Warning: This review post contains spoilers. If you have not yet seen Once, Upon Time, please leave now and return once you’ve watched it.
“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.
I went in to Once, Upon Time expecting some answers about the Flux and the Ravagers, and came away with answers to questions that I wasn’t really expecting. I’ve spoken in other reviews of previous series about how much I enjoy checking in with the Universe outside the Doctor’s adventures, and Once, Upon Time does this nicely – it doesn’t overshadow but it does answer questions I perhaps thought weren’t going to be answered until much later, if at all. I’m still intrigued by and engaged with this storyline and I think that this episode (or chapter), will improve greatly on rewatching as part of the overall series, however, I feel that this is probably the weakest part of the story so far.
It feels like a Steven Moffat-esque trope to throw a completely new or seemingly unrelated character or plot strand at us in a cold open following a cliffhanger, and I’m not going to lie, it did surprise me when the story opened on the new character of Bel. It’s not really the end of the world throwing in new characters into the narrative at this stage – we’ve still got three episodes to go of this arc, after all, but there was a bit of me that had the same feeling I had after watching The Halloween Apocalypse for the first time. There are still a lot of pieces on the board that I don’t feel have been explained thoroughly enough, and taking into account that (a) we haven’t seen Claire since her run-in with the Weeping Angel in the first episode and (b) we are still no nearer to understanding how 1820s Liverpool ties into this story at all, another key character was potentially going to detract. To an extent, I think Chibnall deals with the Bel element well – she seems unrelated to the larger story, albeit with her relationship with Vinder, revealed at the end of the story, and makes the decision to leave Vinder to find her by himself. I have no doubt that these characters will reappear at some point later on, but it is no bad thing to leave some events to transpire off camera, rather than feeling like characters are thrown into a vaccuum until the TARDIS reappears again.
The big surprise in this episode was the return of Jo Martin, although I wish that the story had more faith in the viewer and give her a larger role than flicking between her and Whittaker. Both actors give great performances, but after the mirror scene, I felt that the audience could get onboard with Jo Martin’s ‘Ruth’/Fugitive Doctor operating in most of these scenes and committing to the flashback a bit more. This was the most intriguing plot strand, and like Bel and Vinder, I think it would be more surprising to not see Jo Martin return at least once this series, especially as a mystery still remains about who Yaz and Vinder were standing in for in this flashback of their siege on the Temple of Atropos – for my money, probably Gat and Lee from Fugitive of the Judoon. I think that the Mouri and the planet of Time makes a bit more sense now, though, as they hold the answer to how the Doctor beat Swarm and Azure the first time around. As the Doctor and the Division seem to be set on getting the Mouri established at the Temple of Atropos in the flashback, I’d say that they are their presence and power is at the will of the Time Lords, and this seems rather in keeping with Rassilon and the Time Lords in general – why not use another race to ensure that time is kept stable? This war between Time and Space seems is a bit of a weird concept to get my head around, but I suppose that if I can eventually get to grips with the idea of a Time War then I suspect this will make sense – he says, hopefully. We’ve also got the mystery of the character who appears to the Doctor and seems quite mysterious and omniscient – perhaps a Guardian, or maybe the Master – who seems to indicate that this is all the Doctor’s fault. Like I said, this episode answers some questions, but replaces them almost immediately.
Always the wrong questions. This universe is over, Doctor. Hm?
And you get to call it, do you?
Everything has its time. Nothing is forever. Nothing is certain. Not you, and not this universe you seem to love so much.Aswok and the Thirteenth Doctor
The Ravagers, Swarm and Azure, feel a little sidelined here but they are effective in the moments they get. Whilst the ‘renewed’ Swarm feels more threatening, the one we see doing battle with the Fugitive Doctor and her team still packs a threat. This is best demonstrated with the way he dispatches with the Passenger, revealed to be a living prison holding the lifeforms it has captured, casually killing a lot of innocent people, a gesture that Azure repeats without much thought or regret. When we return to the newer Swarm, it is clear that the time imprisoned has not done much for his sanity!
After last week’s run-in with the Sontarans, we have both the Daleks and Cybermen return here but both contribute only background details to what is happening in the surviving universe. Whilst I was expecting the return of the Cybermen, the brief cameo of Skaro’s favourite pepperpots did come as a shock, especially as this does look to be a slightly different colour scheme to the ‘Time War’ era Daleks that we are used to in the revived series. The Cybermen do get more to do, but the focus is instead on the Doctor’s priority to keep Dan, Vinder and Yaz safe, and the Cybermen are off to one side as part of Bel’s narrative. Whilst Bel is a badass, the Cybermen do seem to get taken out almost too easily – they suffer with the same inability to shoot straight as the Sontarans did last week. I’d love to see a solid Cyberman solo story in the not too distant future. As both of these foes are two of the “Big Three”, and the wider narrative is that both, along with the Sontarans, are expanding across the remains of the universe, leading them to inevitable conflict at some point, again, I wouldn’t be surprised if one or both of them show up again. The Weeping Angels get more focus here and they are used well. We get reminded of their power as they infiltrate the Time Storm that the Doctor throws herself and her friends into, and are dogged in their pursuit of Yaz. The whole ‘image of an angel is itself an angel’ comes back and is used really effectively in the section with Yaz and her sister in the time machine and appearing in the police car’s mirrors in Yaz’s time stream. This culiminates in yet another great cliffhanger, with an Angel using the phone to take control of the TARDIS – the Doctor’s worst fears from Blink have finally come to life, and I’m intrigued to see what they are planning in the aftermath of the Flux. It does not seem to be in their modus operandi to join the universal conquest that the Doctor’s enemies named above seem to be planning.
As mentioned above, this episode does see the welcome return of Ruth Martin in the role of the Fugitive Doctor, and the main thrust of the Doctor’s venture back into her time stream is this attack on the Ravagers’ base at the Temple of Atropos, set in the Dark Times, before William Hartnell’s Doctor. Martin is solid as ever, although I felt that she could have been entrusted with more to do, rather than her and Whittaker playing ‘Cheddar Gorge’ – if you’re unfamiliar, it’s a game from BBC Radio 4’s comedy I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue where each panelist takes turns to contribute a word whilst attempting not to form a complete sentence. I feel like Whittaker is at her strongest here, from her brief snippets interjecting into her companion’s time streams, like when she’s embodying Yaz’s police colleague, to very much showing that there are elements of the Fugitive Doctor still present in her Doctor’s personality and the ‘glitching’ worked well, although with the caveat that I feel I’ve stated before: more Ruth Martin please. I liked the insight into the Doctor’s way of planning at the beginning of the episode, which reminded me of the Doctor’s mind palace of being in the TARDIS explaining how he was going to escape in Heaven Sent. I do, however, get the feeling that there are going to be serious consequences if she doesn’t let Yaz in to the truth about her past. The Doctor here feels a bit like Batman at the start of the Knightfall story arc – getting to the point of being overstretched and not accepting help from others.
I spend my life walking into new places and weighing things up fast. Who’s who? Who has the power? Who’s in danger? How fast is danger coming? Also how likely my friends are to die. I’ve got good at figuring all of that out at speed.The Thirteenth Doctor
The scenes in their own time streams are perhaps least beneficial to Yaz, as they allow Dan and Vinder to get some more backstory, and so she is thrown in with the Weeping Angels trying to break through and get her. It’s probably down to the fact that this is our third series with Yaz and there’s little that we don’t really know about why she joined the police or her family life. Mandip Gill does get more to do when she is in place of Vinder’s commander though, as well as playing one of the Doctor’s Division comrades. All of these scenes of altered memories are reminiscent of Ascension of the Cybermen, although with the companions replacing the important people in memories. Dan and Vinder’s memories were more effective, with Vinder going back to the worst day of his military career, obeying the Grand Serpent, played sinisterly and all too briefly by Craig Parkinson. We learn that Vinder is noble and has ideals, revealed by the fact that he decides to press forward with his report about the unrecorded moment, knowing what the consequences will likely be. Jacob Anderson is great in the scene recording his message to his loved ones, revealed later, of course, to be Bel, and I think he managed to effectively portray the conflict to do the right thing, pleading that he not be made to relive this moment of his life. He’s also great when he sticks his head into the TARDIS, which is a much more reasonable response than Dan’s. We also get to see more of Dan and Diane together, and learn that Dan nearly got married but his fiancée left him about fifteen years ago. These vignettes for both Vinder and Dan give us more of a connection to them, whilst the reveal that Bel is pregnant almost gives me a sense of impending doom for one, or both of them.
Verdict: It may be that I come back and re-evaluate this episode when the series has finished, but Once. Upon Time might be the weakest part of this series so far. I liked the exploration of the impact of the Flux on the surviving universe and was excited to see Jo Martin back, but this felt disjointed for a lot of its runtime. It manages to answer some questions, whilst posing entirely new ones. 7/10
Cast: Jodie Whittaker (The Doctor), Mandip Gill (Yasmin Khan), John Bishop (Dan Lewis), Thaddea Graham (Bel), Rochenda Sandall (Azure), Sam Apruell (Swarm), Jacob Anderson (Vinder), Nadia Albina (Diane), Jo Martin (Fugitive Doctor), Steve Oram (Joseph Williamson), Craig Parkinson (Grand Serpent), Bhavnisha Parmar (Sonya Khan), Craige Els (Karvanista), Barbara Flynn (Aswok), Jonny Mathers (Passenger), Chantelle Pierce (Police Officer), Amanda Drew (Voice of the Mouri), Nicholas Briggs (Voice of the Cybermen) & Nigel Richard Lambert (Priest Triangle).
Writer: Chris Chibnall
Director: Azhur Saleem
Behind the Scenes
- This story is notable for crediting Jo Martin’s incarnation as “the Fugitive Doctor”, having previously been credited as The Doctor for her appearances in Fugitive of the Judoon and The Timeless Children. The use of the name “Fugitive Doctor” had been used widely in fandom since her reveal in Fugitive of the Judoon.
- The Doctor Who debut for director Azhur Saleem, who will return this series to direct Chapter Five, Survivors of the Flux and the as yet unconfirmed Episode 6.
- Barbara Flynn previously voiced Sister Chalice and a Croc Trooper in The Skull of Sobek.
The shot of the TARDIS team walking away from the Temple of Atropos conveys so much without any characters having any dialogue.
The biggest changes to our lives start small. Catastrophes creep in quietly. And by the time you realise, the life you once had is already behind you.Bel
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