Doctor Who: “Spyfall, Part 1”

***MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD***

After an interminable wait of more than a year since the end of season 11 (and exactly one year since the New Year’s special “Resolution”), Doctor Who‘s twelfth season is finally here. I was excited for it, but also trepidatious. Season 11 was a mixed bag, more so than usual for this show. There were a few great episodes like “Rosa” and “Demons of the Punjab,” but far more of them were mediocre or outright unsatisfying like “Arachnids in the U.K.,” “The Tsuranga Conundrum,” and “It Takes You Away.” Also, until a Dalek showed up in “Resolution,” season 11 felt strangely separate from the 50+ years of continuity that had come before. So I wondered, nervously, what season 12 would bring us.

Well, if “Spyfall, Part 1” is any indication, season 12 will be a big, big step up. The episode is an enjoyable, fast-paced adventure full of action, scares, mysterious aliens, humor, and multiple setups for what will presumably follow. I loved seeing Stephen Fry as C, the head of MI6, and the James Bond spoofs were a delight, from the music as the Doctor and her companions approach Daniel Barton’s mansion to sneak into his casino party, to the Doctor not knowing how to play cards. (On a side note, I hope the Doctor continues to wear that tuxedo for the rest of the season, because she looked incredible. I don’t mean to be reductive, but it definitely added fuel to the fire of my inappropriate celebrity crush on Jodie Whitaker!)

Of the companions, Graham continues to amuse me (“Worst Uber ever!”). I was pleased to see Yaz show a little more emotional depth in this episode, particularly the way she reacts to almost dying, and I think I might be starting to ship Yaz and Ryan (even though Yaz’s sister keeps asking for his phone number). Ryan’s freakout about not looking enough like Hugh Jackman to give himself the fake name Logan was hilarious and helped remind me why he’s more than just Graham’s grandson. Unfortunately, the Doctor herself remains a sketch of Doctorish behavior and humor. I’m desperate for a scene where she opens up about herself in a way that’s meant to be serious instead of funny. As much as I love Jodie Whitaker, I need more from her Doctor than we’ve been getting.

Sascha Dhawan’s O, a former MI6 agent and friend of the Doctor’s, is an incredible character. I liked him from the start, which meant I assumed he was going to die by the end of the episode. I was wrong about that, because the episode ends with a big, unexpected reveal. O is actually the Master in disguise! I reacted simultaneously with “Cool!” and “What? How is that possible?” We’ll have to wait and see how this incarnation of the Master came into being, whether he is pre- or post-Missy, though either explanation will come with its share of wrinkles that’ll need to be ironed out.

After the big reveal and the excellent cliffhanger, I’m more excited for the next episode of Doctor Who than I have been in a while. Luckily, I won’t have to wait long for “Spyfall, Part 2,” which as of this writing airs tomorrow!

And now for some Doctor Who neepery! Let me get my disappointment out of the way first. There was a big missed opportunity for a serious continuity deep-dive at O’s remote Outback house, which is supposed to be stocked with remnants and artifacts from previous alien invasions of Earth. Would it have killed them to show a few things, like maybe a Cyberman helmet, or a Sontaran wand gun, or the plastic gun hand of an Auton? It felt like such a wasted opportunity. Same with O’s files on the Doctor. How great would it have been to see Graham flip through some photographs with mounting surprise as he sees pictures of Tom Baker, Jon Pertwee, Sylvester McCoy, David Tennant, etc.? I know it would be fan service, but I’m a fan and sometimes I want to be serviced! (Okay, that came out weird, but hopefully you know what I mean.)

But it’s not all missed opportunities. The Master has his Tissue Compression Eliminator again, the weird weapon that doesn’t just kill his victims but shrinks their bodies down to doll size! I don’t think he has used his TCE at all in the revival series, but it was his weapon of choice during the classic series and I was happy to see it again. The Master also calls himself the Doctor’s “best enemy,” which are the words the Third Doctor used to describe him in the 1983 20th anniversary special “The Five Doctors.” There’s a brief mention of UNIT and Torchwood, both of which are apparently gone now due to the budget cuts mentioned last season. And of course, the episode was dedicated to the memory of the “masterful Terrance Dicks,” longtime writer and script editor of classic Doctor Who, who, along with Robert Holmes, helped create the Master back in 1971.

One response to “Doctor Who: “Spyfall, Part 1””

  1. R. Francis Smith says:

    “Unfortunately, the Doctor herself remains a sketch of Doctorish behavior and humor.”

    We had exactly this discussion in a mildly lengthy car ride today — she’s all “isn’t the Doctor wacky?” and, yes, the Doctor IS wacky, but that’s hardly ALL the Doctor is. The Doctor is compassionate — okay, she’s got that. The Doctor is alien. I haven’t seen enough of that. And… the Doctor is scary. Sometimes terrifying. And we’ve gotten none of that.

    In a way it’s almost a reverse Capaldi. The mistake made with Capaldi early on was to do scary and wacky immediately and then actually MAKE FUN OF THE IDEA of compassionate. Yeah. But by the time he was making speeches like the one in the Zygon two parter, then he was a great Doctor, and wound up saying some of the greatest lines and monologues about kindness.

    Matt Smith, about whom I know we disagree, got do do wacky, compassionate and scary all by the second episode; it was later that the balance got skewed, alas. Eccleston and Tennant also at least as quickly (although Tennant’s Doctor brought the terrifying to maybe ridiculous extremes in Family of Blood, but never mind.)

    So yeah. The Master’s about, it’s time for the Doctor to bear down. Show us the Time Lord now.

    My family is unsure about the new Master but I’m excited, particularly after reading an interview with Sacha Dhawan, who seems very keen to dig into the part and bring out some real meat in it. And yeah, the TCE! Poor Auntie Vanessa, I still mourn her.

    The show still feels very crowded and I’m not sure what to do about it. And of course, my poor American ears struggle with the Yorkie accents but, you know, the show’s not made for me, so that’s my problem. I remain hopeful. Capaldi’s run hadn’t truly started to shine quite yet at this point, either.

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