– How’s the script going then?

– Oh, you know. Fine.

– Just fine?

– Well, no, I mean… I don’t mean fine… I mean… it’s…

– Fine?

– Yeah, it’s fine.

– Wow. Okay. What are you going do?

– I mean, I could…

– No.

– I could…

– Don’t.

– I might have to.

– Please, please, just don’t.

– I could just tell the whole thing in the wrong order…

Once, Upon Time joins its 21st century stablemates World Enough and Time and Twice Upon a Time to continue the saga of “Flux” and bring us to the half-way point. If episode one was “what if Doctor Who but ADHD?” and episode two was “what if Doctor Who but only the hits?” then episode three was “what if everybody’s backstory but all at once?”

We begin with yet another sodding character in yet another new location with yet another barely-visible strand of story holding it together. The slow downgrading of the Flux from universe-ending catastrophe to possibly only confined to a small area now continues with even if it hits you dead on, your planet just goes a bit Terry Nation’s Survivors rather than being reduced to ash. And speaking of which, some badly-rendered CGI Daleks are floating about, doing nothing.

Speaking of badly-rendered CGI there was some nostalgicly shoddy effects work this week with the blue floaty pixels resembling something Dave Chapman might have conjured up for Peter Davison with a BBC Micro and a Quantel machine. Seriously – was this left to the last minute? There’s no interactive lighting, no sense of the cloud moving through its environment, and it makes nearly half-a-dozen appearances, all equally poor. It’s really rare to have to complain about dodgy effects in modern Who, and sure, if the stories are good enough, we can survive some ropey visuals, but in this case, well…

Another odd thing happens immediately after the opening titles. We cut straight from northern Irish one woman army and her interior monologue to the Doctor’s interior monologue. Virgin New Adventures editor Peter Darvill-Evans made it a rule for the novels he oversaw that writers should never go inside the Doctor’s head. The Time Lord should be unknowable, keeping private thoughts private. This writer is so keen to let us into to Jodie’s thoughts that he places two different people’s voiceover narration in consecutive scenes. It’s enough to give Robert McKee an aneurysm. Luckily, Jodie quickly abandons interior monologue in favour of just talking out loud to nobody instead. Was the writer briefly confused and thinking that this was a Big Finish audio drama?

Once Whittaker practises her hurdling skills, it’s time out for narrative coherence and buckle up for 40 minutes of Random Stuff coming at you thick and fast. But juxtaposition is not narrative and confusion is not mystery. Unless we know where our heroes are and what’s happening to them, why should we care? Never mind, relaxen und watchen das blinkenlights.

One game that’s being played here is watching the regular cast playing different characters – one of my absolute favourite tropes of all times – but even this doesn’t really come off here. The fun of seeing familiar actors playing unfamiliar roles is seeing them acting very differently from their established characters. But for that to work, they have to have established characters and they have to act differently. This is just, oh look, Mandip’s wearing a different hat. The one exception might be that brief scene in the police car between Whittaker and Gill. Look how much better, livelier, funnier, Jodie Whittaker is when doing pastiche Victoria Wood. I’ve done my best to distance the lead actor from my overall disappointment at the post-Moffat show but it’s becoming increasingly apparent that this incarnation of the Doctor is just an empty suit of clothes. The combination of flat writing and straight-arrow delivery resolutely fails to lift the character off the page, and here’s where it’s exposed most fully.

It doesn’t help that, as usual, Chibnall makes sure that the Doctor is clueless, helpless, baffled, powerless and inert. As the episode reaches a climax, she’s actually begging for agency in her own story and, as usual, her pleas go unanswered. Meanwhile, Dan and his not-a-girlfriend pop up again (mam and dad are forgotten) and we get that ping of “Oh, she was in the first episode” which is what takes the place of actual narrative catharsis when you have to resort to telling your story in the wrong order because it would be deathly dull if you told it so that it was easy to follow. Or even possible to follow.

Almost none of the other arbitrary floating bits of narrative really come alive. As noted, seeing Jacob Anderson, Mandip Gill and John Bishop pretending to be space marines wouldn’t be all that interesting even if they were much, much better at pretending to be space marines. But when you’re given dialogue which requires that you explain to your platoon how your equipment works as you’re deploying it, frankly there’s not much even the best actors can do. And they’re incredibly dumb, again and again and again attributing their leader’s loopy behaviour to Temporal Haze (I love their early stuff, especially on vinyl).

Vinder’s crisis of conscience might mean something to someone – who knows? – and it’s Mandip Gill’s turn to re-enact Blink this time because, sure. That Victorian tunnel-botherer pops again, because, well, we’ve paid the actor now. But all of this is basically gibberish, and because none of it means anything or relates to anything, it’s also incredibly boring despite all the pretty lights and colours. When the Doctor tells us that she’s “hiding you here” while she “tries to get the Mori into place” what does that look like? What does it feel like? What’s hard or easy or costly about it? What does it mean? What is she actually doing?

There are crumbs of interest along the way. Although I have zero interest in the timeless children, it’s cool to see Jo Martin again. Yet again, the Whittaker Doctor has to passively sit and watch Doctor Who before she knows how to resolve the situation. It’s a bit of a cheat (and a swizz!) that most of the time it isn’t Martin on-screen, and Jodie cos-playing the Fugitive Doctor isn’t a noticeable upgrade. But although I despaired at how easily-killable all those Cybermen were (gosh little Chrissie has got all his action figures out of the play-box today!) there is some genuine depth of feeling in that little scene where that fierce wee woman tells a dying tin-plated foe “Love is the only mission. Idiot.” Where has this story been hiding amid all of this nonsense? And will we get to see more of it soon?

Someone else who manages to blast away the cobwebs as soon as she sets foot on the set is blessed, indomitable and Very Peculiar Barbara Flynn who classes up the joint no end in her cameo as the White Guardian / Omega / God / The Terrible Zodin. Something else that this episode made me realise is that, for whatever reason, the post-Moffat years have been a bit of a desert when it comes to really strong guest stars. Billie Piper, Jenna Louise Coleman, Freema Agyeman, Pearl Mackie and especially Karen Gillan have gone on to have huge careers. I can’t somehow see the same happening to Mandip Gill or Tosin Cole.

And the series also showcased early performances from the likes of Andrew Garfield, Daniel Kaluuya, Carey Mulligan and Felicity Jones as well as attracting stars like Bill Nighy, Anthony Head, Diana Rigg, Frances Barber, Ian McKellan and many more. When the current team goes shopping for a big name celebrity they come back with Mr Big from off of Sex and the City, or John bloody Bishop. And the featured roles like Racist Fonzie in The One with Rosa Parks go to bland actors who fade from my memory while I’m watching them. Where have all the good actors gone? What’s happened behind the scenes to screw this up?

But look what happens when somebody really fucking good like Barbara Flynn turns up. Yes, she’s yet again undercutting the Doctor (Chibnall never wavers from this mission – even the Ravagers tell Jodie “We brought you here, knowing what you would do”) but by god she’s doing it with some style.

The end of the episode feels oddly perfunctory. Last week’s cliffhanger has been resolved with an almost-literal “and with one bound, they were free.” Dan and Yaz haven’t done anything in the real world (Have they? Did they?) so they just blithely soldier on, unaffected by the narrative as usual. Vinder – whose backstory we’ve sort of had explained to us (just not in a way that either makes sense or impacts the ongoing story) – is now dropped off on a desolate Survivors version of his home planet – why does the Doctor abandon him there and why does he want to stay? – and is mooning after Cyberkiller, which is nice. And next week it’s going to be more chances to re-enact Blink. Maybe this time, they’ll remember that if you look away from the Angels long enough to, say, unplug the Playstation then they’ll get you. Or maybe they won’t. Does it matter? Does anything really matter?