I’ve just noticed something rather unfortunate. The problem with reviewing a series of single over-arching stories like this is that the reviews are rather difficult to title. You can’t do it without mentioning the ‘Flux’ thing, which leaves you with various syntax difficulties. I’m using a colon and an em dash as well as that strangely placed comma and I don’t really like it very much. And it came up in my thought process because this very week Rockstar Studios released Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy – The Definitive Edition, which is nigh-on impossible to say, let alone write down. There are far too many ‘the’s, for one thing. Oh, and as it turns out the GTA remaster was dreadful, largely because they mashed up the controls, ruined the Switch port, locked up the PC launcher, turned all the character models into Roblox knock-offs and took out the fog. Hence Metacritic’s average rating is (at time of writing) a whopping 0.6, which is both unprecedented and awkward.
I suspect that there were a lot of angry people on Twitter last night, both gamers and otherwise. For example, a fair few of us are trying to work out what on earth Chris Chibnall meant when he had one of his characters mutter “No one calls them video games” during the middle of a clumsy plug-that-wasn’t-a-plug-but-kind-of-was for The Edge Of Reality. Yeah, we do. I mean not all the time; ‘games’ is a perfectly appropriate shorthand. But if we’re talking to people who aren’t gamers (which does happen, honestly), we call them video games, just like we call him ‘the Doctor’ if we’re talking to people who watch the show, and ‘Doctor Who’ if we’re talking to people who don’t. Everyone does that, right? Right? I am right about this, aren’t I?
To be clear, I get that Yaz wasn’t playing The Edge of Reality. I also don’t think that having a Weeping Angel invade your video game like that could be seen as anything other than a nod, given the timing. Even if it wasn’t (and it almost certainly wasn’t). This is the problem when you immerse yourself too deeply in Doctor Who lore; you start seeing the patterns everywhere. For example, why does Vintner’s love interest (you know, the one who isn’t Yaz) talk about him ‘looking different’ when she’s chatting to her Tamagotchi-that’s-actually-a-foetus? Why else, unless he’s got some kind of regenerative ability? Which would presumably make him the Doctor’s father, of course. Or he isn’t and it’s simply another ridiculous fan theory, the way that people misinterpreted Dan’s “Had a mate with one of these” from episode one and turned it from a simple joke into obvious foreshadowing for a prior encounter that he’s keeping very secret, in all likelihood from the rest of us. Which is…oh, I don’t know, minimally plausible, even though it suggests to me that most of these people simply don’t understand British humour, or indeed humour full stop.
In fairness, we did find out this evening that Dan’s hung around with the Doctor before. It’s just he was a dog. And of course it’s not really him at all; there’s a projection thing going on. The Doctor figures this out just after she catches a glimpse of herself in a mirror that makes her look several thousand years younger, and perhaps a little taller. She’s in the middle of a ramraid on the planet Time, which is one of the Division’s illicit projects, and one that temporal terrorist Swarm is in the process of exposing. It leads to a standoff in which Jodie Whittaker is reading out the Fugitive Doctor’s lines in her own voice, which basically means she cranks up the intensity just a notch and shifts her body language. It does, at least, put paid to the season 6b theory, more or less. Probably less.
Still, it’s nice to see Jo Martin back for another stint – even though we mostly get snatches of her, the camera cross-fading between her and Whittaker like a crap version of Keanu Reeves’ scramble suit in A Scanner Darkly. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your point of view) the impact is lessened by the fact that the mirror scene occurs in the midst of a giddying series of time-jumping fragments, as characters dip in and out of conversations they haven’t had yet or might never have, experiencing memories of each other and stories that some of them would rather forget. Yaz gets bored in a patrol car and smashes a Nintendo Switch (these are two separate events, just in case you’re worried about where your tax money is going). Dan has a coffee with his not-quite girlfriend, reminiscing moodily about getting dumped. And Vinder is exploring a murky past and a disastrous career move when he stuck to his principles and tried to expose – we presume unsuccessfully – the slippery Grand Serpent (Line of Duty alumnus Craig Parkinson, as corrupt in an interstellar penthouse as he was in AC-12). As for the Doctor, she’s darting around between timelines, swapping identities at random and trying desperately to get the gang back together before the universe implodes around her.
You will have gathered, even if you haven’t looked at the Twitter feeds, that this is love-it-or-hate-it TV. There are compelling arguments for both. It’s nonsensical from the get-go. That’s what happens if you tease out a largely metaphysical cliffhanger resolution for an episode’s entire runtime (bar a couple of frustrating minutes at the end when Vinder lands on his home planet, which looks like Constantinople after it’s been sacked, and the only emotional reaction he can muster is a slight pout – the sort you’d do when Greggs has run out of cheese and onion bakes). This is a story that isn’t a story, framed by the meandering poetic voiceovers from a woman who spends most of her time giggling at emojis. The exploits of Bel (Thaddea Graham) may be a distraction from the main narrative, such as it is, but at least she’s fun to watch, when she’s not pushing buttons on that wretched screen.
Still, you wonder. What would Moffat have made of this? Because that’s clearly the line that Flux is taking: the multi-stranded time-hopping magnum opus that the previous showrunner knocked off almost effortlessly. It’s all there, more or less – the characters with hidden backstories, the revisited scenes that shed new light on old moments, the connections that don’t become apparent until the final reel. The Doctor floats in a vortex with three white gods and then has a conversation with someone who may or may not be a Guardian. A few minutes later we’re watching a full-fledged TARDIS invasion. Moffat, you sense, would have been a little more restrained, a little more structured, and I’d probably have been bored. Chibnall knows his number is up, and wants to go out with a bang. You can almost picture him in the BBC bar, knocking back a few drinks with Matt Strevens. “I know it’s all over the place,” he says. “And people will probably hate it. But hey, at least they’ll remember it.”
I’ll tell you why I’m thinking about Moffat. There’s a scene halfway through where Bel is fighting off Cybermen. “Love is not a mission,” says the last one as it lies motionless on the floor, having asked Bel what she’s doing in this neck of the woods. “Love is an emotion. Emotions are not missions.” Bel barely skips a beat before she puts another blast through his cranium, noting “Love is the only mission, idiot”. It’s utter garbage, and it’s exactly the sort of utter garbage Moffat would have written had he still been in charge. We ignore revelations like this at our peril: people rail against Chibnall’s dialogue, and with some justification, but let’s not forget where we were and, more importantly, what it was actually like. Doctor Who fans spend most of their waking hours looking back at the hill they just climbed or peering at the one that’s just over the horizon, and it is always assumed that the hill they’re currently occupying is the most arduous of the lot. Never does it occur to them that it’s all a matter of perspective.
And it is perhaps for this reason, more than any other, that I adored last night’s installment. Because it was all over the place. You couldn’t work out what was real and what wasn’t. We jumped in and out of Liverpool and in and out of time in a whirlwind of cameos and flashbacks and flash-forwards and confused half-explanations. Daleks – awful CGI Daleks – swum into view in a scene that practically screamed “Contractual obligation” (and yes, I know that’s a myth, but really, that’s the sort of cameo that gives the myth its potency). Characters and motivations vanished up the creek faster than a spinach-infused Popeye off to rescue his girlfriend. It was audacious. It was ridiculous. It didn’t make sense. And I enjoyed every mad second of it. Sometimes, madness makes for TV gold. It’s not a hard and fast rule (see ‘It Takes You Away’), but some of the best Doctor Who stories are the ones that are thinking outside the box. On that basis alone, ‘Once Upon Time’ is an outrageous masterpiece – preposterous and absurd, but captivating from slow-motion teaser to high-octane conclusion. Bravo, we say, sir. Bravo.
Now: if you’ll excuse me, I really fancy a Marmite sandwich.