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.)

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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?

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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.

Related:

Doctor Who series 13 reviews

Doctor Who Review: Series 12 Overview

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Doctor Who Review: Fugitive of the Judoon

doctor who review fugitive of the judoon jo martin ruth doctor chris chibnall vinay patel nida manzoor

Doesn’t time fly when you don’t have all the answers?

I am, I think, finally starting to understand Chris Chibnall’s take on Doctor Who.

That’s been a point of contention for a little while now, something I’ve spoken about in my review of each part of Spyfall; there’s been, to my mind, a frustrating almost-anonymity to Chibnall’s Doctor Who work, leaving a lot of it feeling like a weak, Davies-era tribute act. I’ve never entirely understood what exactly drives Chibnall, what he thinks Doctor Who is for, what he loves about it. “Chris Chibnall’s Doctor Who” has never felt as coherent a concept as “Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who” – much as the latter is often misunderstood, there’s an obvious set of easy to appreciate personal idiosyncrasies that the former very much lacks.

But! I recently read quite an interesting interview with Chibnall (in a magazine, otherwise I’d link it) which I think sheds some light on it all. He described series 12, in contrast to series 11, as “a journey deeper into Doctor Who” – where series 11 was about setting the stage, this is Chibnall finally getting towards doing what he actually wants to do with the series.

Which, actually, makes a lot of sense. Granted, I’m inclined to question just how well series 11 functions as an introduction to how good Doctor Who can be – given that it, uh, was rarely as good as Doctor Who could be – and I’m more than a little suspicious of how in tune his populist instincts actually are, but it makes sense. Series 11, in that sense, almost starts to look like Chibnall’s version of series 10 – not quite treading water, exactly, but a prologue inspired by a popular predecessor in the same way that was an epilogue. Series 12 is what Chibnall thinks Doctor Who should be – as he put it in the interview, “all the treats of the Doctor Who universe and then some”. That, immediately, is much more interesting to me than the (deliberately) simpler, less overtly authored series 11.

Granted, I still don’t know exactly how I feel about this vision – it’s perhaps a little too rooted in established canon and continuity call-backs, even for me – and, more to the point, I’m still not entirely sure where it’s going. Jo Martin’s Doctor is fascinating, though, and introducing her character feels like the most ambitious the show has been since… well, I suppose since casting Jodie Whittaker. For the first time in a long time, to me at least, the series feels genuinely quite compelling – and that’s a pretty nice feeling, actually.

doctor who review fugitive of the judoon jo martin jodie whittaker jack harkness john barrowman vinay patel nida manzoor chris chibnall

Which isn’t to say, though, that it’s necessarily actually any good. Honestly, there’s a case to be made that Fugitive of the Judoon is scarcely an episode at all – just an hour of set-up, moving the pieces around the chess board so that they’re ready for (presumably) the finale.

So, it’s probably worth discussing Jack for a moment. On a production level, it’s more or less inevitable that the character would end up returning – he’s the most easily revisited Davies-era character, for one thing, and certainly one of the most popular (like, I’d love to see Martha back – the only other character you could bring back without having to tie yourself in knots to explain how they’ve returned – but I can’t imagine many people are really clamouring for that). Even setting aside the Davies-era nostalgia, though, Jack was always going to return because John Barrowman is something of a household name. In 2005, he was a theatre actor, with a couple of small film roles; now, he’s been on I’m a Celebrity, he’s a judge on Dancing on Ice, he’s hosted game shows and talent contests and he’s a talk show regular. John Barrowman is, if you like, Bradley Walsh after the watershed – of course he was going to return in Chibnall’s Doctor Who. And, you know, John Barrowman aside, I do basically like Captain Jack, as indeed I like, well, everything from Doctor Who when I was 10. Yes, it’s pretty much entirely nostalgia, but it just about worked for me (even if, structurally, it was a bit of a mess).

What was interesting, though, is how much his sheer force of personality – for better or for worse – nearly entirely overshadowed the other companions. There’s something fundamentally really, really strange about Yaz sharing screentime with Jack – the difference between caricature and character writ large in a Bristol Cathedral dressed as a spaceship. Yaz, of course, was already poorly served by this episode, which was already especially egregious given it was the alien space police episode, but Jack’s return threw it into even sharper relief.

Granted, I don’t actually think Jack was especially well-served by Chibnall’s writing either – often feeling more like a memory of the character’s quirks, and too reliant on technobabble that was never Barrowman’s strong suit anyway – and structurally, his involvement in the episode was a mess. (You couldn’t have given the three companions something to do within this – helping Jack somehow, rather than just watching?) But it highlights, I think, the limits to Chibnall’s skill, even now, as we’re starting to get a better understanding of just where he wants to direct that skill.

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On the plus side, though, Jodie Whittaker had one of her best weeks yet. So that was nice.

As I noted last week, Whittaker has always done best in the role when she’s had to play against a strong guest actor; the reason, I think, is that it draws out her otherwise fairly passive take on the character. Pushed to the margins, she’s forced to try and reassert herself over the narrative – so in that sense, pairing her with another Doctor is sublime. Here, the challenge to her place as lead is, by necessity, much stronger that it ever is with Tesla or King James – because Jo Martin, and Jo Martin’s Doctor, offer a very different vision of what the programme could be. It’s not a huge surprise that there were people left sort of wishing the series stayed with Martin at the end – that means it’s working!

(Although, of course, I suspect the two Doctors will eventually find themselves a little more closely aligned by the end. It’s surely not a coincidence, after all, that the Ruth Doctor evokes Grace – who was very consciously, explicitly paralleled with the Doctor in The Woman Who Fell to Earth.)

In places, yes, I do still wish Jodie Whittaker was being given more to do. She’s plainly capable of so much, and the show is often so close to giving her things to do – that confrontation with the companions at end, where she brushes them off and insists they don’t know her, has a bitterness and an edge to it that’s almost entirely unlike anything she’s got to do so far. That’s brilliant! I’d love to see more of that! But it was resolved, so, so quickly, it didn’t really go anyway. A shame.

At the end of my review of Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror – an episode that, I think, is actually probably better than Fugitive of the Judoon – I commented that it’s perhaps not a good thing that it was the best Doctor Who could do. This week, though, I welcome the ambition on display – even if it doesn’t always add up to much, it feels like Doctor Who has regained a certain sense of momentum. I’m really, really glad of that.

Related:

Doctor Who series 12 reviews

Doctor Who series 11 overview

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