The first season of Jodie Whittakerâ€™s tenure on Doctor Who was marked by change. New Doctor, new showrunner, new tone, there was a subdued approach that emboldened Doctor Whoâ€™s moral core while struggling as it pulled away from some of the showâ€™s more primal pleasures. Back for her sophomore season, Jodie Whittakerâ€™s Doctor is as effervescent as everâ€”but her show feels much like its older self again, for better or worse.
To many, â€œSpyfall, Part Oneâ€ may be seen as a retreat from some of the bolder, if not entirely-well-received creative decisions of showrunner Chris Chibnallâ€™s first season cracking the whip on all things Time and Space. Itâ€™s a monster-driven romp, full of chase sequences and wanton bumping off of extras by things that go bump in the night. The social focus of the story is less macro-scaled, commenting on society at large, but instead on the intimate, family lives of our companionsâ€”and even then, itâ€™s not a particular focus in between the action and the scary monsters.
All eyes are on the spectacle. All eyes are on a lingering mystery, not just of this two-part episode, but of the seeds sown for a much larger narrative arc (modern Who elements left by the wayside last season, to refreshing effect). And indeed, as weâ€™ll get to later, all eyes are on perhaps the most oblique acknowledgment of a change in tone, even if technically this iteration of Doctor Who had already done so last year: the shocking return of a foe long familiar to our titular Time Lord.
While on the surface this might seem like a refutation of the slower, lower-stakes morality play approach season 11 took for many of its stories, really, it feels like the evolution of a delicate balancing act that showrunner (and â€œSpyfallâ€ scribe) Chris Chibnall has been slowly building towards over his tenure. As season 11 progressed, and the series still felt like it was trying to prove to people just what it was capable of, we got more episodes where the interplay between Doctor Who delivering a critical message on an aspect of contemporary societyâ€”from the labour perils of Amazon-esque megacorps to societyâ€™s gender prejudicesâ€”struggled with the more base thrills of monster-and-alien capers.
It lead to a climax of the season that felt like the most oblique example of the show struggling to cram in both of these approaches to Doctor Who into a single episode in â€œThe Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos,â€ one that only really worked (and even then, not particularly resoundingly) because it blunted its spectacle in favour of focusing on character. But it would seem that this struggle was simply the start of an evolution.
We got â€œResolutionâ€ on New Yearâ€™s Day last year, which indulged in the thrill of the Daleksâ€™ return while still delivering a character-focused piece about Ryan and his estranged father, which felt like Doctor Who was once again falling into an assured confidence in this perpetual balancing act. And now, we have â€œSpyfall,â€ which feels like an inverse of â€œRanskoor Av Kolosâ€â€”that balancing act now being tipped back in favour of monster-driven spectacle instead of character drama.
Itâ€™s much stronger for it, allowing for a premiere full of flashy action and intrigue, mining its James Bond-ian influences for all theyâ€™re worth. It established its premise immediatelyâ€”spies all over the world are being targeted and attacked by unknown, DNA-altering aliens. And from the get-go, this episode was much lighter in pace, even when it began to lay out its central mysteriesâ€”like the identity of the alien race hunting both the spy world and the Doctor, or the goals of the not-entirely-human tech guru Daniel Barton (played by Lenny Henry in a disarmingly taciturn approach) and why his Google-esque company, Vor, is in league with forces from another world. Benefiting greatly from being a two-part episode (something also eschewed by Chibnallâ€™s first season as showrunner) â€œSpyfallâ€ has the time to have its cake and eat it.
Not only did it deliver zany Who moments like a motorbike chase between the Doctor and her friends and the worldâ€™s most incompetent marksman, or a house under siege by killer, glowing monsters, it had time to delve into intriguing moments of drama. For instance, Yazâ€™s distressing realisation of her near-death when one of the aforementioned aliens abducted her, or the moment between Graham and the Doctorâ€™s old, alien-obsessed MI6 analyst friend O (the lovely Sacha Dhawan, whoÂ Doctor Who fans might recognise from playing one of the seriesâ€™ early directors, Waris Hussein, in the beautiful docudrama An Adventure in Space and Time) that begin to needle at just how little her â€œfamâ€ really knows about her, both as a person and of her past. Given the space to breathe, this latest take on Doctor Who could really, finally come into its own.
Not all of this quite works, sadlyâ€”that balancing act inevitably means that thereâ€™s a cost to pay of not quite delivering on one aspect or another. Thereâ€™s something disappointing about, after being so open to putting its cultural criticism (through a sci-fi lens) at the forefront last season, the episodeâ€™s thinly-veiled jabs at tech giants like Alphabet are left to land as little more than simple jabs. The story is more interested with alien intrigue and zapping some more hapless secret agents than it isÂ engaging with these ideas beyond simply acknowledging that labour issues or monopolization, or the role of technology in our lives, are things that exist and immediately moving on. Seeing that critical side of the show left to land with only the lightest of impacts so we could get more monster fun, as good as that monster fun wasâ€”outside of â€œResolutionâ€™sâ€ Recon Dalek, this feels like the most creature-feature-y Chibnallâ€™s Who has been since the Spiders of â€œArachnids in the UKâ€â€”is a shame, especially as season 11 shined brightest when it engaged with those critiques.
All that lingering doubt, however, falls away in the premiereâ€™s climax, delivering a reveal that doesnâ€™t just set the tone for the entire season but is perhaps one of the most compellingly brilliant strokes of character work for this incarnation of the Doctor so far. We come to â€œSpyfallâ€™sâ€ twofold twist on a plane perilously close to being blown apart, as the Doctor and her friends find themselves nowhere near as clever as they thought they were in their spying on Barton and Vor. Instead, theyâ€™re trapped by their true enemy, O, who isnâ€™t really O at all. Heâ€™s not just the spymaster behind the alien interlopers working with Vor, but heâ€™s the spy master: The Doctorâ€™s oldest foe, their oldest friend, the Master, has returned full of vengeful hate for their beloved frenemy.
It is, if youâ€™ll pardon the pun, a masterful moment. Not only within the context of the reveal does Oâ€™s oddball antics throughout the episode begin to have a little clarityâ€”how does an MI6 analyst hiding in the Australian outback have access to tech that block alien entrances that even the TARDIS struggled with? Why is he so concerned with needling the Doctorâ€™s recklessness at putting her friends and herself in danger, or with pushing those friends to really reckon with what they know about their travelling companion? With the Masterâ€™s return, you now have this proverbial gasoline canister thatâ€™s just had a lit match (out of that matchbox Tissue Compression Eliminator, probably, another incredibly fun little throwback) tossed right at it.
Jodie Whittakerâ€™s Doctor has been driven by this sense of uncertainty. She does not remember things about her past lives as much as she wants to, and she doesnâ€™t always have all the answersâ€”an approach that has drawn some criticism that it makes her as the first female Doctor on TV seem less capable than her know-it-all, smartest-in-the-room male predecessors, but actually helps the Doctor feel like a flawed and relatable persona who has to properly work things out instead of being a godlike being with effortless solutions a handwave away. She rushes into situations without thinking through the consequences, putting herself and her friends in unnecessary danger, or creating foes more dangerous than they should be, as was the case with Tzim-Sha last season. And now, those same mistakes have put her in the hands of the Master, and more specifically, an incarnation of the Master far crueler and more vindictive than the last incarnation we metâ€”an incarnation the Doctorâ€™s prior self had worked so hard to find some kind of redemption for, and succeeded.
We donâ€™t just have a Doctor on the backfoot against a meticulously overprepared foe. We have someone who, unlike herself, has intimate knowledge of her pastâ€”not just through the poisoned lens that is the Masterâ€™s view of their relationship, but with this mysterious, threatening promise that everything she does remember about her life being a lie. We donâ€™t know yet if that particular threat is the Masterâ€™s trademark duplicity or an actual mystery this season will engage with as it progresses, but itâ€™s a fascinating one to tackle given this incarnation of the Doctorâ€™s particularly unique vulnerability to doubt herself.
After years of having versions of the Doctor who are so self-certain that we have explored everything from the nitty-gritty of their escapes from Gallifrey or even why they took the name â€œThe Doctor,â€ to be presented with an incarnation that doesnâ€™t just have that information but is almost scared by it, and have them confronted by a vengeful figure from that past, is an extremely powerful and exciting scenario to throw down. Hopefully, this is just a promise of where Doctor Who is heading this seasonâ€”and if it pulls it off, we could be in for a treat.
Part of what makes the Masterâ€™s return seemingly so shocking is that it feels like itâ€™s been forever since we last saw the character, despite the fact it was what, three years ago? But I think part of it is because this timeÂ it was actually kept secret. As delightful as it was to have John Simm come back and chew his way through scenery like an all-you-can-eat-buffet, the story itself was dampened by the fact we knew its reveal well in advance. â€œSpyfallâ€ lands emotionally the way it does with it coming from out of nowhere, and Iâ€™m glad there wasnâ€™t pressure to advertise the showâ€™s return by hyping up that reveal up.
Given the cackling mania Dhawanâ€™s Master revels in once the facade is lifted, thereâ€™s been a lot of theorizing already that this incarnation isnâ€™t actually the â€œlatestâ€ Master, but a regeneration between Simmâ€™s Master and Michelle Gomezâ€™s Missy, given that Missy died with her ability to regenerate having been disrupted. While I get the appeal of logic for this theoryâ€”and that itâ€™s extremely Master-like to be so mad that the Doctor turned one of their incarnations into a reluctant hero that heâ€™d regenerate and go forward in time to enact vengeanceâ€”I find myself more fascinated by the tragic idea that this is somehow a post-Missy regeneration, who has lost all that she learned from the Twelfth Doctor. Also? Itâ€™s the Master. The Masterâ€™s entire thing is dying their final death only to return anyway, almost out of spite. Itâ€™s admirable in its absurdity, which is, ultimately, basically the characterâ€™s entire personality.
Itâ€™s largely confined to the opening of this episode, but I really hope this idea that Ryan and Yaz are very clearly astonishingly bad at bullshitting the fact theyâ€™re running off to go travel in time and space from their friends, colleagues, and family (Graham is mostly exempted, but sadly only because he no longer has much in the way of family to keep that secret from) is an issue that raises its head later down the line this season. Itâ€™s been years since a companion story has had the push-and-pull tension of their dual lives being exposed, and the consequences of that deceitâ€”arguably there was Clara and Danny, but considering her family life became her timey-wimey life as part of that arcÂ itâ€™s not really been since the RTD era that weâ€™ve had that tension be a thing. If we are bringing back a ton of familiar Who ideas this season, thatâ€™s one worth exploring again.
And, thank god, speaking of all that: it seems like Yaz will be the character that bears the brunt of these consequences, both in terms of her relationships, but also internally: her brush with death in this episode hits her in a way weâ€™ve not really seen a companion react to that sort of danger in a good long time (even when weâ€™ve had them, like Bill, straight up get murdered!), and as someone who really wanted to see Mandip Gill get more of the spotlight last season, I really hope this is the start of a meatier arc for her.
Finally, I cannot stress this enough: Who thought it was a good idea to name the evil company something that sounds like â€œVoreâ€!?!?!?!?!? Maybe Iâ€™m just a teenager trapped in the ostensible body of an adult, but I couldnâ€™t help but snort every time someone said it. Yet also, the connotation kind of works for a Google/Alphabet style corporation slowly consuming its way through different tech fields to create a larger whole, right? Genius, yet juvenile. Very Doctor Who, that.