A new year and new Doctor Who, arriving as a New Year’s Day special and part one of a two parter. From the pre-credits scene to the trailers, promotional posters and title, we were promised a James Bond themed Doctor Who. Did it deliver? Well…this is a tricky one to discuss without some substantial spoilers, so if you want to see it unspoiled then don’t go any further!
A Doctor Who pastiche of James Bond is such an obvious choice that is surprising that it hasn’t really been done before. Bond and the Doctor are two of a triumvirate of what I regard as the core British superhero characters along with Sherlock Holmes. Infinitely recyclable distinctive characters who can be the centre of an indefinite number of stories.
Bond and the Doctor also share a trait of facing down evil geniuses bent on overly complicated schemes which often involve unlikely technology. Their methods though obviously vary substantially.
The Doctor unwittingly wandering into a plot from a different genre and sending the story careening off in a different direction is also normal for the Doctor. Indeed the ostensibly science fiction show has repeatedly materialised the Tardis into classic horror stories on numerous occasions (including riffs on Frankenstein, vampires, the mummy and more fake-ghosts than Scooby Doo).
Likewise Doctor Who has often been adjacent to spy-like stories or techno-thrillers, particularly in any of the UNIT themed stories or Torchwood. There’s a hard limit on the capacity for a Doctor who episode to resemble a spy-thriller though and Spyfall hits that limit almost straight-away.
Pertwee’s Doctor had some of the flamboyance and arrogance associated with some aspects of the spy drama (of the Department S, Jason King style) and McCoy’s Doctor had some of the manipulative and calculating traits needed for a spy story of a more Len Deighton or perhaps Le Carre spy drama. However, in general the Doctor fits poorly into a spy narrative.
So Spyfall begins with assorted call-outs to espionage stories (a targetted assassination, a spycraft exchange of intel, a Moscow safe house) but the episode itself is more conventionally a Doctor Who story rather than a spy thriller with Doctor Who in it. Unlike, say, Captain America: The Winter Soldier which managed to be very much a espionage thriller but with superheroes.
Instead, we have a basic weird alien invasion plot with mysterious creatures who are not what they seem engaged in activity that is both threatening and mysterious. The invaders are suitably creepy with a clever special effect where they push through walls in a way that leaves a lingering texture of the wall behind on their glowing faces.
This is a two-parter, so what these creatures are and what they actually want is as yet unresolved.
In the tradition of Doctor Who cameos, Stephen Fry is typecast as the head of MI6 and simply throws the more officious version of Stephen Fry at the role which naturally works. A more interesting choice is Lenny Henry as the technology mogul/probable-Bond-villain-archetype as the head of the curiously named VOR tech-company.
Which takes us to Sacha Dhawan, the less famous of the guest stars. Dhawan we last saw as one of the better features of Marvel/Netflix Iron Fist series. There he played the troubled and intense Davos, a friend/rival to the titular Iron Fist. However, he has had a long career in British TV and film and, in another Doctor Who connection, played Waris Hussein in the Adventures in Time and Space TV movie about the making of the original Doctor Who as the director of the very first episode.
Dhawan appears initially as ‘O’, a kind of Fox Mulder-like ex-MI6 agent whose brilliance and commitment to investigating strange phenomenon has been thwarted by official scepticism about aliens. The concept sits uneasily with Doctor Who, were very big and public weirdness and alien invasions have been troubling the British public (particularly at Christmas) for decades. However, the capacity for the UK population to forget multiple Dalek invasions is all part of Doctor Who’s anti-continuity. Even so, it was (initially) odd for the Doctor to underline the incongruity with references to UNIT and Torchwood and a Dalek attacking GCHQ last Christmas.
You can never be entirely sure with Doctor Who what is lazy writing, what is a knowing call-back to established non-continuity and what is foreshadowing a twist. I recall a few seasons ago eagerly awaiting a twist where the horns on a Viking helmets was going to be a clue to some extra layer of alien shenanigans…but it turned out just to be a fun bit of costume design.
This time though, we are right to think nothing is quite right with the episode until the final five minutes. Dhawan is not a retired MI6 agent but rather the Doctor’s old nemesis/friend The Master.
Of course The Master is not dead, despite being very much doubly dead in the final Capaldi series with both the Sim and Gomez versions dying. Being not just dead but also very, very dead is not a barrier to the return of The Master. It is, if anything, a character trait. However, I’d contend that as fun as Dhawan’s version of The Mater might turn out to be, it is too soon. Jodie Whittaker’s take on The Doctor is still finding her feet and The Master works best as response to an established Doctor.
Overall, the episode manages to be an entertaining if chaotic caper. It doesn’t deliver any actual spy-movie vibes aside from more overt jokes and call-backs. The supporting cast do well as always but the core issue of there not really being enough space for three companions to develop as characters remain.
Dialogue is snappier and more confident than the previous holiday special and there is a good sense of both threat and mystery in the story. However, the Chibnall episodes so far have not lacked strong set-ups and promising first-halves. Where the previous series was lacking was how stories resolved and in their second halves. Strong premises often fell flat with weak endings or inconsistent themes. Beyond the Chibnall years, Doctor Who has often had issues with Part 2 of two-part episodes, with disappointing conclusions undermining strong openings. So we won’t know how Spyfall plays out until the story concludes.