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Doctor Who: Spyfall, Part I (Review)

The name’s Doctor. The Doctor.

Spyfall, Part I offers a solid start to the season, if an unspectacular one.

Of course, Spyfall, Part I is all about spectacle. In some respects, showrunner Chris Chibnall is building off the successful elements of his deeply flawed first season of Doctor Who. Spyfall, Part I capitalises on a number of the core strengths of those first ten episodes. The location shooting in South Africa affords Spyfall, Part I an impressive sense of scale and spectacle. As in episodes like The Ghost Monument and Rosa, South Africa is able to stand-in for a variety of exotic locations that would normally be outside the scope of Doctor Who. Chibnall is able to pitch Spyfall, Part I as a genuinely globe-trotting adventure.

No agency.

More than that, the production continues to look lavish. Chibnall retains the anamorphic lenses and the modified aspect ratio from the previous season, lending the series a polished and cinematic appearance. The guest cast for Spyfall, Part I is absolutely stacked, especially by the standards of Doctor Who. Stephen Fry has had a long a complicated relationship with Doctor Whostarring in audio dramas, writing for the television show, critiquing the television show – and he finally makes his television appearance here. Lenny Henry is a suitably big draw, particularly for the role he ultimately plays.

Spyfall, Part I is a good old-fashioned runaround adventure, consciously built around setpieces and action beats that would have seemed impossible for Doctor Who even a decade ago. However, there is something frustratingly hollow in all of this. Spyfall, Part I is positioned as both a season premiere, a New Year’s Day Special, and the first episode of Doctor Who to air since Resolution. That is a lot of weight pressing down on the episode, a lot of expectation, and a lot of outside context. Spyfall, Part I is a new beginning for the series, but it feels more like another day at the office than a statement of purpose.

What the tech is going on?

Indeed, one of the most striking aspects of Spyfall, Part I is the extent to which it feels like “business as usual.” To a certain extent, this makes sense. Chibnall’s first season of Doctor Who was reasonably successful by most measures; it drew a large audience and broadly positive reviews. There is something to be said for making the production of one of the BBC’s flagship science-fiction shows look easy, particular when operating on this scale and under an impressive level of scrutiny. Spyfall, Part I and Spyfall, Part II will screen in American cinemas as a feature-length film, so pulling that off without breaking a sweat is impressive.

At the same time, it is strange that Spyfall, Part I feels like such a non-event. Doctor Who has been a holiday fixture since its return in 2005, with Davies and Moffat building one story each year around Christmas. Episodes like The Christmas Invasion, The Runaway Bride, A Christmas Carol and Last Christmas were all built around the holiday. Chibnall eschewed Christmas in favour of New Year’s Day. However, there is very little in Spyfall, Part I that feels specific to the holiday in question. There is nothing that marks it as an “event” story, something for families or audiences to watch on a special day.

Gambling with some format changes.

There is something slightly disappointing in all of this. Spyfall, Part I makes a number of aesthetic tweaks Chibnall’s vision of Doctor Who, consciously pulling back from some of the bolder stylistic choices of the first season towards something a bit more in keeping with the previous ten seasons of the revived Doctor Who. Most obviously, the classic “cold open” format has returned, a short pre-credits snippet of the episode that introduces the stakes and the threat that will drive the story. The first season eschewed cold opens, in favour of a more modern approach of just jumping right into the story.

This isn’t necessarily a good or bad change of itself, but it does suggest something of a “back to basics” stylistic sensibility driving the season. This fits with some of the other changes to production evident in Spyfall, Part I. Segun Akinola took over as series composer during the eleventh season, succeeding Murray Gold in the role. For better or worse, Gold was a very old-fashioned composer who favoured bombastic soundtracks and traditional leitmotifs. In contrast, Akinola’s approach was relatively minimalist and non-intrusive.

Heard it on the grapevine.

Akinola’s scoring for the series was a breath of fresh air. Gold’s work on Doctor Who was spectacular, but it was nice to have the show embrace a markedly different approach to score and soundtrack. However, Akinola’s work was also controversial in some quarters, garnering criticism for the lack of a strong identity. Akinola’s score for Spyfall, Part I feels like a conscious response to these criticisms. It is appreciably louder and more assertive in the mix, drawing a bit more attention to itself.

Obviously, the score soars at the climax of the episode – as the Doctor and her companions wrestle with an out-of-control airplane. However, the soundtrack feels much more traditional in other sections as well; there’s a more old-fashioned music cue as the Doctor is fixing her TARDIS in the car shop, and a twangy electric guitar as Barton arrives back in the office interrupting Yaz and Ryan. Part of this is obviously Akinola riffing on John Barry as part of the episode’s extended homage to James Bond, but it also feels like a conscious effort to make Spyfall, Part I sound a little more like “classic (revived) Doctor Who.”

Jacked Ryan.

Indeed, for all that Spyfall, Part I is obviously a series of extended riffs on the James Bond franchise, it often feels cobbled together from bits and pieces of older Doctor Who adventures. The early setpiece with the murderous sat-nav recalls The Sontaran Stratagem and The Poison Sky. The decision to open a showrunner’s sophomoric season with an international two-parter evokes The Impossible Astronaut and Day of the Moon. Even the climax set on board a runaway airplane evokes both The Bells of St. John and The Zygon Invasion.

This is to say nothing of the return of the Master. To be fair, the return of the Master was inevitable. The Master is an iconic part of Doctor Who. There was no way that her death in The Doctor Falls would be allowed to stand. Similarly, the Master has been the Doctor’s “best enemy” for so long that there was no way that Missy’s redemption would be allowed to stand. Indeed, Missy’s redemption is all the more effective for the fact that the Doctor will likely never even learn about it. Moffat knew this when he wrote that finale. Missy’s last stand becomes an example of virtue “in extremis.”

Master of his own fate.

So there is nothing wrong with the idea of bringing back the Master, and certainly nothing wrong with bringing back the Master as the Doctor’s “best enemy.” It was always going to happen, and it’s oddly in keeping with the character’s history and function that he should just reappear with minimal context or set-up, let alone acknowledgement of the ramifications of his previous adventure. Both Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat got a chance to put their own stamps on the character, it is fair that Chris Chibnall should be given the same opportunity. Every regeneration and showrunner change is a soft reboot. As it should be.

At the same time, there is something disheartening in the character’s return. More specifically, there is something disheartening in the sense that Spyfall, Part I wants the audience to treat the return of the Master as a big deal. The Master has only been absent for a single season. The character was a recurring threat in both the eighth and ninth seasons, and a recurring guest star through the tenth season. That season finale featured two incarnations of the Master at war with one another, a miniature event of itself. The character’s return in the twelfth season premiere isn’t something on which the show can hang a cliffhanger.

Best of Enemies.

To be fair, Sacha Dhawan does solid work at the climax. He chews through scenery, arguably positioning his interpretation of the Master as a warped mirror to Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor – which contrasts Jodie Whittaker’s channelling of David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor. As played by Dhawan, the Master becomes a big ball of manic energy – his mouth moving almost as fast as his mind. Indeed, to Chibnall’s credit, he relishes writing for the character. When the Doctor finds the “cockpit bomb”, the Master deadpans, “Short fuse. I can relate.” It might be the best piece of dialogue that Chibnall has ever written.

Still, there is something vaguely hollow in all of this. Chibnall’s first season very consciously avoided using any recurring monsters. The results weren’t always successful, but the approach was refreshing. There was an argument that Davies and Moffat had become overly reliant on the old standbys, and so there was a need for a break from them. The return of the Daleks in Resolution felt like a big deal, in large part because they were the first returning faces in a very long time. (It helps that – barring cameos in The Pilot or Twice Upon a Time – it had been a while since Doctor Who had done a proper Dalek story.)

A healthy glow.

Chibnall has argued that his sophomore season will be the season of returning monsters. Publicity photos have made it clear that the Judoon will be reappearing. A big deal has been made about a crossover between Mary Shelley and the Cybermen. Leaked photos suggest that the show’s most iconic villains will be returning en masse. It is impressive that the production team managed to keep the return of the Master a surprise, but he does feel somewhat surplus to requirement. In the context of a season that features both big Dalek and big Cyberman stories, a big Master story feels unnecessary.

The reveal of the Master in Spyfall, Part I is frustrating for a number of reasons. Most obviously, it is perhaps the most obvious expression of the episode’s retreat away from the distinct aesthetics of the previous season towards something that feels more like “generic Doctor Who.” There were plenty of problems with Chibnall’s first season as showrunner of Doctor Who, but its bolder stylistic choices were not among them. It feels like Spyfall, Part I has misdiagnosed the issues with the previous season, and believes that they can fixed with simple aesthetic fixes that to make the show look and sound more old-fashioned.

Life of tuxury.

It is obviously too early to draw any conclusions from this, but the retreat “back to basics” in Spyfall, Part I feels like it belongs to a larger aesthetic movement in nerd culture. The second season of Star Trek: Discovery and Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker attempted to consolidate troubled fanbases by adopting a “back to basics” aesthetic which assumed that the priority of any major modern science-fiction franchise is to appease fans who like their stories told in a very particular way. Spyfall, Part I feels like it belongs to that movement, given how the episode builds to the return of a recurring villain.

The other major problem with the reintroduction of the Master is that it overshadows the more interesting aspects of the episode. Spyfall, Part I has a lot going on. It is very clearly build as a James Bond homage. The title very clearly alludes to Skyfall, as does the sniper in the opening scene and the plot device involving “a spate of attacks on intelligence operatives worldwide.” The chyrons revealing various international locations recall The Spy Who Loved Me. Daniel Barton recalls Elliot Carver from Tomorrow Never Dies. The boarding-a-plane-in-movement sequence even recalls Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation.

Standing out.

To be fair, there is a way in which the Master very obviously fits within the template of Spyfall, Part I. The episode closes with a title card marking the passing of the “masterful” Terrance Dicks. Chibnall’s take on Doctor Who is very heavily influenced by the tenure of producer Barry Letts, an era that was largely shaped and defined by Dicks’ work as script editor. Chibnall’s Doctor Who is decidedly more “establishment” than that of Andrew Cartmel, Russell T. Davies or Steven Moffat, and there’s considerable overlap between the Thirteenth Doctor and the Third Doctor.

Spyfall, Part I leans into that. It feels a little bit like a Pertwee era mad lib. The adventure is set on Earth, like much of Jon Pertwee’s first three seasons in the role. The adventure focuses on a weird alien invasion, like much of Jon Pertwee’s first three seasons in the role. The Doctor has to work with the political establishment to thwart that invasion, as he did repeatedly between Spearhead from Space and The Three Doctors. The Master also involves himself in the affair, even if he feels surplus to requirements, as he did repeatedly during the Pertwee era. (He appeared in every story in Pertwee’s second season.)

Fam and fortune.

This is perhaps the strongest argument in favour of the general aesthetic of the Chibnall era, that it serves as something roughly equivalent to what Barry Letts did with the show in the early seventies. It pushes the show forward in a technical sense while consolidating it as a cultural phenomenon. Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks brought Doctor Who into the world of colour television and colour-separation overlay while imprinting a version of the character that would linger in the popular memory for decades. It wasn’t the strongest, boldest or most internally consistent iteration of the show, but it was avowedly populist.

The Chibnall era might be seen to be doing something similar. It offers an update to the texture and the trappings of Doctor Who, offering a version of the show that is perhaps less challenging and more accessible than the series has been since its return to television in 2005. It is unashamedly and unapologetically crowdpleasing. Spyfall, Part I is obviously a gigantic love letter to the James Bond franchise months before No Time to Die comes out. The Women Who Fell to Earth seemed to bank on Predators being a bigger hit than it was. Resolution seems like it is a fever dream homage to Venom.

Playing her cards right…

Spyfall, Part I is impressively paced, burning through plot points and action sequences with reckless abandon. Indeed, it seems likely that Chibnall was able to attract big names like Lenny Henry and Stephen Fry through canny scheduling. The Moffat era frequently courted guest stars like Ian McKellen and Imelda Staunton by offering them voice over work, and it seems likely that Spyfall, Part I was able to recruit Stephen Fry largely because the character of “C” is a glorified cameo. (It might also pay homage to his work as Mycroft Holmes in Sherlock Holmes, who Alan Moore has suggested was the original “M.”)

This pacing recalls Chibnall’s approach to The Woman Who Fell to Earth, his first season premiere. The teaser and opening act of Spyfall, Part I are frantically paced, a series of very brief snippets of scenes that never linger or build. In the teaser, a set of agents are all attacked. In the opening act, the members of the TARDIS crew are each given a brief bit of character exposition before being dragged away by MI6. This then leads nicely to the first action setpiece, which leads to the exposition scene with C, which leads to his surprise death. It is effective, if inelegant.

Control of the situation.

As with The Woman Who Fell to Earth, this pacing feels like a deliberate choice to avoid getting bogged down in dialogue-heavy scenes that might invite unflattering comparisons with Russell T. Davies or Steven Moffat. It’s notable that the attempts at humour within this sequence are mostly flat and awkward. Yaz’s father struggles to get his personal assistant to play Rubber Soul, in a piece of “dad humour” that recalls the family joke in Resolution. Graham lamely complains that MI6 have offered him the “worst Uber ever.” It’s very cringe-inducing. (In contrast, the “who’s on first” gag with “O” – or “Oh!” – is good fun.)

Director Jamie Magnus Stone does solid work. However, there’s a sense that Magnus Stone is occasionally trying a little too hard, struggling to provide a sense of mundanity against which he might contrast the episode’s rapid escalation into espionage adventure. This is most notable during the character-establishing scenes in Sheffield with Yaz, Graham and Ryan. Ryan’s basketball game is played like something from a Michael Bay movie, with lots of slow motion and intense close-ups along with the familiar camera twirl around Ryan.

Monster mogul.

This might make sense as something of a wry joke contrasting the globe-trotting cold open with the more grounded surroundings of Sheffield. Indeed, the use of the text on screen to identify the “Ivory Coast”, “Moscow” and “Sheffield” is a legitimately good gag in its own right, cleverly juxtaposing international locales with a working-class British city. However, it also strips out any sense of humanity from the sequence. It robs the episode of a clear contrast between the lives that Yaz, Graham and Ryan are leaving behind to run away with the Doctor.

There are some interesting elements within Spyfall, Part I. Most obviously, there’s some small suggestion that the Thirteenth Doctor has become a bit more wary of institutions. This is a welcome change given the character’s refusal to fight systemic racism in Rosa, her friendly namedropping of Lord Mountbatten in Demons of the Punjab and her affection for space!Amazon in Kerblam! Notably, she doesn’t partner up with MI6 enthusiastically, but is dragged into the story and then decides to pursue the leads on her own initiative using MI6’s resources.

Healing thyself.

More to the point, the Master’s deception only works because the Doctor is entirely too trusting of him and entirely too trusting of the system in which he operates. Introducing O to the rest of the TARDIS crew, the Doctor explains, “I met him once, but he seemed really nice.” This seems like a highly questionable character judgment of somebody who works in espionage, and it is nice that Spyfall, Part I makes a point to emphasise the Doctor’s lack of healthy skepticism. Even when she catches O in a lie, she isn’t sharp enough to put the pieces together. O has to spell it out to her. There’s no moment of realisation.

Again, it is far too early to draw any conclusions from Spyfall, Part I. The story hasn’t yet concluded, let alone the larger season. It is possible that these small choices are not the reflection of any conscious authorial intent, but simply the necessary flow of the story that Chibnall is trying to tell. It is perhaps too much to attempt to read meaning into a story that is still unfolding, but small causes for optimism are better than none at all. As such, there is something very clever and pointed in the way that the mysterious aliens manifest in C’s office, taking on some of the texture of the objects through which they are passing.

Coasting.

Chibnall’s Doctor Who is markedly less overt in its politics than that of Andrew Cartmel, Russell T. Davies or Steven Moffat. Even when the politics of the Chibnall era shine through, they tend to be more conservative than those of the three previous showrunners. Nevertheless, there is something very evocative in the idea of the Doctor and her companions being attacked at MI6 headquarters by aliens branded with a Union Flag and the face of Queen Victoria. This is hardly killing Tony Blair and stuffing him in a Downing Street cupboard like in Aliens of London and World War III, but it is something of itself.

Similarly, it is nice to see Chibnall engaging with the idea of new media, grappling with anxieties around privacy and data security. “Governments these days are full of people who don’t understand technology, so countries rely on outsourcing their tech requirements and expertise to private companies that transcend national boundaries,” the Master explains. “VOR seeps into every corner of modern technology. We’re talking leisure, commercial, military. It leads the way on face-tagging, biodata, robotics. And then there’s all the military systems across the globe which rely on servers operated by VOR.”

Graham’s on The Chase.

Of course, this is hardly anything new. Media has been grappling with these anxieties since at least The Social Network, a decade ago. Moffat dealt with similar ideas in The Bells of St. John, which imagined the internet’s capacity to literally and figuratively drain and transform people to empower sinister and ill-defined forces. Black Mirror has built a cottage industry around such fears. Still, it is a firm political statement. It is a strong stance. It is reassuring to see that Doctor Who is still willing to make these sorts of points on occasion, even in the midst of what is nominally a fun runaround season premiere.

That said, there is a strong sense that Spyfall, Part I doesn’t entirely understand the problem that it is critiquing. It casts veteran British comedian Lenny Henry as San Francisco tech company CEO Daniel Barton. This is a very weird choice, as Henry is sixty-one years old and Barton is portrayed as a fairly generic evil executive who would feel at home in a story like The Green Death. Tech company executives tend to be younger and more bohemian types; Jack Dorsey is forty-three, Mark Zuckerberg is thirty-five, Sean Parker is forty. Barton seems more like he should be editing a newspaper or running a television network.

CEO, Yeah!

The Sontaran Stratagem and The Poison Sky understood this with the character of Luke Rattigan over a decade ago. This choice pushes the episode’s metaphor into the uncanny valley. “You only got in because you’re Brits,” Barton assures Yaz and Ryan. “My mum reads your paper. She’s old. legacy media.” The truth is that Barton himself seems like he belongs to that demographic. This is man who hosts a birthday party in black tie. To his credit, Lenny Henry is fairly solid in the role, playing it with understated menace that provides a nice counterbalance to Sacha Dhawan’s unhinged energy at the climax.

Even outside of the fact that Barton feels like the wrong archetype for this story, the character feels crowded out of his own episode. The episode gestures towards making a broad critique of the companies the manage social networks, but these often feel extraneous to the point being made. “The more data we share, the better it is for the world,” Barton boasts. Yaz responds, “Unless you count disinformation. Online abuse. Cyber bullying. All of which you’ve been accused of ignoring.” However, there’s a sense that these social media anxieties have little to do with the actual threat, which seems more data-driven.

Of course, it’s very hard to define what exactly the threat is? What do the mysterious ghosts represent? Do they embody our digital selves? Are they a literalisation of how online identities somehow morph beyond our control? Spyfall, Part I is deliberately vague on the details, avoiding anything that might bring its alien menace back into focus. “Is this what you look like at home?” the Doctor asks. Her opponent simply responds, “We take this form to mock you. Your shape amuses us.” So Spyfall, Part I deliberately emphasises the “otherness” of the invading forces.

That said, there is something interesting in the quick glimpses that the episode provides of the creatures’ homeland. It resembles a forest pulsing with energy, working at once as an archetypal nightmare-scape (a haunted and foggy woodland) and as a potential visual metaphor for the modern interconnected world. Yaz is transported across the globe instantly, like a byte routed through a network. Spyfall, Part I doesn’t quite manage to anchor this metaphor to anything specific, but there’s the nub of a potentially interesting idea there that might be developed in interesting directions in Spyfall, Part II.

Don’t screwdriver it up.

It is interesting that Skyfall, Part I doubles down on one of the more interesting ideas in Resolution, that the old institutions on which the Doctor has come to rely have all disappeared. Early in the episode, C warns the Doctor, “UNIT. Even Torchwood. They’re all gone.” While it might be too much to read this as an analogy for the erosion of structural safeguards in a fraught age, there is something delightfully wry in the implication that MI6 completely failed to fill the security lacuna left by the disbanding of those organisations. After all, this is a nation that voted for Brexit without any idea how to deal with it.

Of course, Spyfall, Part I is just the first part of a two-parter. It is probably too early to be drawing any conclusions from it. If this opening two-parter is to provide a mission statement for the season that will follow, this is only the first clause. It’s a solid start to the season, albeit one that feels a little too familiar for its own good and which seems more preoccupied with cosmetic fixes than fundamental ones. It doesn’t appear to offer a strong statement for the season that will follow, but it often feels like that absence itself might be the statement that the episode is making.

6 Responses

  1. It was fine. It wouldn’t rank among the worst of Series 11, at least. I didn’t think it was a major improvement either, though. Too early to say whether the series as a whole will measure up, but at least the possibility exists. Hm.

    • Oh yeah, The Master reveal happened! Does that really make this a great episode though? Not really. But looking forward to see how Sacha Dhawan holds up as him. Could be very interesting.

      • It’s a nice moment, but it would be better if the show hadn’t done “there’s a second Master!” reveal just a season-and-a-bit prior. That said, Dhawan is having fun in the role.

    • Yep, I think it’s more functional than the average episode of the eleventh season, even if it lacks any real spark or ambition. It’s mostly just things happening quickly.

  2. “Do they embody our digital selves?” That’s a very mind-opening observation. Speculatively, I might add: is there going to be a connection made between DNA and data? Maybe they view humans as blank discs they can copy information onto? Perhaps specifically spies because the function of spies is to acquire information and then transmit it to a specific entity? (After all, in other respects they seem to ape aspects of spy craft whilst missing the essential point. If they were actually functioning effectively as spies, humanity would not be aware of their presence. And they have’t succeeded in stoking paranoia between nations, so presumably that’s not the point.) Also, the Doctor’s response to the agent with rewritten DNA is odd, as if this is not now-alien life, but no life (especially as she and the Master undergo lots of DNA rewrites.) Just couldn’t resist getting one of my multiple tenuous theories out there before part 2 airs. Thank you for your very interesting thoughts in the review.

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