unknown proportion" that has somehow slipped the Doctor's notice — and it's already begun.

We get our first glimpse of the Flux in action with Vinder at Outpost Rose, where he observes planets being eaten by a monstrous moving cloud — a genuinely cool special effect that shows the BBC's budget is being put to good use across this six-episode event. The episode unquestionably looks gorgeous (space has never looked more beautiful in "Doctor Who") and the spectacle can verge on awe-inspiring, but there are still some strange directorial choices — we'll never lose those extreme close-ups, it seems.

However, the way that the planets disintegrate immediately after contact with the Flux looks eerily similar to Swarm's power, which suggests that the two might be connected. It all gets even more intriguing when the Doctor is pulled into another psychic vision with the Swarm, who claims to have known the Doctor a long time, even if "they have done a good job" erasing him from her mind. "You and I dancing across time and space, locked in battle," Swarm practically purrs, dipping into that pool of story potential that the Timeless Child revelation has supposedly unlocked: the Doctor can now have infinite offscreen stories, they just can't remember it!

Still, Swarm is an interesting Big Bad — his disintegrating powers look gnarly, and his complete sociopathy gives him a sinister edge. When he arrives at the home of the mysterious Arctic Circle couple, he carelessly kills the man and turns to the woman (Rochenda Sandall, making an icy impression in her short scenes), who screams before she transforms into a creature that looks just like Swarm: his sister. By the end of the episode, they've intersected with one of the many other storylines of this episode: Diana, Dan's love interest, has been dragged by some unknown force into an old house, where Swarm and his sister emerge from a watery cave to gleefully declare, "We're going to have fun with you."

The End of the Universe is Chasing Us

The episode climaxes in the Doctor finding the Flux after frantically searching for it, only to be immediately sent on the run from the universe-devouring phenomenon. After a failed attempt to stop it with the TARDIS' vortex energy, the Doctor sends an urgent plan to Karvanista (the easy MVP of this episode apart from Dan) to get the Lupari ships in a formation that can shield the Earth from the Flux. We end on that cliffhanger — as well as the other cliffhangers from our various other storylines that are mostly given little more than an intense close-up of peoples' faces.

The whole story feels extremely cosmic and comic book-y, which is in line with the tone of "The Halloween Apocalypse," an episode that is reminiscent of a Marvel crossover event in how it's lining up the pieces for a big climax. "The end of the universe is chasing us," the Doctor ominously states. While it's messy and chaotic now, it will (hopefully) all build up to something satisfying. But for now, the universe-shattering ambitions of this season narrative and its rediscovery of its humor and goofy energy, make this a promising — if overstuffed — start to "Doctor Who: Flux."

Tidbits in Time and Space

  • The episode starts off strong with Jodie Whittaker's hilariously bad impressions of the Twelfth and Seventh Doctor (right down to the rolling "r's!") after realizing her voice-activated handcuffs might have been set up "when I was Scottish."
  • The double bed that catches the Doctor and Yaz after their escape from the acid lake in the cold open ... I can see the Thasmin shippers going wild.
  • The Doctor's "Nice to meet you Dan, run for your life!" feels like a nice callback to the first meeting between the Ninth Doctor and Rose Tyler.
  • "I've always wondered what the end of the universe would look like." Doctor, you've seen at least three of them already.
  • Honestly, this episode gets the most points for the goofy dog jokes: the "Lupari" race, "I need to see a man about a dog... turns out the man was the dog," and "Man's best friend." Reader, I chuckled.
  • The return of the good old mallet used by the Ninth and Tenth Doctor is straight up nostalgia bait, but I fell for it hook, line, and sinker.
  • Karvanista might be my favorite new character of the Chibnall era? I love a good grumpy space dog who just wants to do his job of kidnapping a human being, if it weren't for you meddling kids.