02 Jan 2020Doctor Who 12.1 - Spyfall: Part One, by Matthew Kilburn
09 Jan 2020Doctor Who 12.2 - Spyfall: Part Two, 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.

Filters: Doctor Who Series 12
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.

Filters: Doctor Who Series 12