After a full year without Doctor Who the series returns once again for the New Year and it does so with a bang. “Spyfall” picks up the story of the Thirteenth Doctor and her fam, serves as an affectionate parody of spy dramas while adding the DW flavour and ends with the kind of twist we haven’t seen since 2014. What a start to series 12.
MI6 needs you
The premise of “Spyfall” is that agents from around the world have been disappearing or meeting gruesome fates and so MI6 needs the Doctor and her companions to help with the situation. Stephen Fry makes a long-anticipated but ultimately brief guest appearance as the head of MI6, C. After he’s assassinated by the same aliens that have been taking out agents, the team investigates Daniel Barton (Lenny Henry) and seeks the help of the mysterious Agent O.
We’ll see just what Barton and aliens are up to in the second episode, just like with Agent O (more on that in a bit). As far as the setup goes, though, this first half did a good job of combining espionage elements and action with DW’s style of sci-fi and character moments. It’s definitely a strong episode to come back on and the show needed that after a whole year of absence. There’s something magical about not having seen new Doctor Who in a while and then it all comes back together again: the iconic opening starts playing after an ominous montage and the main characters are reintroduced to us one by one. Through the scenes of Ryan, Yaz and Graham all being back in Sheffield on their own we get a sense that they still have their lives back on Earth but they’re also still very much fully with the Doctor.
As this is only the first episode of a two-parter it’s too early to make any real judgment on either the overall story of the new monster of the week, the Kasaavin. As far as themes and underlying messages go, there’s the case against Barton’s company, VOR, which is apparently the most successful search engine in the world and a general tech giant with more power than some countries. How much VOR and criticism against it will matter overall depends on the conclusion to the story but there’s some potential here.
Guess who (else) is back
The episode introduces us to MI6 Agent O early on and he workes together with the Doctor until the very end, where he is revealed to be none other than the Doctor’s best enemy, the Master. This time around the renegade Time Lord is by Sacha Dhawan, who also appeared in the 2013 movie special An Adventure in Space and Time. Dhawan’s Master channels John Simm more than anything and brings to mind previous incarnations with his tissue compression trick. A classic, indeed.
O’s interactions with the Doctor and her companions become hilarious in hindsight. Even the name O was chosen just so he could get a laugh out of the Doctor figuring out his identity and if that doesn’t capture the essence of the Master, nothing does. He teases Graham about not knowing anything about the Doctor and, oddly enough, flirts with Yaz in the smallest ways possible. He has been texting with the Doctor for a while and lets her believe that she’s ahead before pulling the rug. Even the comment “ridiculous” upon entering the Doctor’s TARDIS becomes a delightful Master moment because of course he would say that, of course. He’s been waiting thousands of years to do that. In just one episode, Dhawan’s Master established himself to be the worthy nemesis of the Doctor that we know and love to hate.
The only issue is that not too long ago we had a complete deconstruction of this petty, spiteful and completely Doctor-obsessed character through Michelle Gomez’s Master. Missy’s relationship with the Twelfth Doctor was one of the most intricate Doctor-Master dynamics. Series 10 even saw her redemption and final death, just after she made sure the Saxon Master would regenerate into her. We all knew the Master wasn’t gone for good, of course. It’s just one of those things in Doctor Who, you can’t ever get rid of the Daleks, Cybermen, the Master, and many others. Iconic villains keep returning just as the Doctor keeps regenerating.
The problem is, it would be hard to imagine that Missy’s redeemed Master turned back into a gleeful maniac who works towards destroying the Doctor at all costs. A possible, “wibbly-wobbly” explanation is that Dhawan’s Master comes before Gomez’s. He would fit perfectly between Simm’s and Gomez’s Masters, the Doctor doesn’t have to meet the different regenerations in order. There is the slight issue that The Doctor Falls basically confirmed that Missy comes right after Simm’s Master, but come on, this is DW. There’s no point in arguing about what’s canon and just how many inconsistencies there are each season. Look no further than the Doctor’s comment about UNIT and Torchwood being both gone and then search for just how present they are in 2020 in the expanded universe. So yes, the Dhawan Master can still work but right now we’re at the mercy of writer and showrunner Chris Chibnall as to how he’ll fit in.
That being said, this was only the first half of “Spyfall” as this is the first two-parter of Whittaker’s Doctor. Anything can happen, we barely know this new Doctor and, like he said, everything the Doctor thought she knew is a lie. It’s entirely possible and even expected that we’re in for another few twists in regards to the Master. In any case, Dhawan’s Master has nailed the general essence of the character, even if that’s more the pre-Gomez essence.
How are you, fam?
Team TARDIS is also back and it seems as if they were never gone in the first place. Series 11 established the three companions and now this season has a chance of further exploring their characters and relationships with each other. Graham still carries the memory of Grace with him but he has moved on and embracing the side of himself that has a bit of childlike wonder while also being protective of Ryan and Yaz. The banter between Graham and Ryan feels more natural and light-hearted than it did before, keeping with the development the two went through in the previous three episodes. Ryan still seems like he’s trying to find himself but balances his comical moments with a few more serious ones.
Yaz continues to stand out as a slightly more traditional companion. Whereas either Graham, Ryan, or both tend to serve as comic relief, Yaz is more active in the main plot and we get a better sense of why she’s travelling with the Doctor. Though all three get their “oh I’m just off travelling for a bit” scenes, we see Yasmin’s family again as well as her boss and get a glimpse into how she sees the Doctor when she’s explaining to Ryan how she would deal with a situation. Just as with Graham, Ryan gets affectionate banter scenes with Yaz as well and the two share a quiet but important moment after Yaz’s traumatic transmat experience. These scenes make the bond between the TARDIS fam feel all the more real and remind us that there’s already a season’s worth of material to build on.
As far as the woman herself is concerned, the Jodie Whittaker continues to be delightfully eccentric as the Thirteenth Doctor. She embodies the alien qualities while being more grounded through companions. Her easygoing attitude is sure to be disrupted after the big reveal of the Master and it’s going to be interesting to see how Thirteen deals with this new, seemingly not quite as redeemed as they previously were Master. Her disbelief and horror at seeing her old friend again is telling of how complicated this relationship has been, but also of what this could mean for the Doctor.
The Thirteenth Doctor has very much been about leaving the past behind and a fresh start so far, with her first series only featuring brand-new monsters and villains. The only exception was the last New Year’s Day special, “Resolution”, where the Daleks returned and got a glimpse into a darker side of this bright and happy Doctor. While it was a nice breath of fresh air to see a Doctor not burdened by their past anymore, after the Time War and Gallifrey being back and all that the Twelfth Doctor went through, the return of the Master suggests that the past is catching up with the Doctor once again.
The Doctor hasn’t been sharing much with her companions, as the scene between Graham and O (the Master) says. Unfortunately for the Doctor, the Master is going to be more than happy to use this against her and is probably going to force her to face the demons she thought she could run from. The trailer for this series already suggested a bigger arc might be coming and so it seems plausible that part of that is going to be the companions seeing a new side of the Doctor and her dealing with that. All the while battling her oldest friend and enemy, which is bound to provide us with some excellent Whittaker moments.
A new beginning
After it was gone for an entire year the show built up momentum seemingly effortlessly in this premiere episode and I truly hope that Chibnall can stick the landing in part two and bring a more cohesive and overall better series than the previous one was. Series 11 was just fine with a few very strong highlights but no sense of being bigger than the sum of its parts. The expectation for this year is that Chibnall uses the foundation he established and expands the Thirteenth Doctor’s world, including her relationship with Team TARDIS, a new dynamic with the Master, and the facing of her past so she can move on to a better future.