Doctor Who Unearths a Buried Past in “Once, Upon Time”

We’re about to get a lot more than we bargained for in the middle of a time storm.



This episode begins with “Bel’s Story,” a young woman (Thaddea Graham) making her way through the universe in the aftermath of the Flux’s destruction; she is searching for someone she loves, and comes across various sectors of space that have now been taken over by Daleks and Cybermen and Sontarans, all while trying to avoid swarms that devour matter left over from the Flux. Meanwhile, on Atropos, the Doctor makes a split second decision to launch herself into the time storm that Swarm is about unleash on her friends. She and the Mouri hide them in their own time streams to achieve this: Yaz, Dan, and Vinder all find themselves either reliving moments from their own lives, or caught up in moments that might happen in the future.

Doctor Who Flux, Once, Upon Time, season 13

Screenshot: BBC

On Dan’s end, we see him in 1820 Liverpool with Joseph Williamson briefly, then bringing a coffee to Diane. She’s just been on a bad date and asks Dan why he’s not married; he admits that about fifteen years ago, he was engaged to a woman he loved very much, but his fiancée decided that she didn’t want to spend her life him two days before the wedding. Yaz finds herself on PC duty, eating lunch in a car—a Weeping Angel appears in her mirrors, and the Doctor keeps flashing in and out, replacing her coworker (Chantelle Pierre) in the car. When the Doctor collects her thoughts, she tries to explain to Yaz what’s happening, but she keeps getting pulled away and finding herself with her companions outside the Temple of Atropos. Only, they’re not behaving as themselves, they’re clearly stand-ins for other people.

Vinder plays through the history that led him to his stationing on Outpost Rose. His service in a military led him to serve as personal guard to the Grand Serpent (Craig Parkinson), some sort of political figurehead. The man was cruel, and also demanded that Vinder stop a recording of one of his diplomatic meetings so that he could give instructions to new political allies and get his opposition killed. Vinder insists on reporting this despite knowing that the Grand Serpent will see his report—he believes people need to know the truth. He’s promptly sent to the outpost as punishment, and knows he won’t be home for some time. Yaz is playing video games with her sister Sonya (Bhavnisha Parmar) only for the Doctor to arrive in her place and discover a Weeping Angel (now in the video game) that is tracking Yaz through her time stream. Yaz breaks the gaming system as the Doctor vanishes back to Atropos. She and her team have broken into the temple where the Ravagers—that’s Swarm (Matthew Needham) and Azure—have set up thrones. The Doctor looks into a reflective surface and sees the version of herself that worked for the Division (Jo Martin); these are her memories of stopping Swarm and Azure in the temple, ages ago.

Doctor Who Flux, Once, Upon Time, season 13

Screenshot: BBC

The Doctor moves through this memory of how she stopped Swarm and Azure, using a “Passenger” (Jonny Mathers)—prisons that are housed inside a single being holding thousands of prisoners. They are outlawed in this universe, but Swarm and Azure smuggled several in and kill a few in front of the Doctor. What they don’t know is that the Division smuggled the Mouri into the temple inside one of their Passengers, and this allows the Doctor to overtake Swarm and Azure and imprison them. The Doctor realizes she can use a similar plan to disrupt them in the present. For a moment, Dan flickers out in this timeline and reveals himself to be Karvanista. The Doctor is pulled out of the time stream because the Mouri know she will die if she stays in this time storm much longer, but the Doctor begs them to put her back in, to let her see more of the past that she’s forgotten. Instead, she’s dropped into a new place to face Awsok (Barbara Flynn), who scolds her for messing about with this universe, and suggests that the Doctor might have something to do with the creation of the Flux. She dismisses the Doctor, who wakes in the Temple of Atropos begging to go back. Yaz tries to calm her to no avail.

Back on the TARDIS, the group drop Vinder at home only to find that the Flux has been through and everything is in ruins. He tells them he has to stay to look for someone; that someone is Bel, his partner, who is on the other side of the universe looking for him, and carrying his child. Yaz looks at her phone to find the Weeping Angel on it—it materializes inside the TARDIS. The Doctor tells Dan and Yaz to keep looking at it, but a few blinks let the Angel set the controls:

Doctor Who Flux, Once, Upon Time, season 13

Screenshot: BBC

The Angel has the phone box.



Okay, again, I have no idea what’s going on, but again, I’m not sure I care even a little?

We get to see Jo Martin again! She’s now been assigned a proper title, since she exists outside the numerical system within the show: Fugitive Doctor, which is appropriate because it sounds dangerous and also makes me swoon a little, just like her. She’s so damn good, and feels more competent than the entire lot of Doctors put together, which is fun to have running alongside Thirteen’s lovely bluster and distractibility.

Doctor Who Flux, Once, Upon Time, season 13

Screenshot: BBC

This is all part of the fun of this show, seeing who brings what to the lead character, and I love the massive juxtaposition we’re getting between these two: if the Fugitive Doctor told you the Earth was under her protection, you’d be scared. She’s brusque and prepared and she doesn’t care about your grandstanding. Thirteen isn’t that kind of Doctor. I’ve said it before, but she has a lot more in common with Five (Peter Davison), and also really with Two (Patrick Troughton). Strength through kindness and a hefty dose of misdirection. They’re both the Doctor, but they come at it from different angles, and stories with multiple Doctors are always fun for finding those angles. The thing that makes this unique is that we’ve only done this exercise with a Doctor we barely knew once before—with the War Doctor (John Hurt) for the show’s 50th anniversary.

The problem with a story constructed this way is that you need to keep certain bits a mystery as you go, but that means it’s a lot easier for early sections to lose coherence. This episode is packed to the brim with ideas that might eventually get explained, but we can’t know that, and there’s genuinely too much to keep track of. It’s also possible that plenty of these elements won’t get explained at all—for example, if the Passengers are outlawed in their universe, then how did the Division get their hands on one that the Ravagers were lifting in order to port the Mouri over? There are a couple dozen little threads like this that will probably never be explained to satisfaction because they’re not relevant to the overall plot.

Doctor Who Flux, Once, Upon Time, season 13

Screenshot: BBC

That being said, this episode gives us so much: background on Vinder and Dan, background on the Doctor, more information on the Ravagers, clues about the Flux, and the introduction of Bel, who is incredible and deserves her partner back as soon as humanly (galactically) possible. The only person who truly feels undeserved here is Yaz, who we’ve obviously gotten background on before, but there’s no reason not to give us more? (Though that scene with her sister was the cutest, and I would have paid the BBC a lot of money to allow Jodie Whittaker to keep going on that shop monologue.) Fingers crossed that they step that up sometime soon.

We’re having the concept of space-time reframed here by Swarm: in most of science fiction, these two concepts are treated as companions of a sort, and in Doctor Who especially. The TARDIS stands for “Time and Relative Dimension In Space,” marrying these things together as though they belong. But we’re now being told that Time is a detriment to space, that it wounds space through its effects. It’s unclear exactly what that has to do with who the Ravagers are—are they beings of pure Time, or do they just have the ability to manipulate it at will? Is this a power they have intrinsically, or was it learned/discovered/stolen?

Doctor Who Flux, Once, Upon Time, season 13

Screenshot: BBC

But moreover, the section at the end with Aswok (as she’s named in the credits) is the real set up we’ve been waiting for. This woman snatches the Doctor out of the entire time storm to give her a sharp dressing down. Her scolding is vague, but it presents us with a whole spectrum of possibility regarding the Doctor’s place in our universe. Specifically, did she create the Flux herself, and if so, did she mean to? Conversely, is the Flux a naturally occurring result of her influence on our universe? Or was it created to cancel out her effect? Any of these possibilities could turn out to be true, and would completely reshape the very foundations of the show. What if it turns out that our universe was meant to die out eons ago, and the Doctor, through her very presence, is keeping it going? What if our universe was doing just fine, and her presence started calling unnatural predators here?

And, of course, who is Aswok? Is she another incarnation of the Doctor? Is she another one of the Doctor’s true species, from another universe? Could she be the Doctor’s actual mother, here to scold her kid for not cleaning her room frequently enough?

As always, this run of the show makes all of the big power players women, and it makes the whole story that much more riveting. The Mouri, the Fugitive Doctor, Aswok, all of these women on every side of Thirteen, knowing and shaping what’s to come.

But we’ll have to wait a bit to get back to all that because, in a truly brilliant callback to “Blink,” a Weeping Angel now has their hands on a TARDIS and we’re probably in a lot of trouble.


Stuff and Things

  • Love the inverse version of Thirteen’s coat as she lives through unknown history—like looking at the negative of a photograph, which feels very apropos.
  • The Passengers are super reminiscent of the Ark used to store the Daleks at the end of season two’s “Army of Ghosts” and “Doomsday.”
  • So, uh, there’s a different actor playing “old” Swarm in this episode, which makes me wonder if this wasn’t a scheduling/pandemic issue? Because I can’t think of a reason they would need a different actor when they didn’t recast Azure here, too. He looks different (as in, the prosthetics are a different design entirely), but that was true of Swarm at the start of the season, so that doesn’t factor in.
Doctor Who Flux, Once, Upon Time, season 13

Screenshot: BBC

  • Vinder wins “first reaction to a TARDIS” by a mile.
  • Very curious as to whether one of the other folks on the Doctor’s previous mission could be Gat? If so, my money’s on the person Vinder was standing in for.

See you next week for “Village of the Angels.” Yikes.

Emmet Asher-Perrin is like Yaz and very much wants to know what their supposed to call “video games” now. You can bug them on Twitter, and read more of their work here and elsewhere.


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