Doctor Who series 12 episode 1 review: Spyfall

It’s No Timey-Wimey to Die as Doctor Who returns with a spy-packed opening episode. Spoilers abound in our Spyfall review…

Spoilers abound after the squirrel…

It’s been a year to the day since Charlotte Ritchie and a Dalek stole a police car, but for the team in charge of the world’s most recognisable blue box, it must have felt like no time at all.

Doctor Who fans are no strangers to the show taking breaks, but 2018’s news – that the TARDIS would be absent for twelve long months, despite having only just returned with a brand-new creative crew – meant that we’ve been waiting with a weight of expectations that didn’t exist, say, the year David Tennant went off to do Hamlet. Series 11 of nu-Who had seen its ratings decline sharply over a ten-episode run and left viewers passionately divided over what it had to offer, so there was a presumption among the show’s fans that this sudden hiatus was going to involve close scrutiny of what had worked – and what hadn’t – during the latest reinvention.

Rumours swirled, as rumours always do, about what might change. When Doctor Who returned, would it reduce the size of Team TARDIS to a more manageable one or two companions? Might we see a few low-key, introspective moments for Jodie Whittaker’s bombastic incarnation of the Doctor to help solidify her portrayal of the character? Was the show going to dial its ambition back to reduce the polarising effect of episodes like Arachnids In The UK and It Takes You Away?

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Well… 2020 is here, we’re one episode in, and we still don’t have a definitive answer to a lot of those questions. Spyfall, as you might expect from an episode that’s so gleefully borrowing from 007 and his kin, is a globetrotting adventure that barely ever stands still long enough to catch its breath. This is the first half of a two-parter – one that offers lots of questions but precious few answers, where character moments are kept to a minimum. A few of the familiar problems do crop up, most notably a companion with nothing to do, but there are also plenty of moments to praise.

As it bounds along, Spyfall cherry-picks a few of the more obvious spy movie moments to work as action set-pieces, but is still very much a sci-fi story at its heart. The central mystery for much of the episode revolves around a mysterious race of as-yet-unnamed aliens, although the Doctor and her friends are still very much in the dark about it all by the time the credits roll. Even in an hour of television where there’s an undeniably large amount of stuff, much of which is quite fun, we don’t actually learn a huge amount about what’s going on.

It’s an intriguing start, then, but by no means a faultless one – nor is it a massive tonal shift away from Series 11, even if that’s what some people will have been hoping for. That said, even with everything we still don’t know about the aliens and the threat they pose, there’s one particular aspect of the episode that’s bound to dominate discussion until part two rolls around. To talk about that, as well as everything else, it’s time to wake Daphne from her hibernation…

Spoilers below. Our spoiler-free review is here.

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As mentioned, the episode wastes no time in reintroducing us to the broad strokes of each companion as they pay a flying visit to their Earth-bound lives. (Yaz is a copper with a family! Graham’s wife passed away! Ryan is a terrible liar!) Then it’s off to meet the always-welcome Stephen Fry as ‘C’, who’s lumbered with some rather thankless expository work and explains that a mysterious alien force is attacking spies of all allegiances, worldwide, and bumping them off.

These nameless aliens are a good example of why Doctor Who two-parters can be so frustrating. The core idea of them, that they can force their way into the world through solid surfaces and briefly take on the texture of whatever they pass through, is visually interesting and quite creepy as they thrash about. Virtually nothing about them gets explained this week, though, which is more annoying than tantalising. Mysteries in a TV show can be great fun, but only if you feel like you stand a chance of spotting the clues and solving them. Being left totally in the dark is only fun for so long.

This is not a new problem in Doctor Who, of course, and in some ways the aliens here are much like the Silence introduced during Matt Smith’s run. They, too, were a creepy alien race whose intentions were kept entirely secret during The Impossible Astronaut, an episode that suffered as a result. By contrast, some of the show’s most effective two-parters – like The Empty Child or Silence In The Library – work so well because the first half answers just enough of your questions that you feel like the story is making progress, even if it’s obviously far from over.

While Stephen Fry is stuck indoors for his brief appearance, Lenny Henry gets the lion’s share of the Guest Star privileges as tech mogul Daniel Barton. He delivers a surprisingly understated performance for most of the episode, given his comedy roots and how broad the Bond villain archetype can be, and scenes of cat-stroking and maniacal laughter are few and far between. He also drives those scenes of the show that lean most heavily into spy movie tropes, and there are plenty to pick from – the car chase, the computer hacking, the party escape and so on.

This is hardly the first time Doctor Who has leaned on the trappings of movies that get served up in the festive period; if Voyage Of The Damned was a deliberate nod to the disaster films that prop up the schedule over Christmas, then Spyfall is clearly trying to pull the same trick with Bond films. It’s hard to say that the story really feels that much different to normal on account of all of the guns and gadgets, because those pop up in plenty of ‘normal’ Doctor Who stories, but it’s a nice nod to the season without succumbing to the whimsy of being a full-fat Holiday Special.

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Some of the individual spy scenes are more effective than others. The raid on Barton’s office might be straight out of the Mission: Impossible writer’s bible but still manages to feel genuinely tense given the ever-present threat of aliens that can, and do, appear out of thin air. The short-lived car chase, however, soon starts scraping up against the limits of a BBC budget, and Lenny Henry looks distinctly uncomfortable hanging out of the window waving a pistol around. (The less said about the wince-inducing “The name’s Doctor… The Doctor!” moment, the better.)

One good thing about the espionage scenes is that Ryan and Yaz get more screen-time together, and their relationship feels a lot more natural than it has in past adventures. There’s a hint of jealousy from Yaz when Ryan mentions snogging her sister, and I’m hoping the show steers away from the obvious choice of pairing them off romantically, but they work well together here as simply mates.

It’s also great to see Yaz taking a confident lead in their encounter with Barton, which is what you’d expect now that she’s remembered she’s a police officer. It’s little moments like this, along with the expanded TARDIS set interior and the creators’ commitment to being bigger and bolder this year, that suggest fan feedback and criticism has been taken on board during those long, silent months.

Unfortunately, it’s Bradley Walsh who gets short shrift instead this week, left to potter along behind the Doctor as she heads to the Australian outback. With so many varied locations and plot-threads left to dangle, it’s a shame that Graham couldn’t have been given a task of his own, and a sign that the show still struggles to find things to occupy every member of a very crowded TARDIS.

If there’s anything in this episode guaranteed to ignite long-standing fans, though, it’s the moment that quite deliberately throws away an established part of the show – and I don’t mean the Doctor somehow working on the TARDIS by poking at the exterior shell. As if Spyfall wasn’t already crammed to bursting, the episode’s sucker-punch happens in the last couple of minutes. ‘O’, the Doctor’s casual acquaintance, is revealed to be the Master, and this entire scheme has apparently been his doing all along.

It’s certainly an effective reveal; Sacha Dhawan’s ‘O’ character has been ambling around in the background for much of the episode, and there actually are a few clues to his true nature scattered about. Not only does he throw up a force field that’s far beyond anything MI6 should have in its vault, but there’s even a subtle nod to Harold Saxon when Ryan declares that “no-one could engineer such a good fake life.”

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Unfortunately, it’s a plot twist that comes with a price, and that price is Missy. It’s been two years since Steven Moffat handed over the keys to Doctor Who, but it’s also important to remember that in that time, there have only been a dozen new episodes between today and The Doctor Falls. That episode capped off a year in which a genuinely repentant Missy made her choice to renounce her evil ways – a choice so abhorrent to her past self, he killed her for it. It was a huge moment for her character, and it happened barely a box-set ago.

Missy was already a popular character, one who’s been embraced in spin-off material, and her journey towards redemption was one of the most significant character arcs in the show’s history. Regardless of where Dhawan’s Master fits in his personal timeline, it’s clear that this particular regeneration is firmly back in the John Simm mould – loud, giggly and once again treating the Doctor as a bitter rival rather than an estranged friend. Even if Missy does get namedropped next episode, it looks as though Chris Chibnall has no plans to follow up on her redemption nor her legacy, and that’s going to disappoint a lot of Missy fans.

It doesn’t help that, at least so far, the Dhawan-Master is a bit of a Greatest Hits collection. His control over the nameless aliens strongly evokes his alliance with the Toclafane in The Sound Of Drums, as does the notion that he’s been building up power in a Government job while the Doctor’s distracted. Judging from the teaser, even his compulsive drumming is back. The next episode will be this Master’s trial by fire as we get to see his plan unfold, so here’s hoping there’s more substance to him than the more shrunken corpses and convoluted plans for universal domination.

Until then, we’ve a lot to ponder. What is the ethereal realm that Yaz and the Doctor found themselves in? (Given all the talk of tissue compression, it’s hard not to see those structures as twisting, gigantic strands of thread…) What relationship does the Master have to these universe-conquering aliens, and why are they messing around with human DNA? Will the next episode continue to lean heavily on spy movie homages, or will those fall by the wayside now that the true villain has been revealed?

Fittingly for an episode that tips its hat to the world of James Bond, Spyfall has gone all-in on a single, high-stakes gamble. If the next episode can keep up the rapid pace, answer all of those lingering questions and still tie up what appear to be a number of largely-unrelated plot threads – not to mention give us a satisfying new version of the Master so soon after Missy’s final appearance – then Series 12 will be off to a strong start. Either way, the next episode has a lot of explaining to do…

Doctor Who series 12 continues on Sunday the 5th of January at 7pm with Spyfall Part Two.

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