The first season of Jodie Whittaker’s tenure on Doctor Who was marked by change. New Doctor, new showrunner, new tone, there was a subdued approach that emboldened Doctor Who’s moral core while struggling as it pulled away from some of the show’s more primal pleasures. Back for her sophomore season, Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor is as effervescent as ever—but her show feels much like its older self again, for better or worse.
To many, “Spyfall, Part One” may be seen as a retreat from some of the bolder, if not entirely-well-received creative decisions of showrunner Chris Chibnall’s first season cracking the whip on all things Time and Space. It’s a monster-driven romp, full of chase sequences and wanton bumping off of extras by things that go bump in the night. The social focus of the story is less macro-scaled, commenting on society at large, but instead on the intimate, family lives of our companions—and even then, it’s not a particular focus in between the action and the scary monsters.
All eyes are on the spectacle. All eyes are on a lingering mystery, not just of this two-part episode, but of the seeds sown for a much larger narrative arc (modern Who elements left by the wayside last season, to refreshing effect). And indeed, as we’ll get to later, all eyes are on perhaps the most oblique acknowledgment of a change in tone, even if technically this iteration of Doctor Who had already done so last year: the shocking return of a foe long familiar to our titular Time Lord.
While on the surface this might seem like a refutation of the slower, lower-stakes morality play approach season 11 took for many of its stories, really, it feels like the evolution of a delicate balancing act that showrunner (and “Spyfall” scribe) Chris Chibnall has been slowly building towards over his tenure. As season 11 progressed, and the series still felt like it was trying to prove to people just what it was capable of, we got more episodes where the interplay between Doctor Who delivering a critical message on an aspect of contemporary society—from the labor perils of Amazon-esque megacorps to society’s gender prejudices—struggled with the more base thrills of monster-and-alien capers.
It lead to a climax of the season that felt like the most oblique example of the show struggling to cram in both of these approaches to Doctor Who into a single episode in “The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos,” one that only really worked (and even then, not particularly resoundingly) because it blunted its spectacle in favor of focusing on character. But it would seem that this struggle was simply the start of an evolution.
We got “Resolution” on New Year’s Day last year, which indulged in the thrill of the Daleks’ return while still delivering a character-focused piece about Ryan and his estranged father, which felt like Doctor Who was once again falling into an assured confidence in this perpetual balancing act. And now, we have “Spyfall,” which feels like an inverse of “Ranskoor Av Kolos”—that balancing act now being tipped back in favor of monster-driven spectacle instead of character drama.
It’s much stronger for it, allowing for a premiere full of flashy action and intrigue, mining its James Bond-ian influences for all they’re worth. It established its premise immediately—spies all over the world are being targeted and attacked by unknown, DNA-altering aliens. And from the get-go, this episode was much lighter in pace, even when it began to lay out its central mysteries—like the identity of the alien race hunting both the spy world and the Doctor, or the goals of the not-entirely-human tech guru Daniel Barton (played by Lenny Henry in a disarmingly taciturn approach) and why his Google-esque company, Vor, is in league with forces from another world. Benefiting greatly from being a two-part episode (something also eschewed by Chibnall’s first season as showrunner) “Spyfall” has the time to have its cake and eat it.
Not only did it deliver zany Who moments like a motorbike chase between the Doctor and her friends and the world’s most incompetent marksman, or a house under siege by killer, glowing monsters, it had time to delve into intriguing moments of drama. For instance, Yaz’s distressing realization of her near-death when one of the aforementioned aliens abducted her, or the moment between Graham and the Doctor’s old, alien-obsessed MI6 analyst friend O (the lovely Sacha Dhawan, who Doctor Who fans might recognize from playing one of the series’ early directors, Waris Hussein, in the beautiful docudrama An Adventure in Space and Time) that begin to needle at just how little her “fam” really knows about her, both as a person and of her past. Given the space to breathe, this latest take on Doctor Who could really, finally come into its own.
Not all of this quite works, sadly—that balancing act inevitably means that there’s a cost to pay of not quite delivering on one aspect or another. There’s something disappointing about, after being so open to putting its cultural criticism (through a sci-fi lens) at the forefront last season, the episode’s thinly-veiled jabs at tech giants like Alphabet are left to land as little more than simple jabs. The story is more interested with alien intrigue and zapping some more hapless secret agents than it is engaging with these ideas beyond simply acknowledging that labor issues or monopolization, or the role of technology in our lives, are things that exist and immediately moving on. Seeing that critical side of the show left to land with only the lightest of impacts so we could get more monster fun, as good as that monster fun was—outside of “Resolution’s” Recon Dalek, this feels like the most creature-feature-y Chibnall’s Who has been since the Spiders of “Arachnids in the UK”—is a shame, especially as season 11 shined brightest when it engaged with those critiques.
All that lingering doubt, however, falls away in the premiere’s climax, delivering a reveal that doesn’t just set the tone for the entire season but is perhaps one of the most compellingly brilliant strokes of character work for this incarnation of the Doctor so far. We come to “Spyfall’s” twofold twist on a plane perilously close to being blown apart, as the Doctor and her friends find themselves nowhere near as clever as they thought they were in their spying on Barton and Vor. Instead, they’re trapped by their true enemy, O, who isn’t really O at all. He’s not just the spymaster behind the alien interlopers working with Vor, but he’s the spy master: The Doctor’s oldest foe, their oldest friend, the Master, has returned full of vengeful hate for their beloved frenemy.
It is, if you’ll pardon the pun, a masterful moment. Not only within the context of the reveal does O’s oddball antics throughout the episode begin to have a little clarity—how does an MI6 analyst hiding in the Australian outback have access to tech that block alien entrances that even the TARDIS struggled with? Why is he so concerned with needling the Doctor’s recklessness at putting her friends and herself in danger, or with pushing those friends to really reckon with what they know about their traveling companion? With the Master’s return, you now have this proverbial gasoline canister that’s just had a lit match (out of that matchbox Tissue Compression Eliminator, probably, another incredibly fun little throwback) tossed right at it.
Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor has been driven by this sense of uncertainty. She does not remember things about her past lives as much as she wants to, and she doesn’t always have all the answers—an approach that has drawn some criticism that it makes her as the first female Doctor on TV seem less capable than her know-it-all, smartest-in-the-room male predecessors, but actually helps the Doctor feel like a flawed and relatable persona who has to properly work things out instead of being a godlike being with effortless solutions a handwave away. She rushes into situations without thinking through the consequences, putting herself and her friends in unnecessary danger, or creating foes more dangerous than they should be, as was the case with Tzim-Sha last season. And now, those same mistakes have put her in the hands of the Master, and more specifically, an incarnation of the Master far crueler and more vindictive than the last incarnation we met—an incarnation the Doctor’s prior self had worked so hard to find some kind of redemption for, and succeeded.
We don’t just have a Doctor on the backfoot against a meticulously overprepared foe. We have someone who, unlike herself, has intimate knowledge of her past—not just through the poisoned lens that is the Master’s view of their relationship, but with this mysterious, threatening promise that everything she does remember about her life being a lie. We don’t know yet if that particular threat is the Master’s trademark duplicity or an actual mystery this season will engage with as it progresses, but it’s a fascinating one to tackle given this incarnation of the Doctor’s particularly unique vulnerability to doubt herself.
After years of having versions of the Doctor who are so self-certain that we have explored everything from the nitty-gritty of their escapes from Gallifrey or even why they took the name “The Doctor,” to be presented with an incarnation that doesn’t just have that information but is almost scared by it, and have them confronted by a vengeful figure from that past, is an extremely powerful and exciting scenario to throw down. Hopefully, this is just a promise of where Doctor Who is heading this season—and if it pulls it off, we could be in for a treat.
- Part of what makes the Master’s return seemingly so shocking is that it feels like it’s been forever since we last saw the character, despite the fact it was what, three years ago? But I think part of it is because this time it was actually kept secret. As delightful as it was to have John Simm come back and chew his way through scenery like an all-you-can-eat-buffet, the story itself was dampened by the fact we knew its reveal well in advance. “Spyfall” lands emotionally the way it does with it coming from out of nowhere, and I’m glad there wasn’t pressure to advertise the show’s return by hyping up that reveal up.
- Given the cackling mania Dhawan’s Master revels in once the facade is lifted, there’s been a lot of theorizing already that this incarnation isn’t actually the “latest” Master, but a regeneration between Simm’s Master and Michelle Gomez’s Missy, given that Missy died with her ability to regenerate having been disrupted. While I get the appeal of logic for this theory—and that it’s extremely Master-like to be so mad that the Doctor turned one of their incarnations into a reluctant hero that he’d regenerate and go forward in time to enact vengeance—I find myself more fascinated by the tragic idea that this is somehow a post-Missy regeneration, who has lost all that she learned from the Twelfth Doctor. Also? It’s the Master. The Master’s entire thing is dying their final death only to return anyway, almost out of spite. It’s admirable in its absurdity, which is, ultimately, basically the character’s entire personality.
- It’s largely confined to the opening of this episode, but I really hope this idea that Ryan and Yaz are very clearly astonishingly bad at bullshitting the fact they’re running off to go travel in time and space from their friends, colleagues, and family (Graham is mostly exempted, but sadly only because he no longer has much in the way of family to keep that secret from) is an issue that raises its head later down the line this season. It’s been years since a companion story has had the push-and-pull tension of their dual lives being exposed, and the consequences of that deceit—arguably there was Clara and Danny, but considering her family life became her timey-wimey life as part of that arc it’s not really been since the RTD era that we’ve had that tension be a thing. If we are bringing back a ton of familiar Who ideas this season, that’s one worth exploring again.
- And, thank god, speaking of all that: it seems like Yaz will be the character that bears the brunt of these consequences, both in terms of her relationships, but also internally: her brush with death in this episode hits her in a way we’ve not really seen a companion react to that sort of danger in a good long time (even when we’ve had them, like Bill, straight up get murdered!), and as someone who really wanted to see Mandip Gill get more of the spotlight last season, I really hope this is the start of a meatier arc for her.
- Finally, I cannot stress this enough: Who thought it was a good idea to name the evil company something that sounds like “Vore”!?!?!?!?!? Maybe I’m just a teenager trapped in the ostensible body of an adult, but I couldn’t help but snort every time someone said it. Yet also, the connotation kind of works for a Google/Alphabet style corporation slowly consuming its way through different tech fields to create a larger whole, right? Genius, yet juvenile. Very Doctor Who, that.
For more, make sure you’re following us on our Instagram @io9dotcom.