Doctor Who: Time! And Really Dizzyingly Inordinate Stories

by thethreepennyguignol

Well, that was…a lot.

Probably a bit too much, if we’re being honest. Once, Upon Time is an enormous episode, hard to believe they fit all this in under an hour – or that they wanted to, honestly. The Doctor sends Yas, Dan, herself, and Vinder (Jacob Anderson, reminding us all how dirty Game of Thrones did him with that styling) into their respective timestreams and we spend an episode bouncing chaotically through all of them.

First things first, I’m the realest let’s talk about the Doctor in this episode, and indeed, this series as a whole. Note that I say the Doctor and note Jodie Whittaker there, because we get a much-appreciated glimpse of Jo Martin back in the role after her brilliant turns last season. I don’t think I can overstate enough how much I love Martin in this role; she has this regality and maturity to her that acts as such a great counterpoint to Jodie’s goofier antics, and the styling, the performance, all of it – it’s downright perfect. I’ve been chomping at the bit to get more of her in Flux, and I really hope this is just the start of what we’re going to get from her this season.

Back to Jodie, though, because she’s the one I’ve been thinking about this week (and not just in the usual our-initials-in-hearts-on-my-notebook kind of way). I’ve really loved her in the role and the writing that has come to define her as the Doctor, because so many of my issues with the previous seasons have revolved around this callousness that seems to have been imbued into the character, especially in Capaldi’s awful run. The Doctor, fundamentally, is kind and decent, and that’s why they make such an endlessly loveable lead. Jodie’s Doctor, especially, seemed to turn the focus back on bringing that to the forefront; she’s silly, she’s loving, she’s kind, even with those small flashes of her harder side.

But the Flux story has pushed her character to places we haven’t really seen her before, and I love that. She’s constantly up against it, racing against time in something so high-stakes that it almost dwarfs most anything we’ve seen in NuWho before, and that’s bringing out a side of her I find really interesting. Her grounding in decency and kindness makes this version of her all the more interesting – her furious devastation at being tossed out of her timestream before she can find out more about her past is almost a little shocking, given how sweet she usually is, but it feels right that such a major change to the series’ lore (in the form of the Timeless Child stuff) has that same impact on the main character, too. Jodie Whittaker is a tremendous actor, has been for pretty much her entire career, and I want to see her run the gamut of her skill in Flux.

Speaking of Timeless Child stuff. This is the first time we’ve seen a major comment on that since the last season’s finale, and I’m…a little worried that we’re not going to get much in the way of real answers. I wouldn’t mind terribly if Chris Chibnall left this open for another writer to pick up on, but I could so easily see it just being retconned out of existence and forgotten about entirely if he chooses not to offer any major resolution, and I really want to see where this story goes. Maybe I’m being pessimistic – we still got something, after all, and I loved the way it unfolded through Jodie, even if I wanted more.

After a great episode this week, Yas doesn’t have a huge amount to do this time around; Mandip Gill, however, is a busy beaver, cropping up across everyone’s timestreams in various iterations and sick uniforms to show off her range. I was a bit worried that Yas’ timestream stuff might just read like Can You Hear Me, which I love but don’t want to see again; they avoided this by not really having a lot of her in Once, Upon Time, which makes sense. Her and the Doctor are nipping at each other like a lesbian couple heading home after a disagreement over L-Word trivia cost them the win at the pub quiz, which I’m not really into, nor is it very well written, but I’d like to see where it’s going before I judge it too harshly.

I was talking last week about how Dan doesn’t feel fully fleshed-out enough to carry plots of his own, and this timestream gimmick is basically a chance for Chibnall to speedrun his backstory. I actually quite liked the John Bishop(s) we got this week, and I think it was the right choice to give most of his screentime to character stuff instead of plot-motion, but I’m still not convinced that introducing a new supporting Earth-bound character was the right choice.

Which brings me to my favourite part of the episode, Vinder (Jacob Anderson). Or rather, the woman looking for him. Now, I’m a romance writer in my other life, and I love love when it comes to the stories I consume, so when I realized that we were getting a full-blown love story in this episode, I have to admit, I was living for it. The wraparound this week comes in the form of Bel (Thaddea Graham), a woman navigating the universe after the Flux to find her unnamed lover, and it’s a great way to set up the enormity of this world that we’re residing in – and the sheer scale of what the Flux has done.

We check in with her as she jets off across the universe, recording messages for her lost lover as she tries to track them down, and there’s a sense of immediate vastness here that I really love; it reminded me of watching some of the Star Wars movies, that hugeness and expansive nature of the universe that seems to stretch on beyond imagination. Tracking this one character, with one motive and one mission, through all of that was a really smart choice, and the final reveal – that she and Vinder are actually each other’s partners, and looking for each other – does a lot to ground him, and, along the way, really brings home how huge the Flux actually is. A small story juxtaposed against a huge one is always a storytelling technique that I’ve got time for, and Graham’s warmth made it work in a big way for me.

Looking at all of that, I can hardly believe that this was all one episode. Fifty minutes. It was too much, I think, to cram into such a short timeframe, and the writing suffered as a result (the Doctor’s “Oh no, I’m getting sucked out of the timestream!” actually made me laugh out loud, it was so dreadful), needing to be all business just to make sure we could get it all in. But what we got, when it landed – the Doctor(s), Vinder’s plot, bringing home the size and scale of the Flux – really landed for me, despite how chaotic this episode really was. I’m always willing to forgive a little when it comes to this show, and when the ambition is as huge as this, I figure that there might be a little more to forgive – but, for now, I’ll allow it.

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(header image via BBC)