Tuesday 16 November 2021

Reviews in Time & Space: Doctor Who: Flux Chapter Three - Once, Upon Time

Doctor Who: Flux Chapter 3 -  Once, Upon Time

If there's one thing that can be said about Doctor Who: Flux, it's that it's nice to have regular cliffhangers back isn't it? At the end of War of the Sontarans the Doctor faced a rather sticky situation as Swarm was seconds away from "unleashing the full force of time" through Yaz and Vinder. On a planet she doesn't recognise and against an enemy she can't even remember, things were not looking good. Of course, only being episode two of six (as well as seeing the next episode preview immediately after the end credits) does cut into the tension from an audience perspective a little bit. We're now at the halfway point of the series with Once, Upon Time - another episode solely penned by Chris Chibnall and this time directed by Azur Saleem.

The Doctor faces the MoriRemembering the Division

With time completely against her, the Doctor makes the ultimate gamble and throws both her friends and herself into the time storm. It may give her the opportunity to think of a way to save them, but in the meantime time is coming apart - and overexposure to the storm would mean them soon joining it.

Hidden in their own respective timelines, the Doctor, Yaz, Dan and Vinder become lost in memories - past, present and future. For the Doctor this proves an opportunity to learn more about her forgotten "Fugitive Doctor" incarnation, who she sees attempting to reclaim the temple of Adraposs from Swarm and Azure in the path. Elsewhere, a lone woman named Bel travels what's left of a universe ravaged by the Flux - dodging the likes of Daleks and Cybermen all in the search of someone.

Vinder's storyDon't blink Yaz

At the end of the previous episode there was the faint hope that Once, Upon Time might finally be the episode to shed some light on Swarm and Azure – two characters we've been following since the very beginning of Flux and have been teased as some of the Doctor's greatest enemies, yet we still know very little about. Sadly that hope is dashed within mere minutes of the episode though, with the entire thing taking place in literal seconds after the episode cliffhanger. When all has finally been resolved, Swarm has a few choice words and then the pair disappear to fight another day. While Once, Upon Time may have plenty of other elements to fill up its run time, it's beginning to get a little frustrating how shrouded in mystery these characters are when there's only half of the series left. The fear that there just isn't going to be enough time to do everything to a satisfying conclusion is beginning to creep in, especially with Once, Upon Time also revealing that there are plenty of other mysteries in Flux to throw out there.

So what we have instead is another episode with some commendably lofty ambitions, providing some much needed backstory to the various components of Flux through the lens of fractured time. Though we get glimpses of the characters who were actually present for these events, the set up is so that they can mainly be played by the core cast. It's a clever idea and actually beneficial to many of the actors, since they get to play their "characters" with personalities that aren't just very different but in some cases more interesting than their actual ones. However unlike the previous episodes, Once, Upon Time is less a manic crash of various components but more of a slow burn without any real promise at the end of it. Like the Doctor we only experience snippets of these stories, snippets that often raise more questions than they answer. If the aim was to leave viewers just as frustrated as the Doctor when she was snatched out of the time storm then mission accomplished.

The Fugitive DoctorOld Swarm

So as time is thrown into chaos, the big surprise here is the look back into the Doctor’s time with “The Division” - with Jo Martin returning to reprise her incarnation of the character, now confirmed by the end credits to be known as the “Fugitive Doctor”. As expected Martin puts in an excellent performance with the material she’s given, but there’s something more than a little unsettling about her incarnation essentially being the “space cop” Doctor. Her dialogue (whether delivered through her or the 13th Doctor) has an air of authoritarianism, with her line of “on my command” coming off as particularly ill-fitting for the character. Of course this could all be the intention, but based on the little we already know about the Fugitive Doctor this doesn’t appear to be the case. We also see Yaz, Dan and Vinder as her team of Division operatives (Dan playing Karvanista in a clever, if obvious, little parallel) - all of who seem to have more drive and direction here than they do as their actual characters.

But don’t expect Once, Upon Time to shed any real light on what’s going on with Swarm because there’s only more questions to be raised. Swarm cryptically speaks of a battle raging between space and time, before we later find out that he might just be a pawn in yet another person’s game. Who is this mysterious woman that warns the Doctor that the Flux is because of her (played by Barbara Flynn and credited as Aswok?). 

Who is Aswok?Diane inside the Passenger

Given her overall treatment and development since her arrival on Doctor Who, it doesn't really come as any surprise that Yaz's snippets aren't anywhere near as engaging or interesting. That said, it is impressive that the show actually managed to remember that was in the police at one point (something that makes her an interesting parallel to the Doctor now but likely won't be exploited). It's unclear whether Yaz's home life being shown "out of order" is indicative of anything to come or just used to illustrate the time storm, but naturally expectations are low. While it's nice to check in with Yaz's home life every now and again, these scenes don’t tell us anything new.

Comparatively Dan's vignettes come off a lot better, but maybe that's just because he's still only been around for three episodes as opposed to Yaz's three years. Again these are mostly concerned around his homelife, expanding upon his relationship with Diane so that the impact is much greater when Swarm reveals that she's a prisoner within Passenger. Since Flux's stakes are a lot higher moments like this may seem like wasted time, but given how little we know about Dan it's a good place to slot them in without it intruding on the main story. Also thrown into Dan's memories are the reappearance of Joseph Williamson, who continues to be peppered throughout Flux without any real explanation as to how or why. That said, both the past and future are being played with here so it can’t be too long before we get some genuine answers on this.

Dan and DianeVinder and the Grand Serpent

But other than learning a bit more about the forgotten life of the Doctor, the main aim here is to finally shed some light on Vinder. From his story we learn of his military history, eventually stationed in the middle of nowhere on Observation Outpost Rose because he dared to speak up. There's not only the great tragedy in seeing how Vinder wound up where he is now, he's also faced to live through it again – clearly distressed when having to see the moment he sealed his fate. Given the amount of publicity there was behind Jacob Anderson's casting one could have easily expected Vinder to linked to the main story in a big way, but based on what was presented here he's just another innocent bystander brought along for the ride. In some ways that's a good thing – Doctor Who has been in short supply of recurring non-Earth based humans and even if he's not an official companion, it's a different perspective to be brought to the TARDIS for once (just how does he know what a TARDIS even is anyway?). On the other, it can't help but feel a little underwhelming when it's nothing out of the ordinary. In these vignettes we get to see Yaz in another more authoritative role as Vinder's former commander, as well as the Grand Serpent who suspiciously (but more than likely just coincidentally) resembles a more human-like version of Swarm. By the end of the episode it may seem as though Vinder's time with the Doctor is done, but he'll almost certainly back – being given direct contact with the Doctor is a pretty exclusive club after all.

What also doesn't help Vinder's case is that over on the other side of the coin, Bel's story is considerably more engaging. Racing across the galaxy all in the name of love, Bel dodges Daleks and battles Cybermen as we see the destruction the Flux has caused first hand. It's a simple story and requires the viewer to accept some things for the sake of convenience (like how useless a platoon of Cybermen are against a single human with a hand blaster), but as a means of showing the wider impact of the Flux it works well enough. It's something that was definitely needed, since the scope of the Flux's impact is completely at odds with how personal a story this is proving to be for the Doctor. While it's inevitable that we'll see Vinder and Bel reunited by the end of the series, how much adventuring we'll see from her in the meantime is another question entirely. Now that Vinder's left the Doctor, could she be picked up by the team blissfully unaware of their connection with him? As much as I'd like to see it, there is the worry that bringing in yet another character could muddy the waters when there's already ones established that Flux hasn't really done anything with yet.

Bel's storyThe Cybermen attack

All that leaves is the appearance of a lone Weeping Angel, which seems to be equal parts a tease for the next episode and promotion for The Edge of Reality video game. With Flux so centred around time there's real potential to explore just what the Weeping Angels are, but at the same time it's the simplicity behind them that makes them so effective in the first place. A Weeping Angel loose in the TARDIS is a great idea for a cliffhanger, but watching one pilot it comes across as a little silly. Prior to that though watching it stalk Yaz throughout time adds a nice bit of tension to her otherwise forgettable scenes, which will hopefully continue into the next episode to give her some much needed spotlight.

Three episodes in and Flux continues to shine when it comes to the visual aspect though, with Bel's journey across the cosmos and Vinder's return home to a ravaged planet two particular highlights in an episode which really strived to make the show look epic. Some of the more minor elements aren't without their criticisms though, with the brief appearance of some rather wonky CGI Daleks taking you out of the moment at the very beginning. The use of CGI models wasn't so much the problem (good luck getting a bunch of physical props over that terrain), but rather the finer details like the shape and texture of them. Meanwhile elements like them rotating at the neck bin rather than just the dome were downright bizarre. Given how good Flux looks alongside the conditions the production team have made it in it seems a little unfair to criticise such a minor point in the episode, it just seems a little strange that the BBC don't have better Dalek models on hand for moments such as this.

A Dalek patrolVinder's home world

Much like the series premiere Once, Upon Time is another episode that can't be faulted for its ambition, though just how successful the concept's jump from paper to screen was is a bit more questionable. Bold as the attempt to explain a number of different plot threads though fractured time and the core cast may be, the episode seemed less about answers and more about leaving the audience just as confused as the cast. At this point Flux continues to be asking more questions than it's answering, which is potentially a real problem when this is the last chance Chibnall will have to explain the mysterious of The Timeless Children in a "full" series. Next week however will be the proper return of arguably the most popular monster from modern-era Doctor Who, as audiences are warned not to blink once more in Village of the Angels.

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