Episode three of Flux’s six-part serialisation follows on immediately from last week’s story. Yaz (Mandip Gill) has found herself trapped upon a holographic plate located on the planet time, while the Swarm (Sam Spruell) readies himself to kick-start some sort of event as the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) and Dan (John Bishop) look on helplessly. Before Swarm has chance to do whatever it is he plans to do, the Doctor pushes Dan upon the mysterious plate and fires her sonic screwdriver in the air to trigger some sort of unexplained plot MacGuffin.
Her actions send our protagonists hurling into their own personal time streams; forcing them to live out events from their former years. Yaz is whisked back into her past, except certain details have been shifted slightly off-course. She’s also being stalked by a weeping angel, who hides in mirrors and video games throughout the various scenes she features in. Dan also appears to be living through events he’s already experienced, only it’s never quite clarified as to whether or not his timeline has also been perverted in the same manner of Yaz’s. The emphasis on damaged memories mainly applies to Yaz as far as this story is concerned, while Dan primarily gets to spend time with his potential love interest. Vinder (Jacob Anderson) is forced to relive the witnessing and subsequent whistleblowing political discussion which inevitably got him banished to outpost Rose. Meanwhile newcomber Bel (Thaddea Graham) dashes about a post-devastated universe as she tries to outrun fleets of Daleks and Cybermen. The Doctor, on the other hand, is living out some event from her pre-Hartnell days, back when she possessed the form of the Fugitive Doctor (Jo Martin).
As is probably clear from the paragraph above, this is an episode teeming with subplots, mystery and (sort of) exposition. While various segments and imagery do intrigue (most notably the sequences involving the Doctor’s past and the Weeping Angels), a majority of them don’t equate to a coherent or engaging story. There is several series’ worth of content crammed into 50-minutes of television, which at times feels as though we’re seeing years’ worth of material from varying episodes edited into a singular montage. The final result is a mess of a chapter which serves to confuse and convolute and already confusing and convoluted serial. What I can gather from the reams of information and imagery thrown our way is the Flux has destroyed the universe, time has become contorted as a result, the Doctor discovers she destroyed the Flux back before her memory was mysteriously wiped, the Swarm tried to aid the Flux the first around and is now trying to aid it yet again. That seems to be the plot, but even then, I couldn’t say with confidence.
I love puzzle box stories. Mystery within a science fiction story is a great way to create suspense and engage audiences. The thing is, the story still needs to make sense, regardless of whether there is a mystery at the centre of it. Furthermore, it must stand on its own two feet. Once, Upon Time does none of these things. There’s very little storytelling going on here, just strange scenes that only feel loosely connected. The script skips from one peculiarity to the next, adding question after question to a story already teaming with stuff.
Communication and Context
Some people have commented that there is indeed a story lurking beneath all of this. That people such as myself don’t like it simply because I didn’t understand it. While I’m confident that show runner Chris Chibnall has an idea of a plot behind Flux, and while I’m sure if someone lays it down point-for-point in a Wikipedia article, it may well make perfect sense. The main issue here is the way in which all these scenes don’t marry up to anything before or after them. There are no flashbacks to Prisoner of the Judoon or The Timeless Children, no follow-up scene to build upon the revelations it delivers, and little effort to clearly communicate exactly what’s going on in front of our eyes.
Take the sequence in which the Doctor realises she’s reliving a lost memory of hers. Throughout the episode, we keep getting sequences in which Dan, Yaz, Vinder and the Doctor embark upon a secret mission. All of them act out of character, carrying weapons and quipping about events they can’t have any knowledge of. The episode initially makes effective use of suggesting this is a flash forward to a post-apocalyptic future, something it quite cleverly subverts later down the line by revealing it’s a past memory distorted by the present era. On paper, this is quite a clever way to deposit backstory in a way that doesn’t feel like info dumping. Conceal a flashback as a flash forward, you suddenly have exposition in the form of a clever twist. Except the way in which this is communicated to audiences is sloppy.
The problem here is there’s no reference or flashback to tie all of this up with the information been serve up. No callback to the Division, the Fugitive Doctor or the Timeless Child. There’s no pinch points to elaborate where we are within the grand scheme of this story. Instead, we just get the Doctor squabbling with her reflection for a few minutes before declaring she’s stuck in her own past. The lack of call backs de-contextualises the scene, refusing to treat this revelation as a pivotal moment that changes the course of this serial. This raises all sorts of questions, enough to render even more frequent viewers confused. Why can the Doctor only see her true past-self in a reflection? How can the Fugitive Doctor communicate with her future self via reflections? How is the time storm allowing her to access memories she forgot about centuries prior? And why do the characters she’s with manifest in the form of her present-day companions? None of these questions are answered. Instead, we see the Doctor and her team trick Swarm by hiding the Mouri in an alien before we are sent back to the present.
Amidst all the casual scattering of contextual-absence and info dumping, we also learn that one of the concealed figures accompanying the Doctor on her mission to stop the Flux is Karvanista (Craig Els). Seeing as most of the episode has had him shrouded in a John Bishop shaped filter, this revelation feels sort of left field. We learned in episode one that Karvanista works for the Division, the group the Fugitive Doctor is working for in Prisoner of the Judoon. Again though, no flashback or elaboration as to why they are working for this agency is provided. The story reveals his part in her past before moving on with whatever other arbitrary codswallop it can conjure up.
All the revelations and imagery making up the Doctor’s flashbacks are so isolated and concealed from the wider story, none of it feels relevant. Odd stuff just happens, before the plot skips along and vomits up whatever else it has stored in its stomach. Yes, the twists and revelations are there, they’re just exceptionally sloppy, disconnected and treated as though they are no big deal. In an era where dialogue is often used to explain to audiences what they can see on screen, it’s remarkable how Once, Upon Time is happy to apply little attention when it comes to elaborating on the moments that are vital to explain what on earth this story is supposed to be about.
What the Bel?
Despite Once, Upon Time functioning as the halfway mark to this story, Chris Chibnall opts to use this episode to introduce us to a new character within the Flux storyline. Bel is a young girl who’s outrunning the Daleks and Cybermen in a reality that’s been torn to shreds by a Flux-ridden universe. It isn’t until the end of the story that we realise this is the love interest of Vinder, who is also carrying his unborn child.
While I appreciate Bel’s use within this serial may become more important during the final three episodes, here she’s only really used as a means of giving Vinder an emotional scene at the end of the episode. Other than that, she mainly just jumps from location-to-location, shooting Cybermen and hiding from Daleks in woodlands. For the most part, her scenes here mainly serve to punctuate a story already bursting with content.
You could argue that Bel’s presence in Once, Upon Time is to give a first-person account of the devastation inflicted upon the universe. While I can appreciate this is a sound theory, did Chibnall really have to introduce yet another character into an already character-saturated story when he’s got other key players with very little to do at this moment in time? Dan and Vinder are very much sidelined in this one. Could he not have used one of these two to tell this kind of story? Seeing as Vinder has done absolutely nothing this week (or any other week for that matter), why not just have him flee the time temple during the previous episode, then spend this episode showing him sail across the universe in search for his lost love? Seeing as the show has been trying to find something for this character to do for the last two weeks makes this the perfect opportunity to finally get him doing something. Similarly, why not have kept Dan in 2021 Liverpool at the end of last week’s story? We could have witnessed how the present era is crumbling away now that the universe is falling to pieces.
Bel may well transpire to be vital to the outcome of this serial. As it stands here, however, she’s yet another plot element introduced at a time when we need clarification. None of this is helping a story that already looks as though it has far too much plot to resolve before it’s closing episode.
It would be easy to label me cynical when it comes to discussing Flux. Despite my dissatisfaction so far, however, I entered this series with an open and optimistic mindset. I desperately want to love this series, particularly considering that it belongs to my favourite TV show. Episode one I genuinely enjoyed, and while I didn’t think episode two fitted into the wider scope of Flux’s six-part serial, I thought it was generally an all-round solid idea brimming with potential. Once, Upon Time, however, is an outright disaster of an episode, one that places Flux in a worrying place for its final three chapters. It continues to fling plot points and new characters at its audience without giving enough context or reference for us to properly digest any of it. The script is a chaotic shambles that skips from one plot point to the next without giving any of them time to breathe.
There is a chance that by the time episode six airs, all of the seemingly nonsensical imagery shown here will tie into a neat little bow. I do hope to the heavens that this is the case. In isolation, however, this episode does absolutely nothing. It’s an enigmatic trailer that’s been stretched out to fill almost an hour of television. It’s a frustrating and hollow experience that confuses, alienates and annoys to no end.
- It looks as though they are running with the idea of the Fugitive Doctor being a pre-Hartnell incarnation of the Doctor. It may still be a red herring, however considering this episode’s flashback, this is indeed an incarnation from her past. While I still don’t find the idea of there being more than the previous 14-incarnations of the Doctor existing in her past, I still don’t hate the idea. Still, if they really are going with this, they need to explain why her TARDIS is police box shaped, considering it didn’t get stuck that way until 1963’s An Unearthly Child.
- The shot in which the platoon of Daleks glide into view is fantastic. It was so unexpected, it shocked the socks off of me. I particularly loved the way in which one of the Dalek eye stalks glides to face Bel as she scuttles between the castle ruins. The scene only lasts a few seconds, but my gosh, it was great!
- Though he doesn’t really get much to do this week, other than chat with a girl he fancies, Dan is still the best thing to come out of current Doctor Who by a long shot. While on the subject of Dan, there’s a terrific series of memes currently doing the rounds from Doctor Who Poop Shorts. Evil Dan is the best by-product to have sprung from Flux’s airing thus far. I find myself getting more excited for upcoming releases of these than I do for actual Doctor Who episodes at this stage.
- I’m intrigued by the Angels stalking Yaz. This was another mystery popping up throughout the episode. Fortunately, seeing as it is setting up the following episode, I wasn’t quite so frustrated by their lack of explanation.
- Despite my current stance toward Flux and the overall quality of this serialisation, I’m really looking forward to next week’s story. Angels stalking the Doctor and her companions in a 60’s village? Yes please!