Warning: Contains Spoilers!
For many, many years, Doctor Who had an uncomplicated relationship with the cliff-hanger: one episode ended with the Doctor and/or companion in mortal danger and the next episode showed the viewer how they escaped from that danger. Classic, simple, elegant. However, during the Moffat era, all that changed; after a cliff-hanger leaving our heroes in mortal danger, you’d cut to a caption saying ‘500 years earlier’ or something and proceed to follow a completely different storyline with new characters for half an episode before eventually obliquely marrying up with the previous episode. I always felt slightly cheated, so when Once, Upon Time starts with a caption saying ‘Bel’s Story’, my heart sank. Here we go again. Bye bye linear storytelling, hello once again unnecessary random tangents.
But it didn’t quite happen that way, because Chris Chibnall likes to have the best of both worlds, it seems. So, Bel’s story, which introduced a new character and her struggles to survive in a post-Flux universe, only lasted 4 or 5 minutes and then it was back to how the previous episode ended: with the sinister Swarm about to click his fingers and unleash a deadly wave of time through the Temple of Atropos, which would kill both Yaz and Dan. In heroic slow motion, the Doctor grabs Dan and drags both him and her onto the empty pedestals formerly occupied by the Mouri Guardians that Swarm and Azure have destroyed. This means that the Doctor and Dan complete the circuit (or something) and are plunged into the chaotic reality of the time stream (as best as I can make out). Confused? You ain’t seen the half of it yet…
What follows is pretty much impossible to summarise. The Doctor, Yaz, Vinder and Dan are thrown into a maelstrom of past and future events in which Jodie Whittaker, Mandip Gill and John Bishop are all playing parts but not necessarily the parts that they are known for. At first it’s not clearly spelled out that what appears to be Yaz is not always Yaz and what appears to be Dan might actually be Karvanista. Vinder remembers his attempt to report some sort of corrupt Emperor for his misdeeds, for which he is stationed on a watching station in the middle of nowhere (I said he looked too cool for John Tracy duty) and Dan has slightly vaguer memories of his friend Diane from the first episode, who may not be his girlfriend after all. Yaz’s memories also seem uneventful, until it becomes clear that she is being stalked through the time stream by a weeping angel.
Most significantly (one would assume, but you can never be too sure), the Doctor finds herself in an unremembered scenario where Jo Martin as the Fugitive Doctor confronted what appears to be Swarm and Azure, although the ‘Swarm’ character appears to look different. Is he another character or has he just lost weight during his eternity of incarceration? The suggestion seems to be that the Fugitive Doctor, one of those delightful pre-Hartnell Doctors that everybody loves so much, may have been the trigger for this whole Flux situation in the first place. I think. It’s hard to tell; this is really all over the place. An explanation is also offered up for the ‘Passengers’ as introduced in the previous episode – something to do with them containing entire civilisations? Only the Doctor seems to have any degree of control over her movements through the time stream and she finds herself questioning both the Mouri and a mysterious character played by Barbara Flynn, who tells her that the universe is coming to an end.
Now, I’m a lifelong science fiction fan and I’m used to this kind of thing, but even I found this hard to follow. It simultaneously manages to be a massive info-dump AND be completely baffling at the same time, which I guess is some kind of an achievement. I can only imagine how this must have come across to the casual viewer. My barometer as to how things come across to the audience in general is usually my wife Michelle; she enjoys watching sci-fi and fantasy, but I wouldn’t call her a ‘fan girl’ and I can usually tell how an episode will relate to the casual viewer by watching to see if she loses interest. All I can say is that during Once, Upon Time, her eyes strayed from the screen to her phone on a much higher than average number of occasions and afterwards she told me that she didn’t have a clue what was going on.
One of the reasons why both fans and the industry are anticipating the return of Russell T. Davies is that, above all else, he knew the kind of story that would appeal to a wider casual audience. Some may applaud the complex, twisty-turny, self-referential storylines, but there’s no way that this kind of deep cut would ever draw in the 10 million viewers who watched Rose. Making Flux an ongoing serial was a great idea for bringing the audience back week-on-week, but you still need to keep the narrative buoyant. Otherwise, they will tune out and they won’t tune back in – once you’ve lost ‘em, you’ve lost ‘em. It was an incredible risk to do a story like this so early in the serial and I don’t think it necessarily paid off. Yes, there is a lot of exposition that may be vital to our understanding of the rest of the story, but most of it will have been lost on the casual viewer amidst the tidal wave of head-scratching that surrounds it.
Any road up, the Doctor/Fugitive Doctor manages to defeat the Swarm gang in the past by some inexplicable means, so when everyone returns to the present, everything is hunky-dory. All it really needed was for the Doctor to say, “I’ll explain later,” when asked by his companions what the hell just happened. Swarm and Azure aren’t best pleased that their complicated plan has been defeated in an even more complicated manner, so they destroy the Passenger which contains the life essence of Dan’s friend Diane. So… is she dead? The Doctor seems to think not and insists that they can save her, while Swarm and Azure insist that it’s not over yet – MWUHAHAHAHA! Then our heroes just walk out back to the TARDIS, all casual like, as if they were leaving the cinema or something. Okay, so we’re just leaving that pair of omnipotent nutters to their evil business, are we…?
There follows a further interlude with Bel, just before the Doctor takes Vinder back to the ruins of his home planet. Turns out that Bel and Vinder are a couple and they need to find each other before their unborn baby arrives. Is it a mysterious baby, do you think? Are we back in Series 6? Leaving Vinder to enjoy himself in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, the Doctor, Yaz and Dan return to the TARDIS, where Yaz foolishly turns on her phone (these kids and their phones, ey?), allowing entrance to the Weeping Angel that had been pursuing her. Oops! But the Angel doesn’t seem interested in Yaz any more (fickle), it’s more concerned with taking control of the TARDIS. I have to admit that, as disappointing as some of this episode might be, the Weeping Angel descending on the TARDIS console was a great cliffhanger… it’s just a pity that a lot of the casual viewers might no longer be watching by this point.
Okay, so this isn’t a terrible episode, but it makes a lot of very poor choices. 34 years ago, a youthful Chris Chibnall appeared on the BBC’s Open Air demanding the return of episodes with ‘a beginning, a middle and an end’. Admirable sentiments, little Chris… but any chance we could have them in that order? This kind of confusing episode can win over viewers if placed at the end of a serial – you only need to look at The Prisoner’s Fall Out to see that – but putting it in the middle is madness. The thing you absolutely don’t want to do with a serial is to alienate your audience in the middle of the narrative and that’s precisely what Once, Upon Time is in danger of doing. A lot of Doctor Who fans will disagree with that statement, but you’re fans – it’s in your nature to persevere; casual viewers are not so forgiving and once they start to think ‘I can’t follow this anymore’, they’re lost.
It was nice to see Jo Martin back as the Fugitive Doctor, but I truly hope her time in the series doesn’t extend beyond the Jodie Whittaker era. Although I think she plays a tremendous part, I have to disagree with fans who want her character to be either the next Doctor or have a spin-off series of her own; call me an old hippie if you wish, but I think that in the dreadful world that we currently occupy, the last thing we need is another amoral, gun-toting antihero. The Doctor should be beyond all that, she should be the ‘never cruel or cowardly’ character immortalised by Terrance Dicks, that is an inspiration to every generation of kids. If the embittered millennials want some Machiavellian schemer who isn’t afraid to kill and maim, they should invent a new character and not contort our beloved Doctor into something reflecting their own hang-ups. Besides, the Fugitive Doctor will probably have a 35-disc boxed set from Big Finish this time next year.
The episode ends with a trailer for next week’s Village of the Angels, which looks terrific, but only serves to emphasise how much of a space-filler Once, Upon Time is. If anything, it’s the typical classic series episode 3, full of padding that ultimately adds very little to the story. It looks like it will pick up again next week, but having a pseudo-climax in the middle of Flux, breaks its momentum and, as a serial, will give it something of an odd structure in my opinion. When you have a heavy arc structure in a series – or a serial structure as we have here – the arc-heavy stories are never as entertaining as the ones that stand alone to some extent; we’ve seen that over the years in everything from The X Files to The Mandalorian and Once, Upon Time is very much a story that is supporting a great deal of the arc’s weight, so it was never going to be a stand-out episode. Still, it could have been handled a lot better and in a way that would keep the audience hooked. Bring on the Angels.