“Once, Upon Time”
Doctor Who: Flux – Chapter Three
Written by: Chris Chibnall
Directed by: Azhur Saleem
Synopsis: On a planet that shouldn’t exist, in the aftermath of apocalypse, the Doctor, Dan, Yaz and Vinder face a battle to survive.
Adrift in a time storm as a result of last episode’s cliff-hanger, the Doctor and her companions find themselves thrown into glitched versions of their past, present and futures. Stripped down to its core, “Once, Upon Time” is simply a flashback episode, although Chibnall’s convoluted script adds unnecessary layers of mystery to disguise this fact. Rather than clearly explain that the characters are reliving moments of their past, he leaves it ambiguous by having all four actors appear in each other’s flashbacks and taking over the role of an existing character. For example, Yaz keeps popping up in Vinder’s flashback as multiple side characters just to confuse matters. It seems that this was done purely so he could feature Dan, Yaz and Vinder in the Doctor’s flashback to trick audiences into assuming it was a flash-forward, thus preserving the reveal that the Thirteenth Doctor has overlaid Jo Martin’s Fugitive Doctor in this retelling of events.
I was glad to see the return of the Fugitive Doctor as the character is one that desperately needs to be revisited and explored in greater detail, especially since she disappeared without much fanfare at the end of “Fugitive of the Judoon” – hopefully we will find out more about her in the remaining episodes of this serial. The Doctor’s flashback sequence was the most important part of this episode as it finally gave us some context behind the feud between the Doctor and the Ravagers (Swarm & Azure). A surprising amount of time was dedicated to revealing Vinder’s past and the reason behind his solitary isolation on the monitoring station in the middle of nowhere – a question I hadn’t really asked myself. I just assumed he was some arbitrary soldier unlucky enough to get the most mundane task in the galaxy. This episode certainly made him a more interesting side character and gave him his own motivations and story-arc.
The other main narrative strand of the episode was “Bel’s story” which provided the majority of the action with the return of both the Daleks and Cybermen, as well as giving us a much-needed glimpse at the post-Flux universe. Bel was a likeable enough character, although again it seemed like Chibnall was inventing mysteries where none were needed in regards to the identity of the object of her affection. Considering the overwhelming number of ongoing mysteries that are already waiting for answers, it seems counter-intuitive to create more – especially ones that aren’t really necessary. This episode represented the halfway point in this mini-series and it feels like we’re no closer to understanding what the Flux is, what the Ravagers are and how this all ties into the Time Lords and the Division. Chibnall’s script seemed a bit wishy-washy in regards to the answers it provided with a vague suggestion that time and space are at odds with each other, whilst relying on the newly introduced concept of the Mouri and the Temple of Atropos to explain the rules of the universe. I worry that the final explanation will be none the clearer when it eventually comes, waving away scrutiny with vague terminology and brand-new rules that have always been there.
Until now, Chibnall’s tenure as showrunner has been viewed as a ‘back to basics’ approach with an emphasis on simple straight-forward storytelling over the messy paradoxical sci-fi that Steven Moffat employed in his run. With this mini-series, Chibnall has channelled his inner-Moffat but has possibly over-reached in regards to the damage his story may cause to the series’ roots. I cannot help but feel that the whole ‘Timeless Child / Division’ reveal somewhat undermines the Doctor as a character, effectively reducing the thirteen regenerations that we’ve followed over the years into a false identity. It would be the same as finding out that Bruce Wayne was actually a Kryptonian that had his memories wiped so he could better assimilate into human society – once that box is opened, how does the character go back to being what they were originally? The DC Comics comparison is particularly apt as this storyline feels like Crisis on Infinite Earths, and I do wonder if the conclusion of this mini-series will see elements of Doctor Who lore rewritten and updated. What if the final scene is the Doctor resetting the entire universe and starting again from a new first regeneration, thereby rebooting the series from scratch. It’s unlikely, but then again, a few years ago I’d have said the same about pre-Hartnell regenerations…
Each episode of Doctor Who: Flux has been difficult to review because of the sheer amount of plot threads that are currently left open and unexplained. I have to admit that I do enjoy attempting to piece together all the clues to figure out what is going on, but there are frankly so many mysteries at the moment that it is increasingly easy to lose track of one. We have the odd floating house from last episode’s opener, Claire Brown (the time displaced stranger), Joseph Williamson (another time displaced stranger), this new mysterious woman (apparently named Awsok, although you’d only know that if you read the credits) and the very nature of the Flux itself. In terms of answers, we finally get a sense of who Swarm and Azure are and why they have a grudge against the Doctor and the Temple of Atropos, although it still feels a bit ill-defined. Clearly, this final mission against the Ravagers is what leads into the Fugitive Doctor absconding and adopting her Ruth Clayton persona; I really wanted Chibnall to focus more on this part of the story instead of introducing yet another omnipresent onlooker. It makes you wonder where all of these god-like beings have been the last fifty-odd years of adventures…
“Once, Upon Time” is tricky episode to review and it depends entirely on whether you enjoy solving these dense mysteries that are being set up, or if you prefer a clearer narrative that focuses on character over plot. Unlike last week’s “War of the Sontarans”, there is no part of this episode works on a stand-alone basis; it requires knowledge of the previous two episodes as well as the events of “Fugitive of the Judoon” and “The Timeless Children”. The episode eventually turned over its cards and revealed the mechanics behind its flashbacks and flash-forwards, but it felt like an unnecessary distraction from an already complicated storyline. Perhaps it would have been simpler to be upfront from the start and have the Doctor (and her companions) relive their memories in a more linear fashion without the out-of-place (and pointless) cameos from each other. At times, it felt like Chibnall’s script went out of its way to obstruct and obfuscate the audience on purpose, much like during “The Halloween Apocalypse” when a simple conversation would have resolved a lot of the confusion. While it remains to be seen whether the entire six-part epic will come together in the end, this episode felt designed to support the over-arching narrative rather than to be enjoyed on its own merits. While this style of storytelling can be overlooked on Netflix and Disney+ binge watches, it stands out a lot more on a weekly BBC schedule.
Score – ★★★ ½
Next Episode: “Village of the Angels”
Devon, November 1967. A little girl has gone missing, Professor Eustacius Jericho is conducting psychic experiments, and in the village graveyard, there is one gravestone too many. Why is Medderton known as the Cursed Village, and what do the Weeping Angels want?