Doctor Who review, ‘Once, Upon Time’: Even the most feared villains in the Whoniverse can’t save this meaningless mess

·3-min read

“I’m sorry, I’m normally very good at keeping up with things, but you lost me quite early on,” Jodie Whittaker declares at the end of the new Doctor Who episode, “Once, Upon Time”. I couldn’t have put it better myself. After the first two instalments of Flux introduced us to a flurry of new characters and confusing plotlines, you’d be forgiven for thinking that maybe, just maybe, the series was about to clarify some things. But as episode three begins and the words “Bel’s Story” flash on screen, it’s clear that the story is about to get a whole lot more disorientating.

Newcomer Bel (Thaddea Graham) is living in the aftermath (or perhaps midst) of the Flux. Her home planet has been taken over by a Dalek army and an insect-like blue swarm that pulverises the few remaining inhabitants in its path. The world is out of kilter, the “beginning of the end”, Bel warns. The maps are changed, day becomes night with the flick of a switch, and no one is there to stop it.

Suddenly, we are snatched away, picking back up where episode two ended with Yas (Mandip Gill), Dan (John Bishop) and Vinder (Jacob Anderson) in peril. Attempting to save them, the Doctor throws them into the centre of the time storm. Now, I don’t want to keep harping on about the CGI in this series, but the animation here is So Very Bad that it makes everything Whittaker does read like a cheesy parody, her shock at being confronted by the Weeping Angel an almost-laughable flinch.

In one timeline, the gang stick together, trying to repair the Temple of Atropos and save the mysterious Mouri. But in another, the Doctor remains in the time storm and hides her companions in their own timelines. Yes, dear reader, I’m confusing myself, too. Yas returns to work with the police, Dan is back on a date with Diane (Nadia Albina). The viewer, meanwhile, is left banging their head against a wall as they try to figure out what’s actually important and what’s never going to come up again.

Meanwhile, Vinder is made to relive past traumas inflicted by an evil overlord, played by Line of Duty’s Craig Parkinson with a pantomime-villain energy that can sadly only be compared to the VIPs from Squid Game. He has an ominious white streak in his hair. He’s called The Grand Serpent. He commits atrocities. “Be silent and do as you’re ordered!” he barks at Vinder. OK, we get it all already. He’s a baddie.

Craig Parkinson as The Grand Serpent (BBC Studios/Ben Blackall)
Craig Parkinson as The Grand Serpent (BBC Studios/Ben Blackall)

It all feels meaningless. We have appearances from Cybermen, Daleks and Weeping Angels – the most feared villains in the Whoniverse – but what’s the point when these scenes exist in alternative timelines that may never crop up again?

Amid the mess that is “Once, Upon Time”, there are a few interesting moments that offer some hope. The Doctor looks at her reflection and Jo Martin’s Doctor peers back, while the team eventually save the Mouri. But then the Doctor sees a mysterious older woman (drink if you had “another new character introduced in the 39th minute” on your card) who reveals the mid-season twist: that the Flux is actually all the Doctor’s fault. The Angels break through and seize control of the Tardis in a genuinely exciting set-up for the next instalment – but it’s not quite enough to counteract the waste that was this episode.

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