Spyfall, Part One

Story No. 314 Formal culottes
Production Code Series 12, Episode 1
Dates January 1, 2020

With Jodie Whittaker, Bradley Walsh, Tosin Cole, Mandip Gill
Written by Chris Chibnall Directed by Jamie Magnus Stone
Executive Producers: Chris Chibnall, Matt Strevens

Synopsis: The Doctor and fam investigate the search engine media company VOR.

Note: The one-year moratorium on spoilers will be strictly enforced.


The Full Pertwee by Jason A. Miller 4/1/20

"The name's Doctor... The Doctor"
-- Jodie Whitaker in Spyfall, Part One.

The first episode of Series 12 had to do a lot of things to erase what was, for most corners of fandom, the sour aftertaste of Series 11. The legitimate complaints about Chibnall's plotting and writing needed to be addressed. So too did the lack of any interesting or lasting contributions to Doctor Who continuity (not counting the infamous frog). Less important was to address the noisy and illegitimate complaints about the fact that the TARDIS had been taken over by non-white males, but it would have been nice to see that stuff backhanded away.

The first 15 minutes of Skyfall, Part One goes a long way toward relieving that sour aftertaste and all of the above points. Chibnall does what Doctor Who always does when things go bad: go The Full Pertwee. So complete a Pertwee-era James Bond pastiche remount that, eventually, the Doctor marches out of the TARDIS in a tuxedo (with culottes) to the strains of John Barry-esque music. When the characters play roulette, the winning number, of course, is "7". There's a motorcycle chase that turns into an airplane chase. And, when the villain reveals itself, its through dialogue previously spoken by the Third Doctor. I love, love, love all that stuff. If Series 11 felt like it was made by people who'd never watched Doctor Who before, Series 12 felt like it was made by people who understood the show perfectly, how to use its past to tell an exciting new story.

In a pretty decent James Bond-style montage, the cold open sees three international spies attacked in three different exotic locales, all titled on screen in what appears to be Classic Season 11 (final Pertwee season) episode title font. Then, the Doctor's three companions are rounded up by Men in Black, and finally the Doctor herself -- more than six minutes into the episode -- is finally shown, in Pertwee fashion, repairing the undercarriage of the TARDIS. This second montage is both interesting storytelling, and good use of US television narrative technique, in which the first episode of a new season is acknowledged to take place several months after the previous season finale, so that the characters themselves can tell us what they've been up to during hiatus. We learn that Ryan still has dyspraxia (the previous season having wrong-headedly told us that you can overcome your neurologic disability, if only you want it bad enough!... which is not how that works), that Yaz's sister fancies Ryan and that Graham still misses his late wife.

Chibnall then writes a fairly tense sequence in which the Doctor's MI6 limo is hijacked by alien tech, and then a briefing scene helmed by the wonderful Stephen Fry... which, shockingly but not shockingly (we see this happen in the second reel of every Bond movie, just as Bond is about to get vital information out of his first MI6 contact), ends with Fry's character, "C", being assassinated by hi-tech poison dart.

During this sequence, the show also does what it should have done last year -- finally acknowledges that the Doctor is "supposed" to be male, but has the Doctor respond cheekily to such talk by explaining that she's had "an upgrade"... following which, everyone accepts her as the Doctor, and we all move on.

After the reunion and briefing sequences, the TARDIS crew (we call them "fam" now) splits up into its natural pairs, the Doctor/Graham, and Ryan/Yaz. The latter pair jets off to San Francisco to meet with Lenny Henry, who I'm told is someone famous in the UK. Henry plays David Barton, a sort of Google mogul who, it turns out, is not quite fully human, and is in league with a hostile alien power. He's any billionaire James Bond villain, or perhaps Stevens from The Green Death or Professor Whitaker from Invasion of the Dinosaurs or Professor Stahlman from Inferno or [insert Pertwee-era billionaire industrialist or mad scientist name here].

The Doctor and Graham head off to Australia, where we learn that the Doctor once lived in the outback for 123 years and saw some really great rocks. There, they meet with "O", another MI6 agent, played by the also wonderful Sacha Dhawan (previously seen as Waris Hussein in An Adventure in Space and Time), and are promptly attacked by an army of glowing white humanoid shapes. Dhawan, who's warm and sincere as O, is (a bit too safely) flirtatious with the also-South Asian Yaz, although this scene is rather sweet, and subtly acted. O has also been researching the Doctor, and has a shelf full of files on them, noting the "inconsistencies". As well as a complete library of The Fortean Times. O is definitely a character drawn from the Doctor Who novels of Kate Orman or Lloyd Rose from 15 to 20 years ago (that's high praise, for those of you who haven't read the books). I'd love to see a lot more of O on the program.

Because this is a two-part episode, and because Part One as the New Year's Day special is a full hour long, the actual alien-invasion plot unfolds a bit slower than we're used to ("Is he just here for the running commentary?", O exasperatedly asks of Graham following some exposition). It turns out that the aliens are extra-dimensional, speak in very deep voices, and, boringly, want to conquer our Universe. They're called the "Kasaavin" in the closing credits, a name which I don't recall having heard in the episode itself.

But the Pertwee-era social conscience is there. O delivers a cutting-edge lecture about how Vor, Barton's Google-esque tech company, is more powerful than most nations, because of its data access and military servers. The way the plot is told is more interesting than the plot itself, with spy-movie verve, Bond-film bombast and Pertwee-era social gloss. We get a standard (for spy thrillers) sequence in which Yaz is trying to upload the contents of Barton's computer, and, as the counter ticks up slowly from 90%, Barton himself slowly walks down the hall, about to open the door on Yaz. Naturally, the upload finishes just in time, and when Barton comes in and demands that "they" reveal themselves, it's not to Yaz and Ryan, who are already hidden, but to the alien invaders, who are also hiding in the room. This sequence has been done in dozens of movies, but it's carried off quite well here.

The cliffhanger is, and it's easy to get hyperbolic in the glow of having only just finished watching an episode, one of my favorites of the New Series. It contains a shock twist reveal (I had not seen any spoilers and didn't see it coming), an un-defusible bomb, a crashing plane and a character pulled out of reality altogether.

Last season, Chibnall avoided old continuity altogether and didn't give us any cliffhangers. Those two problems have most definitely been solved by Spyfall, Part One, which had me on the edge of my seat more in its final five minutes than any previous Doctor Who episode since the end of Heaven Sent.

The good news is, we only have to wait four days for the resolution.

A Review by Matthew Sorflaten 19/2/20

So, Doctor Who came back after a long, long hiatus. Sadly, as there was pretty much nothing about Series 11 that I enjoyed, I wasn't particularly excited about its return; in fact, I was more worried than excited, seeing as I feared what Chibnall may do to Doctor Who lore. But, being a Whovian, of course I had no choice but to watch it and hope for the best. As for Spyfall itself, I was expecting a pretty generic, spy parody run-around where nothing too notable happened. I'd read a spoiler-free review describing it as a bit of a fun romp, so I thought I could pretty much only hope to be reasonably entertained for an hour, then probably forget everything that happened soon after it had finished. I was wrong. This was easily the most memorable episode Chibnall's written so far, and far more than the meaningless romp I expected. I genuinely did not see the ending coming one little bit, and I found myself thinking about this episode a LOT afterwards, my head full of questions, wondering what was going to happen next.

However, does this mean I liked it? Well, I guess I did, but just because I was surprised and curious does not mean I was blown away. Pretty much the only reason this episode stood out for me was the huge twist I know you all know I'm talking about, which I will get to soon. But first...

At first, I was pretty sure I was getting what I expected. Seeing as this is my least-favourite TARDIS team thus far, I obviously didn't feel particularly excited about seeing Ryan, Yaz, Graham and Thirteen again, and I wasn't particularly amused by Ryan or Yaz's bad lying, nor particularly intrigued by the Men in Black or their car journey, assassination attempt or not, but I was pleased that it was fast-moving at least, and I very much enjoyed Stephen Fry's portrayal. I thought it was a nice touch with C assuming Graham was the Doctor. It was barely referenced in Series 11 that she's been a man most of her life, which further added to the feeling that it was an entirely different show. Too many continuity references can be a bad thing, but there were so few in Series 11 that it actually felt like a complete reboot sometimes, so this reference, whilst brief and fairly inconsequential, was very pleasing to me and went a surprisingly long way in making this feel like Doctor Who, as did O's mention of it to Graham later on.

As for the Doctor herself, though... Unfortunately, I just can't get into the Thirteenth Doctor, not for lack of trying. She doesn't strike me as the Doctor, she strikes me as a generic female sci-fi heroine; there's just nothing about her that makes her feel like the Doctor for me. I think what bugs me is sometimes it seems like they're trying a bit too hard to make her feel like the Doctor by giving her lines that are meant to be quirky, but just feel forced: 'Kisses, that's quite French, isn't it, kisses', 'Iced tea', 'The name's Doctor- the Doctor'. The righteous anger that the Doctor has always had feels kind of forced as well, such as when she confronts C for nearly getting them killed and Barton at the party. Although the Doctor's always been a figure of kindness and goodness, there's always been that edge to the character, the feeling that getting on his wrong side is a very bad idea, but she just seemed a bit cross and stern with these two, whereas Capaldi felt like a bubbling volcano when confronting people he wasn't happy with. Even with the more kindly Tennant, there was a real sense of danger when someone was messing with him, and unfortunately, I just don't get that with Jodie. I really, really wanted to like the first female Doctor, and I knew Jodie was a good actress, but it was always Chibnall I was worried about, not being at all impressed with his Doctor Who and Torchwood episodes, and I blame him more than Jodie for not liking Doctor 13.

As for the companions, in Series 11, I didn't feel they were ever used to great effect, but they were used slightly better in this one. I was glad that they all had something to do, but I just don't feel any of them have a particularly interesting relationship with the Doctor or each other. They're all just good friends, with no conflict or arcs or complexities or anything, and, whilst I don't outright hate any of them, I'm really not invested in any of them either. Whilst it was good to see them split up a bit and do their own thing, this episode didn't really do much to help with my lack of interest in this TARDIS team. I think the disadvantage of having a crowded TARDIS is that there's a lot less room for individual character development.

This could maybe be fixed if different episodes were focused on different companions (although I think that may work better in Star Trek or Skins than Doctor Who), but, with this team, it feels like they try to cram them into every one and so there's little room for them to grow as characters, and, unfortunately, I don't particularly care about any of them. I really, really hope at least one of them leaves this series. The part where Yaz expresses her displeasure at Ryan being interested in her sister indicates that there may be a romance between them this series, but honestly, that would be a very obvious and cliched choice, and not something I would be interested in, either. I really feel one of them needs to leave for this to work.

On the plus side, this is the first time in the Chibnall era that we've had some genuinely sinister monsters. They weren't out-and-out terrifying, but they were certainly intriguing and left me wanting to know more. They weren't especially original, but they certainly had menace, and the scene when they attacked in Australia was one of the most intense scenes we've had in a while. Their claim to want the entire universe is far from anything new for a Doctor Who monster, but their claim to be beyond the Doctor's understanding certainly sounds interesting, and I'm looking forward to finding out what that could mean. Lenny Henry gives a good performance as Daniel Barton. Obviously it's not the first time we've had a Bond-style villain in Doctor Who, but I actually thought he seemed likable enough at first and was unsure whether to trust him or not (which I see as a good thing; I'm a big fan of ambiguity), and the reference that he was 7% non-human was definitely interesting. But of course, the most notable, interesting and surprising part of this show is O.

When O first appeared, I was thinking what a likable character he was, amusingly. He seemed very sweet and friendly, reminding me somewhat of Osgood, a science geek who admired the Doctor, and I was thinking to myself what a nice addition to the show he was, that I hoped to see more of him.

Overall, this is far from my favourite Doctor Who story. The humour didn't really work for me, and I'm still not too fond of the main cast, but it was nice and pacey with a shocking twist, and it actually felt like a Doctor Who story, which is more than I can say for the entirety of Series 11. It had decent monsters, a reasonably interesting plot, a classic villain and a cliffhanger, all of which were sorely lacking last year. I'll give it a very fair 7/10.