Review by Paul Mount
WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD
First broadcast 1st January 2020 BBC One
Directed by Jamie Magnus Stone
Writer: Chris Chibnall
Intelligence agents around the world are under attack from alien forces, so MI6 turn to the only people who can help: the Doctor and friends. As they travel the globe looking for answers, attacks come from all sides. Earth’s security rests on the team’s shoulders, but where will this planet-threatening conspiracy lead them?
If a week is a long time in politics – and God knows there were a lot of very long weeks in 2019 – then a year in the world of Doctor Who seems like a lifetime. A lot has changed in the world of TV’s top Time Lord since she last appeared on our screens on January 1st 2019 and much of it has left its fan community fractured, divided and, in many cases, boiling over with malice and bile.
Series 11, the first batch of episodes starring Jodie Whittaker as the thirteenth Doctor (she’s a woman, get over it!) saw new showrunner Chris Chibnall strip away the over-reliance on the shows’ 50-plus years of mythology which had turned its previous few series into a chore and chased away many casual viewers who just wanted to watch a sci-fi adventure without needing an encyclopaedic knowledge of the show’s creaking chronology. This new pared-down show focussed on introducing its audience to the new Doctor and her trio of companions – but the episodes were often worryingly mundane and bereft of tension, excitement and jeopardy.
The show shone in stories like The Woman Who Fell To Earth, the worthy Rosa and last New Years’ Day junkyard Dalek special Resolution, but elsewhere it was plodding, and lead-footed and, crucially, it failed to properly engage its audience and viewing numbers, whilst significantly healthier than the previous era, slipped away week-on-week. As Series 12 cranked intro production last January and with the show confirmed as not due to return until 2020, fans had little else to do but chew on the bones of Series 11 and hope that the next season would be better. Many took to YouTube, gave themselves silly pseudonyms, distorted their voices and proceeded to post endless fatuous videos berating the series, hurling vile abuse at its showrunner and its stars and eventually resorted to making up ludicrous rumours – quickly dismissed as nonsense – suggesting that the show’s production was in chaos, the cast had walked off set, Chris Chibnall had been sacked, Bradley Walsh was in tears (probably).
None of this came to pass but these panda-eyed keyboard lunatics continued, unashamed and unapologetic, to badmouth the series, encouraging boycotts, ‘hate-watching’ and generally behaving like misanthropic, Neanderthal morons with the social and communicative skills of a piece of flypaper. Doctor Who may have been off the screen for the year but its more extreme and hysterical ‘fans’ disgraced themselves and sullied the pleasure of the appreciation of a clever, inventive, witty family adventure series.
Fatuous fan chatter aside then, the latest series finally kicked off on New Year’s Day and the signs were already looking good weeks earlier. A pair of zesty trailers held the promise of a far pacier, spectacular and dramatic series than the last, full of action, proper nasty monsters and some genuine thrills and spills. In an age where Marvel movies and the resurgent Star Wars franchise are appealing to the same family-friendly audience, Doctor Who just cannot indulge in lumbering navel-gazing, however worthy, and Chris Chibnall’s pre-season interviews suggested that, having set up his new cast, it was time to take the gloves off and show just what the series really is and what it can really do.
In that regard alone, Spyfall Part One (the first of two) blew away the cobwebs and blew the roof off the place. This was not only easily Chris Chibnall’s best, boldest and most swaggeringly confident Doctor Who episode yet – it was also probably the most shamelessly enjoyable episode since 2010 when Steven Moffat took over the reins and decided that impressing his acolytes was more important than telling an exciting, linear story.
In a globe-trotting pre-credits sting, we see a trio of multi-national spies attacked by something glowing and shapeless which appears through walls and ceilings. Something’s afoot in the shadowy world of international espionage. The Doctor and her fam (grit those teeth!) are enjoying some downtime. Graham (Bradley Walsh), Ryan (Tosin Cole) and Yaz (Mandeep Gill) are making excuses to their family and friends for their continued extended absences from their lives and the Doctor is carrying out running repairs on the TARDIS (with the Police Box on a ramp in a garage in the first of several good laugh-out-loud gags in the episode). The four are quickly taken into custody by sinister ‘men in black’ types and driven out of Sheffield… until the driver is disintegrated and the car left driverless and under alien control.
The episode’s unashamed credentials as a James Bond homage come to the fore in a well-staged sequence which sees the car hurtling backwards down the motorway, other vehicles careering out of the way to avoid it, until the Doctor manages to regain control of the vehicle by turning the alien control force back on itself. The group make their way to M16 in London where C (a delightful cameo from Stephen Fry) mistakes Graham for the Doctor (“I’ve had an upgrade!”) before telling the group that intelligence officers all over the world are under attack, their DNA rewritten leaving them as empty, lifeless shells.
MI6 itself is compromised and C is killed – but not before he’s told the Doctor and company about the suspicious involvement of Daniel Barton (Lenny Henry), the multi-billionaire tech entrepreneur and CEO of search engine company VOR, who was under investigation by all the affected agents. The Doctor dispatches Ryan and Yaz to San Francisco where, posing as journalists, who infiltrate the headquarters of VOR and speak to the mysterious Barton. Meanwhile, the Doctor makes contact with an old CIA agent and conspiracy theorist O (Sacha Dhawan) who is under armed guard in his own private bungalow in the Australian outback.
In San Francisco, Yaz and Ryan are attacked by the strange, glowing alien creatures and Yaz is plunged into some strange alien forest landscape just as O’s home is similarly attacked by a group of the same terrifying creatures. Team TARDIS are eventually reunited and, together with O, they ingratiate themselves into Barton’s private birthday party.
Following a confrontation with the Doctor, Barton slips away in a chauffeur-driven car. The Doctor and co follow in bikes and after a perilous high-speed chase they arrive at an aerodrome and climb about a jet piloted Barton as it lifts off. Here, in a final ten minutes as thrilling and jaw-dropping as anything in Doctor Who’s long history, the Doctor and the audience discover the truth about O and one of the biggest and most audacious cliffhangers in the show’s history brings a terrifically entertaining sixty-odd minutes of television to an extraordinary conclusion.
Spyfall Part One was so choc-ful of set pieces, snappy changes of locations (albeit most of them realised in South Africa) and mouth-watering plot twists that it made much of the previous season feel like a series of still photographs. The episode hit the ground running and just kept on running. Chibnall’s script was warm and witty, the plot and characters engaging and well-realised and the action scenes were executed with all the pizzazz and flair a BBC budget could reasonably allow. Kudos, then, to new director Jamie Magnus Stone who really got every penny of that budget on the screen and the adrenalized action sequences gave the show a scope and scale it’s never achieved before.
This was genuinely cinematic stuff that never forgot its roots as Doctor Who, delivering some real chills when necessary – these new unnamed, glowing alien creatures are surely the stuff of junior bedwetting, with the attack on O’s Australian home creating moments of escalating dread and tension as they surround the house and slowly advance upon it, melting through its walls as if they weren’t even there.
But the Bond stuff is a hoot, from C patiently explaining the box of gadgets he gives the Doctor’s group to the hilarious scene where the crew arrive at Barton’s countryside home for his party and the camera pulls rights back to see the TARDIS parked in the grounds as the guests gather and Segun Akinola (his music score much improved already this year) delivers a wonderfully-judged pastiche of a Bond theme that hits all the right notes and is one of several punch-the-air moments the episode delivers almost effortlessly.
The subsequent casino sequence might not pack the scale and elegance of one of Bond’s gambling sojourns but it was a delight to see the Doctor and company in tuxedos, the Doctor mistaking blackjack for a game of snap and O and Yaz having no idea how to play craps, even as Ryan and Graham clean up at the roulette wheel.
This is an episode that allows Chibnall to finally deliver lovely little nods to the series’ own past – C references the now-defunct UNIT and even Torchwood – and in the last act a wonderful, spine-tingling reveal of O’s true identity serves to remind us just why we still love this old show, even when it tries our patience from time to time.
Sacha Dhawan (slyly omitted from the episode’s cast listings) reveals himself as the latest incarnation of The Master, back in proper John Simm maniac mode, mercifully side-lining the tedious comedy antics of Michelle Gomez’s dreary Missy who stank out the Capaldi era with her low-rent Mary Poppins impression and dreadful over-acting.
This is the third time the show has pulled the ‘shock reveal’ of The Master since its return in 2005 and this particular scenario pretty much followed the path of Missy’s reveal in 2014’s dreary Dark Water episode which only really came to life when Missy finally announced who she was. Here though it’s a real heart-in-mouth scene, as exciting as Doctor Who has ever been – and the entire cast are clearly enjoying every madcap, over-the-top moment of it, Dhawan especially relishing every leer, every grin, every moment of casual psychopathy.
Roger Delgado’s urbane take on the character back in the 1970s apart, The Master has always been a boo-hiss baddy and Dhawan’s powerful performance puts him right back where he should be, away from the silly pantomime of his predecessor and it’s to be hoped that we’ll see him cropping up in this incarnation from time to time over the next few years.
Meanwhile, Jodie Whittaker seems much more assured in her interpretation of the Doctor as she enters her second season; the David Tennant-lite wackiness of her first year is dialled right back and she now appears authoritative, powerful, a Time Lord not to be messed with. There’s more to her and her story than meets the eye – The Master’s “Everything you know is a lie” suggests an intriguing story arc ahead – and whilst Whittaker is unlikely to ever be high on anyone’s list of favourite Doctors, she’s certainly making her mark now and distinguishing herself in a role that last year was little more than a broad brush-strokes caricature.
Also much improved are the “fam”; three still seems like too many people to be trailing along in the Doctor’s wake but at least Yaz and Ryan have a bit more to do this time and seem like real people although, curiously, Bradley Walsh’s Graham is side-lined here, offering little more than the odd quip and asking the Doctor what the Hell is going on.
Spyfall Part One is a joyously fun episode that really doesn’t put much of a foot wrong. Perhaps the script spends a little too much time scene-setting, globe-trotting and establishing characters – we still know little about the aliens and their plan and their connection to the Master by the end of the episode – but it’s such a riotously energising, rattlingly-entertaining ride that we can forgive it any baggy moments or indulgences because it’s such a refreshing change of pace, a real power-up from the torpor of so much of season eleven.
If Part Two – and the rest of the series – an maintain this quality and this sense of scale, then Doctor Who is back on firm ground again, although it will remain to be seen if Chibnall’s reinvention policy last season will have a detrimental effect on a series that promises to be the most pure Doctor Who it’s been in a decade.
And the closing onscreen dedication to the late, great, Masterful Terrance Dicks was a master-stroke indeed…
• Doctor Who Season 12 on AmazonUK (Affiliate Link)