I can’t honestly say that I was disappointed by The Vanquishers, the wrap-up chapter of this season of DOCTOR WHO and the one in which, by necessity, all of the plot threads must be gathered together and tied off. But that’s because my expectations were so low–and I must sadly report that they were met in every way. Because if the previous episode was a mess, this one was a collection of half-baked moments, a lot of pyrotechnics without any heart, and no discernable payoff whatsoever. The story pretty much just stops because it’s the final chapter and so of course it had to stop. And as expected, there were so many characters on the canvas, so many different story threads which needed to be brought to a climax that pretty well none of it is given the room and the impact it needs in order to land.
In fact, there’s so much to wrap up that Chibnall is forced to resort to splitting the Doctor herself into three selves, the bette to be able to cover more territory, as it would be absolutely criminal to let any other character come up with the solutions to any of what is going on. Of course, that’s exactly what happens, in the most absurd way possible. Not only is Diane somehow randomly the last person left imprisoned within the Traveler, but she’s also had enough time to suss out how it works (despite having no particular scientific training in her role at the Museum) well enough to offer a completely deus ex machina solution to the problem of this final Flux–and one that the Doctor herself never even considered. Diane in particular felt like a horribly undercooked character in this serial–she never really had enough space to make an impact, and between the first episode and this last one, she was effectively a non-entity, which makes this turn all the more frutrating.
Similarly contrived and facile was the manner in which all of the Lupari were dispensed with off-camera, with the exception of Karvanista, who had the good luck to not be around for it. This was a criminal bit of storytelling, and smacked of nothing so much as hand-waving away an entire group of characters who had become inconvenient (The Lupari might have had something to say about the Sontarans occupying the Earth, to say nothing of their ships being used in the spud-men’s plan for Universal domination.) The Flux proper goes from being this unexpected all-consuming force that has wiped out pretty much the rest of the universe to simply a minor inconvenience that can be off-handedly dispensed with, and in whose wake nobody seems to care or even notice the lives lost and the damage done. For all that it gave title to this storyline, the Flux proved to simply be a plot device–as so much of this story wound up being.
And good grief, was there any purpose at all for bringing in the Grand Serpent to be one more factor in this climax? If you cut all of his material out of these past two episodes, erased him entirely, the story would have gone the exact same way. Instead, there he was, sucking up story oxygen and contributing nothing material to what was going on. (The same, honestly, is true of Kate Stewart, as welcome as it was to see her familiar face again.) In the ranks of villains whose efforts didn’t amount to anything, though, the Grand Serpent needs to place third behind both Swarm and Azure. They got a massive build-up in the first episode, but as this one plainly makes clear, they don’t actually have any sort of plan or even a concrete objective. They simply do bad stuff because it is bad, and chew the scenery a ton along the way. I can’t say that I really even follow their notion that Time is at war with Space, and that they represent Time. Yeah, how? And why? These three characters are emblematic of everything that is wrong with the series right now. At least the Sontarans had a clear objective as well as a methodology for accomplishing their goals (for all that they were largely reduced once more to comic relief villains.)
I feel bad in particular for Yaz and Dan who, after getting some decent and accomplished screen time last week, are relegated to being a nebulous part of the Greek chorus of hangers-on that the Doctor assembles within the TARDIS in this episode. (A TARDIS, it must be said, which seems to be functioning and behaving perfectly normally–wasn’t it supposed to be oozing black gunk and having doorways appear in strange places and so forth. Did somebody forget about that?) They have absolutely nothing to do that is worthwhile in the whole of the runtime of the episode, apart from standing around, being marked for attendance and presumably cashing the check. It’s a shame because, if you’d gotten rid of any number of players who were added into this storyline like barnacles, they might have had a chance to really contribute meaningfully. Did we really need to bring Claire back so that she could probe the Sontaran psychic-whatever? Couldn’t Yaz have done that? Asset management is not a priority for these creators, it seems, which would be forgivable if the structure they built didn’t collapse under its own weight. And especially once you got two versions of Jodie Whittaker in the same space, all of the companions became superfluous–she was her own companion at that point (which was fun, and gave Jodie something to do, but which is unsatisfying in retrospect.)
But perhaps the greatest flaw of this episode, and this storyline in general, is that, for all that it spends a ton of time laying out a bunch of puzzle boxes to intrigue the audience, all of the boxes wind up being empty once you open them. What is the Division: apparently, one person on a space station who’s decided to destroy the universe either to get rid of the Doctor or to recruit her, check a box. What is the secret of the Doctor’s past missing lives? Who knows, even she doesn’t care enough to open the Chameleon Arch she spend months chasing after and now finally has in her hands. What’s the deal with Vinder and Bel’s child? It’s just a child, you dope. And so on. Nothing adds up to anything because nothing has a proper payoff to it, and all of the running around and explosions and hastily-dashed-off technobabble can’t disguise the absolute lack of a heart at the center of things. For most of its run time, this episode feels so fake and empty. Absolutely nobody seems to be especially concerned or interested that Professor Jericho dies, or that that poor old Ood is still trapped on a station that’s inexorably traveling to a different universe–to say nothing of the fact that the Doctor is so immune to any feeling about the demise of her mother-figure Tecteun that she isn’t so much as mentioned in this episode apart from in the recap at the top.
And what’s worse, the climax turns on the idea that, having been made aware of what the Sontarans are planning, the Doctor not only allows it to happen, but she piles on top, committing genocide on the Sontarans as well. This is a character who historically has always held out a redemptive hand towards her enemies under even the most grueling circumstances–“Always mercy”, remember? So this casual annihilation of three separate races feels antithetical to the ethos of both the character and the series–it’s the sort of thing that a Hollywood hero would do. But not the Doctor, not the character who spent centuries being haunted by having to end the Time War by annihilating both her own people and the Daleks in order to save everything else. In that instance, though, it could be seen as necessary. Here, it’s simply petty and mean and vindictive–all of the things that the Doctor should never be. “Never cruel or cowardly”, to quote another bit of the mythos. The grave misread on that moment is a strong signifier that the production team has lost its way, has forgotten what it is that makes this character and this series stand apart from all the others.
It feels fundamentally like DOCTOR WHO has been replaced by a pod person version of itself, a thing which, on the surface, looks and sounds and smells like DOCTOR WHO, but which has had all of its heart and empathy and emotion drained away and discarded. I felt legitimately insulted by what I was watching, for maybe the first time since the darkest era of the show back in the mid-1980s. I didn’t hate it per se, but only because I can’t seem to find the emotional engagement with it enough to have that much of a response. It’s like eating a big meal of air–it feels like you’ve supped for a minute, but there isn’t actually anything there.
I hate to say it, but I’m ready for a change. It really cannot come soon enough.