Once, Upon Time

Story No. 326 Time is playing games
Production Code Series 13, Episode 3
Dates November 14, 2021

With Jodie Whittaker, Mandip Gill, John Bishop
Written by Chris Chibnall Directed by Azhur Saleem
Executive Producers: Chris Chibnall, Matt Strevens, Nikki Wilson

Synopsis: The Doctor, Yaz and Dan are thrown back into their own pasts.


Fugitive of the Ravagers by Jason A. Miller 10/1/22

On a scale of 1 to Katy Manning, where do you rank Thaddea Graham's debut as Bel, a new pseudo-companion and the de facto narrator of Once, Upon Time? We hadn't heard about her in the Flux season so far, but this chapter opens on her, evading a patrol of Daleks on the ground, and then piloting her way through space where she singlehandedly takes down a platoon of Cybermen who storm her ship. And Bel is allowed to do something that eluded Peter Davison's 5th Doctor in Earthshock -- a Cyberman draws her into an argument about the necessity of emotions, and where Davison's Doctor failed, Bel wins a glorious triumph.

Bel is not mere window-dressing, though. It turns out she's intimately connected to one of this year's major supporting characters, a connection we learn about in the episode's closing moments. Boy oh boy, do I hope to see more of Bel and of Ms. Graham in the weeks and years to come.

The Doctor and fam don't get to meet Bel -- not yet. They're trapped in their own corner of the plot, in a daring episode that takes full advantage of both the series' innate time-travel premise and the severe COVID-19 pandemic restrictions on TV productions as this mini-season was being shot. The Doctor, Yaz, Dan and Vinder, are all trapped in their own timestreams, and forced to relive pivotal (and, sometimes, mundane) moments from their respective pasts -- and futures. Because the cast per each shoot day was limited by the pandemic, Chibnall here has the clever idea of having the main cast play multiple roles, both as themselves in their own timestreams, and as others in the others' timestreams.

I mean, honestly, has there ever been a funnier moment in New Who than the one where Jodie Whittaker gets to play Yaz's Sheffield Police partner, telling a long, rambling, and utterly incomprehensible story about mangoes? Chibnall has only tapped the surface of Whittaker's comic potential, but here it is. And Yaz, who often got so little to do dramatically in Seasons 11 and 12, does double-duty as Vinder's commanding officer in the future, and she's a revelation -- stern, unyielding, punitive. Dan meanwhile is on a date with his prospective girlfriend, only to find himself being stalked by the mysterious Passenger -- a disturbing image that will pay off big-time at the climax.

I wasn't sure where Jacob Anderson was going to fit into the Flux season when it began, but he's been a revelation as Vinder. We get tantalizing glimpses of Vinder as executive assistant to something called the Grand Serpent, and the shock of white hair on Craig Parkinson's head delivers one of the best non-verbal acting performances I've ever seen (and Parkinson is terrific, too). Vinder gets to deliver noble dialogue about serving the Constitution, not one man, and if you take a look at the biography of one American Lt. Colonel Alex Vindman, I think you'll see who Vinder's character is supposed to be.

The Doctor, meanwhile, trapped in her own past, surfs the time storm in one of many CGI-heavy sequences we've had in the Flux season (in lieu of overseas location shoots), and makes increasingly disturbing discoveries about one of her past selves. The scenes where Whittaker has to split dialogue with a key returning character in flashback is a master class on how two actors can deliver the same words with such different meanings. The returning character delivers their lines with stern moral imperative; Whittaker allows herself to get lost in Chibnall's sometimes loopy dialogue, until she shows herself understanding the plot in mid-sentence and roars to a grand conclusion.

Jodie Whittaker's been a treasure on Doctor Who, and it's a shame that we're getting to see her deliver material this good, only on the eve of the 13th Doctor's end.

Flux Chapter 3 ends with another rushing-toward-the-camera cliffhanger, as a returning monster, seen throughout Yaz's own character's flashbacks, comes to the forefront in a terrifying way. The Doctor may have won a temporary victory against the Ravagers (Azure, Storm and Passenger) in the closing moments of Once, Upon Time, but a new and shocking twist is introduced in these closing moments, and suddenly the Whittaker era has gone somewhere that it's never, ever been -- must-see television.