Monday 6 January 2020

Reviews in Time & Space: Doctor Who 12x02 - Spyfall, Part Two

Doctor Who 12x02 - Spyfall Part Two

The Master is back! The Doctor is trapped in an unknown place and her companions are falling their deaths! If there was anything Spyfall Part One succeeded in, it was giving Doctor Who the kind of jaw-dropping cliffhanger that the show hasn’t seen for a good while. Thankfully it’s mid-week debut on New Year’s Day meant that fans didn’t have to wait long for the second part, which saw the series return to its current Sunday evening time slot. Written by series show runner Chris Chibnall and directed by Lee Haven Jones, Spyfall Part Two already has a lot riding on it.

Ada LovelaceFam on the run

After escaping the Master’s trap through an unknown dimension, the Doctor finds herself in 1834 in the company of Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage. Slowly she begins to unravel uneasy alliance between the Master and the creatures known as the Kasaavin, whose plans stretch across time as well as the entire planet. With the Master on her tail, the Doctor and Ada begin a dash through time itself - eventually finding themselves in 1943 Paris with British spy Noor Inayat Khan.

Meanwhile in the present day the Doctor’s companions have also managed to escape. But with Barton able to track their every move, the three have to go completely off grid as they also try to defeat the incoming alien threat - with or without the Doctor.

Daniel BartonThe Master

Spyfall Part One was an interesting episode in that while it featured some strong performances and interesting set up, it sadly failed to properly capitalist on many of its good ideas. Part Two is much of the same, though again it shows potential in pointing Doctor Who in a direction many thought were lacking from the previous series. The Kasaavin plot was extremely half-baked, properly lacking in any sort of threat, explanation or resolution. Their involvement in the episode was minimal at best, and with the amount of dialogue being dropped it was very easy to get lost in both the Doctor’s explanations of their plans and Barton’s of how they aimed to carry it all out. If the fact that the Doctor ultimately solved the entire thing offscreen wasn’t enough to suggest that Chibnall felt it wasn’t important to the story, then the fact that Barton (who by this point had engaged in attempted murder, data hacking and ACTUAL murder in addition to alien scheming) was left completely untouched at the end certainly should. While it was good that the episode was able to progress in some unexpected ways, as the very baseline of the story it undoubtedly should have remained the focus even when everything else was going on.

But the truth is this isn’t the first time an alien invasion storyline has been completely derailed by the Master, and it probably won’t be the last time either. So rather than focus on that this episode transformed into a rather unexpected romp through time, complete with cameo appearances from historical figures. If there’s one thing Chibnall likes it’s putting the history element back into Doctor Who and placing people in companion roles has worked out extremely well in even some of the weakest episodes. Both Sylvie Briggs and Aurora Manion were excellent as Ada and Noor respectively, and in the case of the former particularly it’s a shame that they couldn’t join the TARDIS crew for a longer stint. A even bigger shame is that the story dictated the same memory wiping we saw when Donna Noble left the series - while it makes sense that the Doctor can’t go messing about with the time stream, introducing and developing characters only to then go and effectively erase them seems such a waste, even if they are only one-off characters.

Noor Inayat KhanFam without the Doctor

As for the case of our actual companions, how great was it see them to do something other than act as a sounding board for the Doctor and have some agency of their own? The trio spend almost the entirety of the episode away from the Doctor, in which time they resolve to save the day regardless and manage to track Barton down to some degree. While their story does have some shades of the Doctor, Martha and Jack on the run in The Sound of Drums (which isn’t the only parallel to Simm’s tenure as the Master), to see them actively doing the things without the Doctor’s guidance was very refreshing. It was also nice to see that the spy gadgets from the first part weren’t completely forgotten about either, because as silly as Graham’s tap-dancing laser shoes were it felt totally believable that he’d do that. As was Ryan’s explanation of their plan to Barton’s henchmen, which was a nice little nod to the tired but beloved old tropes of the spy genre.

So what the episode really came down to was the Doctor and the Master, and an attempt to create a dynamic between Whittaker and Dhawan to match that of Pertwee and Delgado, Tennant and Simm or even Capaldi and Gomez. As suspected from the end of part one Dhawan’s Master doesn’t stray too far away from Simm’s interpretation, though his mania is less of the grinning and more of the bloodthirsty sort. That isn’t to say previous Masters haven’t enjoyed killing, but this one truly revelled in it - striking down bystanders without a second thought and even going as far as to ally himself with Nazis (which even the Doctors is dark even for him). Adding the Nazis into an already rather cluttered storyline did feel a touch unnecessary, but moments like a British-Indian Master using a perception filter to attain a high rank were interesting and it’s good that they were addressed. The fact the Doctor then willingly disabled said perception filter and left a now visible Master (who she had already listed as a spy anyway) at the hands of the Nazis is certainly a touch problematic though - both in terms of real world sensibility and it seemed like a very “un-Doctor” thing to do. While it may have worked in the context of the story, it’s perfectly understandable that some viewers would be put off by it.

The Master & The DoctorAlways at each other's throats

The exchanges between the two characters had plenty to offer though, with the 13th Doctor finally feeling like she was stepping up to a proper crisis and having her "I am the Doctor" moment. The pair played their friendship-turned-rivalry with the right amount of respect, so that even in these new bodies you could believe they went back a long way. We also got some nice classic nods again – not just from the continued use of the Tissue Compression Eliminator but also a sly reference to the fourth Doctor's regeneration in Logopolis and the "Contact" psychic link. Despite being largely solved offscreen the resolution, in which the Doctor reveals the Master's duplicitous nature to his alien associates, also felt very classic in its approach. With no mention of Missy's fate we still have no idea where exactly this Master comes in his own personal timeline, meaning that for now fans can still accept Missy's redemption if they choose to or believe that the character hasn’t been completely pigeonholed by Moffat's storyline. Which brings us on to the next point nicely – the Master is free to return at any time! They may have cheated death more than any other character on the show, but the repeated fake-outs have gotten tiresome over the years.

But of course once again the real meat of the story comes at the very end – only this time it's less to do with the story itself and more do with implications for the entirety of series 12, and perhaps all of Doctor Who going forwards. Once again Gallifrey has gone down in flames, and by the Master's own hands no less. Time Lord Society being manipulative and underhanded is nothing new, but for the Master to express such distress at their whole society supposedly being built on lies suggests some series ramifications coming. The "Timeless Child", a phrase Chibnall planted all the way back in The Ghost Monument rears its head once again, and is likely to become synonymous with the show the way "Bad Wolf", "Torchwood", "Mister Saxon", the "Impossible Girl" or even "the Hybrid" have in years past. But just what is the Timeless Child? Many have already speculated that it could be the foundation of the Time Lords or even a secret origin to the Doctor themselves, but the fact is we don't have anything to go off just yet. So the only thing left to do in that regard is keep watching and see where the train takes us.

Gallifrey BurnsA Final Message

So once again Spyfall Part Two proves to be a bit of a mixed bag, failing to capitalise on its potential as an individual story but having plenty to offer when it comes to classic nods and speculation for the future. For all it’s flaws though, this two-partner has displayed bold direction for the current series - one that will be very interesting to see pan out whether it’s for better or for worse. Since Chibnall hasn’t offed his Master yet it’ll be great to see if Dhawan returns to help close out this “Timeless Child” subplot, but until then it looks like it’s back to the normal weekly Doctor Who shenanigans in the ominously named Orphan 55 next week.

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