Doctor Who Review: Once, Upon Time

doctor who flux review once upon time chibnall azhur saleem swarm azure division jo martin timeless child

Lost causes are my specialty.

What is the point of an origin story?

Often, it’s straightforwardly economic: a means to an end and little else, a way to draw a little more life out of a familiar intellectual property while at the same time replacing an actor that’s gotten either too old or too expensive to headline a franchise anymore. (There’s an aversion to risk there, too – an unwillingness to look beyond recognisable iconography or move past a particular character and try something new.) Other times, it’s about paring back something that had got too convoluted, stripping back years of mythology to hone in on one simple image or idea. (That, of course, is also usually an economic concern – it’s about providing a good point of entry for consumers both new and lapsed.)

Neither, strictly speaking, are actually necessary for Doctor Who. It’s famously a programme that will entirely recreate itself from the ground up every few years; it’s not beholden to the same pressures that might otherwise prompt a franchise to go back and inspect its own origins. Still, though, if you squint you can just about see the appeal – I’ve often wondered how Chibnall, sold to the public as a fresh perspective on a tired programme, managed to convince the BBC that his dense and continuity-laden take on Doctor Who was the one they wanted, but the answer is quite simple. “We’re going to explore the Doctor’s secret origins” is something that sounds clean, even alluring – so long as he didn’t show up with a PowerPoint detailing the Morbius Doctors, it’s no wonder Chibnall could at the very least make it sound good. (Nevermind the fact that origin stories are so often derided and dismissed – the response to Solo seemingly single-handedly plunged LucasFilm into total disarray, for example – there’s just enough of an instinctive, despite-yourself intrigue that it’s something people will keep signing off on.)

The best-case scenario for Chibnall and Doctor Who is that this is one of those very rare origin stories that can offer a genuinely new insight into a familiar character – one that transforms, and perhaps even elevates, a previous work by inviting audiences to understand it in a new way. (Which makes it interesting, incidentally, how much of this isn’t actually based on things we already know of – one wonders how it all would’ve been received if Chibnall had brought David Bradley in to play the First Doctor, working for the Division immediately prior to An Unearthly Child, showing us the mission that went wrong that lead him to run away from Gallifrey in the first place.)


The most striking moment in Fugitive of the Judoon is when Ruth snaps the Judoon Captain’s horn off. The twist and crunch of bone, with all the implied cruelty of hurting an endangered animal, is awful and visceral – you’re not just mystified by Ruth anymore, but revolted too.

That Doctor is, put simply, ruthless: she’s immediately Not The Doctor, in a way that John Hurt’s incarnation of the Time Lord was never designed or intended to be. But there’s a haziness there too (notice later on in the episode, where Whittaker’s declaration that “the Doctor doesn’t use guns” isn’t a way to cleave a distinction between the pair, but to draw them back together again), borne of an unwillingness to commit to exploring who this character actually is. Indeed, it’s difficult to call Ruth’s Doctor a character at all – Jo Martin makes a strong impression, but that’s all it really is, an impression. She’s not afforded the opportunity to build that into a character, only ever representing a signifier for the distant past, essentially really only a plot device – given how fragmented her appearance is in Once, Upon Time, you’d be forgiven for thinking she was never actually on set this episode, filmed separately for greenscreen inserts. (Not actually the case, even though it looked like it.)

How does Once, Upon Time – offering, more likely than not, what will be our most substantive look at the Doctor’s time in the Division – inform our understanding of the character, how does it prompt us to view her in a new light? In terms of the broadest details of the plot, there’s not a lot here that’s new: Fugitive of the Judoon and The Timeless Children both established this status quo, indicating the Doctor’s pre-Hartnell life as a Division operative. Where those episodes each implied a certain moral ambiguity to the Division, Once, Upon Time encourages you to read them (and by extension, Jo Martin’s Doctor) as straightforwardly heroic – on a rescue mission, facing down the cartoonishly villainous Ravagers, and in the Doctor’s own words risking their lives to save the universe.

It renders this with the same sort of redundancy we’ve discussed before. If the Doctor wasn’t meaningfully different at this point in her life, what actually is the point? How does the knowledge that the Doctor once did everything she’d typically do – literally, actually, in this very episode, Whittaker’s Doctor taking inspiration from Martin’s to defeat the Ravagers – but with a vague military aesthetic, change the way we understand the character now? If it doesn’t add anything, does it take anything away? How does it inform our understanding of the identity crisis Whittaker’s Doctor is having now – what is it that she’s actually conflicted about?


But at the same time, it’s actually not difficult to see why Martin’s Doctor has made such an impact, even beyond the strength of her performance: she’s written as a much more active character than Whittaker’s Doctor. (Indeed, there’s a sense that – at least on some level, if not every level – the response to her Doctor, ill-defined as she is, is a reaction against the incumbent Doctor.) It’s not that playing the Fugitive Doctor here gives Whittaker much more to do, exactly, because the character is still written in essentially the same way and doesn’t ask her to do anything new with her performance, but the character’s role in the narrative is different.

That’s the real problem with this sort of secret origin story – it’s fundamentally backward-looking, in a way that risks being (and in this case I’d argue is) dramatically inert. This isn’t a story about what the Doctor’s doing now, it doesn’t really place any emphasis on her actions now; Whittaker’s Doctor is once again being positioned as fundamentally reactive. The issue isn’t how the lore is changing, not really – though that’s certainly not ideal – it’s how the series seems to have lost any interest in its own lead character in the here and now.

(You can make the case, granted, that there’s an idea here about the Doctor becoming obsessed with her own past, to the extent that she’s neglecting her present, pushing away Yaz because she’s so intent on finding out about her time in the Division. That would be a story, and there would even be a metanarrative point to that – but it’s hard to meaningfully argue that’s something Chibnall is genuinely invested in. The Halloween Apocalypse opens with the Doctor doggedly pursuing Karvanista, and it was encouraging to see her looking for answers, but War of the Sontarans ends with the Doctor leaving Karvanisata in Liverpool, no questions asked.)

Bel and Vinder’s stories make for an interesting comparison here, actually. Both of these strands of Once, Upon Time work better than the Doctor’s – in part because Thaddea Graham is better at voiceover dialogue than Jodie Whittaker is (helped, probably, by the fact she’s talking to someone rather than just at herself), but also because we’re invested in the things they want, the things they’re doing now. For the Doctor, this was just a slightly-more-creative way of delivering the same exposition we’ve heard before. Bel and Vinder get theme and character; the Doctor only gets plot.

Ultimately, then, Once, Upon Time is another scattered chapter of Flux. There are some fun ideas throughout, and it may be easier to appreciate in hindsight if the final instalment sticks the landing, but as is it’s difficult to enjoy it as a whole particularly.


Doctor Who series 13 reviews

Doctor Who Review: Series 12 Overview

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