Doctor Who: Flux Lets Jodie Whittaker Finally Take Charge In The Exciting War Of The Sontarans

It only took three seasons, but Jodie Whittaker's Thirteenth Doctor finally clicked for me. Yes, it shouldn't have taken this long, but let's be grateful it happened at all — and in real barn burner of an episode which indicates that the serialized "Doctor Who: Flux" is an experiment that may well pay off by the end. "War of the Sontarans" might actually be showrunner Chris Chibnall's strongest episode yet, an exhilarating hour that keeps up the energy from last week's admittedly messy outing, but narrows the focus: the Doctor leads the charge here and, separated from her companions (who still get plenty to do, especially my fast favorite, Dan Bishop), finally comes into her own.

Every Doctor has their "aha" moment, whether it be when David Tennant wielded a sword atop a spaceship wearing nothing but pajamas and a bathrobe or when Matt Smith crashed into a Scottish girl's backyard and immediately raided her fridge, but until now it had been a real shame that Whittaker hadn't had hers. Sure, she'd had plenty of inspirational speeches and whimsical quirks, but they all felt like texture around the vague outline of a character who hadn't quite gelled off the page. But in "War of the Sontarans," Thirteen gets a few of those "aha" moments: tricking the Sontarans, butting heads with a bigoted British general, and getting two steps ahead of everyone else all while gesturing at goofy doodles with a pointy stick. She feels properly like the Doctor, and "War of the Sontarans" feels properly like that off-the-wall "Doctor Who" we love.

Sontarans, Ha!

"Flux" keeps up the intrigue with a mysterious opening scene: a black-and-white vision of a ramshackle house that floats off the ground as the Doctor reaches up to it. A glimpse of the Doctor's past? A hint at what the future holds? No clue — and the Doctor has little time to unpack this mysterious dream, as she, Yaz, and Dan wake up in 1855 Sevastopol at the height of the Crimean War, the three of them having apparently been "thrown out" of the TARDIS. They're mistaken for corpse robbers by Mary Seacole (Sara Powell), a British-Jamaican doctress who reveals that the war isn't being fought against Russia as the Doctor assumes, but against the Sontarans. Cue: a magnificent shot of a masked medieval-looking warrior riding through the fog on a horse, only to take off his helmet to reveal that mutated alien form of a Sontaran (much more sinister-looking than the friendly "Power Rangers" makeover they got in NuWho).

There's a wonderful alchemy at work in this episode, between Chibnall's educational tendencies — with his historical episodes leaning away from the whimsical adventuring of NuWho years and towards the after-school program roots of Classic Who — and the surreal sci-fi mystery at the heart of the serialized "Flux." "War of the Sontarans" is as dark as "Doctor Who" gets: a bloody battle with soldiers' bodies strewn across the gray, torn up fields; bullish British generals who let their ego blind them towards reason; an underappreciated historical figure against whom the odds are stacked. But then you bring in potato-looking aliens on horses (who admit that they really just wanted to ride those horses, in addition to massacring millions) and you've got that unlikely balancing act that is "Doctor Who" — goofy and grim all at once.

It's all brought together by Whittaker's Thirteenth Doctor, who finally gets her shine in this episode. Though initially dismissed by Mary Seacole and the British Army General Logan (Gerald Kyd), the Doctor manages to acquit herself quickly to the situation — even as Dan and Yaz are "Back to the Future-ed" (right down to the disappearing hands) to different points in time and space, and her TARDIS somehow loses its doors. And for some reason, Russia no longer exists but is labeled on the map as "Sontar." Time is in flux, the Doctor realizes, and she needs to set things right.

Doctors on the Front Lines

The Doctor is matched well by Powell's Mary Seacole, herself a doctor frequently underestimated by the men she serves, even as she managed to build a whole military hospital herself right on the front lines. Though Mary gets sidelined for the latter half of the episode, the thematic parallels that she serves as well as the pseudo-companion role she serves (Powell making the most of the role with a perpetually perplexed but dignified performance) makes her another strong "celebrity" historical figure of the Chibnall era.

It's really exciting to see the Doctor be as proactive as she is in this episode, and perhaps all she needed was a little more conflict. I've bemoaned the fact that Chibnall's era of "Doctor Who" seemed to tiptoe around Thirteen's gender, only really acknowledging how being a woman might hinder her in season 11's "Witchfinders," but "War of the Sontarans" finally leans into it. Not only in the pushback the Doctor gets from General Logan, whose bigotry feels of the time and never too over-the-top, but from the way she uses her gender to her advantage, tricking the Sontarans into agreeing to parlay in exchange for information on the Doctor's whereabouts. It's a clever little move that adds a missing piece to the puzzle of Whittaker's Doctor.

Without her companions by her side to blandly "yes man" her, the Doctor is besieged on all sides and left to think on her toes, bringing out the best in her. She makes bitter digs at General Logan's stink of rum! She swaggers and gloats in front of the Sontaran commander! She draws up battle plans while drawing up silly doodles of Sontarans! She knocks out a man with Venusian Akido! It all coalesces in the scene of the Doctor coldly demanding a "pointy stick" from a bereaved General Logan, who crawls back to Mary Seacole's hospital after he ignored the Doctor's warnings and got his men slaughtered by the Sontarans. We've seen the Thirteenth Doctor do this chalkboard routine before, but for some reason, this is where her teacherly version of the Doctor gelled for me, with her giving "gold stars" to Mary while coolly scolding Logan. Perhaps it's because with all we've seen leading up to this — the Doctor effortlessly outwitting her foes, the Doctor thinking two steps ahead of others and working out the situation without someone else telling her in a lengthy exposition dump. And best of all, her solution feels appropriately ingenious without requiring the lengthy plot explanations of past Chibnall episodes: simply sabotage the Sontarans' armor. Though her triumph is quickly cut short by General Logan's explosive revenge plot, I do love the cold anger with which Whittaker punctuates her line, "Sometimes men like you make me wonder why I bother with humanity."

Back to the Present, Part II

Meanwhile, Dan falls through the time vortex and lands right at home in present day — but something's off. The Sontarans have apparently conquered the Earth, and are building time ships to invade all of Earth's history, he discovers. Continuing the "Back to the Future" comparisons, it's "Part II" but with aliens.

But far be it from Dan to sit back to let this alternate dystopian present continue. Proving himself to already be a stalwart member of Team TARDIS, Dan springs into action, breaking into the Sontarans' time shipyard armed with nothing but a wok (which as an image is funnier than Chibnall's entire era has been). Side note: in just a few brief scenes, Dan's hilariously lovable parents — they're fighting an alien invasion with frying pans! — already have the most characterization for a companion's family since the Russell T. Davies era. Dan carries the majority of the episode's comedy, but John Bishop does it with gumption: gamely delivering the cheesy dad puns ("Now I'm going to wok right out of here!") and getting the biggest laughs with his confusion around "temporal" and "tempura" (I shouldn't have found that dumb "obsession with Japanese food" line so funny, but I did). But the greatest gift that Dan gives to this episode is his great buddy-comedy routine that he falls into with Karvanista, who charges in, guns blazing, right into my heart. The gruff, grumpy dog alien (who hilariously even shakes off water just like a dog later) is proving to be the real highlight of the entire season, and the acerbic back-and-forth between Dan and Karvanista is all-too-short.

But in just two short episodes Dan has managed to make more of an impression that Ryan and Yaz did in two seasons, so quickly getting on the Doctor's wavelength (filming footage of the Sontaran shipyard for her, jumping to break into a ship, helping her figure out the Sontarans' "Temporal Offensive" across time after a fun moment where they keep repeating the same questions to each other) that it's no wonder she immediately invites him on board the TARDIS when they reunite. I know that after the "O" twist last season, fans are suspicious that Dan may be more than he seems — and he could very well be, considering how fast he took to the time travel escapades — but I'm hoping that Dan is just a really good dude.

Fighting Time Itself

Unfortunately, Yaz continues to be the weakest link in this season for me, perhaps because all of her development to make her a Clara/Rose 2.0-type seems to have happened offscreen. It's hard to figure where she made the leap from borderline background character to that codependent companion who has become too much like the Doctor, but I guess at this point we'll just have to take it at face value, especially when Yaz flashes a little smile at the "WWTDD" written on her hand — "what would the Doctor do?" as our season's Big Bad Swarm mockingly (and obviously) states.

Yaz has found herself at the mysterious gilded Temple of Atropos on the planet "Time," where she's urgently greeted by a floating prism that asks her, "Do you Repair?" Confused but gung-ho, she cheerfully agrees, but finds that she's not the first person to have been brought in for repairs of the austere but ruined temple. She runs into a beleaguered Joseph Williamson (Steve Oram), who ominously declares, "All our fears made true. All is porous," before mysteriously vanishing. But it also seems that Vinder has been similarly transported to the temple, and called to repair the holographic Mouri, gold-skinned priestesses of some kind through whom, the prism claims, all temporal energy must pass. Without their guidance, time will be unleashed. "Time is evil, and it will seek its own," the prism warns.

But as Yaz and Vinder try to repair the damage to the holograms, they're interrupted by the arrival of Swarm and his sister Azure, looking all the world like Bejeweled Voldemorts. And they live up to their appearances, acting positively camp as they gloat over the two humans while a silent bulky bodyguard they call "Passenger" looms in the background. They'd been quantum locked out of the temple "after last time," but the damage has allowed them to re-enter, and Yaz and Vinder's presence allows them to turn the damaged Mouri into dust with a simple touch. But after their brief sinister turns last episode, I'm fully on board with our Big Bads this season — they're the right amount of menacing, omniscient, arch villains that thrive in "Doctor Who." Better yet, they present a real scary threat to the Doctor and her friends.

The Doctor and Dan arrive too late to the temple, where they're greeted by Swarm and Azure, who have replaced the two Mouri they destroyed with Yaz and Vinder, now sporting the same facial writing and head jewels that the Mouri did. The Doctor is helpless as Swarm raises a finger to Yaz's face and prepares to snap his fingers — presumably dooming her to the same dusty existence as all his past victims. It's the most nail-bitingly tense cliffhanger of the Chibnall era yet, and one which communicates the gravity of this season. The Chibnall era had been relatively free of conflict, of danger, of stakes. Death was never looming on the horizon like it did during the Davies or Moffat eras. And while I don't doubt Yaz will somehow get out of this, I feel for the first time like Chibnall is not treating the show with kiddy gloves.

Tidbits in Time and Space

  • Dan Starkey is back playing a Sontaran who is Not Strax! And though this Sontaran is abjectly bad, I still felt a twinge of sadness when Not Strax Svild was killed. RIP.
  • The Sontarans licking their lips whenever they kill is just the right amount of gross, and really communicates that they're evil little potatoes.
  • Nice Classic Who nod with that mention of Commander Lynx. And a nod to the Russell T Davies era with Dan using three fingers to open a Sontaran door.
  • Vinder's got heart eyes for Yaz – could this spell doom for all the Thasmin fans?
  • One of the many great Dan quips this episode: "Until Scooby Doo here tried to take all the credit."
  • After all the comparisons to "Loki" earlier this year, it feels like Doctor Who is taking a page from Marvel's book with this Temple on the Planet Time plotline — the design and the premise of guardians of time feels inspired by the Citadel at the End of the Universe that we saw in "Loki."
  • Director Jamie Magnus Stone has stepped up from last week's rocky episode — the shots of the Sontarans on horseback amidst foggy battlefields look genuinely gorgeous.