Doctor Who: Flux, Part 3 - ONCE, UPON A TIME Review - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Doctor Who: Flux, Part 3 - ONCE, UPON A TIME Review

Tony’s brain cells are scattered throughout time.
OK. So…

Everybody clear on what’s going on? Good, that’ll save us time explaining it.


OK, fine, see how you are?

If The Halloween Apocalypse was six or seven beginnings wrapped up in a big sausage-skin of what-the-heck, and War of the Sontarans was a relatively linear mind-melter with Sontarans on horses and temporal invasion-fronts, Once, Upon Time had all the potential to be a bit dull and cerebral and “Let’s all sit down and consider what we know so far.”

Suffice to say THAT didn’t happen!

Once, Upon Time is absolutely batfink crazy, splitting the storytelling into different timelines and lives, and explaining a lot more about everything we’ve thought we’ve known since The Timeless Children.

It gives us a pre-credit surprise Dalek sequence – very nice, if more or less tokenistic. It delivers huge (albeit long-distance) Cyber-armies on the march. It gives us a couple of minutes of more close-up Cyber-action, (and the fun of them falling sideways out of the way of their marching fellows any time they’re shot). And it also gives us a handful of creepy Weeping Angel moments, mostly via the flashes into a messed-up Yaz timeline. As such, the monsters in this episode are briefly featured, but they work to pep up what could otherwise have been a seemingly threat-lite episode.

While for the most part, flashbacks into parts of our New Fam’s lives are just interesting, some are very poignant, especially when we see the connection between Dan and Diane. Do we believe Dan’s story about being nearly married 15 years earlier, or does it sound like a far-fetched or made-up pseudo-memory? Hmm – thought for another episode, maybe.

The Yaz flashbacks push the story forward from this episode into the next one, with Weeping Angels seeming to stalk her and change the elements of her timeline.

Flashbacks into Vinder’s timeline give us a lot more detail about him than we’ve had to date (though that’s not exactly difficult, as we’ve had very little detail about him in the first two episodes). An ace pilot, he was trusted with protection duty for the Grand Serpent (too much to hope he’s from the Manussan Empire, and the Grand Serpent’s actually the carrier of the Great Mara? Fine, yes, probably, let’s not get sidetracked or we’ll never get out of here alive).

Joyously, we also get introduced to Bel (Thaddea Graham), who frankly, if we’re casting about for spin-off series characters, gets our vote. She’s revealed to be Vinder’s partner, and carrying his child. Yes, naturally, as we speak, Twitter’s going into meltdown at the idea that the baby might in fact be the timeless child, the Doctor herself. Annoyingly and wonderfully, that might make some sense – a child born of a universe in (ahem) flux both in time and space. Who knows how unusual she might be? #JustSayin.

Most of the really juicy stuff though happens when we go into the Doctor’s own timeline. Naturally.

Because particularly with this Doctor, we go back not to when she wore leather jackets and came from the North, not to when she wore floppy hats and a hugely long scarf, not to when she wore green velvet and a frilly shirt (side-note – would anyone else kill to see the 13th Doctor in some Pertwee gear before the end? Throwing down her Venusian aikido skills? Just us?), but to when she was the presumed pre-Hartnell Jo Martin Doctor, working for the Division.
And ohhh so much happens that needs processing. A previous-incarnation Swarm and Azure have control over the Temple of Atropos. The Mouri establish themselves as the seeming guardians and arbiters of temporal flow. We see Swarm and Azure captured, and – even more importantly than seeing the Jo Martin Doctor again, or understanding that the 13th Doctor mostly sees the team members she led back in her Division days as members of her current Fam, or that one of those team members was Karvanista (Seriously, how long has that dog-man been around in what we presume is one body?) – are the mentions of what the Temple of Atropos and the planet of Time were intended to do: to bring an end to the Dark Times.

Every Classic Who fan perks up at that, because of course the Dark Times are established in the Gallifreyan mythos, and the fact that our Doctor had no previous memory of a planet called Time could play into that.

As much as anything else, the glimpses into the Doctor’s remote past (or potentially her alternate history) when she worked for the Division show us a lot more about the ‘Ruth’ Doctor and her relatively War Doctor efficiency and tone. Peculiarly of course, much of what we see Jodie Whitaker act in Once, Upon Time is not her 13th Doctor, but the tone and actions of the Ruth Doctor, translated into a now-familiar body. As such, it’s slightly depressing to report that the episode shows us some of Whitaker’s best Doctoring in her three series so far.

Matched with the Whitaker-playing-Martin Doctoring though, there is some quality ‘real’ 13th Doctoring. Her introductory monologue is akin to Peter Capaldi’s talking to himself in Heaven Sent, and delivered just as wonderfully. Her irritation with the humans – with Yaz and Dan particularly when they try to challenge her plans – is a riff on the 13th Doctor under stress we saw in The Haunting of Villa Diodati. But it’s also the mark of a 13th Doctor coming to the end of her time and her tether, filled with secrets and overly sensitive to questions from the friends she’s keeping them from.

There are also some glorious opportunities for all the actors to inhabit different roles in this story as the memory avatars or timeline-tweaks. Watching John Bishop sling weapons like a good ’un, and Mandip Gill as a high-ranking military type, is fun enough. But watching Jodie Whitaker as the chattering copper friend of Yaz is frankly sublime.

The solution the Doctor finds to the drama that Swarm and Azure create – riffing on the past she hadn’t remembered – is a little underpowered and low in drama in itself, but what it costs her is pretty powerful. We hear that spending more time in the remnants of her own timeline will damage her, and like the Fifth and Twelfth Doctors, she ploughs on anyway because right at that moment, ploughing on is more important to her than her life.

In 13’s case, finding out more about who she was and where she comes from is almost roaringly important. It’s at thing worth making the bargain for. There will be consequences to her decision, and we know they’re coming. And in that moment, when she chooses to understand more and live less, she knows and accepts it too.

But knowing is fundamental, and powerful, and she has no idea if she can have the knowledge any other way. Even when returned to Atropos, her friends saved, the Flux seemingly neutralised, she screams to be put back, to learn a little more, even at the expense of her own life.

But before that, just when you think the episode has given you enough treats – there’s Barbara Flynn.

She only has a small part in this episode, but wow, the story-hooks. The Flux, it seems, is not the natural event we’ve been led to believe. It’s been created and placed in the universe deliberately, because the universe is ending – and somehow it’s the Doctor’s fault.

Naturally, Twitter is buzzing with questions about who Barbara Flynn plays – there’s talk of the Black Guardian (which would fit with some of her tone), and the White Guardian (which would fit with her hair), but hey, who knows, with everything breaking down, maybe there’s been a merging of Guardians and she’s the previously unseen Grey Guardian (You heard it here first, so when it comes to nothing, feel free to forget that). Advance press for future episodes names her character Aswok. Make of that – at this point – whatever you like.

And just at the end, having had them seeded into the story through the alternative Yaz timeline and even through the Doctor’s adventure in the shredding vortex of time, the Angels invade the Tardis and take it over. The throwback riff of “The Angels have the Tardis” (rather than the “phonebox” from Blink) is cute, but clearly, these are Angels with an agenda – leading us straight into the Village of the Angels.

Will Once, Upon Time be an episode you’ll return to time and time again after initial broadcast?

Actually, yes, it might. It had plenty of opportunities to drop the ball, to be pedestrian or talky, but it’s actually studded with surprise, innovation, throwbacks, push-forwards, and real, engaging storylines. The return of Jo Martin’s Doctor, the historical storyline from the Doctor’s presumed past, and some of Jodie Whitaker’s best Doctoring to date makes it eminently rewatchable. Even when we eventually know and understand what’s going on, rather than simply having endless hungry questions to ask, there’s every chance that this mad, fragmented episode that shows both presumably the remote past of our Doctor and her increasingly desperate present will have enough rawness and punch to pull you back to watch it one more time.

At the halfway point in the Flux series, there’s yet to be a clunker, meaning it could well be the best – and best-regarded - series of Chris Chibnall’s Doctor Who.

The point is that in its freshness, its energy, and its building of a whole new history for a series with a LOT of canon already behind it, it could well be one of the best overall series of Doctor Who in the 21st century so far.

Tony lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at

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