In old television anthology series, there was an understanding that the same cast could come in and play multiple roles throughout the production as need be. You'd tune in one week, and a character actor would be playing the secretary to the mayor, then a few weeks later you'd see her back as the detective's long separated ex-girlfriend. Over time this became less and less common, but you'll still find it in long running dramas like "Midsomer Murders" or "Law and Order", albeit with the roles often spaced out by years instead of weeks.
This method was used in its fullest extent in the A&E Nero Wolfe series in 2001, where every episode had the same cast working in the various changing roles, giving the whole production the feel of a local theater company presenting you these stories.
While this trope used to be common, it's fallen away till it’s mostly only seen in long running crime dramas, and so here we are in Doctor Who Flux, three episodes into the season, three paragraphs into this essay, and with Chibnall taking this format and using it for one of the most creative and successful episodes of his tenure.
"Once, Upon Time," was perhaps vastly oversold before airing as being an experimental revelation for the show. It's not, and really the comparison does the episode no favors in that it obscures the clever way its playing on tropes the viewer is already familiar with. How much you enjoy those tropes is going to factor a lot into the gas milage you'll get with this one.
So, ya like procedural cop dramas? A lot has been made of the 13th Doctor's relationship to the police. One of her companions is a police officer, and her expressions of her identity often emphasize elements of justice, and law and order (dun dun, executive producer Dick Wolf). This is brought into its most focal point with the revelation that the Doctor worked for an organization called "The Division", a sort of Timelord Spacecop group that was entangled in a bunch of the past events the Doctor has been uncovering during her adventures.
I'm not going to attempt some defense of the "Doctor as a cop" thing, its not a take I like, but its also not one I'm going to pour more ink into tearing into because... well its already been covered, and I'm not passionate enough to dig into that with a greater depth than is already out there. So, for now lets just establish that it's a bad idea and leave it at that. Because like it or not (and well, I'm in the not) its there. Which leads to the question of what exactly Chibnall is trying to do with this?
I think that question has come into focus here, as after setting us up with the basic serial structure he used writing Broadchurch with a tangle of plot threads thrown at us to watch untangle and come back together, we now reach something playful with the format. We're given backstory flashbacks for our characters, where different roles are played by our main cast, straight out of Nero Wolfe. Part of this is clearly very clever Covid filming protocols, each actor is clearly on set with as few people as possible, and the group of main cast members who have to be around each other anyway get to work around the awkwardness of shooting whole scenes with just shot-reverse-shots. The result is much better performances from everyone, as they're actually able to go back and forth with their co-stars. But beyond being practical, we're being thrown into familiar genres.
Our first strand is Bel, a survivor of the Flux who is living in the post-apocalyptic wasteland that follows it, hiding from monsters like she's in a horror movie. Turns out she's Vinder's partner, which I was surprised by because I thought for sure she was going to be some lesbian representation since we hadn't had anything so far this series, but it is what it is, and the character as envisioned is a strong one.
After that, we get the "one last mission before I can retire" cop drama of the Doctor going on a job for the Division in the past, the domestic drama of Yaz at home with her sister, the political conspiracy of Vinder, and the Romantic Drama of Dan. Azhur Saleem does a great job switching between these and manages to quickly capture the tone and feeling of each strand so they feel unique.
Quick aside here: Azhur Saleem is the best director of the 13th Doctor's tenure so far, yes? He has a grasp of visual space and clarity of character that makes the show pop from the script page in a way that seems to have finally come into focus with him. It’s too bad it’s so late in the game, but we finally have a real working vision of how to direct the 13th Doctor's era. I'm looking forward to his other two episodes.
Back to the strands--Chibnall's experience with police drama comes into focus here, as the tropes he's playing with quickly establish each segment. But what's notable about these flashbacks is how each is so filled with failure (the exception being Bel's, the only story that's largely "present"). None of these stories are true triumphs: Vinder stands up for what he believes and gets punished for it. The Doctor confronts the bad guys as a spacecop, but only puts off the problem to deal with later. Yaz can't manage to balance her family and work life, and still can't even now with the Doctor despite everything, getting into a spat with her just like with her sister. Dan almost manages to move forward with his love, but he's held back by both his own past and his own circumstances.
Everyone here is haunted by their past, and presumably this is why we're seeing the weeping angel's featured so strongly leading up to next week, villains who literally throw their targets into the past. We'll see if that clear thread is picked up next week or not.
For now, we have an episode that was the most fun I've had with the show in a long time. I really liked this one, and I'm hopeful that it's a sign of good things to come, especially with the other episodes directed by Mr. Saleem. We'll see.
So till then, we'll wait for the angels.
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Poet, Playwright, Game Designer, Writer, Freelancer for hire.