‘Doctor Who: Flux – Once, Upon Time’

Chapter three of Flux was a masterclass in well-constructed fantasy storytelling, writes Robert Fairclough.

In my review of Chris Chibnall’s 2018 Series 11 season ‘finale’ The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos, I rather caustically commented that “it was directed with all the urgency of a Sunday afternoon ramble.” I also criticised the episode for important plot beats that fell totally flat, and as well potentially interesting themes that were “so down in the mix they had no real importance within the story.”

Four years later, the Chris Chibnall behind Once, Upon a Time seemed like a different writer. There was mystery, striking plot developments, questions that demanded to be answered, genuinely surprising moments, clever, subtle writing and dramatic revelations. Crucially, the potentially confusing, time-jumping framework was expertly handled so the audience never lost track of what was going on. Azhur Salhem’s direction was urgent and focused, delivering some quality character moments – particularly for Dan – and stylish visuals like the Antropos skyline morphing into Liverpool’s similar horizon, as well as a Weeping Angel jumping out of Yaz’s phone.

That makes a resounding three out of three for this series. Who’d have thought?

I don’t know where this Chris Chibnall has been hiding, but Once, Upon a Time is a masterclass in well-constructed fantasy storytelling. (The attention to detail even extended to the episode recap, throughout which villainess Azure (Rochenda Sandall) could be heard counting down from 5 to 1, finishing at the cliffhanger of last week’s episode, when Azure also counted down from 5 to 1.) Before the episode’s titles, we were unexpectedly thrown into ‘Bel’s Story’, a fugitive running from Doctor Who’s big three monsters – Daleks, Sontarans and Cybermen – her voiceover addressing an unknown partner. Who is she?, I wondered, impatiently waiting for the title sequence to finish so I could find out. I had to wait, but it was worth it.

Strikingly, Chibnall went for more voiceovers of internalised thoughts throughout the episode, most notably the Doctor’s, granting us an insight into how her lightning-quick thought processes work. The private dialogue of Bel (Thaddea Graham) and Vinder (Jacob Anderson), meanwhile, hinted at the intimacy they each shared with a missing loved one, a plotline that had a rather marvellous pay off with the reveal at the end of the story that Bel was carrying Vinder’s baby.

In some ways this was Vinder’s episode as – halfway through the series, appropriately enough – more details came into focus about him. A spaceship commander with a reputation for heroism and loyal to his planet’s constitution, he was awarded the honour of “Guardian of the Grand Serpent”; in Earth language, bodyguard to his society’s leader. His decision to inform on the Grand Serpent’s corrupt deal with another planet resulted in him being exiled to Observation Outpost Rose, a neat tie-up with where we first met him in The Halloween Apocalypse.

Scratch that – the regulars were all well-served by Once, Upon a Time. When Vinder, Dan and Yaz were thrown back down their timelines by the Doctor to protect them from Swarm and Azure, a predicament that also befell the Time Lord, each was presented with some meaty and enthralling material. Most intriguing was the Doctor’s disappearance down her own personal rabbit hole, as she found herself leading a Division unit cornering Swarm and Azure on Antropos in the past, crewed by troops that looked like Vinder, Dan and Yaz, but weren’t. This was the most successful of the four plot-lines, as the Doctor couldn’t remember it – a result of her mind being wiped by the Division – and, in a genuine surprise, she came face to mirror with the ‘Fugitive Doctor’ (Jo Martin) introduced last year, whose memories she was reliving. The clever writing didn’t stop there. Ersatz-Yaz’s comment that ersatz-Dan’s was pretty effective “for a dog” alerted the Doctor to the fact that he might be Karvanista (Craige Els), a fact confirmed when he produced his trademark axe. Revelation – the Doctor knew the Lupari when she was in the Division. Disorientating, complex but not hard to follow, this strand was packed with invention.

Dan and Yaz shone too. The latter was again paired with maybe-girlfriend Diane (Nadia Albina), delivering a touching soliloquy about being jilted before his marriage – “Nobody gets by without some bruises” – before he was propelled into a ‘What the hell’s going on?’ scene with the loud Victorian, Joseph Williamson (Steve Oram). I look forward to this guy turning up now, as he’s just so entertainingly objectionable to everyone he meets. Yaz, meanwhile, was treated to the best visceral shocks of the episode. Weeping Angels began feeding on her timeline, first appearing in the rear-view mirror of her police car and, imaginatively, infiltrating a video game shoot-‘em-up she was playing with her sister Sonya (Bhavnisha Parmar).

The real wild card was a character apparently called Awsok (the excellent and unexpected Barbara Flynn) turning up to play Basil Exposition, superciliously informing the Doctor that the Flux was artificial and had been engineered because of her. Never mind that, my immediate thought because of Aswok’s demeanour was ‘another female Doctor?’ Mr Chibnall, you are playing us like a true maestro.

My only real caveat around Once, Upon a Time’s plotting is why would a Cyberman, apparently voluntarily, offer an enemy information? That didn’t make sense.

Performance of the week belonged to Jodie Whittaker. All the way through Flux the Doctor has been on the back foot, and Doctor Who’s leading lady has seized on that mindset to reinvigorate her role. Desperation and anger suits her now – her rebuke to Yaz, “Does everything have to be a discussion?”, was notably sharp – while she was equally accomplished when playing the Fugitive Doctor’s defiance and command. In second place in the acting stakes was Craig Parkinson, the Caddy himself, as a sly study in paranoia and arrogance as the Grand Serpent (even if he was rather underused). Perhaps he’ll turn up again? With this series, anything’s possible, and the character positively cries out for development.

This week, Passenger (Jonny Mathers) revealed himself as one of those Doctor Who ideas that is almost laughably brilliant. Passengers are humanoid shells, bigger on the inside than on the outside, that can hold millions of prisoners. As Swarm (Sam Spruell, better by the week) and Azure callously disintegrated their Passengers, killings untold hostages off screen, I reflected that it was a lovely cost conscious way of saving on the casting bill.

Judging by the strength and originality of Flux so far, I really hope Russell T. Davies is considering more serialised adventures in the future. They really are Doctor Who’s natural metier.

Roll on Village of the Angels…

Doctor Who is a BBC Studios production for BBC One and a BBC America co-production. BBC Studios are the international distributors for Doctor Who.

 Robert Fairclough writes on a variety of subjects, including mental health and popular culture (sometimes both at once). He has written six books, contributes to magazines and websites, and writes regular blogs about projects he’s involved in for The Restoration Trust. He can be contacted on robmay1964@outlook.com, and his website can be viewed at www.robfairclough.co.uk

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