I suppose a double warning about spoilers for anybody who has seen neither part 1 or 2 of the latest Doctor Who. The spoiler-free summary before the fold is the episode was largely entertaining and delivered on most of the promise from part 1. Where it was disappointing was in some very specific and localised ways that nonetheless display a genuine confusion among the people making the show.
Part 2 of Spyfall manages to do the neat trick that successful second-parts do of continuing and resolving the first-part plot but in an episode that goes new places and which is structurally different. Where Part 1 took the model of a ‘present day’ style Doctor Who episode (with MI6 playing a UNIT role), Part 2 dipped into Doctor Who’s historical mode, with the doctor meeting famous people in history caught up in time-mischief.
The invading trans-dimensional aliens are revealed as conducting their espionage activity through multiple time periods and each of the antagonists (Lenny Henry’s tech-billionaire, The Master and the glowy aliens whose names I’ve forgotten) each have their own agendas that make just about enough sense for the story to tick along.
We also get a time-travel plot. Surprisingly, these are relatively rare in Doctor Who which typically uses time travel to take the Doctor and her companions to a location where a story happens, rather than time travel weaving into the narrative (with subsequent timey-wimey impacts). There’s a nice touch near the end where the Doctor has to rush off to make sure an earlier plot twist happens correctly. Nice.
Don’t engage any deeper and it is a decent, fun episode. Beyond the superficial the episode has weak aspects and some downright awful aspects. I’ll deal with the weak bits first.
Sacha Dhawan’s Master is still stuck with him being too-soon after The Master/Missy’s last appearance. Further into Part 2 there is the beginning of a bit of chemistry between The Doctor and The Master but for much of it he’s just too much of an over-the-top bad guy. The remedy is to give him something to be angry about and the big twist is that Galifrey has been destroyed — which is exactly the same problem we had with The Master coming back. Even so, it does suggest that we will be getting a deeper story arc for the next season and something about which The Doctor can get more emotional range from — which would make better use of Jodie Whittaker’s prodigious talent.
The invading aliens and whatever it is they are doing with computers doesn’t really get explained. That the end game is to take over human bodies is revealed but who and what they are is sort of hand waved away. That’s OK as the episode did not rely on their plan making much sense.
An interesting plot point was The Doctor declaring that she is a pacifist. I’m not going to say that it is out of character because each regeneration has their own character traits and “pacifist” is within the range of something that The Doctor can become. It is though a significant change for The Doctor, who may not be keen on violence but aside from actually working for the military and participating in many wars and killed an awful lot of intelligent beings, has also literally started a few wars. “Pacifist” works for how Jodie Whittaker’s character has been written but it’s a choice the writers are going to have to put far more thought into.
The two historical characters introduced (Ada Lovelace and Noor Inayat Khan) were interesting choices. While Ada gets some character development, Noor has little to do other than be a generic British agent in occupied France. On the positive side, absolutely great that The Doctor is interacting with somebody in World War 2 other than bloody Winston Churchill but less good when the character is more of educational point rather than given the depth they deserve. Which takes us into the more awful points.
In the World War 2 section, the show walks into territory that needs some genuine care and thought with the writing…and fails repeatedly. The Master is masquerading as a Nazi officer (or as The Doctor puts it “A German soldier” — why not say Nazi? Weird, being German isn’t the problem with The Master’s disguise.) He’s also using a perception filter so that his new Nazi pals don’t spot that he looks very much not like a standard Nazi. The Doctor (who just a bit earlier announced she is a pacifist) not only ruins his cover and frames him as a double agent but also breaks his perception filter so that the Nazis will see that he doesn’t look of European descent. Yes, it’s The Master but using his ethnic appearance to get Nazi to attack him is a revolting idea.
It’s further revolting given that another character, the actual Noor Inayat Khan was of course executed in Dachau in the same year the World War 2 segment is set. That aspect is skipped over, for obvious reasons but the writers should have thought more about the issue of casually dipping into the history of World War 2 Nazi atrocities. There is an intent here to “do history” more seriously than past Doctor Who series have done but the show doesn’t know how to do that and still be the weird, goofy thing that it is. Aside from anything else, it creates this weird split on who The Doctor will or won’t save. Noor ends up helping The Doctor save her companions from a crashing airplane but Noor herself is left to a terrible fate that The Doctor knows will happen.
Which takes us onto the other aspect that I just plain hated. The Doctor memory wipes (non-consensually) both Ada and Noor. There’s no obvious reason for this other than they are historical figures in the reality outside of the show. The show itself had its own dialogue/debate on the whole issue back with Clara and around the tragic end to Donna Noble. As upsetting as Donna Noble’s memory wipe was, at least a compelling reason was given (without the wipe, she would die). Here though, it’s done casually and as if there is zero ethical issues at all with just wiping stuff from people’s brains.
It’s aggravating. I don’t mind continuity issues (if anything Doctor Who has an anti-continuity) and I don’t mind character changes but I hate this kind of thoughtlessness particularly when it was wholly unnecessary.