Doctor Who: Once, Upon Time

Well, now we know what happens when Chris Chibnall attempts to write a Steven Moffat-style puzzle box episode. it’s all sizzle and very little steak, but the sizzle is at least largely entertaining. It’s a shame that they forgot to put a story in this episode, so focused was the production team on delivering backstory.

So, where to start? I liked Bel as a character from the start, and the assorted camos of the classic Who monsters along teh way of her journey were nice to see. But given where her storyline ended up at the end of the episode, did we really need to devote that much time to her journey? This is a constant complaint that I’ve had during the Chibnall era, I don’t agree with the manner in which he aportions his storytelling real estate. But seriously, while it was nice to bond with the character, if the only scene in this episode to feature Bel was the final one, with her watching the transmission from Vinder, it still would have been pretty much just as effective–because we’re interested in her because of her connection to him. By giving her so much of the narrative focus, it means you’re pulling focus three or four steps away from the Doctor and the core cast. In comics, I occasionally remind creators that the function of supporting characters is to support the lead character–so while it’s all right for, say, Harry Osborn to have a story going on, that story is only relevant for how it impacts upon Peter Parker and Spider-Man. Same sort of thing here. Her identity, in any case, became obvious as Vinder’s story played out across the episode, and my wife spotted it long before the reveal.

I also feel as though Chibnall is falling into a problem that I think of as “add more balls”–a Simpsons reference. But we are halfway through this season and this storyline, and we know precious little about most of the characters and storylines that are running through it. So it feels a bit like folly to continue to introduce more and more and more central elements into the mix. Maybe it will all come together in the end, but I don’t have enough confidence in this crew to be able to effectively do so. So here, in addition to Bel, we get Awsok, the mysterious time woman who is critically important to the plot and to the Doctor’s past. Which is to say, the same thing that makes Swarm and Azure relevant, and Karnavista, and who knows who else. This feels like a bit of a crutch to me, a case of overly leaning on this one trope to try to imbue new characters with importance. It’s an approach that can work, but in this instance, I feel as though it’s being so overused that any effectiveness is blunted. (and yes, I know this is all meant to tie together and all of these elements connect to the same plot–but it still feels like pressing the same button again and again.

In terms of the regulars, I felt like poor old Yaz was underserved again, limited to being shouted down by the Doctor whenever she expresses a relevant thought. I did like her being stalked by the Weeping Angels, though, through a variety of screens and reflections. As monsters go, though, i think next week’s episode is going to need to do something to help reinvent and reinvigorate the Angels, they’ve kind of been living entirely on the warm reception to their first story, Blink, to the point where ever Weeping Angel scene is the same–that episode is over a decade old, time to find something more to do with them, I think. Dan, too, was a bit underserved this outing, though we did remember to get back to his would-be girlfriend Diane, whom we last saw captured two episodes back. No points for guessing that she was trapped in the Passenger, though, as that was pretty much the only outcome that made sense when the thing was introduced last week. And for the most part, I did enjoy Vinder’s backstory and revelations, even if they did seem just a hair on the nose in the era of Trump and Boris Johnson. Again, though, Vinder isn’t technically a member of the cast, so giving him so much story real estate is a strange choice–although he’s been treated as a defacto fourth Tardis member virtually from the moment he came on screen.

And then there’s the Doctor and all of her backstory featuring the Temple of Atropos (I keep typing Adipose!) and her missing years as a member of the Division. I take it that we were meant to think that the first shot of her among the armored-up Yaz, Dan and Vinder was a future look, but I wasn’t fooled from the jump. That said, any appearance of the Fugitive Ruth Doctor is a welcome one, even if they never quite gave her so much as a real scene in this episode. It was nice to get some forward movement on the developing revelations concerning the Doctor’s past, though nothing that we learned here was particularly satisfying–much of it was simply confirmation of things that we’d already been told or heavily hinted. By making the Doctor’s past the backbone of this season, it’s putting a lot of pressure on those revelations’ to pay off in a successful manner.

But really, the essential problem with this one is that there wasn’t an actual story, just the puzzle pieces of one, and that’s ultimately pretty unsatisfying. And after three weeks of being given a lot of mystery with little successful payoff, I’m finding the crux of these episodes to be largely a lot of empty calories. If I had to describe the plot of this episode to somebody, i don’t know that I could do it, so navel-gazing was it. It’s possible that time will be more generous to this episode once we can see teh shape of teh entire season, but just coming off of it, while there were moments that I liked well enough, I find that I’m frustrated by the storytelling rather than energized by it. It’s all a bit wearlying, to be honest, and it makes me feel like maybe it’s a good thing that this season will only be six episodes long–a strange feeling for me to have about DOCTRO WHO given how long it always is between series.

It also makes even the most self-indulgent Steven Moffat episodes seem a bit stronger by contrast.

4 thoughts on “Doctor Who: Once, Upon Time

  1. My hand to God, from the first screen, BEL’S STORY, before we even started with the actual episode, I muttered “for fuck’s sake, that’s what this saga needs, yet another character.” As much as an improvement as last week’s was over, I don’t know, any other random Chibnall episode, this one absolutely felt like he’s just making it up as he goes. Like they had to start filming Episode One before he finished the script for Episode Four, so he’s throwing every idea he has into these scripts and praying that he can pull out a miracle with the final one and make it look like it all hangs together and was planned that way all along.

    Not that I would know anything about that method of writing.

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    1. Yeah, lots of sound and fury that so far is signifying very little. Possibly Chibnall will pull off something breathtaking in the final episode to pull it all together, but on past form I’m not holding my breath.

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  2. Keeping it simple – something Chibnall might have borne in mind – I will say that I enjoyed this episode more than the preceding two, though that was largely down to the Bel and Vinder elements.
    The interplay between the Doctor and her “official” companions, however, seemed entirely off-key and struck a number of bum notes for me.

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  3. It doesn’t help Dan’s standing that Vinder out acts him and has a better backstory. Why isn’t Vinder considered a companion again? There’s been one season companions before. Dalek master Plan, I think had one or two. My guess is that someone insisted there be a white guy as official companion and it was a late enough edict that we got the underdeveloped Dan.

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