Before you read on, there are spoilers ahead for this week’s review of Doctor Who: Flux. As episodes go, “Once, Upon Time” was a tad chaotic. If someone asked you to define what wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey meant, you could easily direct them to this episode.
Focusing on the positives. We’ll begin with the Doctor and her mission to discover the truth behind The Division. Long story short, they were first established during Series 12 as a top-secret, off-the-books Time Lord black ops agency, a subplot pre-dating William Hartnell, the first in the chronology of the Doctor’s regenerations that we know of. Unravelling this particular thread leads us to Gallifrey, the Timeless Child, and an origin story into how the Time Lords first achieved the ability to regenerate.
In a bid to escape Azure and Swarm in the Temple of Atropos, the Doctor Yaz, Dan, and Vinder dive into a time storm, which lands them stuck within their time streams. We’re going to dig deeper, so this is going to get complicated. I yearn for the simpler days when Doctor Who was easy to follow. The Doctor, Yaz, Dan, and Vinder are subsequently pulled out of the time storm and forced to replay key events throughout their lives.
We learn that Vinder became stationed in a deep-space outpost as penance for outing his superiors for criminal actions, while Yaz is terrorised by a lone Weeping Angel playing video games with her sister, and on the beat as a police officer.
Dan is sharing some tender moments with his love interest Diane, and later stumbles upon philanthropist Joseph Williamson in tunnels beneath 1820s Liverpool, or so we’d assume. Williamson is, once again, only around for a few minutes and then he’s gone.
We’re no further to understanding his role in events, or why he has a Sontaran pistol in his hand. As for the Doctor’s storyline, perhaps the strongest aspect of the episode, she’s caught in an event from her past that she does not remember. We learn this particular memory occurred during her days as an agent with The Division. The siege of the Temple of Atropos. Now the temple on the planet Time from “War Of The Sontarans” is beginning to make a tad more sense.
The Division defeat Swarm, Azure, and Passenger, known as the Ravagers (three episodes in and now we know their name), saving hostages within the temple from Passenger, the mysterious third member of the Ravagers who inexplicably turned up last week. Passenger is, according to Swarm, a walking, living prison with the capability to hold an infinite number of life forms inside them. Right, let’s just go with it.
It pains me on every occasion to write a bad review for an episode of Doctor Who. Jokes aside, I’m always striving to find the best from each episode weekly, and “Once, Upon Time”, had its moments. The Doctor/Division arc is an intriguing subplot to watch develop, Jo Martin and Craig Parkinson’s respective performances as the Fugitive Doctor and Grand Serpent are worthy of praise, to dippy Dan’s heart-warming back story of a past relationship, and Vinder and Bel’s connection across the universe.
The biggest problem, however, with “Once, Upon Time”, is the episode’s overall lack of coherency. For the most part, Episode 3 felt like a variety of half-crafted and underwhelming concepts stitched haphazardly together to form something vaguely resembling a story. Daleks and Cybermen, needless, save for a surprisingly touching conversation Bel shares with a downed Cyberman. There’s a small cameo from Barbara Flynn too as the mysterious Awsok, a dapper, fearsome woman with a startling home truth for Whittaker’s Time Lord.
We’re at the halfway point of Chibnall’s third series as showrunner, and I’m frustrated with his chaotic writing style and disappointed with the mixed results from his and the wider team’s hard work. I pause the episode periodically to rub my temples and attempt to get my brain back in gear before subjecting myself to more of the same.
I flit between a mixture of emotions throughout the episode, from puzzlement, boredom, and utter frustration. I’m left resting my head on my pad of paper full of review notes, silently despairing, a feeling I’ve not felt since the awful “Orphan 55” from Series 12.
“Once, Upon Time” does answer several crucial questions, including a surprise reappearance from Jo Martin as the Fugitive Doctor, in which we establish her connection to Whittaker’s Doctor’s past. We further discover why Vinder was stationed on the outpost in deep space, and Chibnall reveals the identity of the silent, hulking Passenger. Then there’s the revelation that the Flux was not accidental, but in fact, designed because of the Doctor.
By the credits, the Weeping Angels have hijacked the TARDIS. That’s a new one. Next week, we’ve got a creepy English village and the Weeping Angels are out in force. On paper, this sounds like a perfect Sunday night. As for the one just passed, it was not.
What do you think of Doctor Who: Flux so far? Give us your thoughts in the comment section below!