Review: Doctor Who – Spyfall Part 1

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.


12 thoughts on “Review: Doctor Who – Spyfall Part 1

  1. There was a Doctor Who take on James Bond in the 1960s, the Second Doctor story Enemy of the World, where Patrick Troughton plays a double role as the Doctor and a very Bondian villain. I think most of the episodes are lost, which is why the story isn’t very well remembered.

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  2. The Enemy of the World was released in DVD a while back (goes to DuckDuckGo to check details). Yes, the missing episodes were found again in 2013. There was a DVD release in 2013 and a special edition in 2018.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Enemy_of_the_World#Home_media

    The Master has a record of coming back after apparently dying and of course it isn’t possible that both incarnations died permanently.

    I think this episode was a hopeful sign for the coming season, but we’ll have to see how it works out.

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  3. I was rather of the view that the Master had been overused with the Missy version, so this seems like a bit much.

    I did have quite a lot of fun with this episode but it was all a bit highly strung, if they can pull it off then it’ll be great but I’m not sure they will.

    Henry a good choice for guest character but Fry disappointingly seemingly deployed for name value alone

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  4. “The Enemy of the World” is an atypical, and surprisingly successful, piece of Troughton-era Who… well worth taking a look at that one.

    I’m mildly irritated by the reappearance of the Master, if only because it contradicts a minor but generally consistent piece of canon – Time Lords almost always recognize one another (if they already know one another) despite regenerations. (The only exception in the classic era was in “The Twin Dilemma”, and I suppose it’s possible, even there, that Azmael simply didn’t want to admit knowing the recently-regenerated Sixth Doctor.) However, the Master is good at disguise… and he’s renewed himself by non-standard means (stealing other people’s bodies, for instance) in the past…. I suppose I can live with it, or retcon it inside my head. Probably.

    I have an idea of what might be going on, in this one, but I’m almost certainly wrong, so I won’t embarrass myself further by talking about it….

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    1. There’s plenty of precedent for the Doctor not knowing the Master when the Master didn’t want themself recognized, from Time-Flight up through Dark Water. (In that last, as here, the Master didn’t even disguise herself.)

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  5. I think you’re being a little hard on the other two superheroes of British mythos, which massively predate Bond, Holmes and Who, in the form of Robin Hood and King Arthur. But they were never in copyright, which I guess changes their relative status in the sense that they have been freely adapted far more often. (Although I do grant you that Arthur does actually die in his story, which probably disqualifies him from true ‘superhero’ status; then again, he is supposed to be merely ‘sleeping in Avalon’ awaiting the day of Britain’s greatest need. I have my fingers crossed for January 31.)

    As to this episode – I enjoyed the score by Segun Akinola, who was clearly having a lot of fun. But yes, it takes a lot of skill to land the second half of a two-parter; even Davies and Moffat had trouble at times and they had a solid track record at pulling it off; we haven’t really seen if Chibnall can do it with Who yet.

    @stevejwright: In canon, the Doctor has been very bad at recognising other Time Lords though, even through regenerations, which is supporting evidence for the theory that the Doctor is not really a Time Lord given that, as you say, other Time Lords seem to recognise each other (and the Doctor) pretty easily.

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  6. I disagree a little here — while they did make it a joke more often or not, they did get Bondian — the sneaking into the tech lord’s lair with spy tools, the big house with winery orchard and guards, the party with gambling casino games, the tux ensembles, the motorcycle chase and the plane caper. The Doctor didn’t morph into James Bond, but part of the fun was that the Doctor’s adventures are wilder than Bond’s. When Yasmin jokes that it’s kind of a quiet adventure for them while being shot at as they race their motorcycles through the orchard in Bondian fashion, it was actually true.

    But I did find the whole M16 thing very perplexing. Fry’s C talks to the Doctor through the car phone, they know where to find the Doctor and her companions, and yet he’s astonished that she’s a woman. That didn’t make any sense. He seemed to be saying that they let Unit and Torchwood handle alien things and didn’t want to deal with alien things themselves, which isn’t ignorance, especially as they knew how to find the Doctor, an alien with a time-spaceship. At the same time, he seemed stunned aliens exist and O supposedly had to leave because no one would take him seriously about aliens and strange phenomena until spies started getting snagged by aliens. That didn’t make any sense. It wasn’t simply a continuity fail with the series, it was contradictions within the episode itself.

    Still, I enjoyed the episode up until it turned out that O was the Master, apparently a version of the Master that is back to meglomaniac destruction and vengeance on the Doctor. I’ve always found the Master very boring, except when the Master was Missy, who was fun. I’m not entirely against them finding some way to resurrect the Master, but this seemed half-assed. Have to see if they have any real explanation in the second half.

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  7. I did feel a bit disappointed when it turned out Sacha Dhawan was the Master. I agree with Mark – the character has been over used a bit lately – and I was more interested in the new glowy aliens.

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  8. I’m sure it’s nearly impossible for even a very talented scriptwriter to prevent the back half of a cliffhanger two-parter from seeming a letdown. The more exciting the cliffhanger, the tougher that act becomes to follow, e.g., after Russell T. Davies’s truly operatic conclusion to ‘Bad Wolf’, the penultimate episode of the Eccleston season, ‘The Parting of the Ways’ seemed uneven and less gripping even though it was apocalyptic in typical Davies fashion. So, I was just now pondering: Exceptions?

    The one that comes to mind as an example of a satisfying second-half payoff is The Zygon Inversion, where Capaldi’s Doctor brilliant Doctor-esque nonviolent solution was almost poetically set up and carried out — courtesy of writers Peter Harness and Steven Moffat nicely setting up their own plot to get subverted and transformed. I thought it was among the best story arcs of the modern Doctor Who era, and of that satisfying payoff might well be the reason I have that impression.

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