When a Weeping Angel shows up in Doctor Who, the Doctor always gives the same advice: “Don’t blink!” That is the exact same advice I have when you watch “Once, Upon Time,” the latest entry into Doctor Who: Flux. Seriously, look away for just a moment, and you will be completely lost. This episode has so many jumps between storylines that you’re going to need a map to keep up. And unfortunately, that causes an unforgivable level of confusion that makes this episode a complete mess.
When Doctor Who: Flux premiered with the episode “The Halloween Apocalypse,” I expressed frustration in having to keep up with too many plotlines and characters. However, that episode feels like a walk in the park compared to “Once, Upon Time,” which feels like a walk in a full-blown labyrinth. The frustration and confusion I experienced watching this episode make this the weakest episode of Doctor Who: Flux so far, and one that I fear this season won’t be able to recover from.
Doctor Who: Flux, and this new episode, can be watched on BBC, streamed through the official BBC site, or on the Crave streaming service.
“Once, Upon Time” opens in a way that already had me scratching my head. As if the many storylines we had going already weren’t enough to keep track of, we now get a new character named Bel (Thaddea Graham), a woman that is fighting for survival in a post-apocalyptic world that consists of Daleks and Cybermen fighting for power. I won’t spoil who she is revealed to be, but I will just warn that it is a lot less interesting than you would expect given that she is tied to a character that has barely had a chance to develop enough for viewers to care about all that much.
Meanwhile, the main characters (The Doctor, Yaz, Dan, and Vinder) are all thrust back into moments of their past, but they are experiencing interruptions from one another as they relive those memories. One of those storylines involves Vinder (Jacob Anderson) being offered his high-security position only to discover that there is corruption on board. We also spend some time with Yaz (Mandip Gil) reliving her past which consists of on-duty conversations and a moment involving helping her friend understand video games. She’s also being stalked by a Weeping Angel.
We also see Dan (John Bishop) relive a coffee date with Di (Nadia Albina), but that lasts for two minutes before being ignored for the rest of the episode. The truly compelling storyline, which is this episode’s only redeeming quality, is the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) reliving a memory that was lived by the Fugitive Doctor, a past incarnation of the Doctor played by Jo Martin. In these bits, we get a glimpse into the Doctor’s past encounters with the being known as Swarm, making us hopeful that some questions will be answered. Spoiler: they aren’t.
And to wrap this plot description up, all of this is happening because time is breaking apart, and one of the symptoms is that the characters are seeing each other in these memories where they aren’t supposed to be. Yeah, I know that is a little confusing, but that’s the clearest way I can communicate all of this.
Doctor Who has played mind games with us in confusing past episodes. That is after all the complicated nature of time travel. However, this was probably the most byzantine mixture of plotlines I’ve ever witnessed on the show. And other than sections of the Doctor’s story, most of those stories aren’t that interesting.
Nothing from Yaz’s memories was even remotely compelling, and considering that she’s been there for three years, she deserves better. We finally get a glimpse into Vinder’s past, but it isn’t enough to make him that compelling or deep. In fact, some would call his storyline dull. And Dan’s storyline with Di only gets brief nods in the episode, which doesn’t exactly allow for much of an emotional tug.
As I’ve said, the Doctor’s storylines were the only compelling point, and it leads you to believe that more details of her Timeless Child past are about to be answered. But then any further revelation is cut short, and we are back to a world of confusion and frustration. However, considering how hated the Timeless Child story is since it undermines so much of the iconic moments of past episodes, I’m not sure how any further revelations can redeem it.
I wasn’t blown away by last week’s episode, but at least it had a plot that I could keep up with. This storyline has so much going on that it just makes the viewer dizzy. My struggle with Doctor Who: Flux since its premiere has been that it is trying to tackle way too much in only six episodes. Now we are at the halfway point with more characters, more battles, and more questions than answers. I’m starting to think that some of this is going to have to bleed into the last three specials that Jodie Whittaker will appear in before her departure next year. I am having severe doubts that this can all be covered in a satisfactory way with only three more episodes left in Doctor Who: Flux.
Even the Doctor’s mildly compelling storylines couldn’t save “Once, Upon Time” from being a confusing, garbled mess. The worst entry into this season so far, there are simply just too many plot points going on, with it impossible to keep up with any of them. I’m very disappointed, as I was really hoping that Chris Chibnall would end his reign strongly. But as time goes by, it seems like his time as showrunner will not be remembered fondly.
That said, there are three episodes left in Doctor Who: Flux, so hopefully the last three will make up for the disaster that is “Once, Upon Time.” Sadly, I fear that Chibnall isn’t going out with a bang, but with a bomb.