I may be in the minority when it came to last season in that I really enjoyed it despite its flaws, but wow.
If Spyfall is any indication, Series 12 will blow Series 11 out of the water. Sure, I don’t think anything will top It Takes You Away as my favourite Thirteen story but this two hour epic wasted no time in establishing a return to the show we know and love. Not since Matt Smith left have I been this excited and invested in where the series is heading. I LOVED this story, even with the silly title. Where do we even begin?
How about the plot? Chibnall is great when he wants to be and this is a globetrotting, no holds bar insane plot. Spies from across the world are being targeted by creatures that can cross dimensions, replacing their DNA slowly. With UNIT and Torchwood gone, MI6 must turn to the Doctor for help. This is a great plot, and Part One heavily evokes the Jon Pertwee era with espionage, action and globe trotting escapades- and that’s even before the Master turns up (more on him later). The show under Chibnall has never looked better and Spyfall is one of the most cinematic and epic stories ever- I had flashes of The Impossible Astronaut, one of my absolute favourite stories and an equally daring two part opener. It appears that, for this story anyway, most of the criticisms of Series 11, some of which I share, have been addressed. Whilst I enjoy Jodie Whittaker immensely as the Doctor, I absolutely agree that last season did not give her enough meat to chew on, metaphorically speaking. Well, that problem’s been fixed. Spyfall is her finest performance yet, and a confident start to the somophore season that all Doctors have. It helps that the material is darker and more complex than what Chibnall wrote last season, with dips into the show’s past and great dramatic moments for the Doctor.
There are so many great elements to this plot. The Kasaavin are an excellent threat, being able to enter the TARDIS and having a highly intimidating presence in Part One, to the extent that their somewhat reduced role in Part Two was somewhat disappointing. The conspiracy revolving around Lenny Henry is intriguing and I loved the Bond-esque jaunt to his house party and the motorbike chase that ensues afterwards. Part One felt like a thrill a minute marathon and that ending… I don’t think I’ve been that excited watching Who since Day of the Doctor. Whereas by the time Missy revealed herself we’d seen all the cameos, been a bit fed up and already guessed it and even Series 3 had the Master already confirmed to appear, this was completely out of left field and so utterly huge I’d call it this generation’s Earthshock. Sacha Dhawan absolutely nails it in that cliffhanger.
And then… he nails it even more. Somehow, he out-Delgados Roger Delgado. Blasphemous to say, possibly, but Dhawan is perfect. So much scenery is chewed in true Master fashion but this incarnation is layered and complex. He has Delgado’s smooth charisma and Ainley’s mad cackles and relishes, Beever’s subtlety, Simm’s mannerisms and Gomez’s craziness. As for where he fits in the timeline, I’m sure it’ll be explained soon. In Part Two he burst onto the screen in full costume and begins tissue compressing people with such glee I couldn’t help but want him to win. Then, on the Eiffel Tower, the facade drops and we get one of the best scenes in Chibnall’s era so far as the Master confirms that Gallifrey is once again destroyed, later revealed to be the Master himself who destroyed the Capitol in a fit of rage after discovering something so horrible that it’s implied it drove him mad once again. What a brilliant series arc, and what a brilliant version of the Master. He’s a return to the Classic Who Masters of unapologetic silliness and hamminess but has a refined sense of weariness and complexity that I would love to see more of. I hope he returns in this series as Sacha Dhawan is the MVP of Spyfall.
There is honestly so much to unpack here. Whilst Part One is focused primarily on the espionage aspects, Part Two (which I think is better despite having more issues- make sense?) is more ambitious. The Doctor is flung through time due to the Kasaavin and ends up in 1843 and meets Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage, the former of whom decides to hop along with the Doctor and meet Noor Inayat Khan in 1943, with the Master in hot pursuit. Meanwhile Graham, Yaz and Ryan, having survived the exploding plane through some a very clever stable time loop, are being hunted by Richard Barton in what is, to be honest, a less engaging version of the same plot in The Sound of Drums. But the subplot with the companions is still entertaining and gives some much needed focus on the companions as characters in their own right and not just there to fill space, as it often felt last season. Yaz appears to be getting an increased focus, which is appreciated as she was very much the Nyssa of Series 11 but should hopefully be getting more to do this time around. Ryan and Graham do less but I enjoyed the split team in part one and Graham’s utter glee at having laser shoes in part two. That’s how you incorporate humour and levity into a serious story.
Oh and one minor nitpick: Stephen Fry is completely and utterly wasted as C. He’s great, but is killed off way too quickly. Could’ve been a great recurring character.
The main meat of this story is clearly the Doctor and the Master, and many other elements in Part Two are pushed to the background. Whilst this is an issue, to me the dynamic between the two Time Lords is fascinating enough. I loved the Master’s hunt through time for the Doctor, Ada and Noor and the three of them infiltrating the Master’s TARDIS is great (and Big Finish had a field day planning a box set with them, as well as the Master’s 77 years on Earth). However, the climax itself is very very rushed in order to get to the Gallifrey stuff (more on that later). Chibnall literally recycles the main joke from The Curse of Fatal Death with the Doctor and the Master pre-building failsafes but played it completely straight. The problem is that the Doctor did it off-screen in the Master’s TARDIS and many elements are left hanging, like the true extent of the Kasaavin’s plan and what happened to Lenny Henry. However, it is all worth it for the magnificent scene with the Master’s hologram and the Doctor’s reaction to it and the mystery surrounding the Timeless Child… chills. And the scene where the Doctor lands on Gallifrey is perfect. This is an incarnation who has come to terms with the Time War and just accepts Gallifrey as “there”, having fun with her friends and saving the day with a smile. But the thought of the Master- the Master– being so horrified and disgusted at what the Time Lords had done that he destroyed the Citadel terrifies her to the point where she finally admits to her companions exactly who she is. It’s a brilliant ending and a strong arc set up.
I’ve heard complaints that destroying Gallifrey makes what Moffat did pointless but my argument is that Moffat did nothing with Gallifrey. Bringing back in the 50th was a stroke of genius that should have pathed the way for incorporating Gallifrey into future storylines where the Doctor can grow as a character and help enact real change in his people. But like everything else it just became the backdrop for the Clara Show, leaving the planet with no emotional or logical value for the Doctor anymore. Destroying it, and having the Master be the one to do it, is genius. Hopefully we can see the darkness emerge from Thirteen, and the arc itself is fascinating and could be huge in terms of canon, reminiscent of the legendary incomplete Cartmel Master Plan. But Chibnall should still tread carefully.
This sounds like a mixed review, but I really do enjoy Spyfall. The issue is there’s just way too much stuff here- the Master, the Bond pastiche, the Google satire, Gallifrey, the chase across time, the Kasaavin- that I can’t really discuss all the elements adequately. Despite all this, I do find this to be the most ambitious and entertaining episode in years, and whilst I don’t think it holds a candle to It Takes You Away, Demons of the Punjab or Rosa it’s about equal to other strong Chibnall era episodes like Resolution, Kerblam and The Witch Finders and way more epic and bold than those three. With a confident set of characters, a head writer who’s taken criticism on board and an intriguing arc, this was a great start to the series.
Next time, an episode I am highly anticipating as it’s the return of the brilliant Ed Hime who should hopefully give us an episode as bonkers and crazy as It Takes You Away.