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Doctor Who: Flux – Chapter Three: Once, Upon Time (Review)

“Love is the only mission.”

Once, Upon Time is equal parts ambitious and frustrating.

It feels like an attempt to adopt the approach that Chris Chibnall took to The Halloween Apocalypse and apply it to a mid-season episode. Allowing for the tertiary plot involving Yaz, War of the Sontarans was recognisable as a fairly straightforward Chibnall era episode, albeit one tied to the season arc. It was a historical epic about a marginalised female hero like Rosa or Spyfall, Part II and it was also a modern-day invasion story like Arachnids in the U.K. or Revolution of the Daleks. Sure, the plot mechanics where governed by the larger concerns of Doctor Who: Flux, but it was recognisable as an episode of Doctor Who.

Blaster from the… future?

In contrast, Once, Upon Time is a radically different approach to Doctor Who on television, one that feels like an extension of the style of The Halloween Apocalypse. On some level, it recalls another of the bolder scripts of the Chibnall era, The Timeless Children, in that it really feels like Chris Chibnall is driving Doctor Who like he stole it. He is trying to do something new with a nearly sixty-year-old franchise. That is genuinely admirable, particularly given how traditionalist the rest of the era around it can feel. For Doctor Who to grow and evolve, it needs to be able to try new things.

However, that’s a very qualified comparison. Like The Timeless Children before it, Once, Upon Time is an episode that doesn’t necessarily work on its own terms. It demonstrates that an episode like The Halloween Apocalypse – an episode with multiple seemingly disconnected threads constantly pushing the narrative forward – only really worked as a season premiere. The Halloween Apocalypse worked because it started with a bang. The audience were oriented coming into the episode, which made the chaos somewhat compelling.

Time, pyramided.

In contrast, Once, Upon Time is too disjointed. It never provides the audience with enough to hold on to as it jumps from one concept to another. It is an episode that should theoretically have a set of clear emotional hearts – Dan and Diane, Vinder and Bel, the Doctor and her past – but gets too tied up in scale and speed to really ground anything that is happening. Once, Upon Time feels like a more dynamic version of The Timeless Children, a lot of exposition in place of what should be a compelling and engaging emotional narrative.

Once, Upon Time feels like it is trying for something new, but it isn’t quite succeeding.

Back up.

One of the more frustrating aspects of Once, Upon Time is that so much of the episode feels like window-dressing on a bullet-point list of tasks that Chibnall needs to accomplish. After all, the production team have been open about how the pandemic affected the planned production of Doctor Who: Flux. It cut down the number of episodes in the season. Looking at the first half of the season, it seems like Chibnall’s response to this constraint has been to simply compress the story that he wants to tell, rather than trying to realign the larger narrative.

It felt like this was the case with War of the Sontarans, which was effectively a two-part episode where both parts were happening simultaneously: the Doctor’s confrontation with the Sontarans in the Crimean War and Dan’s confrontation with the Sontarans in modern-day Liverpool. That feels like it should have been two interconnected episodes, particularly given how the Liverpool segment seemed to treat Dan as a companion who had spent more than a few minutes in the TARDIS and how it relied on the surprise return of Karvanista to fill the narrative role of the Doctor in that plotline.

Once, Upon Time feels like it has a lot of “business” to work through, a lot of buttons that it has to hit before the season can continue on to The Village of the Angels. Some of this is just basic story management, particularly for Dan and Vinder. Once, Upon Time has to provide back story for Vinder. It has to explain who he is, where he comes from, and what his motivation is. The easiest to follow narrative in Once, Upon Time is Vinder’s career suicide: he is promoted, witnesses a horrible act, reports it, and is marginalised as a result. This is all basic stuff that the show needs the audience to know about Vinder.

Like so much of Once, Upon Time, this is a double-edged sword. To give Chibnall credit, this is the sort of origin and back story that would otherwise be difficult to layer on top of a regular episode of Doctor Who. More to the point, the revival of Doctor Who has tended to favour relatively straightforward companions from contemporary Earth, so focusing on a character from a very different background with a very different back story is a welcome change of pace. It establishes Vinder as a companion more like Jack Harkness than Rose Tyler, more like Nardole than Bill Potts. That’s something that is largely welcome.

Serpent among the ruins.

At the same time, there are some qualifications. As with a lot of the Chibnall era, and as frequently within this episode, it’s a weirdly martial and militaristic back story. Vinder is a soldier who finds himself assigned to protection duty for “the Great Serpent”, who witnesses something highly immoral and who reports that, and who is punished for daring to speak up about the injustice that he witnessed. For all that this is couched in science-fiction world-building and set in the distant future, this is effectively a standard cop show plot. Chibnall even tips his hand in casting Craig Parkinson from Line of Duty as “the Great Serpent.”

It feels a little weird to dress up such a standard and recognisable procedural plot – basically Serpico – as a futuristic back story. However, the other problem is more severe. The big reveal at the end of the episode if that Vinder and Bel are lovers who are searching for one another across time and space. This is quite a clever and effective reveal at the end of the hour. Indeed, there’s something very delightful in the revelation that the stranger communicating to Bel through her communication device is the unborn baby inside her. It gives Vinder’s story a nice emotional arc, clear motivation and a logical purpose.

However, it feels just a little self-defeating for Once, Upon Time to hold this reveal until the episode’s closing moments. After all, “characters searching for each other through an apocalyptic wasteland” is not a major twist. It is the starting premise of a lot of apocalyptic fiction, because it’s fairly emotionally universal. Character separated by distance and catastrophe are easy to root for and provide a clear emotional hook, and this is usually where these sorts of stories tend to start. Think of Yorick searching for Beth in Y: The Last Man. If there is a reveal, it is usually a few steps further along than “these characters love each other.”

One of the big defining attributes of the Chibnall era has been the show’s preoccupation with spoilers. Chibnall is notoriously tight-lipped about his version of Doctor Who, and observers have noted that this may be why there has been relatively little promotion for the Chibnall era. Chibnall is so concerned with preserving surprises that it’s very difficult to package anything from the show that might possibly be of interest to outside observers. (Even “next time” trailers are considered spoilers in some quarters.) This invites the audience to wonder if this is all set-up for a big reveal. Will Vinter and Bel’s child be… timeless, perhaps?

March of the Cybermen.

This is obvious even looking at Once, Upon Time. It’s impressive that Chibnall managed to keep the Dalek cameo secret, although rendering them in computer-generated imagery rather than props probably helped. The decision to shoot much of the episode on sound stages helped preserve potential surprised about the involvement of the Ruth!Doctor. This is one of those facets of production that Chibnall is quite good at managing, like the decision to shoot all of John Barrowman’s scenes in doors on a single set with a tight crew on Fugitive of the Judoon. It’s an example of Chibnall’s very firm grasp of logistics.

However, these impulses don’t always translate to storytelling. Once, Upon Time is a story that is constantly cutting across multiple threads. This can be challenging and disorienting for viewers, and audiences generally need something to help them orient themselves. This is most obvious with the narrative thread focusing on Bel. Bel is a new character. She has never appeared before. The audience has no attachment to her. More than that, everytime that Once, Upon Time is cutting to Bel, it is cutting away from the nominal leads of the show, to whom the audiences do have an attachment.

So Bel’s story has to be compelling. It has to catch and hold the audience’s attention, amid all the other noise around her. However, it’s telling how Chibnall chooses to foreground Bel’s arc. Bel’s arc is largely about the thrill of returning monsters. She gets the surprise reappearance of the Daleks. She gets to see legions of Cybermen marching across a destroyed universe. She gets to drop the Sontarans into comparisons to the Daleks and Cybermen, reflecting their shiny new “… of the Sontarans” episode title. She gets to deliver exposition and monologue about the state of the universe.

To be honest, that last part is the most necessary. The narrative function of Bel’s story in Once, Upon Time is to provide a sense of scale to the events of Doctor Who: Flux. She is the character wandering through the wreckage. Her job is to illustrate the stakes of this story. This is important, and ties back to one of the recurring preoccupations of the Chibnall era of Doctor Who. Like Ascension of the Cybermen before it, Once, Upon Time feels like a very deliberate attempt to do an “epic” version of Doctor Who.

Scavenging of the Daleks.

This is Doctor Who doing something that it couldn’t do in the seventies and eighties, under producers Graham Williams and John Nathan Turner. This is Doctor Who competing with Star Wars. Bel visits multiple planets, encounters multiple threats. She witnesses armies of Daleks and Cybermen. Like Chibnall’s canny use of location work in episodes like The Ghost Monument and Demons of the Punjab, this is something that works on a level of simple logistics.

Under Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat, “Doctor Who does Star Wars” looked like The End of the World and The Rings of Akhaten. Those were impressive stories in their own right, and made a serious grasp for scale, but they are radically different from what Chibnall is doing in Ascension of the Cybermen and Once, Upon Time. Those stories still looked like they were shot on BBC soundstages, while this looks like it was wandered more convincingly into the uncanny valley of modern computer-generated Hollywood spectacle.

(In this respect, it’s notable that Chibnall’s big point of reference this season seems to be the Marvel Cinematic Universe: the Flux recalls Ego’s expansion in Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, while the introduction of the Doctor in media res dangling upside down evoked Thor: Ragnarok, and even the Swarm’s threatened finger snap suggested that of Thanos at the climax of Avengers: Infinity War. Chibnall is aiming for modern Hollywood blockbusters, which is commendably ambitious. It’s notable how close he is getting in terms of production value.)

However, none of this has any real emotional grounding. It’s theoretically cool that Bel is wandering through a universe being torn apart by the Daleks and the Cybermen. It’s narratively useful to understand what will happen if the Doctor doesn’t manage to stop the Flux. It even comes close to suggesting a central metaphor for the season, however vague: the idea that fascists and monsters are “feasting on the wreckage” and “coming for the survivors of the Flux”, reflecting the way in which political opportunists have used chaotic events like recessions to build their power structures.

To rule in Bel.

There’s a fascinating moment where Bel interrogates a fallen Cyberman, asking why the Cybermen are so bent on aggressive expansion in a universe that is fundamentally broken. The Cyberman boasts that its mission is to “secure territorial advance.” It warns her, “All that is left shall be ours.” Three episodes in, it has been difficult to pin down what exactly Once, Upon Time is actually about in any profound way. Bel’s story thread provides one possible reading: the idea that this is a story about monsters fighting for scraps in the collapsed ruins of civilisation.

Flux is an apocalyptic story that perhaps resonates in an era of climate change, global pandemic, economic chaos, and ascendant fascism. It’s not exactly Extremis or The Pyramid at the End of the World or Empress of Mars, but these sequences suggest a thematic preoccupation. It’s notable that Once, Upon Time returns to this theme in a couple of other ways. After all, the name of “the Great Serpent” evokes Satan or Lucifer. When asked to state his motivation, the Swarm suggests that he is driven by the same forces as the Cybermen and the Daleks “to rule in hell.”

In some ways, this seems to provide a philosophic grounding for the conservatism of the larger Chibnall era, which has largely been about the importance of preserving the status quo. Even here, the Swarm’s villain is rooted in something resembling anarchy, his belief that “time is not controllable.” It seems that Chibnall believes that time must be controllable. This is perhaps the most thorough justification for the conservatism of episodes like Kerblam!, as Once, Upon Time suggests that the real danger of change is that change can lead to fascists taking control. Therefore, the status quo must be maintained to keep society stable.

It’s not an entirely convincing argument, as one could perhaps counter that the status quo itself created conditions where these dangerous forces could capitalise on the radical stressors affecting society. However, it is a philosophical argument that might explain why Chibnall keeps coming back to the idea of police officers and systems. (Vinder’s big moment in Once, Upon Time involves dramatic paperwork filing.) Chibnall believes that these structures keep the monsters out, which seems perhaps a little naive and overly optimistic. This comes close to providing a cohesive moral framework that explains the larger Chibnall era.

Pyramids of Time.

While all of this is interesting, it’s not compelling. Early on, Once, Upon Time establishes that Bel is trying to reunite with somebody. However, the episode plays coy about who that somebody is, before revealing that it is Vinder. It would make more sense to acknowledge early on that Bel is looking for Vinder. That would provide the audience with a clear emotional hook into Bel’s journey. The audience cares about Vinder, so it should care about Bel by extension. Unfortunately, Once, Upon Time just keeps cutting back to Bel without letting the audience know exactly what she’s doing and why.

As a result, characterisation and audience engagement are sacrificed to preserve a late episode twist. Bel’s plotline becomes one driven by narrative and thematic exposition, very similar to the extended dialogue sequences involving the captive Doctor in The Timeless Children. It’s an example of Chibnall’s impulses as a producer undermining his job as a writer, and it helps explain why Once, Upon a Time struggles to create any emotional connection or resonance with the audience.

There’s also something revealing in how Bel’s thread relies on the appeal of just seeing the Cybermen and the Daleks again. Bel’s narrative thread is the heart of the episode, to the point that the opening titlecard reads “Bel’s Story” and subsequent titlecards all relate to her journey. However, for most of the episode, the most interesting thing that Bel does is to run into old Doctor Who monsters. This is revealing in terms of the priorities of the Chibnall era. Once, Upon Time assumes that the return of the Cybermen and the Daleks is enough of itself to anchor the audience. It’s Doctor Who as a show about monsters.

The rest of the episode is built around the characters scattered in the time stream. Part of this feels like Chibnall riffing on Moffat era scripting. Indeed, the notion of time tearing itself apart was a major preoccupation for Moffat, reflected in episodes like The Big Bang or The Wedding of River Song. The sequence in which Dan finds himself skipping through time like a needle skipping across a vinyl disc feels like it lifted directly from Silence in the Library and Forest of the Dead. Dan becomes confused by the editing of the episode itself. “When is this?” Dan asks. “Did we move?”

The end of time as we know it.

It’s an interesting concept that plays with the understand that Doctor Who is a television show, and that playing with the constraints of the medium can be used to great effect. It feels appropriate that this is the episode that properly reintroduces the Angels, with Once, Upon a Time suggesting that they’ve been drawn to the wound in time like the Daleks and Cybermen (and Sontarans) have been drawn to the wound in space. As with The Time of the Angels, the Angels are presented as mediated creatures. They move in the edits. They live in screens and pull themselves into reality through them.

There is a certain roughness to Chibnall’s use of these devices. He’s simply not as skilled playing with these toys as Moffat was. It’s very similar to how Chibnall stuggles with characterisation compared to Davies. Indeed, Dan’s sequences in Once, Upon Time seem largely perfunctory. The focus on Dan’s life in Liverpool is placed back on Diane, with no appearance from his parents. There’s considerable exposition delivered, with Dan confessing that he was almost married once. Again, this feels more like checklist stuff, ideas that Flux has to work through and exposit, with this “timestorm” providing narrative justification.

This sense that Once, Upon Time is effectively about working through a laundry list of necessary homework is most obvious in the thread focusing on the Doctor. To be fair, The Halloween Apocalypse made it clear that Flux would be picking up threads from The Timeless Children, with Karvanista working for the Division and the Swarm escaping from the Division. However, Once, Upon Time is an episode that leans heavily into that back story, revealing that the Ruth!Doctor was the Division operative who apprehended the Swarm, explaining what motivates the character’s revenge.

With the multi-threaded structure of Once, Upon Time, it is clear how thoroughly Chibnall frames Doctor Who through the lens of police procedurals. Yaz’s flashback reinforces the fact that she was once a police officer. Vinder’s back story is effectively that of a police officer marginalised for reporting corruption. The Doctor’s story thread is framed as a hostage rescue mission. It’s very similar to the Doctor’s flashbacks to her time as Brendan in Ascension of the Cybermen. It seems like Doctor Who is now, in any permutation, likely to be some sort of police procedural with science-fiction trappings. It’s a marker of the Chibnall era.


Much like the plotting around Bel and Vinder, the flashback involving Ruth!Doctor and the Swarm is a little too obtuse for its own good. The sequence introduces a lot of high concepts through exposition, from the idea that each “passenger” contains millions of people to the idea that the Swarm’s primary motivation is “the battle between space and time.” It’s a flashabck that promises to answer questions, but largely answers those questions by pushing the answers back another layer into the plot.

Watching Once, Upon Time, it is immediately clearer why the Swarm wants to avenge himself upon the Doctor. He wants revenge for her arrest of him during this hostage crisis at the temple. However, the episode never coherently explains what exactly the Swarm hopes to gain from that hostage crisis, where he came from, and what he ultimately wants to accomplish. Are they lone lunatics? Are they religious zealots? Are they political actors? Are they representatives of a species? Are they related to the Time Lords?

These ambiguities feel like either wheel-spinning or punting, depending on whether the questions in Once, Upon Time lead to later developments or whether this is treated as sufficient explanation. That said, there are some interesting ideas within the confrontation between Ruth!Doctor and the Swarm. Most notably, the idea that “erasure of identity” is treated as the ultimate punishment. Obviously, this resonates with Azure’s exile to the Arctic as Anna in The Halloween Apocalypse. However, it also ties back to the Doctor herself. What did the Doctor do to warrant this most severe punishment?

In some ways, Once, Upon Time is more impressive as a piece of production than as a narrative. As with episodes like Praxeus, Chibnall is cleverly able to split up the cast to make production a little bit easier. The contrivance of the companions being fractured also helps save costs when it comes to actors; it’s notable that Vinder’s superior appears as a featured extra, but all of that character’s lines are spoken by Mandip Gill. Similarly, splitting up the cast allows for the production to get a full episode without exhausting their stars. Notably, John Bishop only appears in his own thread and that featuring the Doctor.

A Swarm Swelcome.

The timey-wimey plotting of Once, Upon Time will inevitably invite comparisons to the work of Steven Moffat. After all, it’s possible to draw a straight line between this and something like The Big Bang or The Wedding of River Song. However, there is a clear difference between Chibnall’s plotting and that of Moffat. Moffat makes a point to foreground the characters’ emotional arcs and pay-off within these stories, making it easy for audiences to latch on to characters as they navigating increasingly surrealistic and abstract worlds.

In contrast, Chibnall places the emphasis on exposition and plot, making it harder to for the audience to meaningfully connect with anything that is happening. It’s notable that the big pay-off of the episode, the solution to this crisis, finds the Doctor convincing four random god-like aliens to put themselves back in the temple via the Passenger. It’s a very plot-heavy solution, and it doesn’t have any stakes involving any characters the audience cares about – unlike the Doctor almost locking himself outside the universe in The Big Bang or seeming to sacrifice his life to preserve the timeline in The Wedding of River Song.

That said, for all that Once, Upon Time doesn’t work, it still feels like Chibnall is trying to figure out a new way to write Doctor Who. The episode is trying to figure out whether it’s possible to manipulate modern serialised television storytelling with the time-travel concept within Doctor Who in a way that plays to Chibnall’s strengths as a writer. After all, going back to The Woman Who Fell to Earth, Chibnall’s approach to Doctor Who has been predicated on the idea that there must always be something else happening that he can cut to. Once, Upon Time tries to apply that to a serialised mid-season episode.

Once, Upon Time is legitimately unlike anything that Doctor Who has attempted before. It doesn’t cohere into anything successful, but it’s still an interesting experiment.

2 Responses

  1. Excellent and thought-provoking as always. And since it did provoke some thoughts from me, I thought I’d bring them up.

    > This is Doctor Who competing with Star Wars. … Chibnall is aiming for modern Hollywood blockbusters…

    Personally, if I wanted (more) Star Wars or blockbusters, I’d go watch some. I’d rather watch Doctor Who.

    > The Cyberman boasts that its mission is to “secure territorial advance.” It warns her, “All that is left shall be ours.”

    He’s not the only one, but I miss when the Cybermen and Daleks weren’t interchangeable. Cybermen used to want to upgrade everyone, not conquer territory.

    > Once, Upon Time assumes that the return of the Cybermen and the Daleks is enough of itself to anchor the audience. It’s Doctor Who as a show about monsters.

    Tastes vary, but I prefer Doctor Who as a show that’s thoughtful, even profound, and imaginative.

    >It seems like Doctor Who is now, in any permutation, likely to be some sort of police procedural with science-fiction trappings.

    Sounds like it. Again, a matter of preference, but there are a lot of police procedurals out there, I’d rather have high-quality sf. It can have procedural trappings, I suppose.

    I dunno. I may watch Flux, I may not. If, in the end, all the coincidences turn out to be more than plot conveniences, if there’s a reason for everything that happened rather than arbitraryiness, I may watch. I can hope.

    • Personally, if I wanted (more) Star Wars or blockbusters, I’d go watch some. I’d rather watch Doctor Who.

      I’d agree with this, but it’s worth noting that this is a long-standing insecurity in certain strains of Doctor Who fandom and in Chibnall’s Doctor Who in general. I think a large part of the backlash to the silliness of the Williams/Adams era is “why doesn’t this look like what I’m seeing in cinemas?”, when the show’s approach to the material was arguably the only reasonable way you could do Doctor Who in the wake of Star Wars. Chibnall seems to be very similar to Saward, in that he thinks the show belongs with the “great” science-fiction franchises in terms of scale, and so much of Chibnall’s Doctor Who feels like an attempt to do Earthshock on the scale of Return of the Jedi.

      He’s not the only one, but I miss when the Cybermen and Daleks weren’t interchangeable. Cybermen used to want to upgrade everyone, not conquer territory.

      Chibnall is really just using both Daleks and Cybermen as generic “monsters.” If I had a guess, I also think he’s using them here to make the Sontarans seem more credible. It seems like a large part of the driving motivation of Flux is to bump the Sontarans up in the canon, and you can’t do that if they are just squabbling with the Rutans. Again, I’m not a huge fan of this, but it’s very much in keeping with the driving logic of the larder era.

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