Doctor Who: Tremendous Assistant Resonates Depth, Intimacy, Sweetness

by thethreepennyguignol

Alright, then.

This week’s episode of Doctor Who, War of the Sontarans, is a game of…three halves, actually, with the main cast split over seperate storylines, which makes sense what with time being all buggered up the way it is. As we get into the Flux season, it seems like the show is trying to balance a season-long throughline and major plot (that has just a few episodes to build and resolve, as opposed to the usual season-long oblique references and slow-burn of previous arcs), as well as giving us episode-encompassing stories seeking to celebrate some really great Who villains.

And that’s exactly what we get here: the Doctor and company end up in the midst of the British end of the Crimean War, which is actually being fought against Sontarans this time around, before Dan gets flung back to present-day Liverpool where the Sontarans are in the process of solidfying their invasion of the planet for good.

And these stories provide the immediate meat of the episode, two of the three halves that make up this story as a whole, and bloody hell, they’re really good. I want to start with the Doctor in the Crimean War, mainly because this episode prominently features Mary Seacole as a supporting character; as many of you know, I accidentally got a degree in history a few years ago, and one of the people I did quite a bit of study on was Mary Seacole. I don’t want to get too academic or diversionary in this review, but I would like to encourage you all to check out this (free!) version of Mary Seacole’s autobiography, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands – I was only meant to cover a chapter for a presentation in class one time, and I ended up devouring the whole thing. It’s genuinely fascinating, and very readable given that it came out more than a hundred and fifty years ago.

Which has nothing to do with this actual review, so let me get back to it: if there’s one thing that has marked out Whittaker’s run on this show, it’s the downright luxurious cinematic mastery of the way her seasons have looked, and this is no different. It feels like real effort has gone into not just re-creating this times and places, but in conceptualizing what science fiction characters might look like against those backdrops. The Sontaran uniform, weaponry, armour, all of it feels era-appropriate in a retro-futurism kind of way that I’m obsessed with. Somebody had a really great time putting the look of this historical sci-fi together, and it shows. Add to that the stunning cinematography, and some genuinely great special effects, and Flux feels like the most visually ambitious and utterly un-ropey season of the show yet.

I’m not a huge fan of the Sontarans in general, but for an episode like this, with just an hour to get so much done, I think it makes sense to pull on a villain with such a one-note approach; there’s no confusion about what they’re here for, no need to do much introduction other than to remind us that they’re war-mongering potatoes who must just be the most absurdly fun characters to write for given the deliciously silly shit you can put in their mouths. But seeing the Doctor team up with an iconic historical figure is always fun, but the way that this episode brings Mary Seacole (as played with enormous warmth and wit by Sara Powell) in and finds places to draw comparison between her and the Doctor make it pop even more. Seacole, in this iteration, is curious, brave, and, more than anything, focused on the best way to resolve conflict and protect people she sees as under her care – not too far removed from the Doctor and her own protection of Earth. The two make for a great double-act this week, two errant Doctress-es scooping up every bit of information that they can to defeat a seemingly impossible enemy.

On the other end of time, Dan gets swept off back to Liverpool, where the Sontarans have formed a base to spread themselves through the rest of Earth’s timeline. I think that this was the weakest of the three plots this week, and I’m starting to realize just how little time we’re going to get with Dan to really explore his character. I don’t think John Bishop is doing a particularly bad job or anything (nor do I think he’s doing a particularly good one, either), but a lot of this episode hinges on him running around Liverpool by himself (or occasionally with his bickering parents), and he felt like a paper-thin character to put that weight on to. The return of Dog Soldier was a nice touch, and the plot wrapped up pretty nearly, but I’m hoping that future episodes that Dan is not left to carry whole plots on his own. I just don’t know him well enough for that yet, and it left this storyline feeling a bit shallow for me.

My favourite story of the week, though, is Yas’s. I’ve been a fan of Mandip Gill’s performance pretty much since she first arrived on the show, especially her brilliant chemistry with Jodie as the Doctor, and War of the Sontarans just brought that home for me in such a solid way: there’s a moment at the start of the episode, as Yas is about to be ripped off through time to God knows where, when, in the few seconds before she goes, Jodie tells her not to worry and that she’ll come for her. Yas, not even showing a hint of panic, just replies “promise?” and I swear it nearly took me out on the spot – the lesbian trust she has for the Doctor is there, and it feels justified. The sweetness and depth of their connection, the trust that Yas has in the Doctor, the trust that the Doctor has earned from Yas, is such a fundamental part of this run of seasons for me, and I like that Chibnall seems keen to pull on that as part of their storyline.

Yas ends up on the planet Time, where a malfunction seems to have led to the Flux happening in the first place, and seeing Mandip Gill out on her own here is a reminder of just how much work the show has put into her. Unlike Dan, who just hasn’t had the time to grow yet, Yas moves through her predicament in a way that feels so true to her character, from that little “what would the Doctor do” written on her hand, to the way she dives in to making things right as soon as she gets there, to the connection she instantly forges with the one other person trapped there with her. The way she talks, the way she moves, the way she carries herself and interacts with her surroundings feel totally true to her, and coming up with an assistant who can carry a plot so confidently on their own is no small feat. She’s the one dealing with the season-arc this week, and that’s a pretty big thing to put on someone who’s not the Doctor – that Yas makes it work as beautifully as she does is a credit to Mandip Gill and Chibnall in fleshing her out and making her feel like a fully-fledged person in her own right. I knew I loved Yas before this, but now I love her, and I can already feel her sneaking up my rankings of favourite assistants ever.

Overall, this is a great episode. It’s a near-perfect balance between the Flux longline arc and a more immediate bit of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey fun as the Doctor takes on the Sontarans again. It looks great, it sounds great, and it draws on the hard work that’s been put in to the brilliant Yas so far in Jodie’s run. If this game of three halves is anything to go by, then the rest of the season? I can hardly wait to get to it.

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(header image via Den of Geek)