Flux Gains Focus While Lost In A Time Storm In "Once, Upon A Time"
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Doctor Who: Flux Gains Focus While Lost In A Time Storm In “Once, Upon A Time”

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BY November 19, 2021

The third episode of Doctor Who: Flux marks the halfway point of this serialized story, and it continues to raise the stakes for the universe as we know it in an episode titled “Once, Upon A Time.” The title hearkens back to the Capaldi-era episode “Twice Upon A Time.” That episode saw the official reveal of Jodie Whittaker as the Doctor after Peter Capaldi’s Doctor regenerated. But what do these two episodes have in common?

Perhaps the most notable connection is the question of the Doctor’s many faces. In “Twice Upon A Time” former showrunner Steven Moffat wove together the story of the First and Twelfth Doctors. Both of them fought against the regeneration process. In that episode, Moffat also showed viewers the many faces of the Doctor from the classic and current series. And it is that montage of faces that feels particularly pertinent to this week’s episode of Doctor Who as the Thirteenth Doctor finds herself reliving memories from a forgotten incarnation. Let’s dive headfirst into the Time Storm to see what it reveals.

Who Gets To Control Time?

Doctor Who Flux Image via BBC

“Once, Upon A Time” opens where last week’s Sontaran slog of an episode left off. The Doctor and her companions – alongside new ally Vinder –  are facing off against Swarm and Azure in the Temple of Atropos.  These villains have now officially been labeled as the “Ravagers.” More specifically, they are the Ravagers of Time. They are determined to break Time free from the control of the Mouri  – an ancient race that manages the flow of time (on an actual planet named Time). There is a bit in this episode about how Time and Space are constantly battling one another. But Space can never defeat Time.

It is an intriguing philosophical concept. One that unfortunately does not give us any real information about what the Ravagers really want. When asked directly by the Doctor what his plan is,  Swarm simply cackles and proclaims that he wants to “Reign in Hell.” Which is really not a great motivation.  Because this episode shows exactly what that Hell could look like. A universe controlled by all the factions the Doctor has fought for years: Daleks, Cybermen, and Sontarans in control of the Universe and willfully destroying all life and habitable planets to gain supremacy.

Doctor Who: Flux Is Bringing In All The Villains At Once

Doctor Who Weeping Angel Photo by James Pardon via BBC America

One thing about Doctor Who that is both a blessing and curse is how many villainous races there are to contend with. Linking all of them together with the Flux is definitely ambitious. However, in this episode alone we caught glimpses of every single race. We saw the Daleks controlling Vinder’s homeworld. Cybermen attacking a new character named Bel (an instant favorite). The Sontarans are still running around trying to conquer everything. And the Weeping Angels are suddenly haunting Yaz. This will undoubtedly be addressed in the next episode – along with the new character of Claire who was introduced in the premiere.

New Characters Drive Emotional Stakes

Thaddea Graham Bel Doctor Who Thaddea Graham as Bel | Image via BBC

All of these villains at once lend an urgency and apocalyptic feel to the Flux – as it is meant to do. However, at times it can often feel overstuffed and overwhelming. Oh to have one purely character-driven episode in this series, that would be a relief. This episode tried to give us some of that with the character of Bel, who is fleeing her conquered homeworld in search of her lost love. She is a new character with little (obvious) connection to the overall story. But what she does bring to the table is a grounded perspective from a character who is suffering as a result of the Flux. But she keeps going, determined to find her lost lover and be reunited. In a story with so much overwhelming high-stakes universe-ending ramifications, the pure simplicity of Bel’s storyline so far is refreshing. I loved her immediately.

Into The Heart Of The Time Storm

Doctor Who Once Upon A Time Photo by James Pardon via BBC America

As “Once, Upon A Time” opens we are thrown right into the frantic mindset of the Doctor. She races through all of her options to save her friends. What she chooses is the biggest risk as she throws all of them into the heart of the Time Storm. This concept has been seen in other Doctor Who stories before,  notably in the ongoing Doctor Who multimedia event Time Lord Victorious where it has popped up in audio dramas and novelizations. In the heart of the Time Storm, the Doctor’s companions are all pulled away into various time streams. And so begins the Doctor’s hunt through time to find her allies. She is determined to hide them within their own timestreams, to keep them safe from the Ravagers.

This is where the story gets weird and trippy, and also far more interesting.  As the companions travel back to earlier points of their life (and in some cases, events that have yet to occur) we learn more about them. This is most effective when it comes to the character of Vinder. He is a brand new character who has a lot of question marks hanging over his head. And this episode answers many of them. We see his history with a mysterious organization headed by someone named “The Grand Serpent.” We learn how he wanted to expose the corruption and deceit within the organization,  only to be banished to the obscure outpost where we first saw him.

Slipping Between Timestreams

Doctor Who Once Upon A Time Image via BBC

Vinder might be my new favorite character this season (sorry Dan). And Jacob Anderson is excellent in this role. He brings an element to the show that is desperately needed. A (seemingly) normal human character who is just trying to do his best against all odds. I actually really appreciate the fact that Vinder is not from Earth. He is knowledgeable about the universe and his place in it. He even knows what the TARDIS is!

Here is a character who is being thrust into a weird cosmic apocalypse and just rolls with it. He is ready to help, to do the right thing even if it seems impossible. But crucially, he is not about to become a new companion whose whole life revolves around the Doctor. He had his life taken away from him once already. And he is determined to salvage what he can in the face of the looming apocalypse.

As the companions relive their past and future memories, they often find the wrong faces staring back at them due to the mixed up timestreams. In Vinder’s case, he finds Yaz constantly filling in for a superior officer, or another guard on duty.  It is her appearance that reminds him that this is only a memory. And he begs to be released so he doesn’t have to relive these painful moments. “Once, Upon A Time” does a clever job of exploring Vinder’s backstory through the Time Storm, and making him a character to root for in Doctor Who.

The Fugitive Doctor Returns

First Black Female Doctor Who Ruth in the TARDIS Ruth Clayton (JO MARTIN) – (C) BBC – Photographer: James Pardon

However, Vinder isn’t the only one seeing the wrong face in his memories. The Doctor herself finds herself continually returning to a timestream that she believes belongs to someone else – to the history of the Mouri. It is a memory of the last time Swarm and Azure attacked the Mouri, and tried to wrest Time from their control. And it is only when she catches a glimpse of her reflection does she realize the truth. This is her own timestream,  but it is from a life that she does not remember. This moment was part of The Fugitive Doctor’s life – as in the character of Ruth who was introduced last season as a previously unknown version of the Doctor. Soon the Doctor’s identity begins to shift between her current incarnation and that of Ruth.

I speculated in my review of the Doctor Who: Flux premiere that the characters of Swarm and Azure would have some ties to the Fugitive Doctor. And “Once, Upon A Time” proved that prediction true with a showdown between the Doctor(s) and the two Ravagers. In the past, the Fugitive Doctor captured the two. Presumably this is how Swarm ended up imprisoned and Azure had her identity subsumed into a human life. There are hints that she did this in order to be free of the organization that she was fighting for. But what was this organization – is it the Division we keep hearing about? Is this also the same organization that Vinder was working for?

The Many Lives Of The Doctor

Doctor Who Whittaker Image via BBC

The premise of the episode –  with characters slipping in and out of their own timestreams –  is an interesting one. It feels like something we should actually see more of in Doctor Who – the kind of timey-wimey shenanigans that make time travel such an interesting concept. The insertion of the current companions into alternate roles was a bit of cleverness on Chibnall’s part. It allowed the actors to play against type, and flex their acting muscles. But what is most compelling is seeing the Doctor herself slip in and out of her own timestream.

Jodie Whittaker is excellent in this episode. Frantic with desperation to save the day (yet again) and fear for her friends (as always). It reminds us that these traits are ingrained in the character of the Doctor. But the look in her eyes when she sees Ruth her reflection (and again later, when she only sees her current face) is powerful understated acting from Whittaker. It reminds us of all the many faces that the Doctor has worn. And all of the unfathomable lives she has lived.

We remember that the Doctor is a powerful and ancient being, but one who has made countless mistakes across lifetimes. We wonder at the fact that the Doctor doesn’t slip into other memories and timestreams more often, reliving past lives and identities. And we wonder if that is why Ruth has been erased… and how many other faces and memories may have gone with her.

Perhaps we will gain more insight in the coming weeks as Doctor Who: Flux speeds towards the end of this season and Jodie Whittaker’s tenure in the TARDIS. To stay up to date on all of our news and reviews, be sure to follow Comic Years on Facebook and Twitter today.

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Emily O'Donnell is a writer and photographer with roots in some of the earliest online fandoms. She cut her genre teeth on the Wizard of Oz books at the tender age of 6 years old, and was reading epic adult fantasy novels by the age of 10. Decades later, she still consumes genre fiction like there is no tomorrow. She is delighted to be living through the golden age of sci-fi and fantasy popularity. She is unashamed of the amount of fanfiction that still lingers online under her name.

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