Doctor Who returns for its 12th season with a two-parter that pastiches James Bond with the expected Who twist.
Written by current showrunner Chris Chibnall, the episode wastes no time in flaunting its inspirations. Scenes of international intrigue with the standard alien trappings and men in black gathering the TARDIS crew and shoving the plot forward play out in a perfunctory manner. Eventually the TARDIS crew meets “C” (played by Stephen Fry) who enlists them for a peculiar MI6 mission.
Caution, spoilers ahead…
Doctor Who under Chibnall has been an oddity. The ensemble cast is excellent, with Whittaker fantastic in the role of the Doctor and the companions’ dynamics have made for an enjoyable backdrop for the show. There really is a family dynamic in the crew that has been missing from the series until now. Visually, the show has looked richer and more expansive. The visual depth – for lack of a better term – has really been upgraded.
But the show, in my opinion, has had really inconsistent storytelling under Chibnall. While the character and dramatic elements have been solid, the science fiction elements of the show have been lacking. Last season’s (arguably) Big Bad, the Stenza, were generic alien Nazis. Episodes that had high-concept potential like “It Takes You Away” fell flat. The best episodes were the most grounded ones such as “Rosa” and “Demons of the Punjab”, which clearly played to the creative team’s strengths.
Perhaps my expectations of the series are flawed, and I was too much of a fan of Steven Moffat’s high concept take on the series (not that it was flawless, however). Chibnall’s take would clearly be different, but it felt… unambitious.
As “Spyfall” continued, I found myself intrigued.
There’s a strangeness and mystery that Chibnall weaves in the premiere episode that feels different from most of the first season. Whereas the first season felt safe and for the most part, underachieving, here Chibnall is embracing the strangeness and story possibilities of the series. Oddball mystery? Utterly alien entities from outside the universe with a disturbing vibe? A glimpse into an utterly alien world? And what’s up with the screen of multiple Earths? It’s all here and Chibnall does a great job of making this work against the James Bond trappings.
And then we get to the climax of Part 1 and we get a hell of a twist…
And I’m not sure how I feel about it.
We have a new Master – introduced in a great twist and making for one crazy cliffhanger. Chibnall immediately dips into the show’s deep history for this iteration of the character (tissue compression, miniaturized people, reveling in all the crazy) but it feels a bit… meta. Actor Sacha Dhawan walks a pretty thin line between camp and crazy, fluctuating back to an intensity that feels very spot-on for the character. Given how the rather satisfying conclusion to the character’s arc (and life) the last time we saw them, bringing back the Master is a gamble.
More intriguing is the idea that “everything you think you know is a lie” that’s dropped here.
Part 2 resolves the cliffhanger with typical Who conceit, but introduces even more twists and tantalizing hints of what is to come. A lot is crammed into a short space, including Ada Lovelace saving the day in the face of systemic misogyny and the dangers of an always-connected world and how technology can turned against you. The latter is very Black Mirror lite, although the image of an old lady taking pictures of the TARDIS crew with her iPad was hilariously on-point.
In the end, “Spyfall” turns out to be the most ambitious episode Chibnall has brought to the series. What is the secret lie that the Master discovered about the Time Lords before he destroyed them? Has Chibnall been building up to more than we’ve been lead to believe so far? There’s also an underlying theme of home and family in the episode – even Dhawan sells the Master’s despair at the deception and death of their people.
“Spyfall” is a mostly successful affair where the pieces that don’t work are jarring. In this case, it’s the Master.
And it’s not Dhawan’s performance, because he nails the character with what he’s been given. And it’s not the question of how the character even returned because they straight-up died alone last time. The flaw is the premise of the Master himself in this day and age. He’s crazy and causes chaos… okay. It’s one-dimensional and uninteresting. And yet again, the Master is left in a situation that he shouldn’t escape, but will undoubtedly return to terrorize the Doctor in the future. Under Moffat and Capaldi’s last season, the Master finally became a fleshed out, complex character. This feels like a big step back.
“Spyfall” offers a glimpse into the promise this season can hold. I’m not entirely sold that Chibnall will be able to deliver, but given this is his best Who piece since “The Woman Who Fell to Earth”, I’m hopeful.