The Angels have the phone box!
But enough about 2007’s Blink. Let’s cut to Once, Upon Time, the latest episode in Doctor Who Series 13, known throughout the universe as Flux. The story, written by Chris Chibnall, found the Thirteenth Doctor revisiting a few memories (and the so-called Fugitive Doctor), with a further dive into Vinder’s backstory.
In his review, Simon Danes wasn’t too impressed:
“It all looks very nice. Good style, guys. Where’s the substance? Stuff happened, but I’m not sure what it was. Last week, we actually had a storyline. Not so this week. The Flux was treading water and we took a break from the season arc. Instead of a story, we looked at some things and they looked very nice. Perhaps all will be made clear. Or perhaps not.”
But what do the rest of our contributors think? We rescued a few from the time storm and quizzed them…
[Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor wakes up and shakes her head. She gazes in awe at the sight around her: a vintage 1980s TARDIS, all gleaming white walls and round things.]
WHITTAKER: Holy mackerel, you’ve had a factory reset.
[Dan enters the room wearing Melanie Bush’s tracksuit.]
DAN / MEL: Ah. Feeling better, are you?
WHITTAKER: No. What happened?
DAN / MEL: You fell off the exercise bike and regenerated. Don’t you remember? Ooh, you’ve gone all Scottish.
WHITTAKER: Eh? No I haven’t, I –
[There is a flicker and she briefly looks like Sylvester McCoy, and then it’s back to the blonde.]
WHITTAKER: Oh, I see. I’ve fallen into my own timestream and I’m reliving events from my past. And you’re Bonnie Langford.
DAN / MEL: Who else would I be?
WHITTAKER: That explains the outfit. I thought it was a Scouse thing for a moment.
DAN / MEL: At least I’m not a talking dog this time.
WHITTAKER: That’s a matter of opinion.
[Bang! There is an explosion and we cut to – ]
INT. POND’S HOUSE
[Whittaker manifests in the lounge with a Wiimote in her hand.]
WHITTAKER: Oh, hang on, I remember this. It’s the one with the cubes. Trust Chibnall to reference his own stories.
[Yaz appears in the doorway wearing a checked shirt and padded jacket; Vinder follows in a miniskirt.]
YAZ: You’re playing video games again.
VINDER: No one calls them video games.
YAZ: They really do. I mean unless you work for a magazine or something. Then they’re just ‘games’. But still.
VINDER: How can one man in a position of responsibility be so clueless about popular culture?
YAZ: Ask the Commons Secretary.
[A Weeping Angel takes the place of the onscreen tennis player, serving a perfect ace that smashes through the screen in the direction of the startled Doctor.]
WHITTAKER: Oh, bug-
[The screen explodes in front of us and we cut to – ]
INT. HALL OF MIRRORS
[A dingy funfair. The Doctor, now wearing a cricket jumper, is exploring in the company of Bel, who is clicking incessantly on a small screen.]
WHITTAKER: Can’t you put down the bloody Tamagotchi?
BEL: I’m talking to someone who may or may not be you.
WHITTAKER: Does this mean if I pat your stomach we’ll wipe out the universe?
BEL: Again, you mean?
[The Doctor stops in front of a mirror, gazing at its garish reflection.]
WHITTAKER: This one makes me look fat.
COLIN BAKER: I resemble that remark.
[Enter Dan, dressed as Adric; a lone Cyberman is limping in behind him.]
DAN: Aw, this really isn’t fair.
[Bang! And we cut to – ]
EXT. THE ARUNDEL CASTLE
[It’s the set of Frozen. The Doctor is dressed as Princess Anna, and is in the middle of a duet with the White Guardian.]
WHITTAKER / GUARDIAN:
All this story’s been a series of doors out of place
And some changes in the TARDIS crew
And some dogs turned up and kidnapped the whole human race
And the Angels nicked the phone box and now we’re all screwed
But I think
Yeah I think I finally get it
Though I think it fell short of its ambition –
Love is the only mission!
Love is the only mission!
Love is the only –
[Something explodes offscreen, and the two of them are buried in a landslide. Roll credits.]
Pretend you’re Chibnall with a 58 year-old show entirely at your disposal… then cut away everything you don’t like!
For a few moments, I was pleased. It started so well with the introduction of Bel, who would provide a great narrative counterpoint to the nonsense going on with the TARDIS travellers. It really was a nicely written, well cast, and well-delivered thread, and it’s nice to see Thaddea Graham again after The Irregulars was cut short.
Then the ball was dropped. The cliffhanger from last week was just a big chance for exposition to get dropped disguised as flashbacks under the name of ‘hiding in your own timestreams’. It could have worked. Take Vinder: he had a decent piece of backstory. No such luck with other newcomer, Dan, and we missed a chance to learn more about our new companion. Then there’s Yaz, whose timeline is similarly devoid of interest and all she does in the real world is get shouted at by the Doctor.
From a TV point of view, it did let various cast members be someone else. After all, Jacob Anderson and John Bishop must be bored playing their characters after so many minutes.
And the planet Time/ destroying some Mouri was all a pretend problem, solved with some mystical intervention and a quick farewell. Then there’s the Doctors own backstory…
Within the framework of the Timeless Child (which I despise), it was nice to see Jo Martin and the style with her gang of three is much different to the communal ‘fam’ nonsense we’ve had so far. It seems her incarnation is pivotal, and may well have wanted the memory reset as a reward for too much service to the Division. Is she the incarnation before Hartnell?
Looking wider, I can see the shape of a Chibnall Masterplan:
- Close UNIT for financial reasons.
- Kill off all the Time Lords.
- Make Gallifrey uninhabitable due to the super killing thing from last series.
- Make the Doctor not actually a Time Lord.
- Give the Doctor infinite regenerations and a host of previously unknown incarnations.
- Relegate Daleks, Cybermen, and Sontarans to the equivalent of cockroaches fighting for scraps in the wreckage of time and space.
- Wreck time and space so continuity can really be forgotten.
- Introduce you own superior kind of villain fighting a superior kind of Doctor.
- Mess up the TARDIS.
It seems to me all about stamping his own identity on the show and damn everything else. What’s the Whovian equivalent of jumping the shark?
I hope next week is less revolutionary and actually has some decent content. My expectations have been lowered.
Sweeter the second time around
When I watched Once, Upon Time live, I was very, very tired, so I noticed the negatives more than the positives. Viewed a couple of days later, refreshed and awake, one of the negatives magically turned into a positive: for the first half of this episode, you have to work. Clues come at you thick and fast in a wild barrage of travelogue, altered memories, and dreamscape fugue.
On first view, I described this as ‘pockets of infodump smashed together,’ but I was wrong; there is method in this madness, method viewing if not acting – we feel as disoriented as the Doctor and her companions. And, like Fight Club, it uses the first half to show you how to follow the clues. Yes, there’s a lot of ‘tell’, but there’s plenty of ‘show’ as well. All we had to do was make the connections. If the Doctor is not really Yas’ police colleague, nor her sister in Yas’ not-real home, then Yas, Dan, and Vinder in others’ memories are not really them either. For two episodes, I have been asking ‘why did Kavanista set traps for the Doctor when he used to work for her?’ (He took orders from her in Part 1, clearly stated to the audience that he was doing it in Part 2.) So, when Yas-not-Yas says to Dan-not-Dan, ‘You’re pretty smart for a dog’ (and he answers ‘What did you call me?’, just to make sure we don’t miss it) it is no surprise when the iconic weapon appears and Scooby pops up. I missed all the humour from last week’s more linear story, but I’m glad Kavanista gets to be more than a comic turn sometimes.
While we’re on characters, let’s have a look at the rest.
Dan continues to impress; he sells the dreamscape memories well by looking, noticing, asking the right questions, and adding some serious character notes. But his ‘last I knew, I was somewhere else, and now I’m not. Again’ adds a welcome smile. His relationship with Diane feels real, and he proves his companion DNA by, when the Doctor says ‘don’t move’, instantly wandering off. And as Dan-not-Dan, he speaks and moves differently. I wonder if we’ll get to meet Doctor Ruth(less)’s real team?
Yas, on the other hand, does much better as ‘not-Yas’ and is still too static as real Yas. She does at least notice ‘the details are wrong’ but mostly to check that the audience had noticed too. (We had.)
Those who thought Flux Part 1 laid on the ‘Dan is a good guy’ too heavily will not have liked the ‘Vinder is a good guy’ either. I thought the actors made it work. Vinder is likeable as well as honourable, so it’s fitting when it turns out Bel’s travelogue is directed to him. Bel is okay; does at least duck and weave to avoid Cyberfire, and does the Buffy-roll to defeat the last one. She adds a strange sort of sunshine to a bleak story.
Finally, the Doctor. She comes across as panicky in infodump monologue, and isn’t much more convincing when she has someone to talk to, like Doctor Ruth(less)’s team (who already knew what they were doing there anyway) or a Weeping Angel gatecrashing the timestorm. Her reversible coat, with dark side showing, was a nice clue to her previous incarnation. When Jodie commands the team to blow open the Atropos Temple doors, she’s clearly channelling Jo Martin, so of course her reflection pops up next minute.
And while we’re here, did anyone else chorus ‘You’re only supposed to blow the b***** doors off!’? Just me then.
She hasn’t won me over yet, but she’s improving; she’s less overshadowed by Jo Martin than she was in Series 12. But I still do not like the way she talks to Yas.
Some other random likes and dislikes, then…
Bel’s meander through post-apocolypse universe talking of catastrophe we failed to notice or avert in time fits well with COP26, sans the Sledgehammer of Doom from Orphan 55. Chibnall is being much more subtle. I adore Barbara Flynn, who here could not be further from Beiderbecke’s Eco Warrior Jill Swinburne – ‘This universe is Over!’ Chibnall managed a slightly lighter touch than we’re accustomed to with the Cyber failure to understand love. The Twelfth Doctor called it not an emotion but a promise; Bel called it a mission, but didn’t overegg it. Maybe longform storytelling suits him better.
The ‘Banana republic meets Blakes 7‘ dictatorship scenes didn’t work for me as well as for others; yes, he was a creepy, terrified, paranoid politician, surrounded by a blend of oppressive gold and darkness. But there were too many cartoon evils for my taste: protection racket, assassinate opponents, belittle staff. Oh, and was that fireplace with a shell over the top an intentional reference to the English Public School system (it was the name of the junior class at Westminster)? And if you think he was too anti right-wing, the Cyberarmy march past would have made Xi Jinping proud.
That CGI didn’t do much for me, but other visuals still demand a bigger screen — the debris drifting in space, the desert world of the Temple. And the soundscape was subtler too; I enjoyed Akinola slipping ‘I vow to thee my country’ under Vinder’s ‘I did the right thing’ speech, on Remembrance weekend. I liked the ancient typewriter on Outpost Rose; last time we saw one that age on Who was The Empty Child/ The Doctor Dances. And while homaging Moffat, it’d be churlish not to enjoy ‘The Angel has the TARDIS.’
Last time, I said I was glad to be interested, asking questions, wanting to know more. So here’s are a few from this week: who was the creature in a bar that told Bel about Atropos? How are the ‘quantum locked’ Mouri and Weeping Angels linked? Why is one stalking Yas, and why is she in Vinder’s memories, when neither of them are in Dan’s? Is the catastrophic collapse of this universe the only lost cause Chibnall is interested in? Is Williamson building the Temple, its replacement, the prison? Why was the Flux made, placed here because of the Doctor? The War Games were over because the Doctor ended them. Bel talks of Zones. Can I put in a bid for Series 6B? We never see Troughton into Pertwee… Her service with The Division could fit. ‘Working for the Division must be so compromising.’
Yes, I’m still on board, despite some reservations. Bring on next week.
“Don’t overthink it, just move forward.” Bel imagines Vinder telling her during this third chapter of Doctor Who: Flux. It sums up how I’ve come to approach recent Doctor Who, particularly since Chris Chibnall took the reins as showrunner.
We’re halfway through and Flux isn’t losing any of its epic randomness. The series so far feels like The Daleks’ Master Plan or one of those 1940s cliff-hanger serials (Flash Gordon or King of the Rocket Men). Elements are continually added to the mix to keep the story progressing which hopefully will tie into a cohesive whole when we get to the end. Don’t overthink it, just keep moving forward – it’ll all pay off at the end.
So this week we learn a bit more about Vinder and Dan, cameos from the show’s most famous monsters and some teases about the Doctor’s lost memories that we discovered she had last year. Alongside this, we get a nice little adventure with the Doctor negotiating for help to save her friends and some convoluted backstory about the eponymous Flux. Russell T Davies was quite adept at making the back story in his episodes sound exotic. Who can forget the images conjured up by names like The Skaro Degradations, the Horde of Travesties, the Nightmare Child, and the Could-Have-Been King with his army of Meanwhiles and Never-Weres? Chibnall doesn’t quite have Davies’ light touch. The backstory here sounds a little too much like the Tolkien-clone fantasy novels that would crowd the sci-fi/fantasy shelves of Waterstones until Game of Thrones appeared. (Spawning a host of GoT clones that similarly crowded the shelves). Throughout his run, I’ve been hoping Chibnall would find his unique voice with Who, just as Davies and Moffat did – but unfortunately he still comes across as Davies-lite and, with the time-wimey nature of this current run, Moffat-lite.
Having said that, I do like how, this year, Chibnall is throwing caution to the wind and is bringing some of the sheer ludicrousness of Doctor Who back (what other drama could have a cliffhanger resolution be to jump into a time storm and hide everyone in their time stream?).
Those time storm scenes, though. Did we really need to see the same footage of the Doctor facing the three giant Mouri with the dialogue dubbed over? This is prime time quality BBC drama, not a Saturday morning cartoon with their oft-repeated three or four action sequences. A shame, because overall this episode looked rather splendid. One thing about this era of Doctor Who is, it does look very nice and this season has been no exception. Yes, there does seem to be an over-reliance on CGI, particularly this week, but considering the circumstances these episodes were filmed in, it can be forgiven. This is a far cry from the CSO experiments of Underworld way back in 1978. Besides, the Match of the Day set is CGI these days, so heavy use of virtual sets would appear to be part and parcel of being a long-running flagship BBC 1 show.
All in all, it’s still holding my attention. I’m not questioning too much about what is going on; I know it’ll all be resolved somehow in episode six. I’m not overthinking it, I’m moving on to next week’s episode.
On this kid’s show I used to watch 50 years ago, Bozo’s Circus, one of the most suspenseful acts was The Plate Spinner. You had a dozen tall, slim poles, spaced about a foot apart. The performer would then produce a dozen big, white, ceramic plates, very carefully balance a plate on the top of each pole, and spin it very hard, so it stays up on the pole, defying gravity.
As he kept adding each plate to the next pole and spining them, one of the first plates would eventually start to slow down and start to wobble a bit, so he constantly had to return to keep them spinning. The more plates he put up, the more back and forth he had to do, keeping them spinning. I’d be glued to the screen, watching the approach of several oncoming disasters if the performer wasn’t quick enough to act!
“Oh no, number 3 is starting to slow down, number 5 is wobbling, number 1 is gonna FALL!!!!” Then the performer would notice it just in the nick of time and keep it spinning–“but there goes number 6 wobbling!”
It was nerve wracking! The performer had so much going on, so many plates spinning, or wobbling, it was hard for him or us to fully keep track of everything. It was only just a bunch of simple, white plates spinning, but it was hugely exciting!
But how would it end?
One guy might have plates smash on the ground, while another might be able to eventually get all the plates spinning at once and manage to take a victory bow.
This was pretty much what Once, Upon Time was.
Chibnall has managed to keep half the plates spinning so far, but he has to add the other half of them. Now it’s just a matter of finding out if he takes a victory bow at the end, or if there’s a lot of shattered dinnerware.
The best episode for quite a few years for me.
A welcome change from the rather frantic pace of the previous two episodes, and I’ve always felt that the kind of woozy, dream-like atmosphere this story served up is well-suited to Doctor Who. I was surprised to see so many of the post-transmission comments complain of confusion – to me, the overall thrust of what was going on seemed clear enough, and I’d argue there were far worse offenders in the 2010s when it came to episodes which left me scratching my head.
Jacob Anderson had a decent amount of screen time to fill in Vinder’s history, but my biggest praise goes to Jodie Whittaker, who I thought did brilliantly with what must have been tricky material to perform – one moment gossiping inconsequentially about satsumas; later on, anguished and despairing that the chance to put things right had eluded her.
Whether the resolution of Flux will live up to what’s been set up is something I’ll worry about another day; for now I’m just grateful, and not a little surprised, that after all these years Doctor Who can still serve up something that intrigues and entertains me as much as this.
A mixed bag, but perhaps Once, Upon Time will be served better once we know where this whole series is going. What do you think, DWC readers?