That was… better. Good? Not really, but better. Beginning the episode with a problem and ending it with a solution gave it a more satisfactory shape (almost as if Doctor Who works better as an anthology series, gosh) although it wasn’t the Sontaran plot I was ultimately most interested in.

The opening shot was one of the most striking in the series’ entire history. I can’t remember a black-and-white scene since the first few seconds of The Two Doctors and the grotesque Terry Gilliam-esque house on legs is a remarkable piece of design work. What does it mean? I couldn’t tell you, but I liked it.

Readers will recall that the previous episode ended with the universe-ending Flux sweeping through star systems, laying waste all before it. As the new episode starts, the universe-ending nature of the titular menace seems to have been somewhat overstated, since in all three main areas of activity for the story, the universe seems absolutely fine. Maybe there was an escape pod? There often is.

What happens next suggests a writer not wholly in control of the narrative world. What we need is to have Dan back on Earth, going to wok on Sontarans, the Doctor in the Crimea palling up with Mary Seacole and Yaz at the Temple of Atropos. Not for the first time in Chris Chibnall’s Doctor Who, an apparently deadly force turns out to be merely a taxi service instead (not that he innovated this trope) and so the doomed central characters are not obliterated but just deposited in a new location. Isn’t that what the TARDIS is for? But rather than actually take people where they need to go, Dan and Yaz both take a detour via Sevastapol. Luckily the TARDIS is there so the Doctor can follow them. Unluckily, the door has vanished. Luckily, the door reappears once the Doctor’s bit of plot is finished. Is any of this remotely justified? No, stuff just happens because it needs to. Character in the wrong place in the story? There you go, have some pixels.

From this point on, we follow each central character on their own journey. This is an improvement over the lunatic ADHD treatment of the previous episode. Let’s take them in order from worst to best. Handily the stupidest and least interesting section is the Doctor in the 1850s. There’s one quite nifty bit of business, which alas we’d already seen in the trailers, where Jodie Whittaker has to point to Yaz and Dan with her hands up. It’s the kind of thing which I can imagine Matt Smith doing, but he would do something like that six times an episode, whereas Whittaker does something like that twice a season. But it was fun.

The rest of the time, the panicky, uncertain Doctor who gets things wrong all the time is back. She has no clue what has happened to Yaz and Dan, and basically forgets about them until the Sontarans are vanquished. She fails to notice the biggest word on not a particularly big map for many seconds. She relies on Mary Seacole to tell her basic facts about Sontaran anatomy which she must already have known from previous encounters (and ignores the fact that Mary Seacole’s observations of the captive Sontaran disprove the assertion that they will die if they don’t regularly return to their ships to recharge) and the whole stupid plot relies on every Sontaran going for a lie down at exactly the same time. Have they never heard of shifts?

Mary Seacole is a fascinating individual, but just as with historical figures from recent episodes past, she doesn’t do anything except recite her biography at us. Her particular skills and traits are never used and she doesn’t accomplish anything which the Doctor shouldn’t have been able to do in five minutes. Instead, the episode is almost over before the Doctor finally springs into action and then she’s outwitted by Colonel Blimp, an incredibly one-dimensional caricature with no nuance whatsoever.

To be fair, I did chuckle at “I wanted to ride a horse,” and the Sontarans, while not cast in a particularly new or interesting light, are not actively screwed up. But there’s a sense here that the ideas in the script are far bigger than the stories they are being used to tell. For Russia never to have existed, Sontarans must have been on Earth for generations (Peter the Great ruled from about 1682 – almost 200 years before the Crimean War) so why does General Cliché doubt that the Doctor has ever fought them? And what have they been doing for the last couple of centuries? Polishing their armour?

And if Sontarans have been squatting in Eastern Europe for hundreds of years, what effect will that have on 21st century Liverpool, where Dan is? Seemingly none whatsoever. Nobody in our time has ever seen or heard of them before. I would say – perhaps this will all be resolved in a future episode, but on past form I doubt it.

So, on to Dan’s adventures in occupied Wirral. This was better – cleaner lines of action for the main characters, a clearer sense of threat and a solution which makes marginally more sense. But it’s incredibly frustrating that given the first episode’s insistence on meeting absolutely everybody that the whole six episode saga was ever going to include, we had never met Dan’s parents before. Why are we bothering spending time with Dan’s not-really-a-girlfriend and his mate at the foodbank and that idiot trick-or-treater when we could have been establishing a family unit which was going to be the focus of his storyline?

Notably, Dan and his folks seem to figure out how to take care of Sontarans far more quickly and efficiently than the Doctor does, and those two earlier problems are still here. Through various plot contrivances, Dan has been taken from his Liverpool home, to a Lupari ship, to the TARDIS where he’s witnessed the not-quite-as-universe-ending-as-we-were-led-to-believe Flux, to the Crimean War and now – back to Liverpool again. Do these adventures better equip him to handle the alien invasion? Not really. As noted, his parents have to show him the ropes. So, the point of him taking this long journey to get back where he started was… er… um…

And here’s another idea bigger than the story it’s being used for. Facing certain Sontaran death, Dan is saved at the last minute by his doggy mate Karvanista who has sworn to protect him. Okay, fine. That does sort of look like set-up and pay-off if you squint. But the concept was that every human on the planet has their own personal canine bodyguard. Earlier in the episode, Dan evaded a gang of Sontarans blasting laser fire at him by the method of running away from them in a straight line, which did much to diminish their threat. Maybe because of this, the script includes a rather upsetting scene in which Dan is forced to watch three innocent humans be executed by firing squad, a massacre he’s powerless to prevent. Can I suggest that rather than needing one of these scenes to balance out the other, we would have been better off with neither (which would also have helped get this flabby episode back under 50 minutes). But also – where are the Lupari defenders of those humans? Were they too busy fetching a stick to come and help?

The Doctor and Dan have a long catch-up after which they both do the thing there were going to do anyway, but all of these grumbles aside, Dan’s adventures on Earth generally did feel high-stakes, interesting and I’m slowly starting to warm to him as a character. But, slightly to my surprise, it’s Yaz’s adventures on Space Planet Temple of Doom which worked the best.

Russell T Davies was at great pains to keep Doctor Who grounded when it first came back. There are no alien planets in the whole of Series One and when we do finally visit one with David Tennant, it’s called “New Earth”. The Temple of Atropos on the Planet Time sounds like ridiculous made-up science fiction nonsense, but there’s an integrity and an attention to detail in these scenes which is missing elsewhere. I’ve always liked Mandip Gill and been perpetually frustrated that she gets so little to do. That little detail of WWTDD written on her hand, Swarm’s use of it to undermine her, and the reaction written in Gill’s eyes, rather than spelled out in lumpen dialogue, speak vast volumes about who she was and who she has become – volumes that hours of previous stories haven’t been able to grapple with. It doesn’t hurt that MVP of episode one, Jacob Anderson, is here too (and so is that Victorian tunnel-botherer, but so what) and that Sam Spruell is having the time of his life as Swarm. I don’t know what is happening to these four figures, but this feels like a mystery rather than just confusion and the sight of Yaz taking her place on that dais feels apocalyptic the way that Donna Noble being saved did, or Bill having a visible hole blasted through her mid-section.

Again, the Doctor doesn’t really do anything except panic and ask questions, but this time she’s got something to panic about. The final moments really felt like the series was beginning to live up to its “epic” billing, so despite a laundry list of grumbles and nit-picking, I’m actually left with a bit more optimism than usual.

So… what did I think of The Halloween Apocalypse?
So... what did I think of Once, Upon Time?