~Spoilers ahead! ~
12.1 & 12.2 Spyfall Parts One and Two – Chris Chibnall
Story & Review
Doctor Who returned on New Year’s Day. Considering my lukewarm feelings towards Series 11, I was wary of going into Series 12, but Spyfall surprised me.
And remember. Rule one of espionage? Trust no one.
The spy theme is borrowed heavily throughout the first part of this two-parter from code names to gadgets to evil multi-millionaires. The plot centres around the Kasaavin, an alien species from another dimension who appear as humanoid figures of light, trying spy on our world in order to infiltrate it. Helped by the tech giant Daniel Barton, the Doctor and co try to figure out what these creatures are and what they want. The spy theme works to varying degrees; on the one hand, the crazy gadgets are fun but the car chase is pretty terrible.
Part 1 begins slowly with the Doctor being escorted by MI6 agents, their car being hijacked, the presence of aliens attacking spies explained and THEN following the trail to ex-MI6 agent O and Daniel Barton. It feels like a few too many steps of set up before the main plot. This episode sees Team TARDIS split up. Graham, the Doctor and O try to figure the aliens out on the one hand whilst Yaz and Ryan investigate Barton. It utilises the team much better and this is especially true for Yaz, who is excited about going undercover rather than being a walking exposition device.
Between the players the connection between the alien spies Barton is solidified and so Team TARDIS (plus O) infiltrate Barton’s birthday bash. Here, the Doctor confronts Barton and it is one of the best parts of the episode. She doesn’t hesitate, doesn’t chitchat, just goes straight up to Barton and confronts him. Finally, we feel some gravitas from Jodie’s Doctor (something that is amplified in her scenes with the Master in part 2) rather than your quirky alien pal.
Chasing Barton from his own birthday party, Team TARDIS find themselves trapped on a plane with no pilot and Part 1 ends beautifully with a multitude of cliffhangers. The master is back, the Doctor has disappeared into the matrix and the plane is about to crash. Part 1 ends with the reveal that O is actually the Master. This is both a brilliant one but also a bit of a frustrating one. Brilliant because of how well Sacha Dawan plays the amiable O and then switches to the menacing, dark and a touch maniacal Timelord. Frustrating because the lie that he is caught in is a minute one and could have been skipped past. I would rather the Doctor have caught him on several lies or her picking up on clues. Yes, the audience is told not to trust anyone but the Doctor is supposed to be the most intelligent person in the room and shouldn’t have forgotten that.
‘A little chaos is a wonderful thing’
Part 2 was easily better than Part 1 and for this sole reason: time travel used in a way that functions in the plot rather than acts as a backdrop. The Doctor escapes the matrix, arriving in Victorian London. Here she makes connections between the aliens arriving in our time and in 1834 – they have been targeting different times to stabilise themselves, connected through key figures in the creation of computers, starting with Ada Lovelace.
The Doctor and Ada wake up in the middle of an exhibition at the Adelaide Gallery of Practical Science and the Master makes a grand entrance and starts shrinking people. It was electric, watching the Master command a room and then specifically order the the Doctor to kneel. I loved Jodie’s subtle acting in this scene as it could have been a really uncomfortable scene to watch due to the new gender dynamics in play. Instead we have two old enemies facing each other once again, and note that the Master eventually sinks down to match her because after all, they are equals.
I enjoyed all the scenes between the Doctor and the Master as he chased her through history. Seeing him dressed in Nazi regalia was shocking and an audacious move on his part. Though Paris in 1943 felt a little slow with the introduction of Noor Inayat Khan, another historical figure, the Eiffel Tower conversation is great. Again, the dynamic between the Timelords is perfect but also because the Doctor is clever here. She figures out that the Master doesn’t know what the Kasaavins are. She also frames him as a spy with a simple yet ingenious idea. However I find it really problematic that the Doctor breaks through the Master’s perception filter, showing the Nazis that here stands a brown-skinned man and that the narrative presents it as a win.
Having sent the Master to an unknown fate, the Doctor swans off in his TARDIS with Noor and Ada in tow and returns to 2020. The Team TARDIS part of this episode didn’t excite me as much, with the humans on the run, fighting back using spy gadgets and following Barton. But I did like how the Doctor, borrowing an idea from her past life, sends a video through time with instructions to save the others from the crashing plan, which was a nice callback. Eventually, Team TARDIS find themselves facing the Master (who had taken the long way around) while Barton reveals that the Kasaavins are planning to wipe human DNA through our phones, computers and tables. The Doctor arrives in just the nick of time and saves the day with some tech wizardry. But the conclusion was a bit of a cop-out – the Doctor using a TARDIS off-screen to fix things is just bad writing.
I think, however, the huge reveal at the end of the episode – that Gallifrey has burned, that the Timelords lied to her, bringing back the Timeless Child reference from Series 11 plus the Master of course, distracts from how weak the ending is. The scene where the Doctor sees the ruins of Gallifrey is brilliantly acted and reflects on her range. It reinforces that Jodie’s been let down by the writing in the past, but here’s hoping the rest of the series matches the standard of these two episodes.
- Ryan’s panic about being a spy and forgetting to take the lens cover off the camera
- Laser shoes (excellent)
- The Doctor laminating her instructions was great (and I like how she builds things)
- ‘Er… I am bound never to reveal my secrets. Go about your day, knowing that you may tell people you were privileged to witness the Marvellous Apparating Man! Lady. Apparating Lady! Every time.’
- ‘This is the Silver Lady. A revolutionary piece of engineering. But, like all great ladies, she is as much for decoration as for purpose.’
Wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff
The big question: Is this a post-Missy Master? Or is it a post-Simm Master? Though he is a lot of fun, it would be a shame to lose all of Missy’s character development. If he is post-Missy I hope there’s some solid reason as to why he became so evil again.
Return of the Timeless Child: give me some good mythology Chibnall, please
The TARDIS: this episode features more of the TARDIS and the wonderful Time Vortex which I need consistently in my life please and thank you. To treat the TARDIS as a generic spaceship that gets you from place to place is an insult, so let’s stop.
Throwbacks: The unique four-beat Timelord heartbeat reference plus the ‘classic’ telepathic dialogue was much appreciated
Monster of the Week
Kasaavin: though the real enemy is the Master, I really enjoyed seeing them push through the fabric of our reality, that they’re strong enough to get through TARDIS shields. Lots of horror vibes with them. I think I’d like to see them again and I hope that they look scary.
This episode brought back two things I love about and missed from Doctor Who: time travel and mythology. The latter episode actively engaged with time travel. Jumping through history? Brilliant. Sending messages to the past? Tried and tested. Saving the day with time travel off screen? Eh, two out of three is a win.
I understand that the lore-heavy Moffat era put off a lot of viewers but we’re not watching generic sci-fi show, we’re watching Doctor Who and that comes with fifty odd years of history. Part 2 shows that all you have to do is put the words ‘I am a Timelord from Gallifrey’ into the Doctor’s mouth and that’s enough.
I did like that they addressed a lack of history on the Doctor though, it’s introduced some tension between the characters. I’d love to see more character conflicts because conflicts make group dynamics interesting.
I’m still missing Murray Gold a lot. I like my music to be dramatic so Part 1’s James Bond-eque soundtrack was beautiful but Part 2 was toned way down. Bring some of those trumpets back!
Overall though Chibnall addressed a lot of the issues floating around regarding Series 11 (underutilised companions, villains without teeth, passive Doctor), I still don’t think the writing is as tight as it could be. I’ve concluded that even though I enjoyed these episodes, I don’t think I will ever fully get along with Chibnall’s writing. These episodes dragged in parts and still had too much over-explanation. They’re not as sharp or as clever but, they’re enjoyable enough which is an improvement.