Doctor Who – Season 12 Episode 1
“Spyfall Part 1”
Doctor Who returns after a year long hiatus with a mystery for Team TARDIS to solve and a James Bond inspired plot.
Often paying homage to properties that are well placed for parody such as the James Bond franchise means that writers get carried away with referencing well known aspects of the franchise to the point that they become tedious. Everyone knows the trappings of the spy genre and the iconography associated with James Bond in particular. There’s exotic locales, mysterious women, gadgets, theatrical villains, cheesy double entendres and other things common to those films that people will be aware of. Thankfully, this episode of Doctor Who was refreshingly restrained in delivering those references and made what did appear feel like a necessary part of the story other than one brief moment of shameless fun. I’ll get to all of that in a bit more detail later in the review but wanted to get that part out of the way first.
The plot begins with a quick trip to various global locations where Spies are being attacked by an unknown entity. This activity gets the attention of MI6 who round up The Doctor and her companions to help get to the bottom of the current crisis. So far so standard but it’s a good way to be reintroduced to the characters that were last seen in 2019’s New Year’s Day special. The reintroductions were really well done as well as they focused on the impact The Doctor has on the lives of her companions and how it can be difficult to maintain a normal life when being affiliated with her. Yas is still on probation despite being more than capable of passing it and justifies her absences with mysterious secondments that raise more questions than anything else, Ryan finds that his friendships are suffering and he is running out of plausible excuses and Graham just feels a bit detached from everything though does appear to be having the easiest time explaining his frequent disappearances. This serves as a reminder that The Doctor is someone who disrupts normality wherever she goes and her companions have to deal with the consequences of it. None of her current collection of companions have any regrets but they are clearly feeling more detached from what they once considered normality. This was a good way to remind the audience of that and grounds the opening of this episode in some strong character beats.
From here it’s pretty much standard Doctor Who with a mysterious alien threat, investigations into what it wants and an escalating threat level designed to maintain a sense of urgency. For the most part the story is well told with some lag in the middle and a few problems that come with this being the first part of a multiple part story. In general the episode is build-up with little payoff because the following episode is designed to be the payoff. It’s not necessarily a bad thing but it does mean this episode suffers a bit here and there.
One thing the episode does really well is utilise the available characters. The previous season struggled to give everyone something meaningful to do which usually meant Yas being sidelined because there was more focus on the grandfather/grandson dynamic shared by Graham and Ryan. So far this doesn’t seem to be an issue as Yas gets a lot to do in this outing and fares well when paired up with Ryan. The two of them make for a good team with Yas taking on a natural leadership role where Ryan is a lot more nervous. Gaining greater self confidence was a big part of Ryan’s development last season so arguably he’s taking a step back by playing the bumbling nervous companion in order to make Yas look more confident but I see this as a natural reaction to being placed in a situation he is unprepared for and being apprehensive about finding a way to deal with that. The source of his nerves on the surface appears to be his cover name because he looks nothing like Hugh Jackman so doesn’t think he can pass as a Logan but beneath the surface it likely has more to do with having to be a Spy without ever having been trained to do so. Yas is much more adaptable to changing circumstances thanks to her police training as well as a personality that allows her to confidently roll with the punches in a crisis situation.
The other side of that is shown in her reaction to being abducted. When she returns she opens up to Ryan about how she felt during her brief time in the other realm. She talks about feeling nothingness and thinking that she was dead. The experience affects her in a really profound way to the point that she need time to process it. Ryan is there to support her and assures her he would never let her die which makes for a nice sentiment but is ultimately empty because there’s nothing he can do against something he doesn’t understand. Yas knows that she’s lucky to be alive and has no understanding of what has happened to her so fears it. It’s a really good character trait to have her be confident in situations she feels she has some control over but unravel when dealing with something she can’t understand. It’s a very Human trait that still allows her to be useful as a companion.
If anyone gets short changed in this episode it’s Graham who acts as backup for The Doctor and is there to ask questions and point things out without actually contributing much to the overall story. Arguably someone has to be that voice within the story and Graham received a great deal of development in the previous season so sidelining him in order to give Yas an opportunity to meaningfully contribute isn’t a bad thing. Ideally The Doctor and all of her companions would contribute something meaningful to the episode at hand but I understand that this can’t always be the case.
Part of the reason the story lags in the mid point is because the characters are split on separate missions. The introduction of a tech firm run by the shifty Daniel Barton (Lenny Henry) is an obvious excuse to make reference to current internet culture and highlight the downsides of it with things like Cyberbullying and disinformation. Yas makes specific reference to them as things that exist but nothing meaningful is said about them. Of course I don’t expect Doctor Who to deliver a nuanced exploration of everything that’s wrong with social media but the mention of it with no effort put into saying anything worthwhile about it makes it feel like a hamfisted attempt to include something topical just so that the audience would recognise something current. It’s awkward, shameless and unnecessary and characterising a massive internet business as a potentially villainous force not to be trusted doesn’t amount to clever writing on its own.
Once again, this story isn’t finished so there could be more to it that justifies the mention in the following episode but for now Daniel Barton isn’t that interesting a character as he embodies a part of the mystery at this point. He isn’t completely Human, has a relationship with the aliens and deflects questions designed to understand him better. He is basically the “Bond Villain” archetype as he’s rich, mysterious and just a little bit sinister. Lenny Henry does a good job portraying this with his understated performance that suggests there’s plenty being hidden though it’s highly likely that he isn’t all that close to the real threat which makes much of his inclusion a red herring. He is definitely connected though and one of the open questions is how far his involvement extends and whether he is someone to be stopped or simply got roped into a plan that he had no real knowledge of.
With him being the “Bond Villain” most of the references are connected to him in some way. There’s a car chase that becomes less impressive the more it continues which possibly shows a strain in the budget and a fun casino sequence where the characters are given the task of blending in. Ryan wins big with Graham, The Doctor hilariously thinks she’s playing Snap and Yas has no working knowledge of gambling which prevents her from even faking belonging to that crowd. It’s little more than a fun moment though it does showcase the different personalities of the characters and lets the episode take a much needed breath from the breakneck pace it had maintained up to that point.
The episode introduces the character known only as O (Sacha Dhawan); an associate of The Doctor who used to work for MI6 and functions as a source of information for most of the episode. Everything said about him will ultimately boil down to the reveal that he is actually The Master which works really well as a shocking revelation as it’s something that I didn’t immediately see coming. In retrospect there are a few clues such as Ryan’s mention of faking a life and his access to advanced technology that MI6 wouldn’t have access to though none of those obviously pointed to The Master. Having The Doctor start to realise this through him failing to remember his own cover story is really contrived as I don’t believe The Master would ever be that careless though it’s possible that he wanted her to find out his true identity at that specific moment and made deliberate mistakes to clue her into him not being who he said he was. Even at that it doesn’t add up because he could simply have revealed his true identity at that point without creating inconsistencies in his cover story.
Another potential issue with this reveal is that The Master -then called Missy- was redeemed in the last appearance. She chose to help The Doctor by forcing the John Simm Master to become her and eventually learn the lessons that means she lets go of that vendetta. There was the hint that there was an interim regeneration between the two versions so it’s possible that we’re seeing that play out now but seeing The Master return to his old tricks -these pronouns are tricky- is somewhat disappointing given the way it was left. I accept that The Master would never actually be killed and would come back as an antagonist for The Doctor at some point. It’s also apparent to me that we know nothing about this version beyond the final moments of this episode.
What brings the reveal down is that there isn’t a strong sense of who O is as a character. He has a specific function within the plot and consistently delivers things that are needed at any given moment. Stephen Fry’s C drops the early hint that nobody should be trusted and mentions that no agency on Earth has access to the technology to be behind the current situation which is easily forgotten thanks to the pace of the episode. If the episode hadn’t been so fast paced with so much content crammed in there might have been more time to establish O as someone The Doctor values as a friend and trusts but the sheer volume of content doesn’t allow for this which makes the reveal feel somewhat hollow even if it is effective. Sacha Dhawan convincingly completely shifts his performance into something completely different which compliments the reveal nicely.
As for the mysterious aliens; they remain a walking mystery with very little uncovered other than their connection to The Master, their connection to Daniel and a plan that seems to affect multiple Earths. Visually they’re really interesting with the surface they pass through imprinting on them briefly and a booming voice that sounds impressively ominous. It looks like they’re an invading force from an alternate universe looking to conquer the multiverse and have allied themselves with The Master to make that happen. Hopefully the answers will live up to the groundwork laid here and the second part with be a satisfying conclusion.
A promising start to the new season with an intriguing mystery, appropriate use of James Bond references and some fun and meaningful character moments. This episode does suffer from being mostly setup with little payoff but what does get set up works really well. The aliens are appropriately mysterious, the inclusion of a “Bond Villain” works for the purposes of this episode even if he’s not really a character and the reveal that The Master is behind it all is really effective is really hollow. A big part of why the reveal doesn’t work as well as it should has to do with there being no real sense of who the man he’s pretending to be is. He occupies a function in the plot without time for much else and the way he blows his cover feels out of character for The Master. It remains to be seen how he will be handled in the following episode.
The “James Bond” references are kept to a relative minimum and serve the story really well when they’re used. Lenny Henry’s understated performance injects a lot of mystery into his character, the car chase is fine but doesn’t quite live up to its ambition and the casino section is a lot of fun while showcasing individual character personalities. This episode uses Yas really well in a natural leadership position though sidelines Graham as backup for The Doctor without anything meaningful to do. Yas has a lot of depth here with her confidence in a situation she feels she has control over and the terror when she finds herself dealing with something she doesn’t understand. Hopefully this is a sign for things to come for Yas as well as the other characters and hopefully the second part will deliver satisfying payoffs to everything that has been set up here.
- strong reintroductions for all of the characters
- giving Yas something meaningful to do
- added depth to Yas with the contrast in how she deals with different situations
- only referencing James Bond when appropriate for the story
- Lenny Henry’s understated performance adding texture to his character
- visually interesting mysterious aliens
- the impressively shocking Master reveal
- a fast pace allowing for lots of content with little time to focus on it
- no real sense of who O is prior to the reveal of his true identity
- The Master appearing clumsy in blowing his cover
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