Last week’s Doctor Who season premiere was heaving with promise—in bringing back an iconic foe, and retweaking a balance between moralistic sci-fi social commentary and monster-laden adventure this latest iteration of the series has been struggling to find, it set the groundwork for some compelling threads. Last night’s follow-up delivered, if only because it had the time to do so.
Much of the strength of “Spyfall, Part Two” comes from that simple fact of time. Unlike much of season 11, where single-run episodes felt like they either only had the time to focus on one particular thread or group of characters to the expense of everything else a show like Doctor Who could do, or found themselves rushing to awkward conclusions because of that restraint, starting this season off with a two-parter gave the show a chance to breathe. With its extended runtime, “Spyfall” didn’t just deliver an adventure for the Doctor and her friends that had time to balance both monster horror with timely social commentary—in this case, the Kasaavin and Vor, an awkwardly named riff on tech giants like Google. But it did so fascinatingly by splitting the Doctor up from her “fam,” and giving space for both sides of Team TARDIS to have compelling arcs of their own—ones that will have lingering ramifications over the course of this entire season.
Let’s start with the non-Time Lord side of things. Ryan, Graham, and Yaz found themselves conveniently guided out of certain doom on a crashing plane thanks to a little help from a pre-recorded message from the Doctor and...an app? A little silly, for sure, but given it was eventually revealed as a bit of foresight from the Doctor’s own time-hopping journey this episode—a concept this iteration of the series hasn’t really played with, quite unlike its predecessor’s penchant for time-twisting narratives. And it was a good enough excuse to lay out a very interesting scenario for our trio of companions. Being hunted by vengeful tech guru Daniel Barton in order to stop them from interfering with his plans with the Kasaavin, Ryan, Graham, and Yaz find themselves tracked by their phones (thanks to the proliferation of Barton’s data-tracking tech), slandered by the media (thanks to Barton’s vast wealth and influence driven off of the back of that tech), and without the Doctor or her TARDIS to turn to as safe harbor.
There are shades of a prior Master tale here—Jack, Martha, and the Doctor being hunted down by British PM “Harold Saxon” in “The Sound of Drums” to force them off the grid—but above all, this conceit, as nightmarish is for the trio to go on, allows them all a moment to sit back and really come to grips with what their life has become. Hiding out in an unfinished housing estate, the trauma of everything that’s been happening really starts hitting our companions—especially Yaz, for whom this adventure has brought with it a brush with death unlike anything she’s encountered so far—and it’s a trauma amplified by the realization that they really have no idea who the Doctor truly is. The jokes about her prior lives are more than jokes, that she would consider a man so dangerously cruel as the Master both a greatest foe and one of her oldest friends, the fact that they don’t even know where she’s from—and yet that the Doctor has so wholly come into their lives regardless of that, no matter the wonders they’ve seen, is a moment of crisis for our trio.
While they ultimately come to the conclusion that they have to hope—hope the Doctor can return to them, hope that all this horror can be stopped, hope that their concerns about their alien best friend can be laid to rest—it creates a Doctor/companion dynamic coming into this season, as we move into the more typical “Monster of the Week” flow of Doctor Who, that is fraught with compelling intrigue. Graham and the others may have put their concerns aside momentarily by the episode’s end—ameliorated by the tiniest little detail about her past that the Doctor reveals—but will that be enough to truly trust her the next time they’re isolated and in danger?
While the companions are left to deal with the actual mechanics of trying to disrupt Barton and the Kasaavin’s plans to turn humanity into a race of living hard drives to power the Kasaavin’s invasion of reality, the Doctor is left jumping through time on an adventure of her own—albeit one similarly filled with crises of confidence. From 19th century London to World War II Paris, her chase to figure out what the Master is up to is less about questioning the mechanics of his return, and more like one, similarly to Graham, Yaz, and Ryan’s plight, driven by a desire to learn.
Masterfully (sorry not sorry) pulled along by the teases and jibes, the Master needles her with of “news from home” and mocks her grasp on her past lives—and the Doctor is forced to use the Kasaavin as temporal gateways to run after him and his own TARDIS. But not before hooking up with a few notable faces from history—Ada Lovelace, one of the foremost early architects of computer science, and Noor Khan, a prominent British spy known for being the first female operative officially sent behind enemy lines during World War II—because this is Doctor Who, and where would we be without some time-travel shenanigans. But as isolated as it is from the modern-day side of the companions’ arc, for the Doctor herself, there’s some fascinating thematic mirrors.
Although the companions’ similar arc concludes with them putting their faith in the Doctor, the Doctor’s quest for knowledge ultimately puts her on a much more self-destructive path. In hunting down and foiling the Master—after a truly foul team-up he has with the Nazis, for seemingly little reason other than he’s the Master and that’s the sort of foul thing he’d do to really get at the Doctor—the Doctor isn’t rewarded with hope or faith, in either her former friend or herself. She’s handed a nightmare scenario, the revelation of a new mystery for her to chase after cut through with a horrifying premise: Gallifrey, thought safely preserved in its own pocket of Time and Space since her prior incarnations banded together to undo its demise in “The Day of the Doctor,” lies burning.
The Time Lords are dead. And it’s the Master that put it to the torch, so enraged by his own revelation that everything Time Lord society taught itself has been predicated on some unseen lie that he has been completely undone, left unhinged and driven to genocide.
The shock of the reveal is twofold. Not only do we have a major undoing of a trauma Steven Moffat’s era of the show had itself sought to undo—giving the Doctor a chance to heal and reflect on the loss of their people, a specter that had lingered over several incarnations of the character since Who returned in 2005—itself an interesting “takeback” on a premise that the show hadn’t really done much with since Gallifrey returned in the first place (outside of the incredible “Heaven’s Sent,” that is). But we have this reveal being catapulted at an incarnation of the Doctor who, so far, has been marked by a sort of innocence and naiveté—relatively untethered to her past lives, seemingly remembering little of them or the sacrifices made by her immediate predecessor to bring about her incarnation in the first place.
And what does it do? Immediately sets her on a dark and dangerous path.
After trapping the Master in the Kasaavin’s alt-reality and being goaded by one final message from him, the Doctor takes her new friends Noor and Ada and quickly, almost callously, robs them of their memories of their time together in order to preserve the timeline. The Doctor does this without second thought and with no regret—and while there’s an obvious horror to Ada’s wiping (given that, just like Donna Noble before her, it happens as she begs the Doctor not to take her memories), there’s something even more chilling about the fact that she robs Noor of her memory after telling her the Nazis won’t win the war, and that fascism, no matter how and when it arises, will always lose.
The Doctor finds herself isolated and cut off from her closest friends after going to Gallifrey and confirming the Master’s account, keeping herself coldly distant and already beginning to lie to Graham, Yaz, and Ryan, even with half-truths, as she lets slip the tiniest details about her past and her home as they press her for details. There is suddenly now a trauma to this Doctor that has otherwise not been there, and its impact on her persona is felt immediately. If Dhawan’s Master truly is a post-Missy incarnation (it’s not confirmed here, despite it being an ongoing question brought about by his return), it creates a remarkably fascinating foil: a Master of cruel vindictiveness born from the death of a redeemed incarnation, played against an incarnation born from the redemption of her past self, both driven to their own darknesses by the revelation that their existences have been built on a falsehood.
So with the day saved from a Google gone wrong, we come into this new age for Doctor Who with grim shades of the past—Gallifrey is once again no more, bringing a tragedy and darkness to the 13th Doctor that has otherwise been absent since her regeneration. In Dhawan’s Master, trapped as he is for now, she has a compellingly personable foe to stand against, a foil for us to really explore just what this incarnation of the Doctor is truly capable of with her back against the wall. And with the thread of the Timeless Child being established as an ongoing concern, we once again have a mystery for the show to chase, one that asks us to challenge and reconsider the countless mysteries thrown at us and seemingly solved in Steven Moffat’s tenure of overexplaining the Who in Doctor Who.
After spending a season in trying to find itself, the Chibnall era of Doctor Who has a mission statement of its own: What will the cost be of learning the truth, whether it’s for the Doctor or her friends who really have no idea of who they’re involved with? We can’t wait to see how this series goes about answering it. It may have taken some time, but Doctor Who feels truly back in action once more.
- So, speaking of the Doctor immediately moving toward deeply messed up actions upon learning of Gallifrey’s fate, we should probably consider the wildly grim optics of the Doctor not only exposing her frenemy to his new Nazi allies as a traitor, but removing his psychic perception filter so that said Nazis will see that this incarnation of the Master is a person of color on top of that. It’s not only extremely overboard—the Nazis were already going to turn on him thanks to the Doctor’s scheme with Noor’s communiqué—but what in the actual fuck? The generous read is that this is the Doctor telling the Master he made his swastika-covered bed by working with Nazis in the first place, and now has to lie in it, but also! Subjecting a person of color to imprisonment at the hands of the holocaust’s architects as a “haha, gotcha!” moment while the Doctor escapes down the Eiffel Tower is...quite a thing for the show to just brush past! It’s horrifyingly cruel, no matter how compromised the Doctor was in the moment.
- For further reading on Noor Inayat Khan, by the way—perhaps the lesser-known of the two figures of history the Doctor picked up this episode—the New York Times’ “Overlooked” Obituary series did a nice breakdown of her life and history in and out of British Intelligence in 2018.
- As someone who ostensibly works for a tech website, perhaps the most unrealistic aspect of this piece of television about time-traveling, dual-hearted aliens fighting each other over other aliens was that it was only when Barton sent his sinister text message about the end of humanity that every journalist in attendance whipped out their phone or laptop. We know people live-blog the shit out of Apple Events, Doctor Who!
- The Master seems earnest enough—well, for the Master—that he’s responsible for the bloodshed on Gallifrey in his parting message to the Doctor. And yet, I don’t know if I trust him enough to completely accept that he’s responsible for the genocide of his own people. A parting stab at the Doctor to try and say he’s truly past his days of redemption as Missy? Or has the Master really been driven so far by learning the truth of the Timeless Child?
- After an entire season without callbacks to past Doctor Who elements, bringing back Time Lords’ ability to telepathically contact each other as seen in “The Three Doctors” and “The Five Doctors” was a gleefully fun little moment.
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