Warning: Spoilers abound for “Spyfall, Part 1.”
After his mixed-bag of a first season, I didn’t know if head writer Chris Chibnall could write a fun Doctor Who story or an engaging villain. After “Spyfall, Part 1,” I am more excited for Doctor Who than I’ve been in years.
Doctor Who (Series 12)
“Spyfall, Part 1”
Lee Haven Jones (director), Chris Chibnall (writer)
Jodie Whittaker, Bradley Walsh, Tosin Cole, and Mandip Gill (cast)
January 1, 2020
Chibnall plays with the viewer’s expectations at every turn. BBC America shared the below image countless times in the lead-up to the premiere. The Thirteenth Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) does her best Bond impression in “Spyfall,” the image tells us. Meanwhile, the Doctor has no clue what game she’s playing and sticks out like the disaster alien she is. Whittaker’s comedic timing is great and the extras look properly shocked. This is one of a handful of small moments where the Doctor really shines.
Still, the Tardis team feels crowded between the Doctor and her three companions, Yaz (Mandip Gill), Ryan (Tosin Cole), and Graham (Bradley Walsh). Each of them gets a scene early on, but they do little more than remind us each character exists. They reinforce basic character traits and tell us nothing new. All of the companions struggle to find a balance between their home and work lives, but Yaz stands out when compared with Graham and Ryan. She has a family and a career and a fleshed-out character, whereas Graham is defined by his past (as both a widower and cancer survivor) and Ryan has friends we’ll probably never see again.
Lenny Henry’s Daniel Barton strings the plot together with spy shenanigans to move the main characters along. He gives the Doctor and company an excuse to investigate, go undercover, and escape death from both car chases and gunfire. He also provides one of the more chilling lines when he tells the intruders to reveal themselves, speaking directly to the ghosts (spirits?) as Yaz and Ryan watch. I fell for Chibnall’s bait, expecting Barton to be the main villain and even wondered if he was actually the Master. Barton distracts the main characters with action and intrigue just long enough to hold out for the real story. In an average Doctor Who story, he’d be a memorable one-off villain.
Meanwhile, Stephen Fry shows up for a strange cameo, saying the utterly bizarre line, “Right now, VOR is more powerful than most nations.” Naming the mysterious company VOR feels like Chibnall deliberately toying with the fans, being absurd and funny and disgusting all at the same time. He dies quickly because Stephen Fry is much too expensive and famous and busy to be in Doctor Who, but also because the story isn’t about him, or Barton, or any of the boring generic spies the opening cuts between.
Chibnall introduces an array of characters, named and unnamed, played by actors famous and unknown, just to slowly get rid of them all. International spies, MI6, Torchwood, UNIT, all don’t matter because this is a story about the Doctor and the Master at its core. It almost feels cheap for the Master to be back so soon, and I will dearly miss Michelle Gomez as Missy. But Sacha Dhawan’s stellar performance elevates it beyond what could’ve been a cheap twist. Dhawan radiates glee throughout the episode.
His interplay with the Doctor in the final moments makes the entire two-part story worth watching. The image of the Master’s Tardis/house flying alongside them a la Wicked Witch of the West (as directly referenced) is instantly more fun and engaging than anything in Whittaker or Chibnall’s first season. Dhawan’s Master is camp in a purely Doctor Who sense, from his fannish excitement at meeting a new Doctor to showing off tricks new and old, like his classic penchant for shrinking people. Every time I see the clip posted of Dhawan’s reveal I feel compelled to watch it. Whittaker and Dhawan’s chemistry works just as well the fifteenth time as the first time, or with the sound off or the video playing audibly in another tab. I can’t wait to see this Doctor and this Master square off again and again, and I can’t wait for Chibnall to bring back more classic big bads. Recurring villains return because they’re iconic and well-designed. Chibnall and Dhawan both put their own spins on the classic character, and Whittaker on the Doctor’s relationship with them. This season doesn’t need to be a greatest hits album, but I could do without any generic evil aliens like Tim Shaw ever again.
“Spyfall, Part 1” works as a great opener. It eases us back into these characters’ lives and then drops a bombshell that will carry through not just the next episode or the entire season, but likely the rest of the Thirteenth Doctor era. Chibnall also teases possible larger mysteries and arcs throughout the episode. Are Torchwood and UNIT really gone? If so, what happened to them? Is this Master from an alternate dimension? What secret knowledge does he have over the Doctor? Will the Chibnall era ever have proper queer representation? “Spyfall, Part 1” shows Chibnall and the main cast to be more confident than ever, and rightly so the show has fans buzzing for more. Hopefully “Spyfall, Part 2” keeps up the chaotic energy and lives up to the hype.