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Doctor Who: Spyfall, Part II (Review)

Spyfall, Part II certainly takes a sharp turn.

In hindsight, despite its literal holiday trappings, it seems fair to position Spyfall, Part I as a “holiday special.” It is consciously designed as a “romp” or a “runaround”, with a whole host of homages to something that audiences enjoy. In the case of Spyfall, Part I, that piece of pop culture happens to be the James Bond franchise. In Voyage of the Damned, it was The Poseidon Adventure. In A Christmas Carol, it was… well, guess. In The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe, it was The Chronicles of Narnia. In The Return of Doctor Mysterio, it was generic superhero films.

Master of his domain.

It is retroactively possible to identify Spyfall, Part I as part of the show’s “holiday episode” genre because of the sharp way in which Spyfall, Part II pivots away from the defining features of the preceding adventure. Director Jamie Magnus Stone is replaced by Lee Haven Jones, which is most likely a result of production block scheduling. That production block scheduling reflects the distinctions between Spyfall, Part I and Spyfall, Part II, because Spyfall, Part I needs to use South Africa as a shooting location while Spyfall, Part II is produced in a more traditional manner.

However, Spyfall, Part II distinguishes itself from Spyfall, Part I in more than just its production choices. The episode marks a very sharp departure from Spyfall, Part I. For all its flaws, Spyfall, Part I knew what it was doing. It was doing Doctor Who as an elaborate homage to James Bond, while flooding the screen with production value, a star-studded cast, some exotic locations and a big “moment” on which it might hang a cliffhanger. Spyfall, Part II lacks even that sense of purpose, to the point that it’s hard to tell exactly what the episode is meant to be about.

Hangaround.

To be fair to Spyfall, Part II, there is nothing wrong with a sharp pivot on a cliffhanger. Classic Doctor Who is full of stories that change direction dramatically on the first cliffhanger, with the opening episode largely playing as an extended prologue. Episodes like The Ghost Monument and The Tsuranga Conundrum suggested that writer Chris Chibnall has an abiding affinity with classic Doctor Who writer Terry Nation, and the desire to bounce from one story to another on a cliffhanger was a Terry Nation specialty.

(Indeed, it would not be entirely unreasonable to suggest a connection between the chaotic “chase through time” structure of Spyfall, Part II and Terry Nation’s gonzo plotting on The Chase. Arguably, Chibnall just swaps one recurring and iconic enemy for another by replacing the Daleks with the Master. He also literalises some of Nation’s favourite recurring subtext, by compensating for the absence of the Daleks by adding literal Nazis. It will be very disappointing if the inevitable return of the Daleks doesn’t hinge on their desire to hollow Earth out and drive it around space like in The Dalek Invasion of Earth.)

More to the point, showrunner Steven Moffat arguably discovered that the key to crafting a really good modern Doctor Who two-parter was to ensure some measure of variety between the two parts. This is most obvious with his work on the ninth season, which was built – Sleep No More aside – along a set of (at least conceptually) two-part stories. Most of those stories shifted dramatically between their two-parts, most notably The Girl Who Died and The Woman Who Lived or Heaven Sent and Hell Bent. Even Under the Lake and Before the Flood varied locations between the two parts.

However, the key to Moffat’s success with this approach has always been to understand the core of the story being told and the thematic unity that holds these narratives together. Heaven Sent and Hell Bent are radically different episodes in terms of setting, scope and guest cast. However, they are a single story rooted in the Doctor’s monomaniacal fixation on saving Clara. Dark Water and Death in Heaven are very different episodes in terms of tone and content, but they are built around the separation of Clara from Danny Pink.

Small problems.

So what is the linking thread between Spyfall, Part I and Spyfall, Part II? It cannot be the Master, since he spent most of Spyfall, Part I in the persona of “O!” It cannot be the time travel plot, as Spyfall, Part I was about globe-trotting rather than time traveling. The most obvious linking tissue between the two episodes is Daniel Barton and his plot for world domination. After all, Lenny Henry appears in both episodes, getting a sizable introduction in Spyfall, Part I and a conclusion to his arc in Spyfall, Part II.

Barton self-evidently isn’t the focus point of Spyfall, Part II. The character is very firmly established as a secondary antagonist rather than a joint conspirator. One of the strangest directorial choices in the episode arrives during the confrontation between the Master and Barton inside the former’s TARDIS. “Watch your tone, Mister Barton,” the Master warns his ally. “I’m not your employee.” However, the camera is placed over Barton’s shoulder, emphasising how the six-foot-three Lenny Henry towers over the five-foot-seven Sacha Dhawan. That is not the power dynamic in the script.

The Master even assigns Barton the Doctor Who equivalent of “busy work.” While the Master chases the Doctor through time, Barton is assigned to hunt down Ryan, Yaz and Graham in the present. This leads to a rather stilted retread of The Sound of Drums, as if the Master is even handing down his old plots to his henchman. More to the point, Ryan, Yaz and Graham are completely useless in thwarting Barton’s evil plot. The alien invasion is not stopped by Ryan, Yaz and Graham. It is stopped by the arrival of the Doctor, which makes Barton’s hunt for the trio completely pointless.

To be fair, Spyfall, Part II acknowledges the complete uselessness of Ryan, Yaz and Graham in their efforts to stop the alien invasion. “I have a significant announcement to make, and you are two steps behind,” Barton taunts at one point. “As usual.” However, this has the unfortunate side effect of reducing Barton (and Henry) to nothing more than a face on screen delivering smug taunts as the heroes fail to have any significant impact on his schemes. Barton feels less like an actual antagonist, and more like a hangover from the previous installment.

A healthy glow.

It might be possible to argue that Barton’s evil plot provides some measure of thematic or narrative cohesion to the two-parter. After all, Spyfall, Part I and Spyfall, Part II are at least linked in their anxieties over social media and modern tech conglomerates. However, there is no real internal cohesion beyond a general sense of dread and anxiety, often bluntly articulated through exposition rather than expressed through story.

In Spyfall, Part I, Yaz made reference to how Barton’s company has enabled “disinformation, online abuse, cyber bullying.” None of this actually plays into the plot of the two-parter in any significant way. At the climax of Spyfall, Part II, Barton delivers a big evil speech about the horrors of modern technology. “You handed us – me, my company – total access to your lives,” he tells the assembled crowd. “You kept clicking agree and now we can do anything.”

Except the episode fails to articulate in any meaningful way what any of that means. Barton attacks the people of Earth through screens, but not through consent. There is no indication that any of the people attacked have inadvertently signed their lives away by failing to read the terms and conditions, like the characters in Countdown. After all, Yaz’s father’s sole defining trait is that he is a paranoid conspiracy nut, and he is still attacked. More than that, Yaz is almost sucked in while reading the screen that Barton left behind after killing his mother.

It isn’t difficult to connect plot and theme within a story like this. After all, Doctor Who has repeatedly made Barton’s point over the past decade-and-a-half. Rise of the Cybermen and The Age of Steel featured a wry note about mankind signing their lives away in favour of the next upgrade, creating a backdoor for the Cybermen. Even The Bells of St. John suggested that people made themselves targets of the episode’s villains by clicking into free wifi and sharing their information that way. Even Barton’s use of technology to track the companions comes from The Sound of Drums.

Raising the Barton.

As seems to be the way with Chris Chibnall’s scripting for Doctor Who, a lot of Spyfall, Part II feels painfully undercooked. Barton’s evil plan is to convert Earth into a giant server farm by using human bodies as databanks. This is not a bad idea, whether thematically or narratively. There is a lot of potential for body horror in the idea that human bodies are just machines made of meat and so can be reprogrammed or repurposed like any other mechanical object. There’s also something interesting in the idea that surrending a person’s data is a two-way street.

Unfortunately, the idea is only briefly broached. It is not teased. It is not foreshadowed. It is not set-up. Under Davies and Moffat, many episodes cleverly seeded their insane revelations in early plot or character beats, allowing for an evil plan like this to feel like the culmination of some grand arc. It might have been possible, for example, to seed the storage capacity of human DNA earlier in the two parter, setting up the idea that could be “reformated” at the climax of Spyfall, Part II as a logical (but still insane) development of that concept. The closest Spyfall, Part I comes is in seeding the rewriting of the spies’ DNA.

Instead, it is all clumsily dumped in exposition during a big villainous speech that is inevitably interrupted and thwarted. The audience has no time to really think about the implications of the idea before it is neatly dismissed. Then again, this isn’t a surprise. As with Spyfall, Part I, there is no sense in Spyfall, Part II that Chibnall actually understands any of the ideas that he is working with and that the episode’s narrative and thematic vagueness is a consequence of that lack of engagement with the concepts.

The commentary in Spyfall, Part I and Spyfall, Part II doesn’t run any deeper than that joke in Resolution about what happens when the internet goes down. Hakim Khan picks up his wireless mouse and blames a “conspiracy” for what happened, but there’s no sense the episode has any deeper insight. Again, Barton proves an unconvincing modern social media mogul written in the style of an older, outdated archetype. “I need tracking intel on three people,” he barks down the phone. “Soon as you can. These are their names.” Most modern tech billionaires could do it in their sleep from a laptop, wearing a hoodie.

Master and commander.

When the Master explains his evil plot to the Doctor atop the Eiffel Tower, he explains that he told Barton to “think of them like Russia, but bigger – sleeper agents everywhere.” It’s revealing that the Master’s invocation of Russia speaks to the sort of outdated Cold War understanding that formed the basis for the show The Americans. Spyfall, Part II seems completely oblivious to the idea that references to Russia in an episode about the dangers of social media should probably be more engaged with anxieties like Brexit or Trumpism.

Then again, this provides a nice segue into the episode’s actual primary plot, which is essentially a runaround adventure through time that unites the Doctor with Ada Lovelave and Noor Inayat Khan. These are two interesting choices for two very different reasons. To pick the easy example first, Ada Lovelace is the daughter of Lord Byron. Lord Byron was involved in the late evening discussions that would inspire Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein. Given that Shelley and Frankenstein will feature in an episode about the Cybermen later in the season, it is an interesting overlap.

Indeed, it is interesting how the Cybermen seem to haunt Spyfall, Part I and Spyfall, Part II. The manifestation of the Kasaavin as “ghosts” recalls the imprinting of the Cybermen upon the world in Army of Ghosts and Doomsday. Given the obvious inspiration that Chibnall is drawing from the peaks of the Davies era, the parallels are striking. More than that, the Cybermen are often treated as the logical endpoint of a society that has forsaken empathy and embraced the idea of technological process at all costs, making them seem like a perfect fit for Barton’s evil plan. The Master has also collaborated with them recently.

Noor Inayat Khan is thornier issue, in large part because of how spectacularly ill-judged it feels. The inclusion of Khan in the twelfth season of Doctor Who was rumoured more than six months ago, when it was suggested that Chibnall and his writers would be building an episode around her. This was a risky proposition even when it seemed like Khan would be the focal point of a standalone episode like Rosa, given that it would involve the Doctor meeting a person who was tortured and executed in a concentration camp. This is a plot point that deserves a great deal of tact.

Femme fam.

As such, it feels spectacularly ill-judged to draw Noor Inayat Khan into a fun runaround adventure across time and space as two Time Lords try desperately to one-up each other. Indeed, Spyfall, Part II even brings Khan to the present day along with Lovelace for the Doctor’s big heroic moment. The Doctor even clearly knows who Khan is, citing her accomplishments and her record. There is no way that the Doctor doesn’t know that Khan dies with a bullet through her neck at Dachau. However, the Doctor still chooses to wipe Khan’s memory and return her to her destiny.

To be fair, there is no easy way to write this story. There is no way to tell the story of the Doctor encountering somebody who will die in the Holocaust and then decides to let them. Similar to the ending of Rosa, the Doctor could never save Khan. It would be massively disrespectful to the memory of the real person and also because the Doctor is a fictional character who cannot rewrite the Second World War. However, the alternative of writing the Doctor as passively complicit in the oppression of Rosa Parks and the death of Khan is no less palatable.

It feels particularly ill-judged to write a character like Noor Inayat Khan into what is effectively a camp runaround that just happens to unfold against the backdrop of Nazi-occupied Paris. This is arguably part of a largely debate about the appropriateness of treating the Nazi regime as something of a historical theme park in the style of Raiders of the Lost Ark or Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, as the kind of backdrop against which the Doctor might have adventures.

Of course, Doctor Who has done this before. Let’s Kill Hitler was very consciously structured in the vein of Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, shoving Hitler in the closet so that the regulars could tear through the Third Reich. However, there are two important distinctions between the fun runaround Berlin Let’s Kill Hitler and the adventures in Nazi-occupied Paris in Spyfall, Part II. Most obviously, Let’s Kill Hitler was using its giddiness to comment on the fixation of time-travel stories on Nazi Germany, and as a critique of dropping the Doctor into those sorts of stories.

Nazi best approach.

More to the point, though, Let’s Kill Hitler was written and broadcast in 2011. Nazi ideology seemed like a distant memory to Britons in 2011, just as it did to Americans in 1981 or 1989. That was before Unite the Right, before the Vote Leave poster drawing from Nazi iconography unveiled on the same day a pro-Remain Member of Parliament was assassinated, before the murder of Heather Hayer at Charlottesville, before a KKK-endorsed President of the United States. As such, the imagery of Nazi occupation and iconography should carry much more weight in 2020 than they did nine years previous.

In fact, Chibnall seems to understand this. If one were feeling exceedingly generous to the two-parter, the paralleling of Barton’s tech company with the Master’s Nazi cosplay could be read as a commentary on the way in which social media has enabled and encouraged the spread of extremist ideologies. Unfortunately, Spyfall, Part II offers nothing to support that possible reading, nothing the reinforces the connection or establishes a thematic point. In Spyfall, Part II, these two plot threads are just two things happening.

Instead, Spyfall, Part II offers a fairly generic and inoffensive message about the rise of totalitarianism. “Darkness never sustains, even though it sometimes feels like it might,” the Doctor assures Noor Inayat Khan before leaving her to torture and execution by the Nazis. (In another nod to the Davies era, Chibnall employs the non-consensual mindwipe from Journey’s End.) Spyfall, Part II makes a point to return to the largely passive characterisation of the Doctor. She returns to the awkward pseudo-pacifism of the Tenth Doctor, sternly telling Lovelace “I don’t approve” after Lovelace saves her life by shooting the Master.

This feels like a conscious retreat from the more radical political stances of the Moffat era, from the genuinely revolutionary sentiments of The Impossible Astronaut and Day of the Moon through to the racist-punching of Thin Ice and the capitalism-toppling of Oxygen. It is a very generic and very passive approach to the horrors of systemic evil. This has been a fixture of the Thirteenth Doctor’s tenure, notably in episodes like The Ghost Monument or Arachnids in the U.K. or Kerblam! Barton walks away from attempted genocide without breaking a sweat. Spyfall, Part II just applies that logic to Nazi Germany.

Taking a stand.

Of course, the Thirteenth Doctor is something of a hypocrite, much like the Tenth Doctor before her. Following her confrontation with the Master on the Eiffel Tower, she disables the “perception filter” that allows the villain to pass as an Aryan among the soldiers of the Third Reich. This feels like an incredibly crass and vulgar narrative choice on a number of levels. Most obviously, the Doctor is weaponising systemic oppression and genocide to suit her own needs. It feels very awkward that this should happen to the Master in his very first story as a non-white incarnation.

More to the point, it speaks to the sort of tonal dissonance of trying to do a fun runaround adventure set during the Nazi occupation of Paris in 2020, while dealing with issues like race and gender. By drawing attention to how the Master no longer fits the Nazi ideal, Spyfall, Part II is drawing attention to the existence of the Holocaust. It is impossible to watch the Nazi soldiers grab the Master without thinking about the mass extermination of entire populations by a fascist state.

On paper, it is a fairly standard plot beat, a clever dramatic reversal. The Doctor is effectively hoisting the Master by his own petard, causing his plan to backfire spectacularly upon him. This is standard pulp storytelling, similar to the death of Ra’s Al Ghul during his own terrorist attack in Batman Begins or even the wooden Cyberman tricked into committing suicide in The Time of the Doctor. More to the point, the Doctor leaving the Master in a horrific situation is a stock Doctor Who trope, occurring in stories like Planet of Fire. The Master’s undoing is his own fault, which is just basic dramatic irony.

After all, there’s an implied moral judgment in all of this. Spyfall, Part II seems to make the case that the Nazis are a special kind of evil. The Doctor is obviously disappointed. “That’s a low, even for him,” she states. Later she chides him, “I don’t like what you’re wearing. Nor the company you keep.” This makes sense to the audience, who have lived in a world scarred by the horrors of Nazi atrocity. The audience knows that being a Nazi is one of the worst things that a person can be, and so it makes sense that the Doctor judges the Master for it.

Screaming into the void… well, realm.

However, it also fundamentally breaks the internal logic of Doctor Who. Within the world of the show, the Master is a much greater villain than Adolf Hitler. He has teamed up with the Daleks in Frontier in Space. He wiped out huge portions of the universe in Logopolis. He attempted to turn everybody on the planet into a copy of himself in The End of Time, Part I and The End of Time, Part II. Spyfall, Part II ends with the revelation that the Master wiped out all life on Gallifrey, and uses that as a hook for a season arc about “the Timeless Child.” Compared to the Master, within the world of the show, the Nazis are amateurs.

So to acknowledge that dressing up in a Nazi uniform is a special kind of evil means breaking the internal logic of the show in a way that Spyfall, Part II is unwilling to do. The Doctor’s defeat of the Master hinges on both the pulp adventure trope of the hero reversing the villain’s plan, but also on the reality that the Master is now a man of Asian extraction who would most likely have been sent to a concentration camp. It’s a spectacularly ill-judged narrative choice, one reinforced by the decision to play off the Master’s capture as a joke.

The Master escapes the Holocaust just like he has escaped from any other moment of certain death during his time on Doctor Who. Spyfall, Part II reduces the Holocaust to the equivalent to escaping the Xeraphin in Time-Flight. The Master shows up at the climax of Spyfall, Part II having taken “the long way around.” It is treated as a joke. He is just a little bit angrier and crabbier for that experience. There’s no sense of why Nazi occupied France was different from any other tight spot in which the Master has found himself, despite the Doctor’s (and the audience’s) misgivings.

This problem is reinforced by the episode’s emphasis on the idea of overlap between cultural identity and genetic heritage during the Master’s final message to the Doctor at the end of the episode. Warning the Doctor about the threat posed by “the Timeless Child”, he advises her, “It’s buried deep in all our memories, in our identity.” It seems strange that Spyfall, Part I and Spyfall, Part II place such an emphasis on genes and identity while also seeming to warn about the dangers of fascism. (After all, the spies had their DNA rewritten in Spyfall, Part I, and the episode hinges on the idea that what is alien is villainous.)

Noor the battle to the strong.

There’s a weird sense of Spyfall, Part II wanting to have its cake and eat it. The episode wants to acknowledge real-life horrors and atrocities, but refuses to explore them or dwell upon them. It wants to offer a feel-good message about how good will eventually triumph over evil by citing the Second World War as an example, but without acknowledging both the true scale and horror of that battle and the reality that fascism has not been thoroughly vanquished.

It’s clear that Chibnall has his heart in the right place. Spyfall, Part II clearly wants to be a story that confronts the horrors and tragedies of war, and which spotlights a number of women largely erased from modern history. This is commendable. Similarly, Chibnall’s commitment to diverse casting continues to be commendable and worthy of celebration. However, Chibnall struggles to follow his ideas through to their conclusion, leading to misjudged sequences, tonal inconsistencies and spectacularly tasteless subtext.

This is most obvious in the way that the gender dynamics between the Master and the Doctor play out. When the Doctor demands to know what the Master wants from her, he demands “kneel.” He then instructs her, “Call me by my name.” This isn’t too far removed from the dynamic between previous male iterations of the Master and the Doctor playing off one another, especially in The Sound of Drums. In fact, “call me by my name” is ultimately a variation on “I love it when you use my name.”

That said, a newly male Master forcing a newly female Doctor to kneel before him and call him “master” has decidedly more awkward connotations than the episode is willing to explore. The version of the Master played by John Simm was consistently characterised by Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat as a misogynist. Spyfall, Part I and Spyfall, Part II wisely decide not to push this new incarnation of the character in that direction, given he will be playing off a female Doctor, which makes the sexualised submission play all the stranger in the context of a family show.

Turncoat.

As with a lot of the other problems with Spyfall, Part II, this seems to largely come down to a lack of thought and consideration rather than any conscious mistakes. This carelessness carries over to the plotting, which is similarly lazy. There is an excellent hook buried in Spyfall, Part II, with the revelation that the Kasaavins “aren’t just alien spies on Earth; they’re spies through time – through history.” That’s an excellent hook for an episode. It’s fun to imagine what Steven Moffat might have done with that idea.

Instead, the execution is shockingly banal. The Kasaavins are barely developed or explored. They are not given a distinctive personality or perspective, or a unique agenda. In fact, Spyfall, Part II even clumsily writes off the entire plot motivator of Spyfall, Part I. Why were the Kasaavins targeting spies? Because apparently those spy networks had taken notice of them on Earth. It is never explained why the Kasaavins failed to weaponise time travel against their opponents. Given what Spyfall, Part II reveals about the Kasaavins, their plot in Spyfall, Part I is downright boring.

That said, it’s not as if the Doctor emerges from Spyfall, Part II seeming any more impressive or quick-witted. As much as Spyfall, Part I and Spyfall, Part II borrow from episodes like The Lazarus Experiment, The Sound of Drums or even The Impossible Astronaut and Day of the Moon, it is surprising how much of this “statement of purpose” season-opening two-parter borrows from The Curse of Fatal Death. In particular, the Doctor spends the climax of Spyfall, Part II taking advantage of time travel to conveniently plant dei ex machina.

As the Master’s plan kicks into high gear, the Doctor arrives and exposits, “Middle of last year, using your TARDIS, I built a failsafe into that machine.” That is the end of the Master’s plot. Similarly, trying desperately to write her way out of the cliffhanger to Spyfall, Part II, the Doctor simply travels back in time to walk Ryan through it. The strangest thing about all this is the false urgency. “I forgot!” she gasps, turning around. “C’mon!” She has a time machine. She can do this at her own pace. Indeed, the subsequent montage suggests it likely took a lot of time anyway.

Steamed off.

There’s a weird sense in which Spyfall, Part II plays like a profoundly stupid version of a Steven Moffat script, similar to the infamous “timey wimey” hijinks that informed stories like Blink or The Name of the Doctor. Of course, Spyfall, Part II is executed with none of the elegance of any of those earlier scripts, and with the strong recurring suggestion that the audience might possibly lose track of these sorts of developments if characters are not constantly explaining them. It is incredibly patronising, but it also misunderstands the extent to which modern audiences – especially kids – are truly media savvy.

Nevertheless, despite the obvious influence of Moffat’s writing on the rough outline of Spyfall, Part I and Spyfall, Part II – indeed, the show’s closest structural analogue is probably still The Impossible Astronaut and Day of the Moon – the shadow of the Davies era hangs over the two-part season premiere. In particular, Chibnall seems conscious of the fact that Doctor Who has been on the air for fifteen years. Many of the fans who jumped on board of the show with Rose have left, and so it makes sense to offer an accessible “jumping on” point for new fans.

Being charitable, this explains why Spyfall, Part I made such a big deal of the return of the Master. After all, the previous made a big deal of how it stripped back a lot of the familiar trappings of Doctor Who to offer a step-by-step introduction to the concept and the world. Spyfall, Part I and Spyfall, Part II make a point to underscore how little the companions actually know about the Doctor and her origin, with Graham being caught off-guard by the revelation that the Doctor actually has had a previous life, despite her allusions to it.

There is nothing wrong with a “back to basics” approach. In fact, it seems likely that the slow but confident world building (or world rebuilding) of the Davies era was a large part of its success, bringing back the Doctor, then the Daleks, then the Cybermen, then the Master. The mythology was slowly built back up around the character, in a way that never excluded new viewers and in fact enticed those who were delving into Doctor Who for the first time. It makes sense for Chibnall to emulate that approach.

Indeed, Davies’ third season is a big influence here. The Sound of Drums hangs over a lot of Spyfall, Part II, including Barton’s targeting of the companions. However, the Doctor’s willingness to talk about her history with her companions most obviously evokes Gridlock. That was the first time in the revived series that the Doctor actually mentioned the name “Gallifrey.” The Thirteenth Doctor even mentions “the constellation of Kasterborous” in Spyfall, Part II, which was a continuity landmark that the Tenth Doctor didn’t reach until The Voyage of the Damned.

Spyfall, Part II seems to fleetingly acknowledge how little the companions actually know about the Doctor. “We spent all this time with her and we still don’t know where she’s from,” Yaz states. Graham clarifies, “Not for want of asking, eh. And we will ask.” This is a strange beat, because it underscores how little actual character development the leads have enjoyed during the first season. It also provides a clear contrast between the more curious and genre savvy companions of the Davies and Moffat eras – characters like Clara Oswald and Bill Potts – and the more recent TARDIS crew.

More to the point, Spyfall, Part II takes that “back to basics” sensibility a little too literally. There is an extended sequence in Spyfall, Part II where Graham discusses the concept of “regeneration” as a novelty. Regeneration was a novelty in Bad Wolf and The Parting of the Ways because the Ninth Doctor was introduced post-regeneration. In contrast, the Thirteenth Doctor’s regeneration was a huge part of The Woman Who Fell to Earth. The audience already knows how this works. They don’t need it explained. It is not that big a deal fifteen years after The Christmas Invasion.

However, the most frustratingly literal application of that “back to basics” aesthetic from the early Davies era is the destruction of Gallifrey. Spyfall, Part I and Spyfall, Part II reveal that the master has destroyed Gallifrey, seemingly motivated by the horror of “the Timeless Child.” The Doctor’s homeworld is “pulverised, burned, nuked; all of the above.” If this seems at all familiar, this is because that was the Doctor’s arc as established in The End of the World. Gallifrey was destroyed in the Last Great Time War, forever lost to the Doctor.

Again, this was a clever (and pragmatic) sleight of hand from Davies, who just used the Last Great Time War as an excuse to move Gallifrey (and its associated continuity) off the board. Steven Moffat made the decision to bring back Gallifrey in The Day of the Doctor, symbolising the healing of the divide between the original and the revived series. He even allowed the Doctor to return to Gallifrey in Listen and Hell Bent, although in such a way as to prevent the planet from intruding into the rest of the show. It was a clever, pragmatic decision.

Of course, it is entirely possible that the season will “reset” the destruction of Gallifrey, that it will be revealed as a ruse or a trick or that it will be undone in the season finale. However, in the context of Spyfall, Part I and Spyfall, Part II, it serves as a source of cheap and cynical pathos for the Doctor. It marks a desire to return to the brooding and lonely characterisation that defined the Ninth and Tenth Doctors. It is a “back to basics” choice that treats the Davies era as the platonic ideal of Doctor Who.

There is something very cynical in all of this, recalling the way in which Star Wars: Episode XI – The Rise of Skywalker effectively ignored the more challenging ideas of Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi in favour of trying to return to the easy comforts of Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens. It is fan service that tries to pass itself off as being crowd-pleasing. It is the result of a desire to please the audience by retreading familiar ground, ignoring the reality that times and audiences change.

Spyfall, Part I was an awkward, if promising season premiere. Spyfall, Part II is a spectacular misfire.

12 Responses

  1. Maybe it’s just me, but maybe the Holocaust shouldn’t really be in a quirky, low-budget sci-fi show like this? Or perhaps suggest, rather than show. “Au Revoir Les Enfants” draws its power from that very notion. Nothing is shown, and yet the film leaves one an emotional wreck at the end. So I think they could have done it more tastefully that way.

    Or just don’t. The sky’s the limit when it comes to this show. There’s really not a need to drag Dachau into this show.

    • Also, I think the Star Wars comparisons are apt, to a point, though I prefer Davies era Doctor Who to the Force Awakens, and I think Moffat’s Doctor Who was far better executed than the Last Jedi.

    • Yep. I don’t think you can get away with that sort of collision. You can use metaphor and allegory, like Genesis of the Daleks and Turn Left do, but I don’t think you can support looking straight at the actual horror.

      • You run into that problem from Rosa. Why not just…..destroy them all with a futuristic laser gun or something? The real reason is that it’s tasteless, and it brushes up against the fundamental limits of this show—which can do so much, but not that.

  2. Generally speaking, my two rules of thumb on Nazis in fiction are

    1) Portray them accurately. No, you don’t have to portray *everything* about them. I understand that not every movie can or should include a depiction of the Holocaust, a rumination on the causes of their rise to power, etc. But what you *do* portray has to be accurate, broadly speaking.

    2) If you’re making them the villains, then make *them* the villains. Don’t overshadow them with some pulp villain you made up. The whole point of using Nazis as villains is that we know exactly how bad they were in real life, and no number of Blofeldian evil schemes will ever measure up to that.

    By the sound of it, they respected rule # 1, but tripped rule # 2 pretty hard with the Master.

    • It’s also a weird combination of treating them as “generic villains with whom the Master has aligned and who will eventually betray him” and “actual honest-to-goodness Nazis.” It leaves a very bad taste in the mouth.

  3. I liked that Chibnall was able to make the Master seem scary and threatening, esp. when he’s hunting down the Doctor during World War II. And I did find myself wishing that they’d take a page from the early Delgado Master stories where the Master comes up with this crazy plot and/or alliance to defeat the Doctor only to have not thought it all the way through and end up having to ask the Doctor to help bail him out. As for Whitacker, I feel like she’s not really giving us her interpretation of the Doctor so much as it’s a callback to Tennant with a bit of Smith thrown in for flavoring. Finally, we seem to have the Chibnall theme that at least one bad guy will get away without seemingly facing the consequences of their actions. In the end, Barton makes an alliance with the Master, kills his mother and tries to enslave humanity as USB drives and then….walks out the door, calling for his car. I felt like seeing him face the type of pursuit he inflicts upon the trio of companions might have been poetic justice.

    • Yep. Barton just literally swans out the backdoor into his waiting car. One has to imagine that he’s claiming that video was a DeepFake and that it’s all a smear campaign, before he accepts an invitation to some White House seminar with Jack Robertson.

  4. “a newly male Master forcing a newly female Master ”

    I think the second “Master” should be “Doctor” there.

  5. What rather seriously worries me about Chibnall’s scripts is with how little joy he seems to write them. This very thing makes “Spyfall, Part II” all the more disappointing to me: With part one, I, for the first time since he became showrunner, genuinly had the feeling that Chris Chibnall had fun writing an episode of “Doctor Who”, not churning it out because he has to. Knowing how joyless part two is, I kind of get the feeling that he had fun writing a James Bond movie that accidentally starred the Doctor.

    On another note, it’s always interesting to see how Chibnall always has one or two really good ideas that are muddled by a lot of narratively boring and thematically inconsistent writing. Having the Doctor call Zim-Sha “Tim Shaw” always seemed like a clever way of pointing out the ridicoulesness of trying to make up alien names in science fiction that, in the end, will always just come down to something very familiar. The deadly water in “The Ghost Monument” seems like a very Moffat idea: Making something very ordinary scary – and Chibnall does, quite literally, nothing with it. Having UNIT closed for a Brexit joke in “Resolution” is almost Robert Holmes levels of trolling. The Kasaavins, again, seem like a very Moffat idea, but are done disservice by being reduced to a time travel plot device in part two. It’s a shame that this kind of stuff is so rare in largely very weak stories.

    And about the subtext of his stories: I’m rather sure that he is just absolutely unaware of it. Every important idea of “Spyfall” – giving technology to much power is probably dangerous; women were important in the development of computers – is expressed through direct text. It seems all other things appear as a kind of set dressing to him, when, as a matter of fact, they begin to tell a completly different story.

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