Once, Upon Time

Posted in Episode by - November 15, 2021
Once, Upon Time

Aired 14 November 2021


Chris Chibnall has left an imprint on television with his ability to tell a long-form story, and Flux marks Doctor Who’s first true foray into that style that so unabashedly assumes that its audience is knowledgeable and apprised of everything that has already occurred. With its third chapter, ‘Once, Upon Time,’ however, Chibnall foregoes the typical stylings of a linear narrative to offer something altogether more deliberately disjointed, toying with a temporal haze to better explore its characters as the Doctor acts on instinct to save her friends on the mysterious planet of Time.

To be sure, in the second straight episode that truly allows the Doctor to lead without a surplus of companions at her side, Jodie Whittaker once more excels and firmly proves just how cunning, determined, and intelligent her incarnation is. This is all the more impressive given just how disconcerted and confused the Doctor initially is as she finds herself and her companions in an entirely unfamiliar environment while taking part in the siege of the Temple of Atropos. Their mission is clear enough, and even Dan seems perfectly comfortable with the advanced technology at their disposal to achieve their goals and vanquish Swarm and Azure. It’s an impressive sequence that all four leads ably perform to give a grittier and more hardened edge than what the Doctor’s schemes normally comprise, and the eventual realization that the Doctor has traveled along her own timestream just as she has attempted to hide her companions within their own is a brilliant opportunity for Jo Martin to reprise her enigmatic role while offering a tantalizingly brief look into what the Doctor’s life with the Division was like that she can no longer remember. Whittaker and Martin only quickly interact as the Doctor finally realizes just where and when she is, and this sequence helps to solidify just how long-standing and powerful the threat that Swarm and Azure pose is despite their quite brief appearances here while also explaining just what Passenger is and how it provided the crux to one of the earlier Doctor’s more cunning schemes to defeat them. With the Flux revealed to be a deliberate weapon as this universe’s time draws to a close and the Doctor somehow caught in the middle of the war between time and space, it’s clear that the Division and Jo Martin will have much more to say (whether that ultimately be on television or with Big Finish), but these teases that also feature a beguiling cameo from Barbara Flynn and a surprising appearance from Karvanista successfully add to the overall cohesion and expansion of the Timeless Child mystery that has slowly but increasingly come to light.

The first two stories of Flux have done well to introduce Dan as the well-intentioned and capable everyman, and while his journeys through previous life events do little to enhance the audience’s understanding of him except to reaffirm his genuine nature and his burgeoning relationship with Diane who has become all too involved in these dangerous affairs, John Bishop continues to captivate in every scene. On the other hand, Yaz is very much a known quantity at this time after two series alongside this incarnation of the Doctor, and so it’s understandable that she receives less time dedicated to her earlier life than the others. It’s also perhaps unsurprising that it should be this companion who continues to notice flashes of a mysterious Weeping Angel that is so clearly poised to play a bigger role after a momentous appearance in the time storm and an even more consequential role in this episode’s cliffhanger. Instead, the most consequential sequences belong to Vinder, revealing snippets about his time in the military and the corruption he witnessed with the Grand Serpent that led to his eventual reassignment as well as the incredible perils and trials that Bel has survived in her continuing search for him. There’s still much more to the story of Vinder to be sure, but Jacob Anderson and Thaddea Graham are brilliant in their individual scenes to imbue their shared story with the requisite devotion and emotion needed to carry such a split narrative.

‘Once, Upon Time’ is purposefully disjointed and approaches its storytelling in a manner that trusts its viewers to stay to the end to see how everything before eventually pieces together. This is an episode that realistically could not have been attempted in a traditional series of self-contained episodes, and while not every aspect of the interactive and immersive flashback narrative works seamlessly, it’s a bold and confident style that again puts Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor into a more assertive role that perfectly suits the character as she desperately tries to figure out more about her past. This will certainly not appeal to every viewer, but it’s a necessary step to explore the past while opening up so many potential avenues for the remaining three episodes in this unique arc.

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