Doctor Who series 12 episode 2 review: Spyfall Part 2

For your eyes only, it’s our spoiler-filled review of Doctor Who’s Spyfall Part 2. Spoilers lurk below the squirrel…

Lenny Henry in Doctor Who Spyfall Part 2

This review contains spoilers after the squirrel.

12.2 Spyfall Part Two

Not that anyone was likely to have forgotten in the past four days, but the first half of Spyfall, the ambitious two-parter that kicked off the Doctor’s latest run of adventures, was a pacey, large-scale spy homage that delivered a lot of action set-pieces and many lingering questions – not to mention one explosive revelation at the end. There was a lot to be answered this time around, and by and large, the episode does a good job of wrapping everything up, although one of its two plot threads outshines the other and delivers the lion’s share of the drama.

This is a darker and more intimate turn for the story, although it’s not without its nods to other types of spy thriller that go beyond Bond. To begin with, it’s happy to add yet more questions – and an eclectic assortment of new characters – to the pile before the tanged plot threads are slowly teased apart and we learn what’s going on, if not always precisely why. There’ll be a lot to chew over this week, that’s for sure, but overall it’s a solid conclusion to a bombastic opening half. 

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The way the main cast gets divvied up this week gives each of the companions their moment in the sun, and the last few minutes in particular offer Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor the chance for some solitary, emotional scenes of a sort she hasn’t really enjoyed up until now. Discussion of those is best saved for after Daphne, however, so without further ado…

Spoilers from hereon in

We last left Team TARDIS trapped aboard half a plane as it plummeted out of the atmosphere, and we’re soon back into the action as Ryan spots a number of messages on the wall calling out to him, by name, leading to a seemingly-impossible message from the Doctor. It’s very Blink, especially the part where Graham has a ‘conversation’ with the pre-recorded Doctor on a screen, but it’s enough time for Ryan to get an app on his phone that allows him to plug into the plane and interface with its systems even though the cockpit itself is gone. (Well, if 007 can use his phone to steer a BMW, why not?)

The three companions soon find themselves back in England and on the run, forced to abandon their devices and hide off-the-grid in a world where Daniel Barton – not actually dead, as the Master had warned him off of boarding the plane – is able to track every photo and Tweet via his search engine empire and is trying to hunt them down. It’s suddenly much more Bourne Identity than Bond as the trio struggle to survive with minimal resources and get to where they need to be, which is an interesting way to evolve the spy motif and prevent it from outstaying its welcome.  

As they take refuge on a construction site, there’s a sweet moment where each companion thinks about what the Doctor would say if she were around, and their takes each mirror their own personality. Yaz believes she’d tell them not to panic, Graham insists she’d want them to keep fighting. As they huddle among breeze blocks and polythene sheets in the grimy remains of their tuxedos, it’s a reminder of just how versatile a programme Doctor Who can be within a single story.

The aliens – who we learn are called the Kasavin – soon show up en masse, however, and it’s now that the MI6 fashion accessories alluded to in Part One come into play as Ryan and Graham fend off the attack. The laser shoes in particular are a bit daft and not all that effective, but Bradley Walsh is obviously having a whale of a time with these scenes, which offer some of the few light-hearted moments in a fairly bleak episode. 

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Ultimately, though, Barton is ahead of the game and all Team TARDIS manage to accomplish is blundering into the warehouse where he has, seemingly for no reason other than pure spite, killed his dear old Mum. I kept expecting her to lurch back to life under alien control or something, but it seems the only purpose of this death is to remind the audience what a dangerous villain Barton is, as if we might have forgotten now that the Master’s shown up. Barton himself is revealed to be working with what the Master describes as “a race of interdimensional sleeper agents” in order to wipe the DNA of the human race clean, all so it can be used for data storage. Presumably the Kasavin aren’t willing to pay for a premium Dropbox. 

Starting with Yaz’s Dad struggling with an uncooperative Alexa back in Part One, both parts of Spyfall have been skirting around a particular piece of social commentary: the perils of Big Data and giving too much information away to corporations who only have their own interests at heart. If we’d seen more examples of social media and video feeds being used to guide Barton to where Team TARDIS were hiding, this theme would have been really effective, but instead Barton proclaims to his audience that it’s their willingness to share data so carelessly that has allowed him to… flick a switch and zap anyone who’s standing near a tablet or a laptop. This sort of threat is pure nu-Who, of course, but it does rather muddle the message Chris Chibnall is trying to get across – it’s not like there’s a privacy setting that lets you opt out of having your DNA wiped by alien invaders.

Doctor Who Lenny Henry in Spyfall

 

As nefarious as Barton’s plan is, he is very much playing second fiddle to the real villain of this episode – Sacha Dhawan’s Master, who claims to have discovered the Kasavin subterfuge and decided to meddle in proceedings to ensure things get as bloody as possible, not to mention mess with the Doctor. This is a Master full of barely-contained fury; a Time Lord who practically shudders with suppressed euphoria at the thought of destruction and succumbs to apoplectic rage when things don’t go his way. There’s a shocking physicality to his anger that manifests when he goes for the Doctor’s throat later in the episode, too, and it’s quite an unnerving take on a long-lived character that Dhawan thankfully gets time to make his own as the story unfolds. 

Once the Doctor has escaped from the Kasavin dimension – a feat accomplished more by luck than judgement thanks to the arrival of the kidnapped Ada Lovelace – we’re treated to a century-spanning battle of wits between the Doctor and the Master that bumps Barton’s plan into the background for the most part. Although it was barely glimpsed as such last week, here we get confirmation that the Master’s farmhouse was his TARDIS (it’s… the same size on the inside!) and he’s using it to hunt the Doctor down.

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It’s this chase sequence that helps the second part of Skyfall retain the feel of a larger epic, since the adventure is now taking place across multiple time periods rather than multiple continents. There’s a good sense that the Master is working hard to outmanoeuvre the Doctor and that he’s actually coming close to succeeding. After he swaggers into the expo shrinking people left and right, only to get thwarted and shot in the arm by Ada, his second attempt is a lot more calculated – he gets there early, he creates a disguise and brings Nazis as backup. (He doesn’t go back in time to bribe the architect into installing a comfy sofa, though.)

As a result, when the Doctor learns the true extent of his relationship with Barton and the Kasavin (a meeting that tacitly confirms this is a post-Ainley regeneration) before stealing the Master’s TARDIS out from under him with the help of Lovelace and contemporary agent Noor Inayat Khan, it’s a really satisfying moment. It’s particularly fitting that the message the Doctor sends to dob in the Master declares him of being, just like his recent victims, a spy.  It’s a great touch in a story thread that’s full of great touches, like the Doctor invoking the Master’s signature drumming to get his attention, and rightfully overwhelms the somewhat vague Kasavin storyline back on modern-day Earth.

Doctor Who The Master silhouette in Spyfall

The ultimate defeat of the Kasavin, in fact, happens entirely off-screen in the last couple of minutes – the Doctor simply arrives and tells us how she won by sabotaging everything in the past, which seems a bit abrupt considering all of the build-up. By that point, though, we’re busy reeling from the sting in the episode’s tale: at some point, the Master went back to Gallifrey and learned something he found so abhorrent, he wiped out every last one of his own people. It’s almost like the Kasavin are hurried out of the way so that we can process that properly. 

The Master has committed mass murder before, mind you, and billions have perished at his hand. If he’s telling the truth about the totality of his Time Lord genocide, however, making the Doctor effectively the last of her kind once more, this – along with the seemingly permanent dispersal of UNIT – represents another huge seismic shift in the continuity of the show. Some huge revelations about Gallifreyan society were planned for the Seventh Doctor’s era, and it looks like we might finally see something similar realised outside of spin-off media. Whether or not the Master’s rekindled hatred of the Doctor has to do with her apparent identity as ‘The Timeless Child’ or not remains to be seen.

There’s no shortage of ambition on display this week, both in the time-hopping confrontations between the Doctor and her Best Enemy and the bold statement of intents made regarding Gallifrey, the Doctor’s own past and what’s promising to be a series-long, or perhaps even actor-long, plot arc. That means there’s a lot to juggle, and while some threads get wrapped up with more care than others, this is a strong opening salvo from a creative team that seem determined to address common criticisms from their first batch of episodes. The Kasavin are undercooked, with hazy motivations and little in the way of personality, but that almost doesn’t matter – once the Master appears, our attention is elsewhere. 

Yaz, Ryan and Graham all get something to do at one point or another, the story affords Jodie Whittaker some solo screen time (and some meaty emotional moments to tackle), and the show continues to look and sound gorgeous. We’ve been promised a similarly epic two-parter to end the current run, so we may be returning to the smouldering ruins of Gallifrey’s capital before long, but we’ve plenty more to look forward to before then. If Spyfall as a whole is any indication, this series of Doctor Who will make the show’s year-long absence worth the wait.    

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