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Doctor Who: Flux, Chapter Three: Once, Upon Time

"I’m sorry. I was doing the right thing."

Easily one of the top ten episodes of Nu-Who. Possibly top five.

If you've been reading my reviews for any length of time, you'll probably have noticed that I'm a huge fan of shows taking big risks in the service of storytelling.

They went pretty big with this one.

Oddly enough, they also simultaneously kept this one quite intimate. Despite how big it feels, it's essentially a break in the action. The main storyline literally is put on pause so that we can have a thoughtful character study. Each of our four heroes gets neatly tucked inside their own timelines for safety, which in practical terms allows them to fill in a lot of backstory and characterization for Vinder and Dan, while Yaz gets to spend her time seeding story beats for the forthcoming Weeping Angels episode, and the Doctor gets to simultaneously discover what the main plot is actually about, while also getting some fascinating glimpses into the adventures of the Pre-Hartnell Doctor.

This is just an incredibly well structured and disciplined script, and I'm a huge fan of both of those things.

Let's talk about the 'big' part first. They are 100% all in on the idea of both time and space being completely mangled. I had been expecting that the Flux wave would be an approaching menace for the bulk of this series, building up to it finally hitting around episode five and The Doctor and co. dealing with the consequences in the finale.

This is mostly just a pragmatic expectation. It's much harder to tell stories set after the destruction of the universe, as that tends to preclude having a place to set them in. Even more so when it comes to the destruction of time. Telling stories where that's the threat is pretty straightforward. Telling stories in any kind of coherent way after the destruction of linear time, that's exponentially more challenging.

But in spite of my expectations, they've embraced both of those challenges. This is a post-Flux universe, pretty obviously ripped to shreds in terms of both space and time. Introducing Bel as the opening sequence, rather than picking right back up with the cliffhanger, was a great decision on this front. It allowed us to have a nice tour of what exactly a universe in that state looks like.

I think the thing I appreciate most about the storytelling in this one is how little concession they made to explaining anything. There seems to have been a deliberate effort to make things as confusing as possible at the start of the episode, just to underscore that feeling of being completely overwhelmed by all of the chaos. Our point of view character is someone we've never met before, time and place seems to be randomly changing, and when we do finally get to our main characters, the situations they're in are left completely unexplained.  In fact, many of them seem to be contradictory to one another. What the hell is going on here?

Then they slowly, deliberately, and with admirable craftsmanship, explain what the Hell is going on here.

Look at the reveal of information as it plays out in the various timelines. First we gather all of the Team inside the timestorm that was created by killing off a few of the Mouris. This is more or less presented as a 'calm in the eye of the hurricane' situation, and lasts just long enough for the Doctor to communicate that much and no more. Then everyone gets pulled back 'by time'. And suddenly we're with the same four characters, but in a completely unfamiliar situation and acting quite bizarrely.

We're led to believe, based solely on the information that they were being pulled into their timestreams, that this is The Doctor, Dan, Yaz, and Vinder in their personal futures, and that the Doctor has just been thrown forward into her timeline. For some reason, we assume, they've re-grouped and are now attacking the temple that we last saw them in with Swarm and Azure.

But before we're allowed to really notice the inconsistencies that clearly show that that isn't the case, we're thrown over to Dan's timeline in order to see the incredibly sweet developing relationship between him and Di. Bringing her coffee, chatting about dates they've been on. They're clearly in the 'we fancy each other but haven't really addressed the fact yet' stage, and it's utterly charming. But again, time and space keep shifting, and we're given the new information that The Doctor can pop in to the rest of the gang's timeline's to helpfully explain that she's hidden them in their timelines.

Then we're on to Yaz' timeline, where we're given the incredibly important information that the people appearing in these timeline visions aren't necessarily the same people that were actually present at the time. And let's just give a huge shout out to how brilliant that is both as a useful way to misdirect the viewer at a couple key points later, and as a COVID precaution. They essentially cut the number or performers in about half of what it would otherwise been. Very clever.

And then back to The Doctor, where we get the biggest reveal so far - that this is not her future, this is a key moment in the past during Jo Martin's tenure as a pre-Hartnell Doctor, which in hindsight should have been obvious, but we were very cleverly not given enough time to process the clues before the well timed twist. What we've been watching all this time is the big reveal of what happened the first time that the Doctor fought Azure and Swarm. Really nice rug pull, really well staged.

And of course, fresh on the heels of last season's revelation about all of her past lives, the Doctor would be desperate to find out as much as she can about any of Doctor Ruth's adventures, let alone the one that's turned out to be merely round one of the fight in which she's presently engaged.

As I mentioned a couple of reviews ago, I strongly suspect that if the Timeless Child reveal is something you hate so much that you just can't get past it, you're probably hating this season. Which is a shame, because this season has been the best Doctor Who we've gotten in years. We've had the Angels seeded into Yaz' flashbacks, been told that they've created glitches in Yaz' timeline, and now the TARDIS itself has been hijacked by one of them. I can't wait to see where this goes next.


Bits and Pieces:

Be forewarned, these might go on awhile. There's a lot to unpack in this one.

-- Vinder's backstory should have been a little sappy and twee, but wasn't. I'm not sure if it's down to the actor, the direction, or the script, but they took what, on paper, is a very standard issue 'principled man does the right thing, knowing it will cost him everything' storyline, and made it genuinely compelling. The end reveal that Vinder is the love that Bel has been fighting to get back to also should be eye-rolling, and yet they sell it. That last moment split screen of the two of them longing for each other - itself a hacky trope so old that it requires carbon-dating - absolutely works. I'm completely invested in them as a couple after just one episode.

-- What's left of the universe is being fought for between the Daleks, the Cybermen, and the Sontarans. Sorry, Auton and Zygon fans among you. I suspect this was just a method of including a little bit of the Daleks and Cybermen in a story that isn't really about them, and fair enough, neither outstayed their welcome.

-- In both the real universe as remains and the various timelines we see a cloud of blue particles that appears to dissolve people the same way that the Flux and the Ravagers do. It occurs to me that this is presented as a swarm. And is blue, AKA azure. Is this just a coincidence? Swarm said that they're names were just translation conventions last time. I bet an azure swarm is no coincidence.

-- Swarm, back in their initial assault on the Temple of Atropos, is much gruffer and 'standard monster-y' then he is in the present day. Just compare anything old Swarm says with the dramatic flourish he gives to announcing 'Dan Lewis!' later on. It's clearly a deliberate choice. I wonder if it's significant.

-- So the Mouri aren't a natural feature of the temple. The Ruth Doctor convinced them to take up residence in order to stop the earlier attack.

-- It's strongly implied, if not directly stated, that time in its natural state is chaotic and that the Time Lords of old imposed structure on time, forcing linear causality to be a thing. The Time Lords were on the side of space being allowed to run chaotically by imposing iron control over time. Which tracks with what we know of them. Swarm, on the other hand, appears to favor the opposite and is destroying linear time in order to free it, destroying space in the process. That's a pretty big-picture conceptual struggle underpinning a tightly focused character episode.

-- Why did the Ravagers need hostages back in the day? What agenda were they trying to force exactly? The Mouri weren't there yet to overthrow, so there has to be more to how that story ended. In fact, we're performatively told that the Doctor isn't able to learn how that situation ended, so I'm betting we circle back to that one.

-- The gradual reveal that Karvanista was really the memory being performed by Dan was nicely handled. And raises a lot of questions about Karvanista's interactions with the Doctor back in 'Halloween Apocalypse'. They used to fight side by side, and yet present day Karvanista is pretty comfortable with trying to kill her.

-- Dan's backstory of having been dumped just days before his wedding to a woman he loved but who didn't love him fills in a lot of the gaps in his behavior. It totally explains his hesitancy with Di, just for starters.

-- One huge black mark on this episode - I really hated the way they used Yaz' sister to reinforce the ugly and misogynist idea that women can't possibly be into gaming because they, you know, actually are into gaming. No, she's just pretending to be a gamer to trick men, she's not a 'real' gamer. I get that they aren't trying to use Sonya to speak for 'all women in gaming', and they probably weren't even consciously aware of making any kind of statement about the issue at all. But it's an ugly belief that leads to a lot of abusive behavior, and I'm not a fan of reinforcing it, even unintentionally.

-- Typical that the Time Lords condemn the presence of Passengers in this dimension, and yet were simultaneously using them themselves. Hypocrites.

-- We're told that this was Ruth's 'One last mission for you and I'm out' mission. And now I want a Doctor Ruth and John Wick crossover.

-- I really like how they're handling the culture Vinder comes from. Specifically, that they aren't explaining it too much. We're getting kind of an aesthetic sense of how it functions that's much more interesting than a monolog about how their governmental structure functions could ever be. I have a lot of questions as to how their ruler became referred to as the 'Grand Serpent', just for starters. Is the jacket traditional and handed down, or did he have that made?

-- Jacob Anderson as Vinder is proving to be just fantastic. I'd root for him to become a proper companion, except that would require something terrible to happen to Bel and their unborn child, so let's just all agree to think of him as Nu Who' equivalent of Sara Kingdom. But hopefully without the dying part.

-- The huge reveal, of course, is the mysterious woman with the fabulous hat pushed down on her back, who detours The Doctor on her way back to reality to share that the Fluz and the assault on the temple were deliberately caused in order to destroy space and time, respectively. Can't wait to find out what that's all about.

-- Williamson again appears briefly to remind us that we still have no idea what the hell his plotline is about. He accuses Dan of abandoning 'the Task'. Is this some sort of traditional burden taken on by the people of Liverpool to defend the universe? That would actually explain a lot about the region.

-- It looks like Swarm and Azure's personal timelines are out of sync with Dan and Yaz'. They know to kidnap Diane in order to pressure Dan, for example. I look forward to seeing how that all plays out as well.


Quotes:

Di: "I fell asleep in front of him."
Dan: "I thought you were going for pizza?"
Di: "I fell asleep in me pizza in front of him. He was so boring."

Dan: "That’s life, isn’t it. Nobody gets by without some bruises."

The Doctor: "Not that I want to worry you. Cause I don’t. But I have. So sorry."

Cyberman: "We shall command. We shall rule."
Bel: "Over what?"

Vinder: "I took an oath. I swore my loyalty to our constitution. Not to any one person. Something bigger. More important."

The Doctor: "I’m sorry, I’m normally very good at keeping up with things, but you lost me quite early on."

Priest Triangle: "Did you repair? Can you repair?"
The Doctor: "I really hope so."


Such a good episode. Simultaneously as big as all of time and space, and intimate enough to devote most of its run time to character study. It deliberately obfuscates and reveals, sometimes at the exact same time, and its never not in control of exactly how much you understand about what's going on. Scripting doesn't get much better than this. I'll re-watch this one a hundred times.

Twelve out of thirteen Doctors. I'm docking them one for the gamer girl thing.

Mikey Heinrich is, among other things, a freelance writer, retired firefighter, and roughly 78% water. You can find more of his work at the 42nd Vizsla. If you'd like to see his raw notes for this and other reviews, you can find them at What Was Mikey Thinking.

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