Doctor Who Season 13 Episode 3 Review: Once, Upon Time

This Doctor Who Season 13 Episode 3 review will cover all the best things about Once, Upon Time, and all the unfortunate downs in this week's Flux storyline. Following the excellent War of the Sontarans episode was never going to be easy, so how does The Doctor's newest adventure hold up?

Doctor Who Season 13 Episode 3 Review Once, Upon Time

The Doctor Who Flux storyline continues in Once, Upon Time. While it might not be the strongest outing for the series, Season 13 Episode 3 does offer more insight into The Doctor’s time with The Division, and newcomer Vinder’s past.

Due to the dual character focus, the main Flux storyline doesn’t feel like it progressed very much this week. Even though some answers are given, they’re more like half-answers, leaving fans with even more questions to ponder. As a result, the audience’s enjoyment will vary depending on how much they like exploring Vinder and The Doctor’s backstories

Doctor Who airs on Sundays on BBC One (UK) and BBC America (US), and is available to stream on BBC iPlayer in the UK.

Story – More questions, with just a dash of answers

After War of the Sontarans’ cliffhanger ending, Episode 3’s cold open jumps to the perspective of new character Bel. Through her, we see exactly how The Flux is affecting the rest of the universe. It has devolved into a territorial overtaking by the Daleks, Cybermen, and Sontarans. Bel makes her way through each of their sectors in search of Vinder. It’s a serviceable plot, but it’s a little disappointing to have so much time dedicated to an unknown character.

The rest of Once, Upon Time places Yaz, Dan, Vinder, and The Doctor into separate timestreams while The Doctor tries to figure out how to save the gang from the force of time flowing through them. You know, the usual Doctor Who shenanigans. While placed in these separate pockets of time, the audience gets particular insight into The Division. There’s even a surprise cameo from Jo Martin’s Fugitive Doctor, and certain aspects are revealed about The Flux. However, every answer has another big question attached to it. It is fun to speculate, but the problem with this being the main focus of Episode 3 is that it makes everything else seem like filler. Other stories feel like a distraction from The Division and Flux plot. Especially Bel and Vinder’s, as they have the most screen time.

Bel listening to Vinder's recording.

Bel listening to Vinder’s recording.

Yaz and Dan both get sidelined this week, but a small part of Dan’s past is revealed. Meanwhile, Yaz has an interesting encounter with a Weeping Angel. This carries on to the end of the episode, setting up the story for next week in another signature Chris Chibnall cliffhanger ending. The small arguments that Yaz and The Doctor have been getting into since the beginning of Season 13 also continue. It will be interesting to see where all this angsty setup is leading to.

Characters & Performances – Can Yaz come out to play, please?

The Doctor’s intense need to uncover her forgotten past is laid bare this week, and her desperation is made clear by another excellent performance from Jodie Whittaker. It’s hard not to feel bad for The Doctor when she’s shouting at the Mouri and Yaz after being ripped from her lost memories of Atropos. Whittaker is also given some great opportunities to slip back into goofy Doctor mode. Her rant about satsumas in the police car with Yaz is hilarious, but shifts tone almost immediately. The skilled actor handles both versions of the character well. Although it’s always exciting to see a new face take on the role of The Doctor, Jodie Whittaker will be sorely missed when her time on Doctor Who is up.

Dan and Yaz don’t have much character growth this week. Although, Bishop still manages to bring heart and comedy to the small amount of time lent to Dan. Mandip Gill does a fine job at portraying Yaz’s confusion, but hopefully she gets a chance to do more this season.

Sam Spruell and Jodie Whittaker are two highlights this season.

Sam Spruell and Jodie Whittaker are two highlights this season.

While Thaddea Graham and Jacob Anderson do a great job at portraying the heart and soul of Bel and Vinder, it does feel like their love story over stages everyone else, except The Doctor’s segments. It does make sense if they are going to have larger roles in future episodes. However, it’s baffling to me that these two side characters are given more to do in one episode than Yaz has all season. I hope Mandip Gill sticks around for the Specials and new regeneration of The Doctor. Seasons 12 and 13 have massively underused her.

Unfortunately, Sam Spruell’s Swarm, and Rochenda Sandall’s Azure aren’t used very much this week. Matthew Needham plays “Old Swarm” in the flashback on Atropos, but doesn’t live up to Spruell’s well-balanced campy portrayal of the character. Although, having a different actor play Swarm does open up speculation on whether their race can regenerate. However the end of the season turns out, The Ravagers have been fantastic villains for Thirteen to square off against.

Editing & Pacing – Borderline boring

Once, Upon Time has the slowest pacing of Season 13 so far. There’s hardly any action on display, as its entire premise is based on characters’ memories. Bel runs from Daleks, and fights Cybermen, giving her the most to do. However, that’s pretty much it in regards to exciting segments. Having a more introspective episode every once and a while isn’t a bad thing, but the story needs to support the premise to make it work. Spending 50 minutes just to establish Bel and Vinder as a couple and throw more questions at the audience seems like a huge waste of time.

Cybermen marching onto Bel's Lupari ship.

Cybermen marching onto Bel’s Lupari ship.

Although it is a slower episode, at least everything flowed well into each character’s perspective. Particularly some of the transition shots, like The Doctor’s jolt back into present-day Atropos, and Vinder’s outpost fading into a Mouri’s eye.

Cinematography & Sound – Beautiful, as always

While Bel’s story segments felt out of place, the CGI scenes in space accompanying her plot sure didn’t. They join a long list of beautiful cosmic shots showcased liberally on Chris Chibnall’s Doctor Who. Particularly the alien night sky shown while Vinder’s message plays, and the beautiful, yet barren, state of the Flux-ridden galaxy. The Doctor’s time spent floating in the time vortex is also a great use of believable CGI. There’s no faulting the quality of direction and cinematography on display either. Director Azhur Saleem is a welcome addition to the crew. It’s exciting to know he will be returning for episodes 5 and 6 of The Flux.

Other standout aspects in Once, Upon Time are the costumes, set design, props, and hair and makeup displayed in Vinder’s scenes. Although the time period of his memories are unknown, these production features make his timeline stand out as being truly alien. Especially when compared to Yaz and Dan’s scenes. The Temple of Atropos has its own beauty, but it feels more clinical when compared to the great worldbuilding established by the militant uniforms and Middle Eastern-inspired interiors of Vinder’s world.

Once, Upon Time fails as a stand-alone episode, and doesn't offer much to the main Flux storyline right now. It may become more important in later episodes, but it's this reliance on setup that makes it feel slow and underwhelming. The underlying mysteries of The Flux, Ravagers, and The Division are still enjoyable, but it feels like more questions were thrown at audiences than answers. Combined with a big focus on side characters Bel and Vinder, it doesn't feel like the plot has moved forward much at all. However, excellent production design, CGI, direction, and acting help salvage Episode 3 into a joy to look at if nothing else.
  • Jodie Whittaker gets goofy and intense material to work with.
  • Stunning shots of space, and great scene transitions.
  • The production design is especially impressive in Vinder's timeline.
  • Bel and Vinder's segements are too long.
  • More questions, but not a lot of answers.
  • Yaz, Dan, Swarm, and Azure are sidelined.
  • Feels like the plot didn't really move forward.

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