Doctor Who: Flux – Chapter 3
“Once, Upon Time”
Doctor Who continues the Flux arc with messed up time, further mystery and movement towards answers to lingering questions.
At this point it’s evident that this season is only masquerading as a connected story. This episode crosses the halfway point and there are still more questions than there are answers. Mystery is all well and good but there’s a meandering quality to what is being delivered here and it’s really distracting to have these disparate stories pretend to be part of a greater cohesive whole. Three episodes remain which means there is time to have everything come together in a way that works but so far the intent doesn’t appear to be cohesion.
This episode picks up from the cliffhanger of the previous one with the Doctor learning that time is a force that has been controlled by a mysterious species. Right away there was a lot of potential associated with that especially around the Doctor’s fractured sense of identity. Time is something the Doctor always thought she understood as she remembers being raised by a species who called themselves Time Lords so she saw her people as those who understood it better than anyone else in the universe. That understanding passed to her and she held that as a constant through her travels across her lives. Now it seems that she can’t count on what she understood about time being true any more which only adds to the uncertainty around knowing herself and where she came from.
She doesn’t have the opportunity to properly consider the implications of this as she’s embroiled in an urgent crisis that she has to solve. Foremost on her mind is saving herself and her friends. Her only chance is to throw everyone into their own time streams in order to hide them from the time storm that threatens to erase them. There are quick mentions of time being broken and working to correct itself by finding anomalies and dealing with them. Getting around that means hiding from time itself and the best way to do that -according to the Doctor- is to hide where you’re expected to be. On a narrative level it’s confusing and poorly explained but from a characterisation point of view there’s a lot of merit here.
This provides an opportunity to finally provide some insight into who Vinder is and why his presence is worthwhile. The gimmick of hiding within personal time streams means reliving past events while those involved are aware they’re reliving them. There is brief disorientation but the realisation eventually dawns and it adds further weight to it by highlighting Vinder’s feelings looking back. He recalls a point where he was promoted to a desirable position and finds that there is a dark expectation associated with it. When learning that he is expected and required to kill people in that role he refuses and finds himself answering for it.
In an attempt to add extra connection to Vinder’s backstory the officer evaluating him takes the form of Yaz. This happens because the time stream isn’t behaving as it should but the real reason is for Yaz’ face to be present when Vinder discusses the reasons behind his decision. Even though it isn’t really her there’s a familiarity that the audience can draw on. It doesn’t work as intended because Mandip Gill is playing a different character so Yaz isn’t actually gaining deeper insight into Vinder as a person. When he reunites with her she will have no idea what he saw unless he confides in her so it’s an artificial attempt to create a connection. It’s possible Vinder will feel comfortable opening up to Yaz following this but for the purposes of this episode it’s distracting and unnecessary.
All of this is a long way around to showing that Vinder has a strong moral code that transcends what he is being ordered to do. He has a deep understanding of what he considers to be right or wrong and won’t compromise that for any reason. This leads to him being punished by being given the assignment we saw in the first episode. The context provided here is interesting, especially the detail that he had a choice between the report being submitted and him being punished or it not being submitted and his career continuing as it had. He chooses the former because he wanted the truth to be officially recorded even if it means that he suffers consequences as a result. Doing so also means he lets down someone he loves as highlighted through an emotional message he leaves for them.
The identity of the recipient of the message is revealed to be Bel (Thaddea Graham); a seemingly unconnected character who crops up periodically throughout the episode. She is a survivor of the Flux using all of her wits and skills to stay alive in an incredibly unforgiving universe. Daleks and Cybermen are shown with Sontarans being referenced. According to her they are all fighting over the scraps that remain in the wake of the Flux which means bad news for anyone caught in the crossfire. Time is also working to sort out anomalies so the odds are firmly stacked against her. Bel is instantly likeable and charismatic thanks to a warm performance from Thaddea Graham that goes a long way towards mitigating the thin writing associated with her character. Her defining traits are that she wants to survive and reunite with a lost love. Considering the character comes out of nowhere in this episode it’s obvious she’ll have a connection to a character the audience is aware of which ruins the surprise somewhat when it is revealed to be Vinder. As soon as he records the message apologising for being away for longer than he expected it becomes clear that these two characters are talking about each other.
Despite it being obvious it’s still very effective because the actors completely sell it. There are some impressive tricks in the episode itself to add to the emotional weight of this separation. Bel watching the holographic message while trying to remain optimistic lands well and the split shot of them in two locations thinking of one another makes the point very clearly. Jacob Anderson’s plays Vinder’s determination to reunite wonderfully as well so despite limited material this most definitely works. The unborn child plot point will most likely become more important in the grander scheme of things as well.
Bel is important because she is the only tangible exploration of the impact of the Flux. It’s very surface level and overall far too simple with there being nothing more to it than widespread destruction and three prominent alien races fighting to control what’s left. It isn’t shown to be as monumental or game changing as other dialogue suggests as it’s really nothing that hasn’t been seen before as part of a dark timeline that needs correcting. Bel refers to it as something that happened in the past relative to her and she talks about how it feels like the end of everything but there’s nothing that really sets it apart from the many universe ending plots that have been depicted on this show.
Yaz receives comparatively limited attention when it comes to revisiting her past. She thinks back to being a police officer with the Doctor taking the place of her colleague which allows Jodie Whittaker to throw herself into playing a different character briefly. Her other scenes involve her playing video games with her sister who wants to be more desirable to a man by knowing how to do this. Yaz comments that these events never happened in her life which leads the Doctor to conclude that the time streams are broken in some way. It turns out that the Weeping Angels are responsible which sets up the next episode.
As for Yaz she doesn’t develop as such through these events as her contribution largely amounts to repetition of what has been previously established. She thinks back to difficulties connecting with her family and remains frustrated with the Doctor refusing to open up to her. Her presence in this episode is largely passive as she has to hide within the false events rather than actively do anything to help resolve the situation.
Dan receives some attention with his scenes focusing largely on his connection to Diane at some point in his past. They aren’t at the point of going out for Halloween drinks but are very close friends who discuss their lives with each other. Diane asks him why he’s not married and he talks about being engaged to someone who left him because she thought she could do better. Whether this will lead to anything or acts as a detail that fleshes out the character remains to be seen but it’s clear that Dan’s core relationship is with Diane who is trapped somewhere. He is very determined to get her back which motivates him continuing to travel with the Doctor.
The Doctor frantically works to save everyone as well as herself and find a way to restore time to its normal working order. She communes with the Mouri and refuses to heed their warnings about her being torn apart by the time storm. Her biology staves it off for a while but even the Doctor can’t keep this up forever so she is constantly encouraged to let go of what she’s trying to do before it becomes the end of her. The Doctor naturally refuses because if there’s a slim chance of success she will do everything she can to find a solution or to use her words “lost causes are my speciality”.
As with the other characters she is thrown back in her own time stream specifically to a point in her unknown history where she worked with the Division and was working to restore time. Her face at that point was that of Jo Martin’s Ruth -still easier to call her that- who lead a team consisting of Karvanista and someone else with Dan and Yaz as their stand-ins respectively. A real opportunity existed to give a clearer indication of the Doctor’s personality at that point. The episode delivers that to a degree with Jodie Whittaker’s performance altering to be less manic and more focused on a particular goal but Jo Martin playing those scenes with Jodie Whittaker watching through a reflection or similar might have been a better approach. The Doctor wants to know about her history and this was a great opportunity for her to receive a snapshot of it but the episode doesn’t quite deliver it. Bizarrely the Vinder part of the plot did this far better so it was possible.
Another issue is that the plot is far too complicated for the identity problems to be as prominent as they should. It’s simply one issue among a multitude of issues. Jodie Whittaker does a lot of heavy lifting to underscore the Doctor’s uncertainty but too many plates are spinning for there to be meaningful reflection on anything. Ruth becoming aware of her future self in her reflection should have been far more significant than it was for example. Too much is being taken on meaning that the substance is lost.
In one of the episode’s quieter moments, the Doctor speaks with Awsok (Barbara Flynn); a mysterious figure also armed with what seems to be a sonic screwdriver. She talks about the universe ending and doesn’t seem to be all that concerned about it as all things end. The Doctor is incredulous at this prospect as she is thinking about all of the lives that will be lost when the universe ends. Awsok points out that nothing lasts forever as if that means there’s no sense in caring about anything. It’s a very cold interpretation and counters the Doctor’s compassion admirably. The appearance of Awsok raises further questions, the most obvious being who she is. Could she be another forgotten incarnation of the Doctor who became completely nihilistic, is she a member of the Maori? Is she a member of the Doctor’s species? Is she all of those things or none of those things? One thing is certain at this point; the Doctor is somehow responsible for the Flux which comes as no real surprise.
Swarm and Azure remain underwhelming antagonists. They are connected to the ongoing plot and were present during Ruth’s mission in the Doctor’s past but they fail to transcend into being actual characters. There is still time to cover this but having them relegated to issuing threats and making cryptic remarks about what is really going on has already become tiresome. They are visually threatening and the history that the Doctor doesn’t remember is fascinating but there is a lack of attention where there really needs to be. Halfway through the Flux arc there are far too many questions with a lack of answers, an absurdly fast pace with no time to let anything breathe and a lack of attention in areas that really need it. There is still time for it to all come together but the rapidity of the storytelling and lack of emotional grounding is very concerning.
An uneven episode that attempts to deliver deeper insight into certain characters but has that drowned among fast paced confusing plotting with no time to let anything breathe. Finally gaining some insight into Vinder through him reliving his past worked really well to establish him as a good man who refuses to let orders stand in the way of what he believes is right even if he will be punished for it. Using Yaz as the avatar of the officer debriefing him was a transparent attempt to draw a deeper emotional connection that didn’t work as it wasn’t really Yaz having the conversation. Vinder’s connection to Bel as was later revealed worked really well especially after establishing Bel as a compelling character where the acting definitely elevates the writing. There are two effective moments following the reveal that underscore the loss they both feel. Yaz receives minimal attention with little more than reminders of her difficult relationship with her family and frustration over the Doctor keeping her at arm’s length. The reveal that her time stream has been altered by the Weeping Angels sets up the next episode well enough but Yaz isn’t used well here generally. Dan’s contribution mostly focuses on his relationship to Diane with a reveal that he was once engaged but had it fall through because she felt she could do better. Whether that will prove important is unknown but it does add texture to him to a degree. His relationship with Diane is currently his primary motivation which more or less works.
The Doctor frantically works to save everyone as well as herself. She communes with the Mouri and refuses to heed their warnings about the danger posed to her by remaining within the time storm. As always if there is a slim chance to help others then she will embrace it. She is thrown into a part of her own past she has no memory of. Specifically she relives a mission undertaken by Ruth for the Division that is connected to the plot playing out here. The storytelling is far too quick for this to have the necessary impact and opportunities were missed to flesh out the Doctor’s personality in that incarnation while having the current incarnation meaningfully reflect on it. Her interaction with Awsok is compelling with the nihilism nicely contrasting with the Doctor’s compassion. Further mysteries are created through this interaction such as Awsok’s identity and the knowledge that the Doctor is somehow responsible for the Flux. It’s not a surprise but it raises another question. Swarm and Azure continue to underwhelm as villains with very little more to them than issuing threats and making cryptic remarks. The history Swarm has with the Doctor that she doesn’t remember has potential but it’s unclear if it will be utilised. Halfway through the Flux arc there are far too many questions with a lack of answers, an absurdly fast pace with no time to let anything breathe and a lack of attention in areas that really need it. There is still time for it to all come together but the rapidity of the storytelling and lack of emotional grounding is very concerning.
- Vinder’s history showing him to be a good man with a strong moral code
- Bel making for an engaging character
- the reveal of Vinder and Bel’s connection being handled well visually and by the actors
- the Doctor’s innate goodness being highlighted when it is made clear she has put herself in significant danger
- Awsok’s nihilism nicely contrasting with the Doctor’s compassion
- Awsok generally making for an engaging inclusion
- insight into Dan’s history
- Yaz being underused
- Swarm and Azure continuing to underwhelm as villains
- the pace of storytelling being too quick for much emotional impact to be created
- the missed opportunity to flesh out the Ruth incarnation of the Doctor and have the current incarnation reflect on it
- the Flux failing to stand apart from any other apocalyptic scenario that has been delivered
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