Doctor Who 12.1 - Spyfall: Part OneBookmark and Share

Thursday, 2 January 2020 - Reviewed by Matthew Kilburn
Spyfall (Credit: BBC)
Written by Chris Chibnall
Directed by Jamie Magnus Stone
Executive producers: Matt Strevens and Chris Chibnall

Starring Jodie Whittaker
Bradley Walsh, Tosin Cole, Mandip Gill
Sacha Dhawan, Lenny Henry, Stephen Fry
Shobna Gulati, Ravin J Ganatra 
Bavnisha Parmar, Buom Tihngang
Sacharissa Claxton, William Ely, Darron Meyer
Dominique Maher, Struan Rodger

A BBC Studios production for BBC One
First broadcast on BBC One, Wednesday 1 January 2020
Running time: 59 minutes 45 seconds (source: BBC iPlayer)

So, Chibnall-Strevens-Whittaker Phase Two begins, and the initial signs suggest that those of us who wondered whether Chris Chibnall and team were playing a longer storytelling game than we were used to might have been on to something. This episode is presented as part one of a two-part story, but the change of setting and director next episode suggest an opening out rather than a wrapping-up. Spyfall: Part One ostentatiously reconnects Doctor Who with its mythology, while keeping faith with the viewers the 2018 run hoped to engage through its minimal engagement with its pastIt’s presumptuous to make such a statement, of course, but part one of Spyfall might be looked back on as a transitional episode, bridging a lighthearted, uncomplicated, even disengaged Doctor Who with a series where the stakes are apocalyptically greater. This might seem a little unfair; after all, the fate of the universe was brought into question in The Battle of Ranskoor av Kolos. In that case, though, the threat to the fabric of reality was incidental to the villain’s plan; T’zim-Sha wanted revenge on Earth, while this episode’s villains - if we can take them on trust, which is questionable - want to conquer the universe. Our reality is being deliberately overwhelmed by external forces (the Kasaavin? Or is this an individual being’s name? The cast list is unclear and the episode gives us no guidance) which we can’t see unless they choose, which feels comfortingly and old-fashionedly subversive in its blend of spycraft, optical technology and magic.

It would be misleading to exaggerate the differences between Spyfall Part One and Series Eleven. Spyfall demonstrates Chris Chibnall’s commitment to presenting the Doctor as part of an ensemble of characters. If we assume the audience’s eyes to be those of her friends, then the Doctor is reintroduced as the quirkily mysterious one - the young unorthodox inspector, if we take this as a police procedural - who is responsible for odd happenings. She indulges her own affectations like repairing the TARDIS in an MOT garage as if it were a car, a saccharine note which made me wince. For old hands like (I expect) most of the readers of this review, the Doctor’s declaration that she isn’t remote-controlling the MI6 car seems superfluous - lots of entities in the universe of Doctor Who could have done so. Graham, Ryan and Yaz have by that point been reintroduced with the slightly obvious tooling of the skilled craftsman. Their backgrounds are expanded a little in a manner which was missing from the last series. However, even after several tours with the Doctor, they still seem slightly naïve travellers, as if the Doctor has played too much to the conceit that she is always in control of their environment, putting on a show as an expanded, interactive version of the illustrated lecture at the end of Rosa

In response, Spyfall returned to one of the mantras of the Russell T Davies era - the Doctor can’t necessarily keep you safe, and if you travel with them you need to look to your own resources. The Doctor sending Yaz and Ryan on an espionage mission has something of the school exercise about it.  At least one of the pair lacked confidence in their abilities, and their conversations during their nighttime raid on Daniel Barton’s office as they respond to their predicament in contrasting ways lend their characters some weight. Developments to come will tell whether they can convert loan into purchase. Both of them, and the Doctor, are out of their depths in a way not seen in this period of the series so far. Ryan performs best in the Barton raid, even though it goes badly wrong, because he is most conscious of his underpreparedness; the Doctor ends up worst in the episode because her assumptions about her role as seen in the last series don’t prepare her for this. The Australian security agent who told the Doctor to go and do her job and let the agents do theirs also anticipated the worst in a way the Doctor does not. The episode convincingly leads the Doctor of hope into a position of isolation and despair.

Both outside the narrative and within it, Spyfall was an episode of homages, and this made perfect sense. Revisiting old plot devices and images drew both on Chibnall’s precedent for revisiting old Doctor Who ideas in new contexts - such as the shrunken planets held in status in The Battle of Ranskoor av Kolos, which didn’t hide its debt to The Pirate Planet - but in hindsight might have suggested to the audience that there was an author of a story within the story who wanted their genius to be recognized. O seemed to be a calmer version of the in-universe security service Doctor fan, but one who sublimated his obsession behind professional cool. Once the plot was revealed as a set-up, I enjoyed explaining the episode to myself as an elaborate piece of fan fiction, with its nods to The Invasion and Tobias Vaughn, the gradual materialization of the Vardans in The Invasion of Time and the Cybermen in Army of Ghosts, with Barton’s backstory perhaps being a comparable fiction to the successful creation of a history for Harold Saxon in The Sound of Drums. As a creation of the Doctor’s greatest admirer, O himself is a studied hybrid of several people we’ve met before. As well as fitting into a tradition of UNIT operatives like Malcolm and Osgood, he offered to give Graham a tour of his files on the Doctor much as Clive gave Rose. James Bond exists in the Doctor's universe (cited, to my immediate recollection, in Robot) and the Master has surely been reading Ian Fleming or watching the films, as the Doctor and friends are led into the Bondian locale of the casino - or, appropriately for the story’s artificiality, a house party pretending to be a casino - before a chase scene across an exotic locale. (Yes, I think I’d assume I was playing Snap too, and the Doctor would deliberately do so out of sheer love of the childlike frame of mind.) I’m told there are nods to John Le Carré too, and X-Files fans were charmed and alerted by O’s borrowings from Fox Mulder. 

As I’ve mentioned the character now, O of course turned out to be a persona performed by the Master, and playing the Master was Sacha Dhawan - carefully edited from prepublicity pictures and missing from cast lists. I suspect that on further viewing, I’ll enjoy Dhawan playing the Master as an actor within his own scenario in this episode, as much as I enjoyed Dhawan’s O. Dhawan has a very expressive face and he moved from starry-eyed innocence to hellish malevolence with shocking ease, while filling all the levels of ambivalence in-between as we saw both the Doctor’s prize correspondence course pupil whom she wanted to indulge, and hints of unsavouriness and narcissism within - “Oh, God,” indeed. Dhawan was in those final moments a huge contrast with Lenny Henry's compelling but laid-back everyman millionaire villain Barton. I was reminded somehow of this era’s most vindictive and possessive fan critics too, rejecting this version of the series as false Doctor Who just as the Master insists everything the Doctor knows is a lie.

Cinematography seems to have lifted again this series, with some stunning composition throughout, not only on Earthly locations but in the studio-based unplace to which first Yaz and then the Doctor are transported. The imagery helps tease an expansion of Doctor Who’s cosmology. With the audience familiarized with multiple realities by His Dark Materials, it might be time to explore parallel worlds again and find new stories to tell. The Master is an unreliable narrator, but at the end of the episode he’s the nearest to an authority we have, and he is telling the Doctor that everything she - and we - know is a lie. How deep do the foundations go, and what use are they if built on shifting sands? Just how many narratives has the Master built up over time, so that there are always several traps sprung for successive versions of the Doctor? For previous Doctors, a helpful shop assistant working through Clara (The Bells of Saint John, Death in Heaven); for this, a best WhatsApp friend. This Tissue Compression Eliminator-using Master harks back to elements of the twentieth-century Masters not seen before in the twenty-first century, and while Jodie Whittaker’s delivery of “You can’t be” can be heard as someone struggling to accept that the work of their previous life was for nothing, I’m not surprised that many speculate that the Dhawan Master is from an earlier point in the Master’s personal history than any Master we have seen so far since 2005. 

At the cliffhanger, the Doctor is presented as trapped in an alien environment which is at once brain, computer, engine, forest, metafictional Stranger Things-like Upside Down and C.S. Lewis’s Wood Between the Worlds from The Magician’s Nephew, with something of Doctor Who’s own Matrix. The question is, of course, not whether she will escape, but how quickly and how interestingly. Both the questions the Master poses and the many possible meanings of this otherworld offer a host of avenues for the inevitable escape. Spyfall Part One repeated many familiar devices and routes, but reliability is not to be scorned. As the episode’s dedicatee (and how fitting was the use of Futura in the captions) once told an audience, clichés are clichés because they work. It’s how you use them that matters, and the episode acquitted itself capably.