Doctor Who 12.2 - Spyfall: Part TwoBookmark and Share

Thursday, 9 January 2020 - Reviewed by Matthew Kilburn
Spyfall: Noor Inayat Khan (Auror Marion) (Credit: BBC Studios (Ben Blackall))
Written by Chris Chibnall
Directed by Lee Haven Jones
Executive producers: Matt Strevens and Chris Chibnall

Starring Jodie Whittaker
Bradley Walsh, Tosin Cole, Mandip Gill
Sacha Dhawan, Lenny Henry
Sylvie Briggs, Aurora Marion
Shobna Gulati, Ravin J Ganatra, Bavnisha Parmar
Mark Dexter, Blanche Williams, Struan Rodger

A BBC Studios production for BBC One
First broadcast on BBC One, Sunday 5 January 2020
Running time: 61 minutes (source: BBC iPlayer)

Spyfall Part Two was comfort Doctor Who for trying times. It appealed to a folk memory of Doctor Who, and the twenty-first century series in particular, while injecting the episode with several concerns peculiar to the Jodie Whittaker era. Women's achievement is obvious, but also present is an acknowledgement of contemporary culture and the need to express ownership of it in some form, however small, in the face of corporate behemoths. The localised 'radical helplessness' (as one review dubbed it) of Kerblam! was embedded in a time-traversing tale of selective interventionism.

Timey-wimey stuff

Having distanced himself from Steven Moffat's interpretation of Doctor Who in his first year, Chris Chibnall now presents something of a homage to Moffat's Doctor Who complete with locale-leaping narratives and aliens among us for centuries. The Doctor's recorded message to her friends as they are trapped on the plunging plane is probably one of the most accessible borrowings, recalling so fondly admired an episode as Blink. It helps confirm to long-term viewers that the Doctor is still the Doctor, and anticipates the temporal origami of the remainder of the episode. There's a more direct reference to a much earlier period of the programme too, as the Paris sequence surely acknowledges City of Death as a precedent for an alien conspiracy across time periods.

More important, though, is what's new. The fam of four are split up for most of the episode. While the Doctor improvises short cuts through human history, Graham, Ryan and Yaz become the three investigators, running through scenarios at extremes of the comedic and the morbid. The Bondian flavour of Jamie Magnus Stone's first episode had largely evaporated, with new director Lee Haven Jones, perhaps, treating the gadgets which were part one's legacy as the source of cartoonish slapstick. That the security officers couldn't be mown down by Graham's laser shoes underlined the problem of arming the Doctor's close friends and making them aim their weapons at other people. The scene was designed to be played for a laugh, but could not deliver on the carnage these hi-tech absurd action movie gadgets would seem to promise. The call was the right one, however, as within the narrative, carnage has been established as the Master's way, and despicable; the tonal balance of the episode also demands that the three friends’ quest is largely presented as light relief to the Doctor’s, often literally given how evocatively the episode realises the dark rooms of nineteenth-century London and especially the dust and fog of wartime Paris.

Light and dark

The coding of light and dark works too as an illustration of the Doctor’s outer and inner lives. Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor is cut off from the three people through whom the audience has seen her and instead we have to see her reshape her identity as the Doctor of hope. Chibnall ‘apparates’ the Doctor amidst a meeting of experimental philosophers displaying their inventions, a gathering which echoes that intended for sabotage in The Mark of the Rani written by his supposed bêtes-noirs Pip and Jane Baker, but which has at least one earlier Doctor Who precedent in 1976’s The Masque of Mandragora. In Spyfall, fetishisation of technological progress is secondary to the Doctor’s recovery of hope through human creativity. Not all the inventions are benign. Ada’s deployment against the Master of a device probably inspired by Jacob Perkins’s steam machine gun emphasises Ada's independence of character, but perhaps anticipates the devastation which she is about to visit in the Paris of 1943. This is historical Doctor Who for the internet age, which assumes that viewers will be on their phones looking up not only Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage but also the Adelaide Gallery and the inventions exhibited there. (Deeper digging and they might find that Ada was known publicly before her marriage as Miss Ada Byron or Miss Ada Noel-Byron - I’ve not found an example of her being Miss Gordon yet outside this episode’s script...) Perhaps this is intended to encourage viewers to think that the restoration of the Doctor’s hope comes with awareness of its price. The steam gun was supposedly rejected by the British army’s commander-in-chief, the duke of Wellington, for its destructiveness. The Doctor is enthused by and proud to ally with Noor Inayat Khan, but that pride would be lessened if she tried to prevent her capture and death.

These are inferences rather than a description of a cohesive argument, but there’s something about Chris Chibnall’s goals for Doctor Who here. The Doctor becoming a godlike figure who wants to walk the world with the lightest footstep, whose bonhomie conceals an unwillingness to reveal very much about her background and abilities. In this series, perhaps, rather like the Ninth Doctor in much of Series One, the Doctor will be primarily an enabler and encourager of others and will lead only in extremis. There’s more than a touch of the Tenth Doctor’s ruthless compassion in the wiping of Noor’s and Ada’s memories of the Doctor after they have been trained up to be her assistants; the Doctor talks as if she is restoring Ada’s agency and doesn’t give Ada the chance to disagree. Where the Twelfth Doctor’s liberal paternalism was put in its place by Clara and Bill, the Thirteenth has rediscovered it without awareness of irony. This seems a conservative remodelling of the twenty-first century series, but not necessarily one which has yet proved its worth.

A possible difference between the Tennant and Whittaker Doctors is that where the Tenth always had delusions of godhood, the Thirteenth instead acts on the cracks of light glimpsed even in the darkest moments of cruelty, human or otherwise. I enjoyed the double subversion of the Silver Lady, Babbage’s symbol of the beauty of natural philosophy, first as conduit for the Kasaavin and then as their nemesis. Nevertheless, I felt we didn’t see enough of the prop itself, both to underline its importance to the climax and a symbol of imagination’s defeat of uniformity, whether that uniformity is the light-forms of the Kasaavin or the erased genomes of humanity.

The Master

To many viewers, though, the most tantalising prospect for this episode would have been further exposure to Sacha Dhawan’s Master. His performance didn’t disappoint, from brooding red-lit demon restless at what should have been his moment of triumph, to screaming defeated prisoner in the Kasaavin’s universe. In-between and after were a variety of notes which suggest a clear vision for the character, someone who needs to feel dominance but is less happy that they also require pity. The sequence at the Adelaide Gallery, where the Master compels the Doctor to kneel and call him Master, only for him to end up on the floor too, set this up well. The demonstration of the Tissue Compression Eliminator and the curious reference at the Eiffel Tower to ‘Jodrell Bank’ (we presume we know the story that we are meant to think of, but of course the Doctor and the Master have never been seen to meet at Jodrell Bank…) suggest a Master who is ‘doing classic’, but despite the absence of overt references, there are through lines to the twenty-first century too. The outfit in which the Master recorded his message to the Doctor is promoted outside the narrative with photographs which suggest that this purple-jacketed look is now his definitive costume. Its colours and texture owe a lot to Missy’s wardrobe. However, the contemporary resonance is more important, the cut of the trousers is reminiscent of the Doctor’s culottes and something about the whole mirrors the Doctor’s clothes in general. Whether this larger-than-life, very emotional outfit enhances or diminishes the visual impact of the Master as a threat remains to be seen.

The Master’s appearance in the Second World War perpetuated the idea of him as a chameleon who can prosper malevolently in a range of environments, reintroduced in the previous episode. His embedding in the Nazi regime, however, raised questions of false equivalence - is it too easy and lazy a shorthand to present the Master as a Nazi? - and led to the unnecessary decision for the Doctor to use the race ideology of the Nazis against him. I am with the commentators who think that the Doctor using the Master’s appearance against him was a misjudgement, and undermines the Paris segment’s force.

Blowing up the world (again)

The travels of Graham, Ryan and Yaz - plain-speaking, practical and a team, and worth watching as a group - serve adequately to keep the Daniel Barton half of the conspiracy in focus. Any warmth towards Barton generated by Lenny Henry’s psychopathic-millionaire-next-door performance is demolished by his callous murder of his mother; Barton is far less personally needy than the Master, and potentially the more challenging villain. More important for the episode, and the series going forward, must be the three friends’ re-evaluation of their relationship with the Doctor. How far something needs to be repaired after the Doctor’s part-explanation of where she comes from, without the Master’s revelation about Gallifrey’s destruction at his hands and his reasons for doing so, will be something for subsequent episodes. Destroying Gallifrey again can be defended in terms of restoring the essence of Doctor Who in folk memory terms; the audience who grew up watching the series this century presumably remember Gallifrey as being absent and so a familiar scenario is brought back. However, this storyline risks Doctor Who seeming to run backwards. Nevertheless, the telling of the story was well-planned with rich visuals of a ruined Capitol and depressive TARDIS interior. If this indeed sets up a Timeless Child arc for this series - and it would be strange if it didn’t, though audiences were wrongfooted last year - then the decision to destroy Gallifrey (less totally than seemed in 2005-13, admittedly, though the presumably radioactive shell of a city is a nod towards the Hiroshima which indirectly followed Paris) will be justified by how successfully this arc plays out, and by what follows it.

Spyfall Part Two works by pace and suggestion. It’s less breakneck than Part One, assembling a series of set pieces which largely impress, but they also encourage a reflective mood which the episode doesn't entirely reward. The Doctor's statements of faith in hope and humanity might convince less in dark places, though this surely wasn't the intention. However unlikely the idea of using humanity as cloud storage (leaving aside whether this notion is scientifically feasible, surely all life on Earth could have been used in this way instead, just to increase the apocalyptic stakes), the episode still calls for people to be like Ada and Noor and be more aware of how they use technology, and not to do evil when they do unlike Daniel Barton. It’s a conscience-raising homily for complicated and unhappy worlds, both ours and the fictional inner life of the troubled Doctor.