Thursday 2 January 2020

Reviews in Time & Space: Doctor Who 12x01 - Spyfall, Part One

Doctor Who 12x01 - Spyfall Part 1

With no Doctor Who on television screens since Resolution, 2019 has felt like an especially long year. But with the dawn of 2020 that long wait is finally over, as the 13th Doctor (and fam) return for the show’s 12th series since it’s 2005 relaunch. Already we know from the trailer that this series promises both Cybermen and Judoon, and if you’ve been paying any attention to the filming pictures in the last year a few other surprises along the way. The series kicked off on New Year’s Day with the secret agent-styled Spyfall, Part One, the first two-part story since 10th Doctor swan song The End of Time to retain the same title across both parts.
A Ride with MI6Killer Satnavs back on trend

When secret agents from across the globe are attacked by a seemingly extraterrestrial threat, the Doctor is called in by MI6 to investigate. As the Doctor and Graham rendezvous with the former agent O, Yaz and Ryan investigate tech conglomerate VOR and its founder Daniel Barton. Faced with an unfamiliar threat  ready to conquer the entire universe, the Doctor begins to home in on Barton. However the real spymaster is actually one of the Doctor’s greatest enemies, and was lurking right under her nose the entire time.

Stephen Fry as "C"The Mysterious Aliens

Despite my general enjoyment of Doctor Who series 11 on an episode by episode basis, there’s no denying that it took a rather different approach to what had come before it. With a larger cast and a dial back on the threat level, it was a waltz through time and space that seemed to alienate just as many people as it allured. From the very beginning of Spyfall it feels like show runner Chris Chibnall is eager to re-inject some of that energy many felt had been lost from the previous series, as well as tackle some of the other lingering issues people had with it. The result is an episode that often feels slow and decidedly muddled, but fundamentally feels far more like a classic Doctor Who episode.

Often the trouble with two part episodes is that the first half is almost entirely dedicated to set up, because (particularly in the case of post-2005 Who) the writers only allow the pieces to start to come together in time for the cliffhanger at the very end. This can definitely be said of Spyfall, which poses a whole lot of questions but very few answers. The cast are strong but often feel like a vehicle to get the episode moving rather than characters, and even the frequently placed spy-themed action moments aren’t enough to help it properly pick up the pace. The balancing of three companions continues to be an issue for the show, although thankfully it’s Graham that complete falls the wayside here rather than Yaz - who did next to nothing in the previous series and was long overdue a bit of focus.

Yaz visits the upside downLenny Henry as Daniel Barton

But in the case of Spyfall at least it's not so much the presence of so many characters that's the problem, it's that the roles they been given is almost entirely expository. A huge portion of the dialogue in the episode is characters commenting on things that have either just happened or are happening onscreen at that very moment – all of which is completely unnecessary when the audience can see it for themselves. Other parts are thrown in and then don't really go anywhere – like Yaz's sister apparently having romantic interest in Ryan or even just Ryan's nervousness at meeting Barton. Even Yaz's introduction where we find her taking her fourth secondment from the police seems forced (but then again, it's not like she's ever done much police work anyway). These elements might play a bigger part in future episodes, but focusing solely on the episode itself it all feels like it's there just to fill silence. Much like a lot of the Doctor's dialogue in that regard – Whittaker is absolutely acting her heart out but a lot of incarnation is just repeating the same information of varying degrees of mania. Slowly but surely the writing is bringing out that "force to be reckoned with" element to her Doctor and we definitely see that in her confrontation with Barton, but it's not quite there just yet.

One thing the last series did pull off brilliantly though was the use of its guest stars, and befitting of a series opener Spyfall really went overboard on this. Lenny Henry put in an almost unrecognisable performance as the suspiciously sinister Barton, and outside of a jolly old alien there probably isn't a better role for Stephen Fry than the most clich̩ MI6 head imaginable. Finally Sacha Dhawan was so convincing as a character who'd crossed paths with the Doctor before there was a moment where I wondered if O had been in the show before Рmaking that end reveal so much stronger). Though the aliens didn't have anything of substance to them in part one (no clear plan, no clear form, no clear anything), their simplicity and execution were enough to do the job. Not so much the Stranger Things-world they were transporting their victims to, but abject horror of an unstoppable blinding figure appearing right before your eyes.

In theory a spy theme should provide an episode that's anything but slow, and with multiple vehicle chase scenes included here that was certainly the intent. Yet if anything they just seemed to drag scenes out even further, particularly the opening car "attack" which felt really disjointed from the rest of the episode's action. While it obviously connected to the spy theme, it just didn't fit with the rest of the attacks or how the aliens seemed to operate otherwise. Other scenes felt similarly drawn out. Why have Ryan comment on there being cameras everywhere in VOR but not realise they were most likely recording? We as an audience would have got that simply from seeing Barton being handed the footage in a later scene. None of this breaks the episode by any measure and is nitpicking to some extent, but added up it's amazing how much longer it makes a mere 50 minutes seem.

Rewriting DNAThe Master Returns!

But the moments that are truly on everyone’s minds, as well as what will make this episode remembered for years to come, are it’s final ones - where in a suitably ridiculous manner O reveals himself as the Spymaster or more specifically, the Master himself. It’s been a long time since Doctor Who has been able to keep a secret this well without either leaks or the show’s own advertising team spoiling it, and it’s a reminder of just how much better off we were back then. The impact of Sacha Dhawan’s reveal is as exhilarating as it is groan-inducing for being right in front of our faces the entire time. Of course there is now a worry that this series might be overcompensating a bit TOO much for its lack of returning foes in 2018, but as far as Doctor Who cliffhangers go it rarely gets better than this.

So just how is the Master back? The last time we saw them the Saxon and Missy incarnations had met their fates at the hands of each other, with Missy succumbing to a weapon that apparently even Time Lords couldn’t survive. But one of the main rules of Doctor Who is that the Master always survives, and now that he seems to have returned to his evil ways this raises plenty more questions. Of course there’s every possibility that this new incarnation could be one that fits between the previous two (or somewhere else entirely, that’s the joy of time travelling), but whatever the answer is the controversial fact is that for the Master to continue, Missy’s character development had to be undone. The Moriarty to the Doctor’s Holmes, they are the parallel that other villains can never be. With 2021 marking the 50th anniversary of the Master’s debut, now is an excellent time to bring the character back to their roots.

Dhawan’s Master certainly makes an entrance, but what exactly makes him stand out from the others isn’t all that clear right away. There’s a whole lot of Simm’s in his mannerisms, and it’s poetic that a Pertwee-esque story about spies and gadgets (which also doubles as a touching tribute to the late Terrance Dicks) would also feature the return of the Master’s true weapon of choice - the Tissue Compression Eliminator. Even his alliance with our unknown aliens has shades of the Toclafane about it (the warping effect looks almost identical). Dhawan certainly has the chops to pull him off though, particularly with that “you got me moment” where he pulls that maniacal grin.

The Master goes classicThe Doctor and Barton

Spyfall Part One is a somewhat middling opening to series 12 with a lot of good ideas that don’t quite make the landing. Nevertheless it’s salvaged by that fantastic cliffhanger, which has already set up some huge expectations for part two. Thankfully it’s only a few days wait until it airs as Doctor Who returns to its normal Sunday slot from last year. Just remember - “everything that you think you know is a lie.”

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