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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.

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