Doctor Who: Flux Episode 3 Review – Once, Upon Time

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Doctor Who Series 13 Episode 3 Review

Warning: this Doctor Who: Flux review contains spoilers.

Well, I wasn’t expecting that.

I’d initially intended to start this review comparing ‘Once, Upon Time’to the deliberately ambiguous ‘Listen’, the Peter Capaldi serial that left whether the ‘monster’ even existed up to the audience. Then I thought, no, it’s actually more like ‘Can You Hear Me?’, co-written by Chris Chibnall and featuring the same kind of nightmare-slash-memory scenarios for the companions, underscored by a pair of creepy immortal villains.

After more consideration, though, those comparisons are mostly surface-level. For one thing, although a Weeping Angel gets tossed into the mix and their very nature tends to invoke a lot of jump scares, this episode isn’t particularly frightening. It is incredibly dreamlike, though. That combination of randomly flitting between different places and times of day without being fully aware that you’re doing so, reliving past occasions or encounters but with people from a different time in your life jarringly juxtaposed… Doctor Who has nibbled around the edges of dreamscapes before, but rarely for this much of the run-time.

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Before all that, though, we begin with Thaddea Graham as Bel. She’s a whip-smart survivor in the aftermath of the apocalypse, cadging rides from planet to planet in the ruins of a universe that, while not exactly ended by the Flux, is now a reality that many consider should be taken out behind the barn and put out of its misery. We see an all-too-brief glimpse of Daleks – gorgeous, coppery Daleks with flared hoods around the eyestalks that are bound to pop up again in next year’s specials – and learn via Bel that it’s not just the Sontarans making last-minute power plays. Even as the universe crumbles, the show’s Big Bads are making last-minute land grabs to rule over the dust.

After the titles – and a lovely little touch this series is that while the words ‘DOCTOR WHO’ spin gracefully off-screen, the subtitle “FLUX” breaks apart instead – we’re back in the Temple of Atropos, where Swarm is about to dose Yaz, Vinder and the remaining Mouri with pure, uncut time. To stop her friends from being dry-roasted by this, the Doctor thinks on her feet and completes the circuit, taking the place of the last missing Mouri and bringing the brunt of the work onto herself.

Suddenly, Team TARDIS are back outside the temple, apparently engaged in some kind of military operation to recapture the inner sanctum. It’s not clear, least of all to the Doctor herself, if she’s been deposited into some kind of alternate history or if we’ve skipped far into the future and missed out on some kind of lengthy training montage where the gang regrouped, kitted up and got ready to take on Swarm and Azure. (The clues are there, but we’ll get to that…)

The explanation for what now happens to the companions is pure, glorious technobabble even by Doctor Who standards, as the Doctor attempts to ‘hide’ Yaz, Vinder and Dan inside their own timestreams, declaring that their memories, “past, present and future” will offer them the most protection from the ravages of time. (Or should that be the Ravagers of Time, given that’s the collective name for Swarm, Azure and their kin?) It’s twaddle with tenure, though – the last time we saw inside someone’s timestream it was the Doctor’s, while Clara and the Great Intelligence waged a war of attrition within.

The reason this works is that ‘Once, Upon Time’ uses what’s happening to the companions as a means to tell character vignettes and reveal more about who these people are, rather than focusing on the timey-wimey trouble behind it all. Let’s start with Yaz, as her scenes are the briefest and weakest of the three. Maybe it’s because this is Mandip Gill’s third year as a companion and so we’ve already seen quite a bit of her home life, the encounter that led to her joining the police and much of what drives Yasmin Khan to travel through time and space. Whatever the reason, we don’t really get any new insights about her here.

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In fact, Chris Chibnall seems to know this is the case, as he decides to add a Weeping Angel to proceedings; one firstly stalking Yaz’s patrol car and then later manifesting via the game Sonya’s playing. The way it clambers out of the TV strongly evokes Amy’s first encounter during ‘The Time of Angels’. Yaz is comparatively rubbish at not blinking and the Angel’s in her living room almost immediately, but she’s able to give her sister’s console a good kicking and that seems to get rid of it. Not much new for Yaz, all told, and not much new for the Weeping Angels either.

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Dan fares somewhat better. To begin with, we get a sweet scene of him with him and Diane after he surprises her with a coffee, only to become all bashful when she leaps on the opportunity to get a bit closer to him. Time and space are shifting all around them, but we’ve already seen similar handiwork from the Flux, so at first it’s not easy to tell what’s going on. Dan does clue us in that this is a memory when he asks “hang on, have we done this before?” though, so it’s probably safe to assume he was recalling a real stroll around Liverpool with Di in a moment that’s since been corrupted.

Once we know that these are relived moments, what happens next becomes very interesting in hindsight. Dan suddenly finds himself back-to-back with Joseph Williamson in the tunnels under Liverpool, where the embattled eccentric is wielding a laser pistol and fending off some unseen foes. If this is also part of Dan’s timestream, we’re getting a glimpse at a future scene – one that will presumably play out at some point before Flux is done.  

Of the companions, it’s Vinder whose memories are the most insightful. We get a peek at his time in the military – more specifically, his appointment to attend the Grand Serpent (a delightfully malicious turn by Craig Parkinson, who Den of Geek regulars might recognise from Line of Duty) and the political corruption he bears witness to during his first day on the job.

Vinder is clearly deeply uncomfortable having to revisit this day, although it’s worth noting that his shame seems to stem from the minute he obeyed the Grand Serpent’s order to turn off the surveillance system, rather than his decision to be the whistleblower. It’s this insistence upon doing the right thing that sees Vinder exiled to the observation base where we found him at the start of Flux, and it’s a simple but effective set-up for this noble, yet remorseful soldier.

Before moving onto the Doctor, it’s worth exploring how these scenes are structured a little more, because they’re not exactly flashbacks. In any other episode, they probably would have been precisely that – the actors that we see playing the likes of Vinder’s Commander and Yaz’s policing partner would have been in those minor roles at all times.

Chibnall, though, makes an interesting and worthwhile choice here. By inserting the main cast into these parts, it gives them each a chance to play against type, pushing the boundaries of what the regulars get to do week on week. Jodie Whittaker’s turn as an indignant, satsuma-deprived police officer was a short-lived treat, and you can tell how much John Bishop enjoyed getting to be fully up-to-speed in a way Dan rarely is, running around with guns and bantering with the rest of the squad. Mandip Gill portraying an icy, disapproving army officer whose disdain for Vinder’s recklessness is great, too. Using the conceit of connected timestreams in this way adds an extra edge to these surreal scenes and gives the actors a chance to stretch themselves at the same time – it’s good stuff. 

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When it comes to the Doctor’s own timestream, events get significantly meatier – although, if you’re the sort of fan who tries to roll under the sofa and away whenever the Timeless Child era is mentioned, Chibnall is holding the door open for you this week. The clues were there, most notably the look of the weapons and uniforms they’re wearing, but it’s when Jodie Whittaker looks into a mirror and sees Jo Martin staring back that we get confirmation. This is the first raid on the Temple of Atropos, a clash between the Ravagers and the Time Lords that has left Swarm seeking revenge in the here-and-now.

The show’s continuity has always dabbled with the notion of the ‘Dark Times’ that get namedropped here, usually as a shorthand for what reality looked like before the Time Lords created the Web of Time and a lot of the more powerful, monstrous species like the Eternals and the Great Vampires were defeated or exiled. (The recent cross-media Doctor Who event Time Lord Victorious has been using this period of anti-history as its stomping grounds, in fact.)

And now… here’s the Doctor, or rather a Doctor, reluctantly participating in an assault that will remove the threat of the Ravagers in order to earn her freedom from The Division. Karvanista’s also there, and although we don’t get a glimpse of the rest of the team, it’s fair to say that though he’s unlikely to be romping around as one the Doctor’s wingmen, the likes of Rassilon are watching this final campaign with interest.

It’s true that this glimpse into Gallifrey’s early days doesn’t rewrite canon anything like as much as the notion of the Timeless Child. Nonetheless, there are going to be fans disgruntled by the notion that the Doctor is legitimately here at all, front and centre, yet again presented as one of the most important figures in the entire history of the Time Lords and the universe as a whole. No wonder the Master went bananas.

Clued in on a solution by her own past and with replacement Mouri summoned to repair the damage to the temple, the Doctor is booted back out to reality. It’s not a direct route, though, as she next appears in what looks like a damaged spaceship; something that might well be an allegory for time itself. The mysterious figure she meets here (credited as Awsok, played by Barbara Flynn) seems entirely neutral on the matter of the universe ending but rather critical of the Doctor on a personal level. We get more clarification that the Flux is a weapon, but this unexpected new player mostly raises many new questions to replace the ones we’ve only just had answered.

Back on Time, it’s something of a stalemate situation. Swarm and Azure have Diane trapped in a Passenger – the same way they held hostages last time around – and seem content that the damage done by unfettered time means it’s game over for linear causality, choosing to depart along with their prisoners rather than stick around. With nothing else to be done at the temple, Team TARDIS choose to do the same.

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Vinder is dropped off on what remains of his homeworld where he vows to reunite with Bel, suggesting that neither of them are out of the picture just yet. Along with Awsok, the Ravagers’ next steps, Dan’s future encounter with Joseph Williamson and the aftermath of the Flux, we’ve still got plenty of pieces in play moving into the second half of the run.

Next week, though, it’s the Weeping Angels, and while having one leap out of Yaz’s phone may seem a bit sudden (it’s a trick they pull off in the mobile title The Lonely Assassins) I found this cliffhanger to be a lot more intriguing than the last two. Threatening your main characters with immediate destruction every week only gets you so far, especially when you immediately show them alive and well in the ‘Next Time’ trailer. How are they going to get a Weeping Angel out of the TARDIS, though? For that matter, why does it want to take them for a joyride in the first place? Hopefully we’ll get some satisfying answers in next week’s ‘Village of the Angels’. Until then, some speculation is in order, so in the immortal words of Richard O’Brien: would you start the fans, please?

Doctor Who: Flux continues next Sunday the 21st of November on BBC One, BBC iPlayer and BBC America.

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