Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but last night’s Doctor Who was a bit of a mess. Plotlines appearing and vanishing thick and fast, mystery upon mystery, questions fired as quickly as they were left unanswered — and the show’s quickly running out of time to prove it can pick up what it’s putting down. But here’s a twist: this time that mess kind of worked.
It really is kind of remarkable in so truncated a season as Flux is, how starkly some of Doctor Who’s most tried and true tricks can become apparent. If “Once, Upon Time” was more than one episode or a whole season away from something like “The Halloween Apocalypse” their similarities might not make for so inviting a contrast. Or at the least, perhaps what was so frustrating about one and much less frustrating about the other would feel harder to discern. Yet, here we are; two episodes on from a smörgåsbord of plot hooks blasted at you with an overload of spectacle, Doctor Who takes our heroes to the time-rich planet of Atropos to do much the same. Doctor, Yaz, Dan, and new friend Vinder are torn apart, not so much by physical distance, but a temporal one, as we learn a little bit about what brought them all here in the first place.
So yes, one thing that “Once” does borrow from Flux’s premiere is that messy feel, as we dance between the different pockets of time our heroes are flung into, but also back and forth between an entirely new thread with the mysterious Bel (Thaddea Graham), a survivor of the Flux who’s running across what’s left of the universe to find her true love. Arguably, it’s made even more confusing than “Halloween Apocalypse” at times as showrunner Chris Chibnall goes all Steven Moffat on us. He’s not just playing with different timelines and points in our characters’ personal histories, but flinging our heroes into the bodies of their past selves and others as we flit between them. Is this Yaz “our” Yaz, or is she flung into Vinder’s memory? Is the Doctor the Doctor, or a past self, as we see when Jo Martin’s Fugitive Doctor makes a special appearance? A lot is going on, both dense and yet not dense enough at times to really give us an inkling of whether or not we’ve learned enough about the Flux, Swarm, and Azure, and their real plans.
Then what does make “Once, Upon Time” and its twisty-turny, and very much timey-wimey, mess of narrative loops feel like more of a success than the season 13 premiere? Well, for a start, at least the vast majority of threads here build to a singular purpose. After the Doctor opens the Time Storm to avoid having Swarm make Yaz and Vinder vessels for the Mouri’s control of time itself — I hope you’re keeping a notepad of all the Proper Nouns this season, because you’ll need it — most of the episode, as surface-level “weird” it is, is actually relatively simple. The Doctor wants to reunite her friends after buying enough time for the Mouri to send more vessels to Atropos and along the way, we learn something about both her newest friend and the Doctor themselves. It’s a simple core that “Halloween Apocalypse” lacked as it layered new narrative threads and explosions on top of each other, and no matter how muddled “Once, Upon Time” gets with its time-twisting shenanigans, it provides a centre for the episode to keep coming back to.
Plus, learning about these characters is actually what works, even if ultimately what we know of the wider arc of the series is still left wide open. Sure, we know Swarm and Azure are working for a higher power beyond them (I hope you’re ready for three weeks of speculating if the Mysterious Old Woman is the Rani, the Valeyard, a new Master, or somehow all three), and their fight against the Doctor has happened before, so long ago it was in her “Fugitive” days. But we don’t really know as to why they’ve fought on such a scale that billions of beings have been affected by their conflict yet, outside of a nebulous philosophical battle between Space and Time itself. It’s grand stakes, at the least, but tempered with something much more personal. Getting to learn about Vinder’s backstory — to the point where we kind of know more about him than we know about Dan now — gave a human context to both the devastation of the Flux itself and offered further texture to his character. And perhaps, more importantly, we get to see another growing side of Whittaker’s Doctor.
Undercut throughout her usual hero-saving duty throughout “Once, Upon Time” is an element of the 13th Doctor only occasionally glimpsed in the last season: a yearning for knowledge that takes her to some vengeful, harsh places. It’s not just that the Doctor wants to know what’s going on with Swarm and Azure so she can stop them, or know what’s going on with the effects of the Time Storm so she can save her friends. She’s desperate to know because it ties into the past she was denied by the Time Lords themselves — and for all the Doctor told the Master last season that she was freed by knowing that there is more to their past than they had previously known, “Once” makes it explicitly clear how much that actually deeply frustrates this incarnation. That frustration manifests in turn as she becomes once again cold and commanding to her friends, vengeful in her desire to stop her enemies, and gaining a recklessness that threatens to not just endanger them, but her very self — perhaps laying the groundwork for a heavy price to be paid down the line.
And so finally, halfway in, Doctor Who: Flux has some interesting meat on its bones. Whether or not that meat will make for a satisfying meal by the end of the series still remains to be seen. But in finally providing a context for its stakes — and giving the Doctor a place in the fight more than just the fact that the Doctor fights bad guys — maybe, just maybe, Flux has found the focus it’s been missing so far. Sometimes there really is a method to the timey-wimey madness.
- Oh, it was lovely to see Jo Martin back, no matter how briefly! Hopefully, her connections to all this mean we can get a few longer appearances from her before the end of all this.
- As if there wasn’t already enough going on in this episode, it felt almost unnecessary to have Bel spend much of her thread throughout this episode being harangued by familiar threats in both the Daleks (… unconvincingly CGI’d in as floating pepperpots, as no one wants to trundle a Dalek across a forest) and the Cybermen. Still, if this is how you force your “let’s have an old monster show up!” indulgence into a season where it’d be really bizarre to shoehorn either of them in, this is the way to do it.
- Felt a bit weird that this was the episode to give the 13th Doctor a wardrobe upgrade, but hey, we’ll take a new coat when we can get it.
- We’ll have to see given how the threat of the Angel played into the Time Storm here, but it really does feel like “Village of the Angels” has the potential to be another “War of the Sontarans” in that’d be a siloed-off “standalone” in this sea of narrative connections — all the more frustrating after an episode like this. Fingers crossed that’s not the case!