Doctor Who: Series 13, Episode 3 – Flux: Chapter Three: Once, Upon Time

“Time is playing games with us all.”

(SPOILER WARNING!)

OK, let’s see if I’ve got this straight. There’s a planet, called Time. And all the time in the universe comes from there. And upsetting the Mouri, the priests who run it, can destroy time itself, and that’s what’s happening. Have I got this right? Uhh… ok.

I know Chris Chibnall has demonstrated a fondness for overturning expectations of the show, but I hadn’t expected such a mundane explanation, so badly handled. I don’t mind that it’s not scientific (Doctor Who science is often questionable at best), but it’s a bit obvious isn’t it? I mean, firstly, how come between the Time Lords, the Guardians, the Logopolitans and everyone else spending time holding the universe together, we’ve never heard this mentioned before?

Second, if this is really the case, you’d think a little more effort might have been put into defending the place, not least by its own inhabitants. Instead, they seem powerless to prevent a, let’s face it, second rate bad guy from marching in and holding the entire universe to ransom. Twice.

This may sound like I’m losing patience with Doctor Who: Flux, as early as its third episode. And, to an extent, I am. However, there were enough hints here of further unresolved questions for me to still be giving it the benefit of the doubt.

It’s increasingly obvious that the key to what’s happening lies with the Doctor herself, and her lost memories of who knows how many previous lives. That’s still a tantalising enigma, and it was most welcome here to see the return of Jo Martin’s Doctor from last season. My only complaint was that we didn’t see enough of her; I’d happily watch an entire season with her as the Doctor.

She showed up as the Doctor chose to hide everyone in their own timestreams – an interesting idea that mostly served to delve into the history and motivations of the characters. It’s one of the cool things about a show involving time travel that this is always an option, but it was particularly vital given the unanswered questions now hovering over the central character herself.

So, the Doctor’s past timestream was one she didn’t even remember, a past mission to resolve Swarm’s first attempt to conquer Time, which resulted in the incarceration we previously saw him in. Along the way, lots of ominous hints were dropped about her personal responsibility for the situation, which, again, remain unanswered, and again, continue to hold my interest. This culminated in an appearance by the always awesome Barbra Flynn as a mysterious old lady dismissing the Doctor as futile, while hinting that Swarm may not be responsible for events after all.

Phew, a lot to take in – I can’t say Chibnall is holding back on the explanations. If anything, it’s the opposite. We’re being swamped by so many explanations it’s impossible to take in, or to decide which should be believed. Still, if Mysterious Old Lady is to be believed, Swarm is just another baddie taking advantage of the situation, rather than its cause.

After the Sontarans last week, other baddies doing that were plentifully on display. Principal among these were Daleks and Cybermen, though I must say it was a welcome relief not to have entire episodes devoted to what they were getting up to. To be fair, that might have been the original plan, until the strictures of Covid necessitated a shortening of the season’s episode count. Whichever is the case, both have been rather overexposed in the last few years, the Cybermen in particular, so I was just as happy not to see them dominating events again.

Their universe-dominating antics (yet again, I suspected Chibnall may not have grasped the scale of the entire universe) were revealed to us via a set of vignettes demonstrating the Flux’s effects on the universe at large. Aside from the wholesale destruction of planetary systems, this mostly seemed evident in sudden, unexpected switches from daylight to darkness, showing how time has gone askew. Fair enough, though would it have killed them to have a few dinosaurs roaming around London again?

Our viewpoint character in all of this was Bel, seemingly the only human survivor of events outside Earth. Given the generally contrived nature of Chris Chibnall’s scripts, it came as absolutely no surprise to find that she was Vinder’s estranged girlfriend, pregnant with his child. I mean, obviously, in a universe of quadrillions of people, one of the few survivors of the Flux had to be connected to our main characters, right?

Still, Thaddea Graham was rather wonderful in the part – I’ve liked her since her fun turn in the BBC adaptation of David Nicholls’ Us last year. And Bel fed into the timestream-recreated backstory of Vinder, who’s definitely the most interesting of this season’s regular characters. So we learned that Vinder got stuck with his unenviably lonely assignment on Observation Post Rose as a direct result of his standing up to the corrupt Grand Serpent – a fantastic turn from that master of sleaze Craig Parkinson, now best known as dodgy DI Matthew ‘Dot’ Cottan from Line of Duty.

The lion’s share of timestream-related flashbacks were on this, and deservedly so. But we also saw Dan finally having that future ‘date’ with friend Di, which served to underline their close relationship just in time for her to be threatened by Swarm. It’s surely no coincidence, given the timey-wimey nature of this plotline, that Swarm knew exactly who would be a useful hostage in this situation, and her continuing jeopardy gives Dan a greater motivation than merely saving the universe. Or Liverpool.

Of the regulars, Yaz has perhaps the least to be revealed about her past and her motivations, so it was in her timestream that we saw the disturbing influence of those time-mangling fiends, the Weeping Angels. We know from The Time of Angels that “the image of an Angel becomes an Angel”, so it wasn’t entirely a surprise that unplugging that games console hardly served to get rid of them. We’ve seen a number of antagonists breach the TARDIS in the past, but I don’t think any has been as unnerving as the Angels that leapt out of Yaz’s phone to take over the Console Room. Testament indeed to the only truly memorable monster created in the show’s modern incarnation.

While I liked the character exploration, and the tantalising hints about the Doctor’s forgotten past, though, I still found this episode murky and badly plotted in terms of concepts. Really, all it took to resolve the plot was the Doctor to ask the priests of Mouri to come back and take charge? Surely if they had any sense of responsibility, they wouldn’t have needed her to ask. Unless of course they don’t have any sense of responsibility, but I suspect that’s a more interesting story than Chris Chibnall has in him.

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