Doctor Who: 12-01 “Spyfall, Part 1” Review
Reviewed by Ryan Monty.
(This review continues spoilers. Read on if that doesn’t bother you!)
What a difference a year makes, eh? Simply *so much* has happened in the world since the last time we saw Thirteen and company- some things beyond parody, some wonderful, some bitterly depressing. I think most of us can agree that we’re happy to close the door on it for a fresh start! That start includes our return to Doctor Who, which for the second year running eschews (sadly, for me) a Christmas-themed special in favour of New Year’s Day (not themed this year), building off last year’s ambitious Resolution with a world-spanning, spy-flavoured comeback of a story. Thankfully, the show’s resolution this year is for our opener Spyfall to kick off Series 12 with a smooth, suave start- and not leaving us in the cold for another year.
Coming off the back of Series 11 there were a litany of improvements desired from fans- but in Spyfall we have a story that has a more elevated understanding of what it wants to be, compared to some of the muddled or identity-lacking Series 11 instalments. I was relatively accepting of most of the last series- despite thinking it was mostly rather average or basic Who other than a few standouts- and part of the reason I liked Resolution a good degree was that it seemed far more assured in itself (whether you like that direction or not), and that carries into Spyfall, which despite having kinks that need ironing out, barrels into action with bravura starting with a fast-paced cold open full of intrigue.
Head writer Chris Chibnall was perhaps the architect of his shortcomings with the way he presented Series 11 and its creative choices, but the sense of re-discovery that he wove through it has at least (hopefully) now allowed for a springboard to development and identity building. After our international opening, we check back in with the fam (yes, it’s still a cringe name, but what in the show isn’t sometimes?) And how their constant excuses for travelling in the TARDIS are impacting on their personal lives- always one of my favourite story points the show explores. While it still has some bumpy dialogue- which can be said for the whole episode- it tees the story up nicely with potential future character directions and caps off with a great TARDIS sight gag (yes, I know it messes with the chameleon circuit logic a bit- but it’s funny!)
The production value for Team Chibbers and the gang’s first series outing was one of its undoubted highs- and it’s rarely looked better than in Spyfall, fitting the spy aesthetic completely. Chibnall gets enjoyable mileage out of the parodies and homages, with Jamie Magnus Stone’s dynamic direction reveling in them, keeping the pace light and action-packed. The funnier threads, like Ryan and Graham’s glee at becoming spies with comical gadgets aplenty- especially when they reach the betting tables like giddy lads (his delivery of “evening ladies” is maybe Tosin Cole’s funniest line yet)- work just as well as the more overt moments, like the thrilling chase on bikes through a bright vineyard which pushes that BBC budget. Spyfall commits to the bit, even featuring a climactic sprint onto a departing plane.
This renewed confidence in what they’re creating is shared throughout the cast and production crew. Segun Akinola’s atmospheric tones and more lavish flourishes feel even more at home here- that swaggering Bond riff on the Me and My Mates track is fantastic- but what’s equally refreshing (and relief-worthy) is Mandip Gill’s part in the story. One of the key complaints of last series was how underserved she was, so it’s nice to see her again using her almost-forgotten police skills to calm herself when trapped. Better yet was her moment afterwards with Ryan outside the Australian cabin of our unassuming, definitely-not-villainous spy contact O (Sacha Dhawan). Gill plays her fear at the “nothingness, nowhere” of what she had just experienced with empathy, as does Cole’s Ryan in comforting her. Hints of a budding romance aside (I’d prefer they’d remain just friends), I hope their scenes deliver on the promise of deeper, more humanized explorations and depictions of them as real people, rather than their oft thankless job prior. Bradley Walsh’s role in Spyfall is largely “to be exasperated”, but he pulls it off well- and that shot of him running for the plane is golden.
The beings in question that terrify Yaz are a corrective measure to another criticism of double C’s first series- forgettable monsters. While Tzim-Sha was at least a visually memorable villain design, none of Chibnall’s own stories had creatures that stuck long in the memory. The “light men” Spyfall features however are far more creative- a creepily realised baddie, morphing through objects and flickering unnaturally in and out of existence, some unknown abomination with an inhuman roar. Even simply standing still around their surroundings like unholy angels is spooky, and they feature in a litany of visual highlights- a classic horror beat of flickering lights in the outback, a succession of them appearing unsettlingly on a building and the DNA-looking forest that they send their victims. Their attempt to breach the TARDIS is the crown jewel, not least as it’s a villain trick that always conjures fear, but also because it’s one of the most energetic beats of Spyfall, dialogue flowing engagingly and featuring a swish close-up of Thirteen monologuing.
There is an actual villain in Spyfall though- and not just that one- a (very well!) looking Sir Lenny Henry as tech mogul Daniel Barton, CEO of V.O.R- a catch-all web engine, data analyst and meddler in multiple countries’ affairs within its many specialties. It mirrors a massive problem in real-world politics of private, shady companies interfering with governments and democratic process- Yaz even accuses V.O.R of spreading misinformation in its many crimes- which the smug, cocksure Barton shrugs off as something that inevitably happens with exponential growth. It’s a pointed bit of social satire, with very real-world analogues who take power thanks to technology outpacing understanding of it, with governments outsourcing to those who can use and see its power instead, thereby giving them a say in every sector. Fellow national treasure Stephen Fry has a sadly less fulfilling and featured role as MI6 chief C- though he does bring a befitting mix of authority and levity, alongside having the humorous honour of being the character who finally has a presumption that The Doctor would be a man upon meeting them.
If Resolution last year was a show of the (gradually) growing confidence of Chibnall’s vision for Who, it was also an example of Jodie Whittaker herself growing into it. She’s had some solid stories and wonderful moments (chatting to a universal frog about life remains my favourite) but she’s often not had the material to serve her consistently- sometimes falling into the background. Spyfall, while not exactly a showcase, has the right mix of her established character so far and what that could develop into. She gets some daft gags like thinking she’s playing Snap at the gambling table or pretending she’s James Bond (don’t lie, you smiled) in equal portions that she gets to be questioning, curious and authoritative. Her showdown with Barton is top stuff and something I want much more from her incarnation, and we’re teased at future revelations for her when O teases Graham towards his Doctor file.
Which brings us to O, the Spymaster, The Master. There were hints- Barton potentially building an impressive legend said as not being an impossible feat (see: Saxon) to his rather understated reaction to the TARDIS (chuckle-worthy in hindsight). Even within his glee at collecting information on The Doctor, opening more of the thread of how little her friends know about her (doesn’t that line of the file having “a lot of inconsistencies, but very entertaining” feel quite metatextual about the relationship between the classic and newer show!)
While I had read about it prior (thanks, Twitter) the turn is expertly done- a true shot in the arm revelation wise. Dhawan’s Master is one I can’t wait to see more of- a blend of perverse excitement, John Simm-esque screaming and unhinged swagger, with a bit of Matt Smith thrown in, bow-tie and all. While I hope it doesn’t undo the development of Michelle Gomez’s Missy in Series 10 and it feels rather early to bring the character back, I welcome the return- not least as it’s an exciting development for Thirteen most pressingly, as she finally has a true equal to pit her wits against- hopefully drawing out and developing more of her true self, not least as Dhawan-Master seems to be quite pained telling her that “everything you think you know, is a lie”. Series arcs- who would’ve thought they’d be worth doing?
Spyfall, while flawed and not fully shaken free of some of the elephants in the room from Series 11 (especially the tendency to over-explain the situation with some clunky, matter-of-fact dialogue), feels geared in the right direction for progress- acting as a launchpad for promises of a fascinating- hopefully more sure-footed- series ahead. While not a classic opener, slick confidence is what any good series beginning needs- and that’s the name of the game here to set us up for Series 12. Chris Chibnall has written one of his better stories to kick us off, a world-travelling, espionage-fueled, highly entertaining romp. Whether Spyfall- Part 2 provides a satisfying conclusion we’ll soon see, but as an opening statement Spyfall most certainly has a licence to thrill. New stories, old monsters and a renewed sense of excitement without waiting another year for more- it’s good to have you back at last, Doctor!