“Doctor – the security of the planet is at stake. Can we rely on you?”
OK, so it’s been a busy couple of weeks for me, being in the UK when the first ep of Doctor Who’s new season was broadcast and flying back to Barcelona pretty much the next day, then getting to grips with a packed new teaching schedule. The upshot is that I haven’t much of a chance, till now, to jot down my thoughts on this big, expansive season opener. But also, crucially, it means I’ve now seen both parts of it.
Because normally, I like to review each ep on its own terms, even if it’s part of a two parter. Viewed in isolation, a good first part can come off a lot better than it would after a disappointing second part. Seen as merely the first half of an overall story, it can often suffer from a less effective conclusion.
And I’m afraid that’s what happened here – for me, anyway. The first part of Spyfall (Chris Chibnall hasn’t lost his penchant for awful, groan-making puns of titles) actually did rather well at delivering a solid James Bond pastiche within the established Doctor Who universe. Fair’s fair, it’s not the first time the show’s done this; 1967’s The Enemy of the World is very much a James Bond tribute, as were several of the UNIT stories, notably The Invasion and The Mind of Evil.
But it’s never been this overt about it, with that title that’s basically outright theft, a casino scene with all the “fam” in tuxes and bow ties, and the Doctor actually getting to say, “the name’s Doctor. The Doctor”. Together with some effective action set pieces (some of which actually didn’t feel shoehorned in just because they’d look cool), and some suitably John Barry-esque music from the increasingly impressive Segun Akinola, this really did feel like “Who does Bond.”
There were missteps, to be sure – casting national treasure (and actual talented actor) Stephen Fry I what was basically a glorified bit part felt like a massive waste, as it precludes any possibility of his appearing again in the show (at least in the near future). And good though it was to see the actual MI6 (together with their iconic Thamesside HQ) in the show, I still don’t like that Chris Chibnall has basically retired UNIT, seemingly for the sake of a cheap Brexit gag in the ep of a year ago.
Also, while the climactic car/ motorbike chase through what surely can’t have been really San Francisco orange groves felt properly Bondian, it didn’t actually make a whole lot of sense within the plot for baddie Daniel Barton to suddenly confirm all the Doctor’s suspicions by starting to shoot at her. Bond films are full of action set pieces like this, and so, often is Doctor Who. But Doctor Who, under all its respective showrunners since its 2005 return, has had a tendency to do action set pieces not because they arise naturally from the plot, but because they sound cool and so need to be shoehorned in somehow.
Remember the pointless and illogical “Spitfires in space” from Victory of the Daleks, or the TARDIS/taxi chase in The Runaway Bride? Just because you can do a cool action set piece doesn’t mean that you should. Chibnall himself has been as guilty of this as anyone, with the jawdroppingly illogical spacewalk scene in 42, to press an escape pod retrieval button that against all sanity is located on the outside of the spaceship.
But that doesn’t undo the good stuff here, any more than it did under RTD or the Moff. Lenny Henry made an excellent Bond-style villain as the aforementioned Daniel Barton, his performance pitched perfectly to portray the traditional shifty Business Mogul with a Diabolical World-Ending Plan. It’s worth remembering here that Henry long ago moved on from his comic roots to be a serious actor of some talent; he made a very impressive Othello for the National Theatre, in particular.
Barton was a perfect Bond villain in the style of Goldfinger, Stromberg, Drax, Zorin… the list is endless. And his alliance with the alien Kasaavin meant that this paradigm fitted nicely into the style of Doctor Who. It is, after all, the same basic plan forged by fondly remembered baddie Tobias Vaughn, with his alliance of convenience with the Cybermen in 1968’s The Invasion. Not original, no, but when has that ever stopped Bond films themselves?
I was also impressed that, possibly for the first time, all four members of the TARDIS crew (still not keen on the self-conscious appropriation of the word “fam”) got an equal share of the limelight, and the plot. Splitting them up into two pairs was the smartest thing Chibnall could have done – and a lesson he may have learned from the show’s very earliest days, when the Doctor and Susan would head off to one plotline while Ian and Barbara unwillingly got stuck in one of their own.
Here, it made sense for the Doctor and Graham to be investigating the mystery from the scientific angle, while Yaz and Ryan did the actual spy stuff by infiltrating the villain’s lair under false pretences to gather intelligence. It also helped that, since the season-spanning arc about Ryan and Graham last time, there’s a measure of harmony among the foursome. I like that Chibnall has invested the regulars with depth as developing characters, but the last season too frequently did that at the expense of the plot, lurching too frequently into soap opera territory. Here, the gang seemed united as a crew, and it meant that more time could be devoted to the plot proper.
And it was a properly Bondian plot, too, at least for the first half. Spies disappearing, or having their DNA rewritten, from intelligence services all over the globe. A real espionage mystery with a sci fi twist, with a nicely unfolding plot deserving of its many international settings. Jodie Whittaker continues to impress as the Doctor, her donning of a slightly longer black tux and bow tie leading to inevitable comparisons with the mighty Patrick Troughton. Her impression that the card game at the casino was actually snap was a laugh out loud moment played with perfect comic timing, but her confrontation with Barton allowed her to properly display some of the steel behind the character’s often humorous façade.
Of the “fam” (ugh), Bradley Walsh continues to be the star player as the down-to-earth Graham, while Mandip Gill and Tosin Cole were… ok as Yaz and Ryan. No disrespect to either actor, but this script didn’t exactly stretch their acting muscles much. Still, they did well with the parts they were given, Cole in particular coping well with apparently being cast as the comic relief.
So yes, pretty good stuff. Unfortunately it felt like the wheels came off it with the second part, for a variety of reasons. While the first part was tight, focused, and well-plotted, the second suddenly went off on all manner of tangents, losing that focus in favour of lengthy, ultimately pointless digressions into other plotlines that did little to inform or resolve the original story.
Was this because of the surprise reappearance of the Master? Well… yes and no. I’m actually glad the character’s back; and while I understand that some may think of it as a retrograde step, it doesn’t bother me that he’s now a man again. After all, if Time Lords can change gender with regenerations, there’s no reason they should change once then spend all of their lives without changing again.
And I think Sacha Dhawan was very good in the part, too. Dhawan, who I’ve fancied since his teenage turn in 1999’s apocalyptic drama The Last Train (he’s aged well), may not be a woman, but he does have the distinction of being the first non-white actor to play the character. Your mileage may vary as to whether this is important, and I certainly agree that Chibnall is going out of his way to include greater diversity within the show (for me that’s a good thing).
But in the end, what mattered was how well he played the character, and for me he got it right. The script continued with the post-2007 tradition of him being a direct reflection of the Doctor in at least one respect; both now have north-western accents, and it was fun to have them both pronouncing his name for the first time not as “Marster” but “Masster”.
Dhawan did well with, essentially, playing two parts; the endearing, Fox Mulderish ‘O’ up till his cover was blown, and the diabolical, sneering Master thereafter. This take on the character seems to have restored some of the scheming cruelty, but make no mistake, he still seems nutty as a fruitcake. In essence, since the show brought him back in 2007, he’s been played as the Joker to the Doctor’s Batman, with all the capricious madness that entails. It worked well for John Simm’s version, and extremely well for Michelle Gomez’s. But we’ve had them now, and I wouldn’t mind a return to the more controlled, calculating, faux bonhomie of Roger Delgado and Derek Jacobi. If we see Dhawan’s Master again (and I actually hope we will), I hope they dial down the crazy at least a little.
Chibnall did, at least, nod nicely to the past by bringing back his signature murder MO – the shrinkage-inducing Tissue Compression Eliminator, now thankfully redesigned from its inescapably dildo-reminiscent shape from the 80s. And it was just the first of many nods to the past in the second half – a video message from the Doctor that her companions couldn’t help talking back to, like in Blink; references to the Fourth Doctor’s regeneration-inducing fall from a radio telescope in Logopolis; and the return of Gallifrey from… well, lots of stories.
Other inspiration seemed to have come from a rather more surprising source. The Doctor’s defeat of the Master by pre-empting his actions earlier in the past, and his own ‘long way round’ return to the present day, can only have had one origin – 1999 Comic Relief special The Curse of Fatal Death, scripted by one Steven Moffat. I don’t thin this is canonical, but it’s undeniably another reference to the past in an episode that turned out to be full of them.
Given Chibnall’s insistence on breaking with the show’s convoluted, oft-referenced past last season, this seemed like an odd move. I thought that was a brave policy, but not one that really worked; jettisoning many of the show’s staples, such as its many established alien races (and UNIT), would have been fine if Chibnall had come up with anything remotely interesting to replace them. He didn’t, instead presenting us with a cavalcade of utterly forgettable, one-off creations that were less interesting than the sympathetic characters around them. Even his only returning baddie, the Predator-alike ‘Tim Shaw’, was one-dimensional, unoriginal and instantly forgettable.
So I’m actually fine with him re-including the show’s long past (as long as he doesn’t become bogged down in it, as Steven Moffat frequently did). But at the risk of banging on about the same thing, it makes his decision to can UNIT seem even less rational. If you’re going to include the show’s past, why render it impossible to include a ready made element of that which fits perfectly into stories like this? Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want a return to the days of the early 70s, when UNIT were featured every week to the extent that they became self-parodies; but simply wiping out the work that RTD and Moffat did in building them into a credible feature of the show seems like cutting off your nose to spite your face. Now more than ever.
Returning to the point though, why did this second half lose all the focus that the brash if unsophisticated first part displayed? In part, yes, it was the Master. Not through any fault of Sacha Dhawan, or even Chibnall’s conception of the character. No, it’s just that he was one bad guy too many. The plot was perfectly served with Barton and the Kasaavin; and it might have continued to work if, for example, Barton was revealed to be the Master all along, or the Master killed him. But having all three in play made the story feel unbalanced, much like Sam Raimi’s disappointing final Spiderman movie with its unnecessary trio of bad guys.
And just like Spiderman 3, introducing yet another villain also introduced another story strand – one that took all the focus off the main one. The Doctor’s marooning in the depths of the past would have been an intriguing story of its own, but it didn’t feel like it gelled with the story this was already telling.
What’s more, it seemed to waste the potential of its two guest characters, either of whom might have made for an intriguing episode all by themselves. Big Finish Audios have in fact already done one about Ada Lovelace, but it seems like a real shame that we’re now unlikely to see a story about Noor Inayat Khan, a real and genuinely inspirational British heroine of colour from an era where you would least expect that. Sylvie Briggs and Aurora Marion were good in the parts, and a few lines were given to each that indicated the strength of their (real) characters. Which is why it felt rather a disservice to reduce them to little more than bit-part players in the Doctor and the Master’s story.
That story dominated the second ep to such a degree that the original one ended up rather forgotten, so when the Doctor turned up to anticlimactically reveal that she’d already stopped the bad guys from her advantageous position in the past, it felt like more of an afterthought than anything else. It didn’t feel like it even properly resolved the story – just what happened to Daniel Barton, last seen calling for an extraction after his plan didn’t go the way he expected? That felt like a shame, particularly after the reveal of his plan, which included a genuinely interesting bit of social commentary as he speechified on our gullible willingness to volunteer all our private information to monolithic tech companies.
Well, maybe Barton will be back. As will, it seems, Gallifrey, now central to an ongoing arc about “the lie it was built on”; the mysterious “Timeless Child” mentioned several times, seemingly in passing, last season.
I’m actually glad that Chibnall has a story arc for this year’s season (and possibly beyond, since this appears to build on cryptic references from the last). I don’t like arcs that dominate the season to the extent of making it incomprehensible, as in Smith and Moffat’s second year; but I thought last season’s attempt at a purely episodic run was an audacious failure, lacking any sense of ongoing mystery or jeopardy. While Chibnall’s style as showrunner still isn’t as much to my taste as RTD or Moffat, I’m still prepared to give him a chance, and I think this is a positive move in the right direction.
Ultimately though, Spyfall was a bit of a disappointment. It started well, and if I had been doing separate reviews for each part, the first would have rated quite highly. Yes, it was bombastic and unsophisticated, a loud, brash spectacle without much depth. But fair’s fair, so are most James Bond films – and most Doctor Who Christmas specials.
But the second half felt like it totally derailed all the good in the first. Don’t get me wrong, there was good stuff here too; I liked the new Master (mostly), and I enjoyed the recreation of the historical time periods he found himself chasing the Doctor through. But none of it gelled; it was utterly incoherent, and with a totally anticlimactic ending that didn’t even resolve the original plot all that well.
That’s a shame, albeit not entirely unprecedented; since the show’s 2005 return, it’s felt like more of the multi-parters than not have had a good beginning but a lacklustre conclusion. Still, there were good signs here, not least the re-inclusion of elements from the show’s past and the introduction of a genuine arc that feels like it will properly bed a still new-seeming TARDIS crew. Spyfall may have been an overambitious disappointment, but it’s still possible that the rest of the season might surprise me.