Now that was by far the best episode of Doctor Who we've had in a long while. As much as I enjoyed last week's "War of the Sontarans" in the main, I wasn't as blown away with as some fans were. "Once, Upon Time," on the other hand feels like a genuinely new and interesting approach to Doctor Who, a dreamlike wander through the main characters' lives that raises as many questions as it answers. Crucially, though, it feels like we're finally getting somewhere, and there's a resolution coming, even as new elements are still being placed on the board.
While Chibnall's dialogue still includes some clunky exposition, particularly from the Doctor, on the whole the script is more polished, and both stranger and easier to follow than previous installments. Throwing the Doctor and her friends into their timestreams is a clever way to explore them and the ongoing plot, while setting up little hints of the upcoming story. Given the chance to play different roles as they step into other points in each other's lives, the actors are given a chance to really show what they can do. Whittaker and Gill are especially good in this respect, with Whittaker in particular showing just how naturalistic and charismatic she can be when given the right material.
Jacob Anderson stands out in a different way. We don't really know him as Vinder yet, so having him appear as other characters doesn't have the same impact, especially considering he just poses as other soldiers. However, we finally get some exploration of who Vinder is, what his background is and what drives him. A noble soldier punished for doing the right thing, Vinder is a genuinely strong character, and while it's arguably too late in the day to give him focus like this, at least it's finally happened. Anderson is great given a chance to do more than simply react to things, giving a strong and subtle performance as the morally torn young man. In his flashback we also have some nicely sketched-in worldbuilding, as the Grand Serpent (a wonderfully selfish and grandiloquent Craig Parkinson) manipulates the politics of a distant part of the galaxy. I suspect we'll see more of him, and even after Vinder's story is done he could happily return as a villain for the Doctor to face.
Bishop isn't as good in his various roles, but he brings enough charm to the proceedings to make up for it and he gets more material to make Dan three-dimensional, after the fluff of episode two. He has strong chemistry with Nadia Albina's Diane, and all this hints that there's more going on with his character. Why else would the Ravagers abduct Diane to pressure him, and why is Joseph Williamson's plans on Dan's virtual doorstep so important? Dan seems far to proactive and ready a time traveller to just be some ordinary bloke. Perhaps his mysterious ex-fiance will be revealed as someone significant? Then again, perhaps not. Regardless, I hope this is all careful foreshadowing and not just sloppy writing.
The mystery of the Doctor's timestream is more interesting though. It's clever switching the Doctor in for a different version of her own character, with a genuinely surprising appearance by Jo Martin as the Fugitive Doctor, at a point presumably prior to the events of "Fugitive of the Judoon." We finally get a look at this Doctor working for the Division and being as ruthless as we've been told she is. The planet Time, under siege by the Ravagers, seems too visually similar to Gallifrey for it to be coincidence, and the Mouri too like the old image of the Time Lords as godlike beings ruling over time for it to be unintended. Perhaps the Time Lords usurped the Mouri, and they are now returning since the Time Lords are gone again? It's hard to be sure with all the jumping around time, but clearly there's a link there. More mysterious still is Barbara Flynn's character, seemingly a powerful but uncaring being who is bothered more by the Doctor's conduct than the end of the universe (or rather, "this universe," intriguingly). I'm plumping for the White Guardian, but that's just my fan brain trying to make links. Still, if the universe were ending, the Guardians would be expected to take notice.
Among the best things in the episode is the lovely Thaddea Graham from the sadly cancelled The Irregulars. She's likeable and impressive as the swift, smart and assured Bel, a survivor in the post-Flux universe linked, perhaps a little predictably, to Vinder. Facing down a platoon of Cybermen and sneaking past a phalanx of Daleks, she could give the Doctor a run for her money, and I suspect we'll be seeing an great deal more of her. On the subject of familiar monsters, I liked the use of Daleks and Cybermen as an aside, showing just how dire the situation has become with the universe on the brink and its most ambitious powers fighting over the rubble. Equally, there's some good use of the Weeping Angels, livening up Yaz's otherwise not-terribly-exciting scenes and reminding us of the mystery of Claire and her link to the Doctor. Are the Angels a threat or would they benefit from time being repaired? We'll see their gameplan next week.
Easily the strongest episode of Doctor Who: Flux so far, "Once, Upon Time" balances the usual Doctor Who timey-wimey nonsense and silliness with an arresting mystery and some gripping scenes. It's a shot in the arm for the series and makes me look forward to episode four.