Doctor Who – Flux Chapter 3: Once, Upon Time (S13E03) Review
Where WAR OF THE SONTARANS saw Chibnall in more or less traditional DOCTOR WHO story-telling mode, ONCE, UPON TIME sees him throw the storytelling rulebook out the window for a crazy-paving time-fractured romp through the rewriting of Whovian lore. While I’m no fan of the Timeless Child arc so far (I’m stuck on the Fugitive Doctor’s possession of a TARDIS in the form of a Police Box), this episode takes it from ponderous to portentous and amps up the anticipation of what is yet to come.
With time running wild and her friends trapped in the Mouri’s temple, the Doctor has no choice but to leap – as Clara Oswald once did – into the timestream itself, scattering her friends to across time and space. But other forces are at work in the timestream and soon the Doctor comes face to face with a very unexpected, but familiar, countenance.
ONCE, UPON TIME is all a bit discombobulating at first and it takes its time in sorting out a rhythm that the audience can keep up with. There’s a palpable struggle here between the writer and the written as Chibnall desperately tries to herd his narrative cats towards his ultimate destination. Initially, the decision to open with an entirely unfamiliar character and setting – Bel (Thaddea Graham), somewhere in the Dalek Sector – feels like a misstep yet although it all makes sense by the episode’s end, Bel has endeared herself to the audience long before then. Before we reach then, if indeed the concept of then still holds any value, we’re thrown hither and thither through the lifetimes of Yas, Vinder and Dan, briefly connecting and then disassociating with alarming regularity. Throughout it all, The Doctor tries desperately to break through to deliver a message of hope and a potential rescue, all the while working on a plan to foil The Ravager’s plans.
Chibnall pulls out all the stops here, not just by deploying the (somewhat Nerfed) Cybermen but bringing in a surprisingly unheralded appearance from the Daleks which still fails to be the biggest surprise waiting for us in the swirling maelstrom of past, present and future. In between securing the safety of her friends, it’s The Doctor’s experiences with her own “memories” that provide the episode with its impact as she finds herself back in her Division days, fighting alongside Karvanista and wearing the face of the Fugitive Doctor.
ONCE, UPON TIME is a chaotic episode, to be sure, and at times it gets away from itself, metatextually paralleling the temporal cataclysm at the heart of its story but there’s so much energy from the lead and guest casts firing on all cylinders that by the end, it’s a breathless rollercoaster of a ride that advances both the story of The Flux and the wider Timeless Child arc and feels epic and exciting in a way the series hasn’t really managed before in the 13th Doctor’s time.
There are still some clunky, clumsily scripted character moments where you might uncharitably suspect Chibnall’s raided his scratchpad for snippets of dialogue or little scenes excised from previous drafts of previous episodes and repurposed here but for every clanger dropped, there are multitudinous sweet carillons, not least of all the much-needed fleshing out of Vinder’s backstory and the poignant truth of Bel’s connection to everything that’s been going on. It turns out overcrowding of the TARDIS wasn’t the root of the problem in previous years, because I absolutely want to see more of Yas, Dan, Vinder, Bel and Karvanista in the episodes to come. Sure, Swarm and Azure still feel a little pantomimey with all their grandstanding and gnomic crypticism and Joseph Williamson’s involvement is crying out for elaboration but there are three episodes left and for the first time, I find myself having a little faith in Chibnall’s plan.
Overall, there’s a definite feeling of narrative vertex as ONCE, UPON TIME draws to a close and all seems – at least temporarily – resolved as Swarm and Azure’s assault on the Mouri is thwarted and the Doctor is reunited with her friends but the moment of blissful stillness atop this storytelling lift hill doesn’t last long and before we know it we’re barrelling down the track into the second half of DOCTOR WHO: FLUX and confronting the terrifying worst-case scenario that the 10th Doctor went to so much trouble to avoid: the Angels finally have the phone box. Every cliffhanger this season has topped the one before it so colour me hyped for VILLAGE OF THE ANGELS. I may not end up liking where this Timeless Child/ Division arc lands but for now, for the first time, I’m travelling hopefully, something I haven’t done with The Doctor since somewhere around halfway through season 11.