Doctor Who: Flux 13.3 – “Once, Upon Time” Review

NOTE: Full spoilers for this episode of, “Doctor Who” are present in this review



Alright, this is a busy one. After Swarm stood poised to eliminate Yaz and Vinder in the Temple of Atropos, The Doctor decides to intervene by throwing herself into a storm of unstable time. This is exactly as bizarre as it sounds. If anything, “Once, Upon Time” does a great job of illustrating just how rapidly the Doctor Who universe is coming apart at this point though. Unsurprisingly, it appears that the present issues with the Flux go directly back to The Doctor’s own past to boot, specifically her previously unknown role as the ‘Fugitive Doctor’ played by Jo Martin, introduced last season. It looks like The Doctor’s mysterious origins still have a big part to play in Series 13, but for now, despite The Doctor’s obsession with her own lost past, that’s currently the least of her team’s problems.

Because this episode mostly takes place within an unstable time storm, it takes the opportunity to present the narrative in an intentionally confusing, non-linear fashion. Left with no choice in a desperate effort to save her dying friends, The Doctor uses the power of the Mouri to stash her companions within their own time streams, having them move uncontrollably between their past, present and potential future. This story hook also serves as a decent opportunity to get to know Dan and Vinder a little better, while Yaz presents an intriguing mystery of her own, after she claims that her time stream is incorrect.

Clearly, there are plenty of mysteries afoot in, “Once, Upon Time”, though some are better than others. The dense, chaotic narrative of this episode certainly won’t be to everyone’s tastes either, especially considering that significant chunks of its storytelling seem intentionally designed to send the viewer on a wild goose chase. Perhaps the pieces will all neatly fit together later, but it currently seems puzzling as to why we need to spend so much time further teasing the obvious romance between Dan and Diane, for example. Sure, Diane is eventually revealed to be a prisoner of Swarm and Azure, stashed within a golem-like prison called a ‘Passenger’, but is it really supposed to be a surprise that she and Dan are attracted to each other?

One character that better benefits from the pandemonium behind this episode’s narrative is Vinder, especially since we finally start learning more about why Vinder was stashed at a remote outpost in space. As it turns out, Vinder formerly held a pretty esteemed command position under a government ambassador known as the, “Great Serpent”, only to witness the Great Serpent coercing an alien race into corrupt activity. Upon trying to blow the whistle on this corruption, Vinder then gets dumped at the outpost, leaving him vulnerable to the Flux, and setting him on the path to meeting The Doctor.

We also learn in this episode that Vinder has a lost love, Bel, who is undertaking her own mission to locate him. It’s not made apparent right away that Vinder is the mystery man that Bel is pursuing, but, again, it’s pretty damn obvious who she’s after right from the jump, leading one to wonder why this episode even bothered to drag out this reveal. In any case, Bel’s perspective is also used to illustrate the fact that Daleks, Cybermen and Sontarans have begun to fight over the ruins of the universe, as more and more of it comes apart due to the Flux. This is actually a pretty chilling story turn, nicely following the standout previous episode, “War of the Sontarans”, and one that effectively illustrates that not even the end of the universe itself will motivate the Daleks and the Cybermen to stop their insane campaigns to destroy all organic life.

It’s also inspired to see The Doctor fix the Mouri at the Temple of Atropos, only to be denied further insight into her own past in doing so. She sees glimpses of a former battle between her Fugitive Doctor incarnation and Swarm and Azure beforehand, only to later learn from a mysterious old woman that the end of the universe was set into motion by The Doctor herself. The question is however, is this a vision of the past, or the future? Could this be a peek at The Doctor’s former parallel universe, revealed by The Master last season? It’s tough to say, though The Doctor and her companions do manage to escape the Temple of Atropos for now, only to quickly learn that Vinder’s world has already been destroyed by the Flux. This leads to Vinder separating from The Doctor’s party, though perhaps he got out while the getting was good. After all, this episode ends with the TARDIS being hijacked by a Weeping Angel, after the Weeping Angels continue to torment Yaz for reasons unknown.

“Once, Upon Time” hits viewers with an insane amount of out-of-order information, and some of it feels more useful than the rest. The further insight into Vinder’s character is pretty good, but the supposed twists in the unstable time storm often feel too obvious. The Weeping Angels joining the show’s Flux mystery in earnest helps to compensate though, setting up what’s hopefully a pretty exciting episode to follow this one. For now, the mystery behind the Flux is still being built up to reasonably good effect here, especially when it teases another major, earth-shattering reveal for The Doctor’s lost past by the end of this season. It’s also tragically ironic to see The Doctor’s most famous enemies fighting each other into oblivion, even while the universe itself crumbles. Sure, it’s inevitable that everything will be fine in the end. This is Doctor Who after all. I do have to respect just how dark the show has been willing to go during this Flux-based season though, and something tells me the darkest twists are still yet to come.

Doctor Who plunges into an unstable time storm for a non-linear, unreliable narrative in, "Once, Upon Time", continuing to plumb chilling new depths from the Flux mystery.
Reader Rating0 Votes
Ambitious, chaos-driven narrative
Better insight into Vinder's character
The Doctor continuing to struggle with her lost past
Dense, unpredictable narrative dump can be overwhelming
Too much time wasted on obvious twists