Doctor Who – ‘Once, Upon Time’ Review

I’m sorry, I’m normally very good at keeping up with things, but you lost me quite early on.

Well that was a divisive one. After airing two episodes that met pretty much unanimous acclaim (an extreme rarity in the Chibnall era) the third episode of the Flux saga has been met with a more mixed response. I’m part of the fanbase that really enjoyed it. It was all over the place, but intentionally so this time. Though at this point, half way through the series, I understand that people are expecting some answers to the myriad mysteries that Chibs has given us so far. Instead, we got loads more questions. But they sure are interesting.

So, after last week’s excellent cliffhanger, I’ll admit that the Doctor gets out of the situation in a very convenient way. It’s a little disappointing after the stakes were raised so well last week, but it also felt very Moffat-y, for better or worse, and it’s always welcome when something grounds this iteration of the Doctor in the style of the past. And if this episode had Steven Moffat’s name all over it? Well it’d be just as divisive, but you’d be a hell of a lot less surprised.

The gang are lost in time, reliving memories from their lives. The Doctor is reliving a memory she doesn’t even remember having – back when she was seemingly undertaking missions for the secretive ‘Division’. Out of all of Chibnall’s recurring plot elements, the stuff with the Division and the Fugitive Doctor is by far the most successful. And this episode sees the long-awaited return of Jo Martin’s forgotten incarnation of the Time Lord. I’m glad they’re actually doing something with the character, as I feared they might drop her after the negative fan backlash to the whole Timeless Child thing. But they’re doubling down, and you have to respect that.

So the Fugitive Doc led a mission to retake Atropos and defeat Swarm and Azure – and this is the memory the now-Doctor is stuck reliving. I’m guessing this is one of their first meetings, and was the event that led to Swarm being trapped in the first place. But how long ago that was is unknowable at the moment. The Doctor is over 2000 years old (that she remembers) and it’s crazy to think there’s a whole period of her history that even she doesn’t remember. It also confirms that she was a hell of a lot more gun-friendly back in the day. 

Elsewhere, Dan and Yaz are bouncing around through time, from Liverpool to Sheffield. They’re even experiencing a few things that have yet to happen. Dan encounters the mysterious mine owner that we’ve seen a few times (another mystery awaiting an answer) and Yaz faces off against the Weeping Angels. There’s an especially fun moment where Yaz meets one of the Angels in a game, before is springs forward from the television. Weeping Angels are getting kind of overdone at the moment, so major kudos to the writers for coming up with a few new and interesting ways to spook the audience.

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New character Vinder gets some more stuff to do this episode as well. Trapped in his own memories, we learn how he ended up stationed at the arse-end of nowhere after blowing the whistle on his cartoonishly evil boss. But it’s all played with excellence by Jacob Anderson, and it’s just really cool finding out about his civilisation and life before the Flux. It’s some nice world building, and left me wanting to know more about his planet and life as a pilot. It doesn’t hurt that he’s the coolest character we’ve seen on the show in some time, situated somewhere between and outer-space gunslinger and a Maverick in Top Gun. He’s definitely filling the role of cool, handsome, space-faring badass that Captain Jack left. I’m guessing Big Finish already have him signed up to record hundreds of hours of extra stories.

We also meet an entirely new character in this episode, called Bel. We first encounter her in the days after the Flux has destroyed her planet. She’s hiding in the woods and trying to avoid a Dalek patrol. After that, she ends up in space facing off against some Cybermen. Whoever she is, she quickly establishes herself as competent and more than capable. It’s revealed as the episode goes on that she is pregnant, and her mission is to return to her partner, who the final minutes of the episode confirm to be Vinder.

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Now, there’s a pretty big rumour going around that these two might end up being the Doctor’s parents. And like everything in this community, the fanbase is split. On one hand, a lot of people don’t want to know more about the Doctor’s past, they want it left a mystery. Well thanks to the Timeless Child twist, the damage is done. Besides, I’m not sure I’d even mind if these characters ended up being the Doc’s parents. They’re a cool, daring, space-exploring duo. I do think this theory is unlikely, but it’s been fun seeing it take root in the fandom (the theory that Claire in next week’s episode is Clara is another inescapable one).

So the episode didn’t really advance the overall plot of Flux, but it gave us some much-needed time with this season’s companions – and even Yaz needed a bit more development. It was also incredibly well done, with the bouncing about between time periods feeling a lot like ‘The Constant’, that famous episode of Lost. There were also several surreal moments, be that in terms of imagery or content, and I really do applaud the team for trying something so big and bold (especially when you consider so much of this must have been a pain to shoot in the middle of a pandemic). Some people are shitting on the CG, but I truly didn’t notice it. Apart from it being put together remotely, in some dreadful conditions (did you guys see the last two years??), I’m just too used to shonky CG in this show and literally couldn’t care less. Besides, I’m still riding high on the phenomenal CG on the Sontaran ship crash last week.

Overall, I thought it was great. I didn’t want it to end, which is the mark of a good episode. Yeah it’s confusing, and yes I agree that it has little rewatch value (which is gonna be a problem with Flux in general), but it was a thrilling hour of television. My opinion may change depending on the resolution we get to some of these mysteries, but right now, I can’t remember the last time I was this invested in the show.

 

Jack Bumby

 

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