Flux continues with a twisting tangle of strands that move the arc where it needs to be but make for an ultimately unsatisfying chapter
The recurring motif flowing through the publicity for Doctor Who: Flux has been a now familiar set of rainbow strands, twisting and turning around our heroes and villains in an explosion of colour. That hasn’t really related to the story itself up until now. It’s not, for instance, any sort of visual representation of the Flux itself. But with Once, Upon Time its meaning becomes clearer. There’s probably no better way of describing this third chapter than as a riotous tangle of different strands. It’s subplots go everywhere and everywhen, the narrative equivalent of a pair of earphones you find in your pocket.
If Flux is a journey, then Once, Upon Time is a complicated nest of roundabouts or serpentine spaghetti junction. A part of a long car journey that’s impossible to avoid on the way to your destination. Nobody wants to go there. It’s not even where you stop for an ice cream and a gawk at the world’s biggest ball of string. It’s just the bit where you keep your head down and plough on through.
Once, Upon Time is an episode it’s hard to imagine rewatching on its own in years to come
On one hand we find out what happened to Diane and also Karvanista’s secret that the Doctor’s wanted since the start of the season; we see the details of Swarm and the Doctor’s ‘dance’ across the universe in their previous lives, and we learn what the Temple of Atropos actually does. On the other, we meet Craig Parkinson’s Grand Serpent and Thaddea Graham’s Bel, and discover that Swarm and Azure are simply tools of some higher, darker, power; we meet Barbara Flynn’s mysterious Aswok; and a Weeping Angel seizes control of the TARDIS, setting the next episode in motion.
But for all the untangling and retying of various knots of plot, what this chapter of Doctor Who: Flux desperately lacks is focus. Halloween Apocalypse threw many balls into the air, and War of the Sontarans nudged the main arc on. But both told more or less complete subplots of their own too. Once, Upon Time, however, feels like an episode few will ever rewatch by itself. One that only exists to shuttle the viewer from one more satisfying episode to the next.
Picking up where we left off, the episode soon tours the lives and history of our heroes
The action kicks off right where we left it. The full power of the time vortex is about to flow through Yaz and Vinder in the Temple of Atropos. And like a household fuse in an industrial fuse box they’re going to burn out. It’s resolved with the type of cliffhanger cheat we used to get in the old days. In the reprise’s new edit the Doctor throws herself and Dan onto the other daises to help spread the load. From that moment we’re thrown into a tumbling washing machine of subplots, darting around time and space and in and out of the lives of our cast.
The Doctor revisits her days when she worked for the Divison and looked like Jo Martin. There she finds herself commanding the Time Lord assault on the Temple of Atropos aeons ago. We learn how Vinder came to be exiled on Outpost Rose, the only honourable man in a corrupt organization. We get some lovely scenes of Dan and Diane’s slow burning romance, just to underline what it means for her to fall into the Ravagers’ hands. And Yaz is stalked across time and space, no matter which memory she hides in, by a Weeping Angel.
Bel’s story, showing the Flux’s impact on the ground as the Doctor grapples with gods and demons, is one of the strongest elements
Some commentators have complained that Once, Upon Time is hard to follow, but each of its strands are very straightforward. As, too, is the odyssey of new character Bel, giving us a ground level view of being caught up in the post-Flux collapse. She battles to survives as Daleks, Sontarans and Cybermen battle for nothing more than the petty satisfaction of being last monsters standing. Yet what people have been grappling with is a very real issue with this chapter. It presents all these subplots in small slices, scattered across the episode, with few of them building to any kind of climax or resolution. It creates the overpowering impression is of a noisy mess in which nothing much actually happens.
And that’s despite this being an episode that complete redefines the Time Lords (again). In the eternal pendulum swing between depicting the Time Lords as demigods or incompetent old duffers, Chris Chibnall sends the pendulum exploding out of the clock to embed itself in the wall. No longer engineers who invented a manner of moving in time and space, they now seemingly crafted the very nature and concept of Time as we understand it out of something wilder and stranger. It’s a seismic revelation which rather gets lost in all the clutter.
The episode ends with a superb cliffhanger, and the promise of more typical Doctor Who scares and thrills this week
An awareness of the relatively dense and inaccessibility of this chapter of Doctor Who: Flux was may have played into the decision to give it such a striking cliffhanger. At long last, the Weeping Angels have accomplished their original goal from Blink and seized the TARDIS herself! And it’s a jaw dropping ending delivered in such style too. The very notion of Weeping Angels messaging themselves to your phone is the type of expansion of established lore that was the hallmark of Steven Moffat at his most inventive too.
The Next Time teaser after the credits is longer than in recent years too. And it’s one which underlines the very direct, focused narrative of a cursed village besieged by the Lonely Assassins. As if to reassure viewers that now that that tricky bit of driving is out of the way, we can stop off for that ice cream. And, if we’re good maybe even have a look at that big ball of string…
Doctor Who: Flux continues this Sunday at 6.20pm on BBC One, and on BBC America in the US, with Chapter Four: Village of the Angels
Devon, November 1967. A little girl has gone missing, Professor Eustacius Jericho is conducting psychic experiments, and in the village graveyard, there is one gravestone too many. Why is Medderton known as the Cursed Village, and what do the Weeping Angels want?