Review: Doctor Who – Spyfall Part 2

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.


6 responses to “Review: Doctor Who – Spyfall Part 2”

  1. I couldn’t help but spot a small flaw in the Kasaavin’s master plan… if they hadn’t chosen to draw attention to themselves by wiping out spies, then the first warning anyone would have had about their intentions would have been… Lenny Henry giving his “three minutes to the end of humanity” warning. Which would have worked out better for them, really.

    I must admit to being less than wholly convinced by the “Bradley Walsh saves the day through laser tap-dancing” sequence, too.

    Still, with the Master on the loose and Gallifrey in flames, at least it looks like they will be taking more chances with the plots, this series.

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  2. I confess that I liked laser tap-dancing Bradley Walsh a lot. And I also thought that the “fam” acquitted themselves surprisingly well in their section of the story – including that nice bit where both they and the Doctor independently used the “intercepted phone call” idea to turn the tables on their pursuers. Plus the bit where Ryan explained the plot, which I thought was genuinely funny.
    The frustrating part is that this was just thrown away in about a third of an episode, as was the Doctor with her two new friends. I know the new format (and our diminishing attention span) means that things get rushed, but this felt absurdly compressed, as though they made a four-episode story and then hurriedly had to edit it down to two.

    And I did like aspects of the resolution – the plot device had been seeded properly, and the whole ‘time not space’ thing was properly clever. It felt like a mildly temporary solution anyway (like last season, I expect the aliens to be back in the season finale.) I just wish they hadn’t then wasted time on the whole ‘save the plane’ routine; we already knew how it worked because we’d just watched the episode…

    As to the Gallifrey stuff? Well, I am still hoping that it’s a lot more complicated than it initially appears. And, to be fair, the Master does run a good line in ‘why are you believing me?’ so there’s likely more going on here. (I liked the implication in ep 1 that when he says that he showed ‘them’ the evidence and they didn’t believe him, he was referring to the Time Lords rather than MI6.) Chibnall isn’t Moffat (or Davies) but he is better than I think most critics give him credit (anyone who can write Broadchurch isn’t a slouch.) It’s just that he is still not playing at a high enough level.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Well said. Although I was partially diverted doing work in my kitchen while semi-watching this episode, so I probably missed some aspects of it, I did put it on pause to check, with foreboding, about Ms. Khan and found that her fate, like that of the better-known Hannah Szenes, was exactly as horrific as I feared.

    If the script had merely bothered to acknowledge that, it might have saved it just a little. But this seemed like ‘Nice job with the radio, Noor, now we’ll just TARDIS out of here and not even care whether you’re betrayed, swept up by the Nazis, escaped, get recaptured, kept shackled hand and foot for almost a year, get taken as a secret prisoner to a concentration camp in Bavaria, get beaten by an SS officer, and then get shot dead from behind. But nice job! And, oh, here’s a spritz with a futuristic device to ensure that you won’t know anything at all.’

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  4. I’d forgotten Bradley Walsh was in the show since the last season. Deeply disappointed to be reminded that he is, in fact, still in it. Genuinely takes me a moment to remember that *he’s* Graham whenever anyone else references him.

    As Who two-parters go I thought this acquitted itself quite well. It didn’t spend that much time just spinning its wheels to fill out a full second episode. Not entirely wild about the Master being back and being his crazy old self when Missy had a genuinely good arc through her tenure but I’m intrigued by what I assume is at best a half-truth from the Master about Gallifrey and the Timelords.


  5. I enjoyed both the plane crash time loop stuff and the Doctor picking up helpers in time who find her deeply confusing stuff, but it did mean the whole critique of tech plotline was cramped and confusing. It seems clear that the tech villain had a lot of issues, but we never really get to find out why he had those issues and is genocidal. Also, while it’s fun sometimes, it does seem like this current incarnation of the series is relying too heavily on having a technology is bad and we’re too addicted to our phones and online shopping attitude that gets wearying, especially when it’s paired with tech gadgets like laser shoes that are supposed to be cool. But overall I enjoyed this second part episode more than the first part.

    The Doctor saying she’s a pacifist didn’t surprise me because it’s based off of the whole arc of the Doctor becoming more war-like through recent incarnations (the missing Doctor, etc.,) and changing increasingly away from that after having been given a whole other set of lives, so it’s what she’s trying to do now. The Doctor does try to be a pacifist on the killing part even when sometimes failing historically.

    It didn’t surprise me either that the Doctor mind wipes Ada and Noor without consent. She cannot save Noor, (see the assassinating Hitler episode,) and she cannot take Noor and Ada with her, (though I loved the companions asking if they are being replaced.) Both women have specific contributions to make to history that need to occur unchanged, and Ada has already been derailed from this by her encounters with the aliens. The Doctor fears that the stuff she’s been babbling and having them do has already messed up the timelines concerning them, something she’s messed up on before. So she feels she has to mind-wipe them to clear up the damage done to the timelines. (Of course, presumably she also has to go mind-wipe everybody at the scientific exhibition hall the Master attacked too, or not, because Doctor Who never bothers with full details.) It’s maybe not the best or most ethical decision, but it didn’t seem random to me or without regret from the Doctor from the situation and the dialogue.

    I am again not a huge fan of Gallifrey stuff because it tends to get very contradictory and confusing. I like it when we get new creatures and situations, so hopefully I’ll enjoy the spa episode coming up.


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