Doctor Who’s current showrunner Chris Chibnall has unveiled a new two-part Doctor Who 12th season opener (“Spyfall” Parts 1 & 2) after a year-long break following an uneven first year at the TARDIS controls in 2018. And the resulting spoof on the conventions of James Bond is well, once again, something of a mixed bag…
*****BIGGER SPOILERS ON THE INSIDE*****
Spyfall, Parts 1/2:
“Spyfall” opens with spies from all over the world being mysteriously knocked off, including the MI6 director (a surprise cameo by Stephen Fry). The Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) and her new TARDIS ‘fam’, Yaz (Mandip Gill), Graham (Bradley Walsh) and his grandson Ryan (Tosin Cole) are on the case.
At the center of the mysterious goings-on is Daniel Barton (comedian Lenny Henry), a mysterious, filthy-rich British expat living in the US as a Steve Jobs-like tech mega-giant. Ryan and Yaz pretend to be journalists in order to learn more about Barton’s connection to the dead agents; they discover (via clandestine scans) that Barton isn’t fully human, with seven percent of his DNA being ‘other.’
The Doctor contacts a paranoid, mysterious former-MI6 friend of hers living in the Australian outback named “O” (Sacha Dhawan). O lives alone, save for a heavy security detail and reams of information on people and events all over the world. Despite his remoteness, he seems thoroughly up on all the latest spyware innovations, including a few innovations of his own. At O’s home, contact is made with extra dimensional aliens, the Kasaavians. These Kasaavians seek to invade our dimension by mixing their own unstable forms with compatible human DNA to better exist within our reality. Yaz was briefly pulled into the Kasaavian nether dimension earlier, but is returned (somewhat shaken) back to her friends.
With O helping the Doctor infiltrate Barton’s California estate, it is soon revealed that Barton is working with the Kasaavians. O and the TARDIS gang stow aboard Barton’s private jet just as it is taking off, and the Doctor is whisked away to the alien’s dimension as the plane’s cockpit is destroyed. The saboteur is none other than O… who is revealed as the latest form of the Doctor’s former friend and longtime arch nemesis, “The Master” (previously seen in female form, and played by Michelle Gomez). O escapes the plane, leaving the TARDIS gang to crash.
Part Two opens with the TARDIS crew about to crash aboard Barton’s private jet, when mysteriously prerecorded instructions left from the Doctor herself are used to bypass the damaged cockpit and land the plane using Ryan’s smartphone (“I can’t ride a bike, but I can land a plane!”). Upon landing, the TARDIS team learns they are wanted fugitives all over the world, thanks to Barton’s control of smart devices everywhere.
Meanwhile, the Doctor is in the alien’s nether dimension where she meets a lost young woman from the 19th century who turns out to be none other than Ada Lovelace (Sylvie Briggs), one of the earliest pioneering researchers on the differential engine…the primitive forebears of our modern computers. Both Ada and the Doctor are suddenly whisked back to Ada’s time, where they meet Charles Babbage (Mark Dexter), the famed mathematician with whom Ada is working on the differential machine. In the 19th century, they encounter the Master, who is also traversing time, paving the way for the Kasaavians to seed history with their presence.
Suddenly finding themselves in World War 2 France, Ada and the Doctor meet Noor Inayat Khan (Aurora Marion), the first wireless radio operator sent from Britain to occupied France to aid the Resistance by using coded messages. Meeting the Master at the top of the Eiffel Tower, where the Doctor makes a snide reference to their previous encounter at Jodrell Bank radio observatory (where the Master ‘killed‘ the 4th Doctor in the classic series). The Master then reveals to the Doctor that their hidden home planet of Gallifrey has been destroyed, but she doesn’t believe him. Using her sonic screwdriver to secretly record the Master’s admission of using the Kasaavians for his own ends, the Doctor then jams the Master’s perception filter disguise, leaving him exposed and captured by Nazi troops as a ’non-Aryan’.
The Doctor then makes her way back to both Ada and Noor, both of whom are (more or less) up to speed on the Master’s plot with the Kasaavians. Allying herself with the two very historically significant women, the Doctor steals the Master’s TARDIS, which retains the form of O’s Australian outback home, and returns to the 21st century.
Back in the 21st century, Graham, Yaz and Ryan are surrounded and captured by the Kasaavians just as the evil Barton is unleashing their infiltration “app” (yes, there’s an app for alien invasions, too) upon an unsuspecting public. The plot is foiled by the arrival of the Doctor, Ada and Noor, who expose the Master’s treachery to his Kasaavian allies of convenience…who immediately retaliate by banishing him to their realm. The Doctor has to erase both Ada and Noor’s memories of their experiences before returning them to their respective times.
Ryan also reminds a forgetful Doctor to use the TARDIS to place her instructions on the crashing private jet (a nice bit of “Bill & Ted”-style time travel humor).
Taking a trip to Gallifrey by herself to check out the Master’s claim of its destruction, a somber Doctor discovers that her homeworld was indeed destroyed…by the Master himself (!), who confesses (via hologram) that he did so after realizing that all of Time Lord history was a lie, mentioning the ancient story of “the Timeless Child.”
Returning to Earth, the Doctor gives her full life story (“I am from the planet Gallifrey, which is in the constellation of Kasterborous…”) to her current fam, who realize over the course of their adventure that they know nothing about their alien friend.
Part One is quite different from Part Two, both of which were written by current showrunner Chris Chibnall, who doesn’t quite possess the storytelling aplomb of former modern DW showrunners Russell T. Davies or Steven Moffat. As a result, Chibnall’s episodes are less cohesive, with a few brilliant fan-service moments trying to balance almost police procedural-style happenings. Of the two halves, Part Two is certainly the stronger, with some nice callbacks to other stories, as well as a story that feels more in line with classic Doctor Who adventures.
The reveal of “O” as the Master at the end of Part One was unexpected, but once the surprise wears off, many fans will quickly realize that the Master allying himself with invading aliens has been done literally dozens of times in both the classic and modern incarnations of Doctor Who. It’s a non-surprise surprise. That said, Sacha Dhawan really throws his all into the role, taking over from the formidable Michelle Gomez’ “Missy”, who was arguably one of the best Masters of all time, right up with Roger Delgado and Anthony Ainley. Dhawan does the role proud. It took me a moment to realize that I’d previously seen Dhawan when he played real-life Doctor Who director Waris Hussein in the beloved 2013 docudrama “Adventure in Space and Time”, which chronicled the beginnings of the classic DW series. With his dead-eyed stare and overall coldness, Dhawan recalls the Master of Roger Delgado’s era. With their genders now reversed (again), the Master’s anger towards the Doctor has a more implicitly violent sexual undercurrent to it. This is most evident in the scene where he forces to Doctor to kneel before him and loudly recite his name (“Master…”).
A somewhat superfluous element of the story is that of tech mega-giant Daniel Barton, played by Brit comic Lenny Henry as a two-dimensional Bond villain cliche. Given that Part One is something of a spoof on Bond mythology (hence the “Skyfall”-joke title), one could argue that this portrayal is appropriate, though tired. Barton’s threat of using smart devices to facilitate an alien invasion (something else repeatedly seen on newer Doctor Who) could’ve been streamlined out of existence with a bit of tighter writing. Barton’s role in the story could’ve been O’s as well, just as the Master was previously seen as British PM “Harold Saxon” during the Tenth Doctor’s era. Needless to say, the Bond spoofery, particularly the cast running around for two episodes in tuxedoes, is a bit overdone.
Of the TARDIS fam, I will go out on a limb and say Bradley Walsh’s “Graham” is, by far, my favorite. He steals the show with his laser shoes, motorcycling prowess and one-liners (“You’re a bunch of doughnuts, the lot of you”). With Walsh’s Swiss watch-like comic timing and innate warmth, he is my favorite (and least likely) companion in years. About damned time companions were more than just pretty young people (says an out-and-proud middle-aged geek!). Mandip Gill’s Yaz would be my runner up. She’s smart, tough and nicely diverse from the usual lily-white sorts we’ve seen all too many times on the show. Yaz’s desperate attempts to reach her family while on the run were well-played (“Shuddup!”). I suppose my least favorite of the current TARDIS crew would have to be Tosin Cole’s Ryan, the grandson of Graham. Cole is handsome and able enough, but he tends to play the role somewhat two-dimensionally; which is in stark contrast to both Gill and Walsh. I can’t quite peg if the role is simply underwritten (most likely) or if this is a limitation of the actor. Either way, Ryan makes the least impression on me, though he did get a nice bit of business with using his mobile (aka cellphone to us Yanks) to land Barton’s plane.
Sylvia Briggs and Aurora Marion were both standout guests as Ada Lovelace and Noor Inayat Khan, respectively. Though their advanced-for-their-time knowledge is far outstripped by the Doctor’s rapid-stream of technobabble, they nevertheless prove resourceful and invaluable to the final story result. Clever is clever, always. It’s almost a shame both Ada and Noor had to be Men In Blacked at the end. To those who might think the show’s use of two strong female historical figures in “Spyfall” part 2 has anything to do with the current Doctor’s gender, think again. Doctor Who has always featured many encounters with significant women of history; women such as Queen Victoria, Agatha Christie, Madame du Pompadour, and others. That two of them have appeared in this single episode isn’t some bold new statement for gender equality. Women throughout history have always been important. This is hardly anything sudden or new for the series.
Finally there is the Doctor herself, as played by Jodie Whittaker, who is still working her way into the role after her first season. Part 1 of “Spyfall” sees her playing the more frazzled, superficial Doctor that defined her for much of her freshman year, but Part 2 shows a Doctor finally possessing a bit more of the depth and gravitas seen in her predecessors. It was a welcome addition to the character, as I was beginning to worry that Whittaker’s Doctor would continue to be defined by superficial affectations.
While the ending of the Part 2 once again saw the civilization of Gallifrey being destroyed had been done before (in 2013’s “Day of the Doctor”), it offered a lovely moment of reflection and horror as the Doctor opens the door of her TARDIS to see the devastated surface of her home planet. Whittaker played it with just the right weight, taking the moment seriously enough, while never descending into handwringing melodrama. Her confession time with her fam at the very end also saw Whittaker dropping some of her character’s earlier pretenses. As a fan who has long wanted to see a female Doctor, it was most welcome.
Summing it up.
So season 12 (or 38, if you include the classic series) has started off much in the same way as its preceding season…mixed. Despite a few strong moments and tasty bits of fan service (loved the mention of the 4th Doctor’s ‘death’ at Jodrell Bank), Chris Chibnall’s storytelling on the whole is simply not as strong as his predecessors. I find there’s something maddeningly elusive about this latest incarnation of the series that doesn’t quite click for me. There’s still a few random lines of clunky dialogue (“Regeneration! Yeah, that was it…”), as well as an overall procedural vibe I still get from the story construction…it lacks the surefooted fluidity of the Davies/Moffat years.
With a bit more retooling, and perhaps a few new faces in the writers’ room, the show isn’t anywhere near a total loss yet. For fresh inspiration, I would suggest that perhaps Chibnall and company take a read of the Doctor Who comics from Titan for ideas (particularly the Tenth Doctor issues by Nick Abadzis, which nicely balanced the feel of the classic series with the new). Just a thought.
To less nitpicking fans, the series opener was good fun and had some solid moments for both characters and fan service, but there’s a part of me that always feels vaguely unsatisfied by the hour’s end. It’s a bit like gorging on a three-course meal, yet still leaving the table a wee bit hungry. I’m forever optimistic that the show can course-correct along the way and evolve (or regenerate?) into something even better. The Doctor’s run into a few creative slumps before, and has always (eventually) emerged victorious.
If there’s one thing this series knows very well and embraces, it’s the power of change.