“Spyfall, Part 2” picks up immediately where the opener left off, only to take us all over time and space in the proceeding hour. Although as much as “Spyfall, Part 2” broadens the scope and mysteries of the first episode, it refuses to visit new places or ideas.
Doctor Who (Series 12)
“Spyfall, Part 2”
Lee Haven Jones (director), Chris Chibnall (writer)
Jodie Whittaker, Bradley Walsh, Tosin Cole, and Mandip Gill (cast)
January 6, 2020
Both the lead actors and the guest stars continue giving great performances in “Spyfall, Part 2,” forming the most continuous element between the two halves. Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor gets a range she hasn’t had yet. She gets the opportunity to breathe separated from her companions, often monologuing to confused historical characters providing humor, drama, wonder and sadness. Long time fans have seen Skaro and Gallifrey destroyed countless times but Whittaker sells the tragedy of it in both loud and quiet moments. Whittaker and Sacha Dhawan’s back and forth changes over the course of the story as the Doctor and Master lose and gain power over each other, but their chemistry remains electric in every scene.
Bradley Walsh and Tosin Cole both provide good comic relief, hamming up silly spy antics. They work well as a comedic duo, but neither character provides an emotional or plot hook on their own. This is a larger problem with the characters and the ensemble cast, even though they’re fun to watch in “Spyfall.” Their dramatic moments in Series 11 largely fell flat for me. Mandip Gill’s distraught face when Yaz thinks she might never see the doctor again does more in a few silent seconds than Walsh or Cole throughout the two parter. It’s not the actors’ faults, Chibnall writes Yaz as the real companion and Ryan and Graham as fun but flat characters.
Even the Tardis gets to be a character, from the way the sets and the crystals shift depending on the action, to the lighting matching the Doctor’s moods. In a story with a half dozen companions, the Tardis remains the best at comforting and understanding the Doctor, her one persistent companion.
Meanwhile, Dhawan plays one of the most sinister and dangerous Masters ever seen. The Master’s disguises over the course of the two-parter sum up the different aspects of his character, from international spy to world’s biggest Doctor Who fan to Victorian showman to World War II Nazi. The Master donning a Nazi uniform feels extreme for the cat and mouse game he’s playing with the Doctor, but it holds true for this incarnation as he reveals his ultimate plan. The Master destroying Gallifrey feels over the top and frustrating, but that’s exactly what the Master should be. Dhawan’s Master lacks some of the joy and humor central to the character, but makes up for it in sheer anger and unpredictability.
Still, there’s a difference between bringing back the Master and bringing back Gallifrey. With the Master, you have great performers giving their own interpretations of a classic character. They’re the Doctor but evil, as well as being the doctor’s childhood friend, biggest fan, and romantic sparring partner. The Master has a conceptual purpose in a way Gallifrey doesn’t. The Doctor’s homeland adds scale and intrigue but rarely works as more than a macguffin. Gallifrey provides weight for Whittaker’s sadness and Dhawan’s villainy in “Spyfall” but panning to that same orange sky and Panopticon almost always feels like a cheap ploy, even if you CGI in countless Daleks or charred ruins like in “Spyfall.” Still, I did get a thrill seeing “Gallifrey” trending on Twitter between a list otherwise stacked by the NFL and Golden Globes.
Modern Doctor Who can’t resist going to Victorian England or World War II Europe, and for good reason. The BBC can quickly and cheaply make those eras, and the average Doctor Who viewer immediately knows what to expect when you say London, 1834 or Paris, 1943. Chibnall provides a slight spin on the popular Doctor Who settings, continuing his era’s fondness of highlighting capital-g Great Women in history. Sylvie Briggs as Ada Lovelace and Aurora Marion as Noor Khan join as temporary companions in the Doctor’s space-time chase. The Doctor’s interactions with them form the connective tissue of the story in both plot and theme. Chibnall gives the Doctor one of her most powerful moments yet, explicitly telling Ada and Noor that fascists never win in the end. The Doctor says this in reference to World War II Europe, but it carries obvious political weight in 2020, and likely foreshadows an eventual return of Gallifrey and the demise of the Master’s large-scale villainy.
“Spyfall” gives this Doctor a purpose and a formidable foe she lacked in her first season. Chibnall, Whittaker, and company do a fun loud adventurous opener that gives me hope for a competent story arc and finale throughout series 12. I look forward to seeing what elements of “Spyfall” return throughout the series, from the Master and the “Timeless Child” to the possible reappearance of Daniel Barton or the Kasavin. My favorite stories of series 11 were the quieter historical episodes, and I look forward to more of them from series 12. Next week’s episode seems like a monster-of-the-week sci-fi romp, and I’m always happy for more new Doctor Who.