Fresh from last week’s entertaining but rather trivial Sontaran sidestep, Flux feels like its cooking with gas once again this week, as Once, Upon Time gets back to the larger story at hand, offering up interesting revelatory tidbits and throwing in tons more questions for fans to ponder at the halfway point. It’s another fine example of how showrunner Chris Chibnall‘s strengths lie in long form storytelling, and the end result feels altogether different to the previous two episodes yet equally part of a wider whole that teases and tantalises in thrilling fashion.
In true timey-wimey fashion, the episode sees our heroes catapulted back into their own personal time streams and re-living key moments from their past – Vinder confronts his past mistakes, Yasmin finds herself stalked by Weeping Angels across her own past memories, Dan discovers the terrible truth about Diane’s fate, and the Doctor is thrown back into a memory she doesn’t remember having. It’s another ambitious script, which certainly encourages the audience to keep up and pay attention. It’s also a great idea that is ultimately well executed, cleverly utilising the four lead actors and casting them in various supporting roles in order to throw everything off-kilter. It’s great to see Jodie Whittaker, Mandip Gill, Jacob Anderson and John Bishop assume a number of other roles throughout the episode, and although these moments are slight, they go some way into imbuing the otherwise ordinary flashback scenes a welcome sense of strangeness that keeps things interesting.
These moments are all tied together by two key sections – one featuring Bel (Thaddea Graham), a lone survivor travelling the Flux-ravaged cosmos in search of her lost love, and the other detailing a forgotten mission from the Doctor’s Time Lord Division days. The section with Bel is predictable, but certainly goes some way into lending the story more in the way of personal stakes (which is certainly helped by Graham’s charming performance), but the latter section is incredibly fascinating, delving deeper into the antagonistic relationship between the Ravagers and the Doctor, and ultimately confirming the theory that these villains have beef with Jo Martin‘s mysterious past incarnation. The result is a superb set of scenes that have real punch to them, both in terms of action and intrigue. The surprise cameo from Martin is very welcome, even if it is all too brief, and the wrap-up involving the Passenger is an inspired bit of plotting on Chris Chibnall‘s part.
It’s an episode that could easily have fallen into the trap of being too talky and exposition heavy, but the excellent direction from series newcomer Azhur Saleem, the skilful editing (the jumping time frames never jar even once) and Segun Akinola‘s beautiful score all keep thing roaring along and lend proceedings a sense of wonder and pace, even in the more mundane moments like Dan and Diane’s Liverpool walkabout or Bel’s journey across the cosmos. The fluctuating narrative is delicately handled and well structured, and flows well right up to the thrilling denouement and the exciting cliffhanger.
Ultimately, the core story of Once, Upon Time is slight but it does satisfy, especially when it serves up some answers to the larger questions at play. Across just 50 minutes, we get some interesting reveals regarding what the Passengers are, there’s some insight into Vinder’s past, hints as to the nature of the Flux and the Ravagers, and even some clues about the Division and the Doctor’s forgotten past. At times, the episode feels like more of a tease for future instalments than it does a story in its own right, but at this point we’re only halfway through the season, so it’s all to be expected that there’ll be further questions thrown at us (who’s the mysterious woman the Doctor sees? Hopefully time will tell soon!).
As it stands, Once, Upon Time is an insightful and oft-times stylish chapter that gets back to the larger business at hand, offering plenty of reasons to keep us invested and serving up the right amount of answers to keep the wider story ticking along nicely. Next week – Weeping Angels!
Doctor Who returns to BBC One next Sunday at 6.20pm. Join us for our series blog review next week.