Time is beginning to run wild. On a planet that shouldn’t exist, in the aftermath of apocalypse, the Doctor, Dan, Yaz and Vinder face a battle to survive…
Reviewed by Tim Robins
WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD
After remembering to watch Doctor Who at 6.30 on Sunday, re-watching the episode on the BBC’s iPlayer over breakfast the next day and then hurrying into town to pick up the animated DVD/Blu-Ray of the 1965 Doctor Who story Galaxy Four, I began to feel like The Doctor herself, who this week found herself over-stretched, across time and popping up in other people’s memories.
Post my COVID-19 ‘booster’ jab, Once, Upon Time was a headache that I could have done without. On Twitter, the narrative structure of the episode was referred to as “freeform jazz” by Doctor Who Magazine’s Paul Kirkley. Not everyone was buying it.
Worse, the BBC had gotten embroiled in a row over its publication of a frankly ridiculous online news item that suggests transwomen are deceiving lesbians into having sex. Seriously, the BBC article is unprofessional, bigoted garbage. I mention the argument because, as it stands, the article is, at the very least, casting shade over concerned fans enjoyment of Doctor Who.
The controversy is somewhat ironic, considering the BBC has used the current run of Doctor Who to champion the organisation’s commitment and championing of diversity, a requirement under the Equality Act 2010. Also, science fiction is looked to as a genre that encourages questioning of cultural and societal norms and points to the contingent nature of identities that some believe are a fixed part of the “natural” order of things. So get your act together, BBC, and try listening to the concerns of your audience.
There was no chance of Once, Upon Time addressing anything other than its own convoluted narrative. After Episode Two, I was looking forward to more traditional Doctor Who stories. It was not to be. Following the unfussy War of the Sontarans, audiences were treated to another episode of fragmentary style of story-telling, one that allowed Daleks and Cybermen to make cameo appearances.
We also saw the return of, in no particular order, the “Fugitive Doctor” (Jo Martin), the Lupari dog-alien, Karvista (Craig Els), Swarm (Sam Spruell) and his entourage, and the historical figure of Joseph Williamson (Steve Oram). So the episode was jam-packed with people, although the difficulties of working with COVID-19 probably contributed to the feeling that the cast seemed a bit lonely, and the world building a little underpopulated.
Alongside this, we learnt that most of the universe’s inhabitants were held prisoner in the bodies of mysterious ‘Passenger’ humanoids (Jonny Mathers), a living prison with a shop-bought rubber mask. Has Doctor Who been reduced to the budget of The Tomorrow People?
(Talking of things done on the cheap, some of the set design and dressing this season has been a complete eyesore. Last episode, the ruins of The Temple of Atropos were suggested by merely covering each side of a staircase with slabs of rubble, from what, exactly, was hard to tell – bannisters, perhaps? But this week, the interior of a gigantic spaceship looked as if the set designer had travelled back from the 1970s, picking up tatty lights, kitsch curtains and odd bits of plastic along the way).
The plot saw the Doctor take the place of Yaz (Mandip Gill) and throw herself into a fracturing timestream. At least, at first, that’s what I thought happened, the Doctor shoving Yaz off her plinth and taking her place, but the scene was pretty much unreadable. Where was The Doctor pulling Dan (John Bishop) and why and how? Never mind. The Doctor’s sonic made a beam and, regardless of all this, The Doctor and friends ended up in a time where something else happened, and then a Weeping Angel turned up for a bit.
The episode opened with a subtitle “Bel’s Story”, and I was quite prepared for an episode told from this new character’s point of view. Bel (Thaddea Graham) was a refugee, initially hiding out in “The Dalek Sector”, emphasised by the appearance of a small troop of Daleks drifting through a forest, and some clunky narrative from Bel. “Of course I call it ‘The Dalek Sector’. I don’t know for certain, but it helps me understand”.
Frankly, I could have done with more words to understand but the narration struck me as sticking plaster. It wasn’t just time that was fracturing, so was the direction and editing. Throughout this episode, too, quite a few characters didn’t really feel up to the mark. Bel’s professed love for Vinder, for example, sounded flat.
There was a lot going on here, and the various plotlines were interesting enough, but there was too much going on, too quickly, to establish suspense, fear or relative emotions that require more space and time.
The time-hopping at least fleshed out Vinder’s past, particularly why we found him alone on a space station when we first met him in The Halloween Apocalypse. Vinder (Jacob Anderson) is a great addition to the TARDIS crew, even if he intends to use it to be reunited with Bel, who turned out to be his long-time love, much to Yaz’s apparent dismay. Mine, too. I thought that Vinder and Yaz were destined to be an item.
The Weeping Angels are still creepy, and staged an unnerving attack on Yaz, first while she is on patrol in a police car, and, later, when Yaz is playing computer games with her sister, Sonya Khan (Bhavnisha Parmar), who’s suddenly supplanted by The Doctor, offering more hurried explanation as to what’s going on.
Indeed, The Doctor spent a lot of this episode as a kind of time wraith, floating about in her friends memories, in the time-vortex, now a time storm, and in her own timeline, leading to her meeting with a past self, “The Refugee Doctor”, introduced last season.
Jodie Whittaker is a good performer, but breathless exposition isn’t her forte. I’m not at all surprised that some fans saw a touch of The Greatest Show in the Galaxy about this episode, because The Doctor’s scenes with the quasi-angelic Mouri not only recalled “The Gods of Ragnarok” but the Doctor also began to deliver her lines in the hurried, gasping manner of Sylvester McCoy – if shorn of his Scots accent.
I’ll admit their enthusiasm rubbed off on me. I think Once, Upon Time will be better viewed when the season ends. It may certainly make more sense…
Dear reader, a review is an opinion. Other opinions are available, including your own.
Photo captions are not the responsibility of Tim Robins
• Doctor Who is available to watch on BBC iPlayer | Official Web Site: www.doctorwho.tv
The Doctor: Jodie Whittaker
Yasmin Khan: Mandip Gill
Dan Lewis: John Bishop
Karvanista: Craige Els
Joseph Williamson: Steve Oram
Diane: Nadia Albina
Swarm: Sam Spruell
The Great Serpent: Craig Parkinson
Writer: Chris Chibnall
Director: Azhur Saleem
Executive Producer: Matt Strevens
Executive Producer: Nikki Wilson
Executive Producer: Chris Chibnall
Doctor Who Magazine Issue 571, available now, reveals more about the first two “Flux” episodes, The Halloween Apocalypse and War of the Sontarans, Chris Chibnall’s production notes about crafting modern Who’s first six-parter, and interviews with Sam Spruell (Swarm) and Rochenda Sandall (Azure). Three variant covers are on offer, all available from newsagents and Panini direct | Azure | Swarm | Skaak
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This episode is told out of sequence – here’s your guide to understanding the timeline in rough chronological order.
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