Doctor Who – Season 12 Episode 2
“Spyfall part 2”
Doctor Who concludes the opening arc of the current season with a time hopping adventure and the unexpected return of an old enemy.
The previous episode ending with the reveal that The Master is pulling the strings of the current crisis was a great cliffhanger to build anticipation for this episode. As always the problem with multiple part stories is delivering on everything promised by the first part and concluding the story in a way that is satisfying. Having The Master back is in theory a good idea because he -or she- has always been The Doctor’s equal which means that there’s a credible threat on the table by virtue of his involvement in the story but there’s a big risk of contrivances creeping in as with many other Master stories.
This episode does a really good job using The Master as an antagonist as he is placed as something with all of the plans along with the resources to carry them out where The Doctor has to improvise due to having all of her resources taken away from her. It’s a great showcase for The Doctor as she has to fly by the seat of her pants and react to situations without having anything to fall back on. She basically has to rush head first into the unknown and make do with what she’s got to hand which can make for really dynamic storytelling.
Of course everything she needs to win is readily available which is a general conceit of any action/adventure show otherwise the protagonist would use every time but it’s how what the writers give her is used that makes all of the difference. The episode opens where the previous one left off with The Doctor trapped in the home dimension of the mysterious aliens with no clue how to escape. This doesn’t last long as she soon encounters historical figure Ada Lovelace (Sylvie Briggs) who has been finding herself in the alien realm for years and is under the misguided assumption that it’s all in her mind and part of a medical condition that causes paralysis. She provides The Doctor a means of escape and the plot kicks into high gear from there.
It’s very common for The Doctor to pick up companions wherever she happens to be whether she has people travelling with her or not. Ada becomes her main companion for the episode because of her well developed curiosity. At first she doesn’t understand a word The Doctor says but very quickly admires her ability to manage situations which leads her to place her trust into the mysterious stranger that randomly appeared into her life. It’s a very quick transition but justified enough within the context of the story. Ada is also central to the overall plot because of her place in history. The aliens who are identified as the Kasavins are beings from another dimension looking to gain a foothold in ours but can’t manifest for very long. In order to take proper physical form they need the help of a machine of some sort so are scouring history to find the right people to make one for them. The Spy references continue with explaining their methodology. In the previous episode there was a collection of maps that suggested they might be coordinating attacks on multiple Earths though the reality is that they were coordinated across different time periods. Anyone important to the development of computer technology became a target and taking those of interest to their real was their way of convincing them to build what they needed.
As plots go it’s simultaneously simple and complicated which means that it’s easy to follow but doesn’t quite add up especially when you consider how far back in the development of computers Ada Lovelace was so surely it would be identified that she isn’t much use and their interest in her would stop. Thankfully there’s no attempt to suggest that the Kasavin’s were in some way responsible for the growth in computer technology by inspiring those who made the most significant advancements. I’m not a fan of plots where aliens are responsible for Humanity’s greatest achievements as it cheapens the notion of advancement for us as a species. All their interference in Ada’s life amounts to is giving The Doctor something she can exploit in order to get back to the 21st century and thwart their plan which works well enough for this story.
Ada is a really good character throughout this episode and a worthy temporary companion for The Doctor. She asks the right questions, goes along with the various plans as best she can and provides useful expertise. Her tenacity is admirable such as when she doesn’t let The Doctor leave and tags along with her when she makes her first jump to a future time period. Sylvie Briggs brings a lot to the role with a strong presence and a great deal of depth to her performance. She projects the appropriate emotional beats at the right time and has great chemistry with Jodie Whittaker.
The other temporary companion is another historical figure; Noor Inayat Khan (Aurora Marion). She is notable for being the first female wireless operator to be sent from Britain to Nazi occupied France during World War II. For the purposes of this story she supplies equipment that The Doctor can use to contact The Master and helps engineer his downfall by sending a message that will be intercepted by the Nazis. Outside of that she voices concerns about who The Doctor is which gives Ada a platform to communicate the trust she has in The Doctor.
These companions are also used to deliver social commentary in a really obvious yet quietly powerful way. Ada looks out at Nazi occupied France and sees destruction so assumes that the future will continue to be that dark. The Doctor assures her that even though the time they are in is a dark one it’s not something that persists nor does any other as hope always wins out. It’s a positive message about historic change and is definitely intended to shine a light on recent events in the real world as many believe that we are living in a dark time at the moment that seems to get progressively worse. The Doctor is telling those that feel that way not to lose hope because things will get better in time. Jodie Whittaker delivers this with such passion and sincerity that the ham fisted nature of the message can be forgiven. It doesn’t feel cheesy or unearned so I’m more than ok with it.
One disadvantage to the involvement of The Master is that the Kasavin’s suddenly take a significant back seat. The mystery surrounding them is solved relatively early on which turns them into a resource that can be used by either Time Lord when the occasion calls for it. They do add some urgency to the plight of the companions and that’s something I’ll get onto later in the review but they lose a lot of their menace when they become a means to an end.
The Master on the other hand is portrayed really well. Sacha Dhawan provides a rich and varied portrayal from the moustache twirling villain to the more sedate and thoughtful old adversary of The Doctor. This range is great because it allows him to seem both unhinged and insidiously calculating when he needs to be which makes for a really unpredictable antagonist. Any scene between Sacha Dhawan and Jodie Whittaker is really well acted with strong dialogue that highlights the long history between these characters. There’s a real sense that they have been battling for a long time to the point that both are weary of it. The Master still lives to antagonise The Doctor but there’s no real sense why he continues to do so which may very well be deliberate.
There are some drawbacks to this version of The Master is that it isn’t established where we are in the timeline of this character. It doesn’t necessarily matter but considering the show sometimes indulges in non linear storytelling it would be good to know what his last conflict with The Doctor was in order to provide some context to his actions. It’s unclear if he’s a pre-Missy version or not and if he’s post-Missy then there should be some explanation as to what caused the redemption to wear off. It’s also unclear what his plan actually is as he only mentions having goals in common with the Kasavins though doesn’t really say what those goals are.
Even though it isn’t explicitly stated, it’s possible that The Master fell back on old habits because of what he learned about the history of his people. At around the mid point of the episode he taunts The Doctor with the prospect of a Gallifrey that has been destroyed and plants the seed in her mind that she should return there to see for herself. He talks as if it was something he discovered but it is later revealed that he was the one who laid waste to their home because he discovered that everything he thought he knew about Time Lord history was built on lies. Apparently this lie was so horrible that the only appropriate punishment was mass genocide. Some information is passed onto The Doctor to set up the season arc relating to “The Timeless Child”. It’s an intriguing enough mystery though as with anything else that isn’t answered right away it all depends on how it is approached. Will it be awkward references to “The Timeless Child” in the bulk of the episodes before connecting them in the finale or will it be properly developed and seeded through the adventures the characters have in the season to come? Time will tell.
The more I think about what The Master did to Gallifrey the more it bothers me. I don’t feel that it’s a betrayal of the character because I accept that he’s more than capable of this but I don’t really see how the character can come back from this short of it being either a trick or somehow reset by The Master realising the error of his ways and restoring Gallifrey. Arguably The Doctor should be long past the point of forgiving The Master because of everything he’s done in the past but somehow killing their entire race to punish them for being dishonest feels far worse than anything he’s done before. It’s likely that a climactic moment in the finale will be The Doctor forgiving him especially when considering the abundance of “The Sound of Drums” references in this episode it stands to reason that “Last of the Time Lords” will be overtly referenced at some point.
It’s especially glaring because the episode takes time for The Doctor to call The Master out on allying himself with the Nazis and wearing one of their uniforms. She tells him that it’s low, even for him. On the surface this appears self evident because there’s no disputing the fact that Nazis are bad but The Master has committed crimes that eclipse anything done by any Nazi, including Hitler himself so it shouldn’t really bother her that he decides to wear one of their uniforms while making use of their resources because it’s far from the worst thing he’s done. You need look no further than this episode to find something far worse than anything the Nazis did with the mass genocide of the population of Gallifrey so it seems to be an odd choice.
Destroying Gallifrey is also an odd choice because it has been done before and defined so much of revival of the show up until relatively recently. Steven Moffat brought Gallifrey back during his run and even allowed The Doctor to go there a couple of times to reaffirm what motivated him to run from his people so it strikes me as odd to revert back to this plot thread as it returns The Doctor to a state of melancholy and grief. Instead of allowing Jodie Whittaker to blaze her own trail in the role now she has to retread old ground in processing the loss of her people. It’s disappointing and unnecessary especially when there could be other ways to introduce the idea of “The Timeless Child”.
Even though I don’t like the idea, I did like how the episode delivered the reveal. Jodie Whittaker delivered a really powerful understated performance that took her through various interpretations of shock. The moment she simply sat in the TARDIS trying to get her head around what she has just discovered. It’s nicely handled and heartbreaking to watch even if it does feel like a step back for the character as a whole.
The companions also have to deal with the situation on their own and the results are mixed. Ultimately the resolution of the rapidly descending plane problem wasn’t as satisfying as it could have been even if the references to “Blink” were fun enough without being a complete retread and the passive nature of their efforts from then on is less than exciting. The references to “The Sound of Drums” come into play here with influence being used to turn the whole country against them necessitating going “off the grid” completely. It’s an extension of the Spy plotting that moves away from James Bond into Jason Bourne territory. It works as a continued play on that genre without being repetitive but what actually goes on isn’t all that exciting.
Daniel Barton is the big problem here. Once again, The Master’s involvement undermines other villains as Daniel becomes a secondary antagonist subservient to The Master and only exists as an omniscient threat preventing the remainder of Team TARDIS from taking action. The fact that he kills his mother and offers up the Human race as a sacrifice to further his own agenda feels almost incidental and he isn’t actually stopped by the companions as The Doctor turns up revealing that she took care of everything. It’s just not a good use of the other characters which is a shame after the focus on what they could bring to the table in the previous episode.
One thing I did like is that they all took the time to sit down and reflect on their relationship with The Doctor though it does serve to highlight why this hasn’t been raised before now. The appearance of The Master and confusion about how The Doctor doesn’t recognise him despite knowing him well causes Graham to think back to hearing about Regeneration. Everyone thinks about how little they know about her and resolve to ask the question when they next see her. On one hand I like the idea that they have been so caught up in the adventure that they didn’t think to question who they were actually putting their trust in. It’s disappointing that this isn’t followed up on with some mistrust when they get back in the TARDIS though there’s still time for doubts over the course of the season. As an aside I also liked the use of gadgets despite how ineffective they were because the actors clearly had fun with it and it lightened the mood appropriately.
Back to Daniel as an antagonist. He gives a speech about everyone freely consenting to sharing everything about themselves over the internet. This unrestricted access allowed him to gather extensive information about everyone on Earth in order to facilitate them being used as a biological server farm. The pitfalls of freely sharing information and the growth of technology isn’t a new idea in science fiction nor is it new for Doctor Who. Ultimately the message here is that people shouldn’t be so quick to share every aspect of their lives online because it’s very dangerous to do so. On a conceptual level it’s not a bad idea and I like the subtext of the wrong hands vs. the right hands. Daniel’s hands are the wrong ones as he uses the technology for selfish/evil means where The Doctor is the opposite and uses technology for positive results throughout the episode in the various time periods she visits.
Unfortunately the message is somewhat muddled because it exists in an episode that also preaches hope in the darkest hours, highlights the evil of the Nazis and touches on the idea of being quick to place trust in someone. None of these ideas are developed to even a small extent. They are introduced and then the episode moves on without saying anything beyond the surface level. All of these are worthy themes to be explored and entire episodes could so easily be crafted around covering them in extensive detail but instead they are name checked and little else. The pace of the episode is definitely a problem in that regard but it should have been obvious that there is no time to cover these ideas extensively.
An uneven follow-up to a strong season opening that sidelines potentially interesting antagonists in favour of the returning Master and fails to explore interesting ideas beyond surface level referencing. The mysterious aliens that are identified as the Kasavins in this episode take a back seat because The Master takes up so much focus and their plan becomes nothing more than a means to an end in order to facilitate The Doctor returning to the present day. Ada Lovelace and Noor Inayat Khan are used really well because their historical importance becomes an important resource for the Doctor. They also make really good temporary companions. The Master is also portrayed really well with Sacha Dhawan providing a rich and varied portrayal from the moustache twirling villain to the more sedate and thoughtful old adversary of The Doctor. Their scenes together are great even if there’s no context as to where we’re at in the character’s timeline nor are we made aware of his plan.
The episode falls apart when The Master admits that he destroyed Gallifrey and killed all of the people as punishment for the lies that were told. This sets up the season arc though it didn’t need to be done this way. It’s difficult to see how The Master can ever come back from that as surely this is something that The Doctor should never be able to forgive, even more so than the other unforgivable things The Master has done. It’s especially glaring in an episode where The Doctor calls The Master out on allying himself with Nazis because she considers that to be really low. It’s fine on the surface but The Master has done far worse as evidenced by this very episode. The destruction of Gallifrey is also a problem because it’s an uncomfortable callback to the revival of the show where The Doctor was consumed by loss and grief. That was fine for the time but it’s not something that needs to be revisited as it prevents Jodie Whittaker from putting her own stamp on the character since she has to retread old ground. The companions also have very little to do in this episode other than reflecting on how little they know about The Doctor. This is fine but it’s also surprising that it took them this long to have this conversation. Daniel is another antagonist who slips into supporting mode which is a shame as his speech about how freely given personal information can be weaponised is a compelling problem that the episode doesn’t have time to explore due to everything else it covers. The subtext of technology in the wrong hands vs. the right hands is compelling enough but there’s not enough time to cover it in any detail and it doesn’t help that the companions don’t actually stop Daniel as it’s down to The Doctor to set all of that up.
- Ada Lovelace and Noor Inayat Khan as capable temporary companions
- Jodie Whittaker’s delivery of The Doctor’s speech about hope in the darkest times
- Sacha Dhawan’s rich and varied portrayal of The Master
- any scene featuring The Doctor and The Mastercompelling ideas about the dangers of freely sharing information
- Jodie Whittaker’s understated and powerful performance as she processes the destruction of her people
- unnecessarily going back to a destroyed Gallifrey
- regressing The Doctor to being consumed by loss and grief
- The Master committing genocide on his own people being impossible to forgive
- the companions ultimately accomplishing nothing
- too many ideas and nothing but surface level attention on any of them
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