Last week’s opening instalment
to the six-part Doctor Who: Flux
ended with one of the show’s biggest cliffhangers ever – a wave of destruction tearing the universe apart, and the TARDIS caught in the middle of it. How will they ever escape?
The answer given at the start of part two, War of the Sontarans
, is... by waking up in the Crimean War. Perhaps the TARDIS did something clever, who knows.
After this, though, we’re treated to a pre-title scene near-perfect in its efficient and exciting set-up of what’s to come – Mary Seacole! The Crimean War! An army of approaching... Russians? No, something’s wrong with time... Sontarans! On horseback!
So, this is one of Who’s tried-and-tested ‘historical period plus alien baddies’ episodes, right? Well, not quite – shortly after the title sequence, Yaz and Dan are separated from the Doctor, whisked away to other places in space and time. Characters being magically transported to where the plot needs them to be is a recurring motif in this episode, which could have run smoother without the companions being in Crimea in the first place. Nevertheless, this tells us that the adventure we’re about to watch isn’t a simple return to that story type we’ve seen before, but is a continuation of the exciting new shape of Who
storytelling set up last week, following multiple strands across space and time.
The marketing for Flux
promised Sontarans, and this episode is where we get Sontarans. Like with the Cybermen in Series 12, their redesign adeptly combines the best of classic and new versions – the grubby black and silver armour right at home on the dirty battlegrounds, strong prosthetics allowing the actors scope, and the return of regular Sontaran actor Dan Starkey very much welcomed.
It's actually been a while since they’ve taken the foreground, as excluding cameos and Strax, post-2005 Who
has only had one story with the potato-heads as the main villains – 2008’s The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky
. Whereas that crowbarred them into the Russell T Davies-era trope of the contemporary corporation hiding alien secrets, War of the Sontarans
gets straight to their main thing – war.
Plonking the Sontarans in the middle of the Crimean conflict is a natural fit both narratively and visually. In this main strand of the story, Chris Chibnall’s script finds the perfect balance between Sontarans as a serious threat and playing up the humour, as do the performances of Starkey and Jonathan Watson. These villains were always intended as a satire on dogmatic militarism, and that’s playfully foregrounded here: the Doctor gleefully holding a military-esque briefing with a pointy stick, the arrogance of the commanders on both sides, and the brilliant line “and also... I wanted to ride a horse.” All while building up to a battle sequence that’s as visually strong as Who
’s ever been.
Meanwhile, Dan is sent back to Liverpool, 2021, where the Sontarans are already in control of the city – and, apparently, the planet. Despite this dire situation, there’s plenty of humour here too, as Dan’s bickering mum and dad make an appearance and quickly establish themselves as the best companion relatives since Wilfred Mott. They then give him a wok and send him on his way into the aliens' base – like Cybermen coming out of the sewers or the Nestene basing itself under the London Eye, the Sontarans using Liverpool docks to build time ships in is one of those combinations of the everyday and the extraordinary that Doctor Who
does so well.
There is a missed opportunity in the scenes that follow, though, as Dan – who earlier in the episode accepted the fact he’d travelled in time with oddly little question – sets himself the task of single-handedly infiltrating the Sontaran fleet with a surprising level of confidence. Recording vlogs for the Doctor is something a seasoned companion would do, not someone who’s only been in her presence for about ten minutes. We can’t help but think that this strand of the story would be more impactful if Dan continued to be the reluctant hero he was set up as in The Halloween Apocalypse
, with the plot provoking him to question who he trusts out of all the characters he’s met so far.
It’s towards the end that the two Sontaran storylines come together, with the revelations of the villains’ ‘temporal’ scheme and another brilliant comedy moment in the Doctor’s reaction to Dan’s wok. What follows is, however, not one but two examples of the beloved Doctor Who
trope that is the extremely convenient plot resolution: the Doctor’s plan revolves around the Sontarans never having thought of the concept of working shifts, while Dan – reunited with his dog/bromance Karvanista – manages to crash the ships into each other in a way that removes all the Sontarans from time, or something. Thankfully, the presence of the Flux in this series means that all the characters regularly remind us that time is a bit buggered, which is a handy excuse to paper over the cracks.
Oh, we’ve not mentioned Yaz yet (there's a sentence we haven't said since… last series). Last week, she got some great character development for once; in clear comparison to Dan, she was shown as the seasoned, competent companion – the kind of person who would
run into the Sontaran base and know to film everything. Here, she’s relegated to a story in which people arrive at a place until it ends. It’s not bad – the idea of time as a planet is intriguingly ambitious, and Swarm and Azure are delightfully camp villains – but it does feel like set-up for the actual plot to come later.
But… we can’t wait for that! This series ending every week on a cliffhanger is really working to build up excitement for the next instalment. It helps too that, on the whole, Chibnall's scripting in Flux
is so far showing a clear step up in quality from the past couple of series. On top of all the arc-building, War of the Sontarans
is exciting, funny, and visually stunning, particularly the parts focusing on the eponymous potato men – it’s certainly their best modern-era story, and arguably one of their best ever.