The long-running BBC series returns for a rushed, flashy season premiere with an audacious twist that might just turn the show around.
Let’s be honest: season 11 of Doctor Who was a bit of a damp squib. Which is doubly disappointing, since there are so many elements to appreciate: Jodie Whittaker‘s fantastic as The Doctor (even as the scripts repeatedly give her little to do but vaguely “Doctor-y” things), the show looks and sounds as good as ever, and the season’s pseudo-historicals were some of the best Who we’ve had in a while. Sure, Team TARDIS is more than overstuffed, but Bradley Walsh‘s Graham is one of my favorite companions in ages, and Mandip Gill‘s Yaz and Tosin Cole‘s Ryan have potential if they’re ever given more than five minutes of screentime to themselves.
But Chris Chibnall‘s turn at bat has felt even shallower than the Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat eras: say what you will about their works, but they seemed dedicated to treating the Doctor and their companion(s) with a sense of dimensionality, and their works tended to explore bigger ideas more deeply. Chibnall’s works, on the other hand, seem to whiz by as empty adventures with reams of plot exposition and frustratingly rushed endings.
With a year’s hiatus, and the slight improvement of season 11’s New Year’s episode Resolution, Doctor Who has the chance to win back Chibnall skeptics. And while most of “Spyfall, Part One” doesn’t quite do the trick, God help me, its last five minutes nearly had me believing.
In a fitting turn for an aging British cultural institution, “Spyfall” leans hard on yet another aging British cultural institution for its inspiration: the James Bond films. After a number of spies around the world are attacked by mysterious alien forces, MI6 assembles Team TARDIS for a mission: find out who’s attacking these spies and stop them. Along the way, Doc and the crew consult one of her old friends, O (Sacha Dhawan), a former MI6 spy who hides himself away in Australia to research the rise of alien incursions on Earth.
In its opening act, “Spyfall” reminds you of nothing less than season four’s two-parter “The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky” — there’s a deadly car that offers ominous GPS directions (“In five seconds, you will die”) before trying to kill you, a tech CEO who got rich off a fictional search engine, and so on and so forth. And like that episode, a lot of “Spyfall” loses itself in endless, mindless chases, reams of technobabble and an overly convoluted plot that tends to forget its main characters at the core.
“Spyfall” knows that it’s been literally a year since you’ve last seen any Who, so the episode tries its level-best to ramp up the spectacle with multiple car chases, world-ending stakes, and crashing planes. But I can’t help but remember the last time Doctor Who tried to turn its shoe-string-budgeted science fiction romps into rollicking action blockbusters (the front half of Matt Smith’s season 7) and that was terrible. And of course, there’s Team TARDIS, who’ve breezed through eleven plot-heavy adventures so quickly I don’t feel like I know any of them. They’re not characters in their own right, dealing with interestingly deep problems during their time in the TARDIS; they’re vehicles to push the action forward.
“Spyfall” knows that it’s been literally a year since you’ve last seen any Who, so the episode tries its level-best to ramp up the spectacle.
That said, it’s after the fam escape MI6 and embark on their own globe-trotting adventure that “Spyfall” starts to find its footing. While hardly original or intricately designed, the mysterious dimension-hopping aliens who serve as “Spyfall”‘s primary foes offer up a bit of Lovecraftian dread; little is known about their nature or motivations, only that they take human form because “your shape amuses us” and they plan a full scale invasion of the Earth.
But then, there’s the human villain of (most of) the hour, Vor CEO Daniel Barton (English comedy legend Lenny Henry, frustratingly straight-faced here). He’s an inexplicable mix of Bond villain and Mark Zuckerberg, a former MI6 spy who somehow quit to… form a paradigm-shifting search engine and become a billionaire? There’s a few glimmers of insight in there about the real-world dangers of social media execs shirking their responsibility to the public (“we did something great, and it got hijacked” is his glib response), but it gets lost in the need to flit from one setpiece to another.
On that note, eventually “Spyfall” remembers it wants to be a Bond pastiche and sends Team TARDIS (with O in tow) to Barton’s ritzy (daytime?) casino birthday party in the English countryside, tuxes and all. It’s in this final act that the show starts to really sing, with everyone working together to gather intel, threaten Barton, and generally pal around at the casino games. Composer Segun Akinola, continuing his superlative work on the show, gets more lush and bombastic here, especially with his soundalike Bond theme as the crew waltz up to the baddie’s estate.
The crew even get in a rollicking car chase down the vineyards. (Sure, it’s edited and shot with all the clarity of the opening chase from Quantum of Solace, but when you’ve only got ten quid and a weekend to shoot an action sequence, you work with what you’ve got.) There’s even a sprint to jump onto a cargo plane!
And it’s here that “Spyfall” takes a turn for the silly and absurd, but in the good way this time. You see, O accidentally lets slip that he’s not O, as Dhawan’s wide-eyed sincerity gives way to a devilish smile. “I told you to find the spymaster… or should I say, spy Master.” That’s right, folks: the Master’s back, babay! It’s a twist so out of left field, so, well, masterful, it almost retroactively excuses “Spyfall”‘s contrivances up to this point. Master stories are always a deeply silly well of bullcrap, and I genuinely did not see this coming. If you’d told me an episode that guest stars Stephen Fry and Lenny Henry would bring back the Master, I wouldn’t have guessed in a million years it’d be the bad guy from Iron Fist.
To his credit, Dhawan immediately throws himself into the camp of the part, practically hyperventilating with Joker-like glee. With his flappy hands and spinny physicality, it’s almost like getting a Matt Smith Master, which is an intriguing approach that almost goes too far too fast. I don’t know where this version of the Master will go — right now, he seems as much a thin pastiche of previous Masters as Whittaker is of previous Doctors — but I’m actually looking forward to getting to know this chap better. He’s a bit Cesar Romero right now, but hopefully the edges will get sanded off once we get used to him.
“Spyfall” is an exercise in confusion and whirlwind pacing, but in its final act, Chibnall and crew found a way to at least use that mania for some bonkers fun. And what’s more, we only have to wait a scant five days to find out where the Doctor got zapped, whether the companions will survive the crashing plane they’re on, and what any of this means. You can feel Chibnall and the rest trying to fix the last season’s issues — no returning villains, a lack of serialization — and here’s hoping they pull it off.
- While we still don’t know the gang very well, at least we’re getting a few glimmers of camaraderie — Graham nerding out over being a spy, Ryan teasing Yaz about asking out her sister, Yaz talking with her family and boss about the dangerous, but fulfilling life she’s living.
- Poor Stephen Fry, cameoing for like five minutes in a Doctor Who episode, left mostly to blurt exposition for five minutes before dying. Oh, and misgender the Doctor in a very pre-2016 move: “Every bit of intelligence we have says the Doctor is a man.” “I’ve had an upgrade,” Thirteen chimes in response, a beat that would have been better served had we not had two entire years to get used to her.
- Ryan makes his cover name “Logan,” then immediately gets worried that he “looks nothing like Hugh Jackman.”
- So where was Yaz (and, at the end of the episode, the Doctor) transported to, that mysterious, foggy green dimension with the forest of tendrils?
- If Barton is 93% human, what’s the other 7%? We already have the DNA-mixing of the aliens’ MO, maybe this is part of that? Is this also wrapped up in the Master stuff?
- Bless Whittaker’s ability to rock a coat-and-tails along with culottes.
- God, I love that the Tissue Compression Eliminator is back. It’s a vital, silly part of the Master’s arsenal, a gun that shrinks people into teensy little matchstick men, and I’m here for it.
- “Everything you know is a lie,” says the Master before zapping the Doctor away. What does that mean? And granted, given how little we really know of this incarnation of the Doctor, the fact that there is something to be revealed or subverted about her feels a little hollow. But hell, I’ll take it if it means we actually get to know her in this season.