Reviewed by Paul Mount
In part two of Spyfall, a terrifying plan to destroy humanity is about to reach fruition. Can the Doctor and her friends escape multiple traps and defeat a deadly alliance?
Now and again a Doctor Who episode becomes destined to remembered for one scene, one huge moment or revelation which threatens, to coin a tired cliché, to become a game-changer for the series. In 2007’s season three episode Utopia, for example, the Doctor (David Tennant) and his then-companion Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman) found themselves on the barren surface of the planet Malcassairo (with the Doctor’s old chum Captain Jack Harkness – whatever happened to him, eh? – hanging onto the outside of the TARDIS as it hurtled through the Time Vortex).
No-one can really be much bothered with the rather pedestrian events that followed as the Doctor and his team (no fams back then) met up with the last survivors of the human race at (literally) the very end of the Universe. But the last five or ten minutes have welded themselves into Doctor Who legend because they were so edge-of-the-bloody seat, pant-wettingly thrilling with the reveal that the human group’s kindly, fussy old scientist Professor Yana (Derek Jacobi) was, in fact, the Doctor’s old enemy the Master hiding in plain sight.
As if that alone wasn’t enough, he proceeded to steal the Doctor’s TARDIS and, having suffered a gunshot injury, regenerate into John Simm in a blaze of CGI pyrotechnics before zooming off and leaving the Doctor and company stranded in the very definition of the back of beyond.
But it’s that extraordinary, gasp-inducing Master revelation that everyone remembers the episode for – and there’s much to suggest that Spyfall, Part Two might well suffer a similar fate; despite picking up the high adrenalin mantle of its predecessor and, by and large, making a good fist of resolving the whole story, the episode is – depending on where the series goes, of course – at risk of being going down in Whostory solely as the one that completely restructures the entire backstory of the Doctor and forces us to reconsider everything we know about the whole series.
It would be a shame, however, if most of such a thunderingly-entertaining hour is forgotten because it suggests, in its last few minutes (and in something of a coda to the story itself, in fact) not only that the Master has returned to his and the Doctor’s home planet Gallifrey (or so we have always thought) and destroyed it – but that he’s done so because of some terrible discovery he made that fundamentally altered his understanding of the origins of both the Time Lords and the Doctor (the ‘Timeless Child’ reference from last season’s Ghost Monument episode resurfacing here).
Naturally, he chooses not to make it easy for the Doctor by telling her exactly what that discovery actually was, leaving her, and us, hanging in the air and awaiting further developments as the series progresses. Beyond all this, however, showrunner Chris Chibnall crafts a dazzling, sometimes baffling romp of an episode that finally blows away the last of those cobwebs remaining from the previous largely-static season in 2018 and turns the series into something entirely different.
It turns it, in fact, into Doctor Who circa 2008; if the dialogue (which is actually pretty decent, with little of the clumsy gear-grinding of many of its writers’ previous episodes) was a tiny bit sharper and the characterisation a bit more nuanced, then it wouldn’t be impossible to imagine that the whole story has come from the pen and imagination of Russell T Davies and indeed many of its ideas and concepts are also familiar from the era of Steven Moffat, although presented rather more intelligibly here.
Audaciously, Chibnall completely undoes Moffat’s laborious Gallifrey story strand from 2013 where Davies’ wise decision to destroy Gallifrey and the Time Lords at the point of the series’ 2005 reboot was off-handedly reversed and the planet was restored and hidden in a bubble Universe, ostensibly to set the Doctor off on a new quest to find his ’lost’ home. Here, Chibnall is clearly signalling that this was a pretty rubbish idea that went nowhere (the Doctor made no effort to look for Gallifrey post-Day of the Doctor and just went back there without much fanfare at the end of season nine) so he’s destroyed the Time Lords again at a stroke and opened up an intriguing new mystery.
The resolution of the previous episode’s ‘plunging plane’ cliffhanger also cheekily revisits Moffat’s obsession with the Doctor as a time-traveller in general and 2007’s Blink in particular (and even the earlier risible 1999 spoof Curse of Fatal Death) as the Doctor rushes back into the past virtually at the end of the story to leave hidden instructions and a video message on the plane during its manufacture to help Ryan and the others bring it safely back to the ground after it’s crippled.
Even the mysterious white glowing, passing-through-walls alien creatures which unnerved in the previous episode – now revealed as the Kasaavin – have a touch of the Moffat about them; they’re a little side-lined here as a proper threat, perhaps, but under Moffat they’d have had some tiresome gimmick attached, perhaps being invisible to the naked eye in sunlight or only appearing on every third Thursday of the month.
Some Doctor Who fans don’t rate Chibnall as a writer for the show, but Spyfall shows not only that he knows his stuff but that he really can whip up a storm of a story using the clichés of his predecessor much more sure-footedly; he even dares to revisit the glories of the Davies era without it feeling too much like back-peddling because he’s brought something new to a table we at first sight appear to have sat at quite comfortably in the past.
Spyfall Part Two is a whizzbang head-rush of an episode. Trapped in the weird other-place where the Kasaavin lurk as pulses of light, the Doctor meets up with – of all the people in the Universe – one Ada Lovelace (Sylvie Briggs), the 19th century mathematician and writer (and often regarded as the first ‘computer programmer’) whose contribution to the understanding and development of nascent computer technology is often overlooked in favour of the better-regarded Charles Babbage (who also turns up, played by Mark Dexter).
She too has been swept into the Kasaavin domain but the Doctor manages to find a way back to the real world when one of the Kasaavin appears and the pair arrive at a science exhibition in 1834 and, later, to wartime Paris where they are rescued by British spy Noor Inayat Khan (Aurora Marion). This trio alone are enough to infuriate the more delicate sensibilities of the unstable online crowd who would surely have rushed to their webcams the second the episode ended ready to scream “Get woke, go broke!” or some other nonsense for fifty minutes or more. Don’t go there. Yes, the story is now powered by three strong female characters and it’s hard to argue that it’s not another nod towards her show’s increasing sense of diversity…but seriously, so what? Spyfall does it with such insouciance and in the interests of such a pell-mell story that it’s churlish now to even notice much less care.
The Master (yes, he’s now Asian and it’s a fact barely worth registering and certainly not worth giving a damn about) is, gloriously, following the Doctor through Time and his confrontations with the Doctor finally give Jodie Whittaker the defining moments she’s lacked so far. Her one-to-one with the Master in 1834 where he forces her to kneel before him and say his name (“Sorry, can’t hear you, love…”) and later atop the Eiffel Tower (where he first hints at the fate of Gallifrey) are razor sharp and Whittaker easily raises her game to match Sacha Dhawan as The Master, now driven absolutely insane across the centuries.
Dhawan’s performance is quite incredible. Where John Simm’s playfully mad interpretation perfectly mirrored David Tennant’s swagger and charm, Dhawan plays a man who has finally gone complete bonkers (probably as a result of spending a couple of years being called Missy, dressed as Mary Poppins, spinning an umbrella around and shouting “Doctor Who” for no apparent reason) and is utterly consumed by his hatred of the Doctor. In just two episodes, Dhawan has established himself as the best Master since the legendary Roger Delgado – and it’s fair to say we almost certainly haven’t seen the last of him. Hurry back, please.
The plot rushes to its conclusion with yet more shocks and drama. Lenny Henry’s Daniel Barton is, of course, in league with The Master and helping him fashion his plan to assist the Kasaavin in, quite chillingly, turning the entire human race into empty hard drives. The story plays cleverly on our overwhelming online obsession and the fact that there’s nothing private about our lives any more, that everything we are, everything we like, everything we do, want, think and crave is laid bare in cyberspace and liable to appalling abuse and violation at any time. Barton’s electrifying speech is, in its own way, a chilling reminder of the potential reality behind the story’s extreme fantasy and it turns Spyfall into a slightly more heightened episode of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror.
But of course all’s well that ends well. Thanks to a bit of temporal sleight of hand (I refuse to use that expression) the Doctor sends the Kasaavin back into their void, dragging the Master with them – and Barton slips away to fight another day. But things have changed. The Doctor has to face up to the final loss of her home-world, the possibility that she’s isn’t and never has been who she thought she was and the fact that her companions are suddenly wondering exactly who she is and why they are with her.
The ‘fam’ have been having their own fun, forced to go ‘off grid’ by Barton who identifies them as “persons of interest” and fighting off a squad of Kasaavin and Barton’s thugs with the help of Graham’s laser shoes (supplied by Stephen Fry’s C in the previous episode). It’s a handy little sidestep to the plot that allows the three of them to bond in ways the last season never managed and putting much-needed flesh on what had always been rather bare bones.
Spyfall isn’t perfect, naturally. The story is so dense and layered that it inevitably falls to the curse of the exposition dump – but at least we get explanations, as opposed to previous years where things happened with no rationale or reason and we were left to try and make sense of it by joining the dots ourselves because the writer couldn’t be bothered or didn’t know how.
Spyfall is, by any standard, a blisteringly enjoyable slice of Doctor Who, giving the show the kick up the backside it needed and repositioning it as a proper, thrilling adventure in Space and Time. I’d go further; this is the best Doctor Who has been since the end of the Davies era; fast, vital, action-packed, inventive, witty. Who could really ask for more? Season 12 is shaping up to be a real and long-awaited return to form.
One of many guest posts for downthetubes.