Season 12, Episode 1&2: “Spyfall Parts 1 & 2”
Starring: Jodie Whittaker, Mandip Gill, Tosin Cole, Bradley Walsh, Sacha Dhawan, and Sir Lenny Henry
Parts 1 & 2 Written by: Chris Chibnall
Part 1 Directed by: Jamie Magnus Stone
Part 2 Directed by: Lee Haven Jones
*River Song Voice* Be careful, sweetie. Spoilers Ahead.
“I would tell you more, Doctor … But why would I make it any EASIER for you?! It wasn’t for me …”
Doctor Who Series 12 kicks off with several bangs and a major return in “Spyfall,” a thunderously fun two-parter that serves at the show’s New Year’s Special and season opener. The Doctor and her Fam are living out a relatively quiet existence in Sheffield, taking a rare break from adventuring. But when secret agents all over the world start dying, MI-6 is tasked with bringing the Doctor and her companions in in order to suss out exactly what’s wrong.
Obviously, a ton of James Bond homages are to follow. Thankfully, most of them are kept to the front-loaded and much more genre inspired first part. Which allows the real surprise of this two-parter, the return of The Master, ample room to breathe in the conclusion episode. THAT’S RIGHT! Chibnall teased the return of classic monsters the Jadoon and Mondasian Cybermen in the series trailers, but frankly, I did NOT expect the return of the Master at all. Much less during the OPENING EPISODES of the new series. But enough stalling, let’s get a shift on.
So, just on a plot level, “Spyfall” is precisely the kind of slightly hokey and grandiose kind of story you would want from a season opener. After quick check-ins with the Fam, allowing audiences to reorient themselves to the characterizations and status quo of Ryan, Yaz, and Graham, Chris Chibnall (who scripts both parts) kicks in with the main plot, wherein our heroes are swept into a global conspiracy and another silent alien invasion of the planet. He also scaffolds the incoming spy movie pastiche with a fun cold open following a few of the doomed intelligence agents in the field, complete with stylish location cards.
But the real treat is seeing the Fam again, all of who REALLY shine across both parts. Chibnall’s character work last season was a major boon to 13’s first season, and I’m pleased to report it is still very much in tact here. We get more texture for Yaz’s family, which echo shades of Donna Noble’s irascible extended family, along with how her travels have been interrupting her career as a probationary police officer. We get a bit more fleshing out of Ryan’s dysplasia, which I’m glad isn’t just set dressing in terms of how it affects the character. And we get PLENTY of Bradley Walsh just being straight up adorable as the put upon grandad Graham, who is steadily becoming one of my all-time favorite companions. Later on in part two, Chibnall separates them from the Doctor and they stand really well on their own, a mark of really good characters and top-notch Companions in that they could support a story on their own should they be called to do so.
Of course, it is still Jodie Whittaker’s show, and she is still the actual ray of human sunshine we all know her to be. Though the story kind of races through a lot of turns and exposition with occasional inspiration (including an incisive bit of satire aimed at the tech industry in the form of Lenny Henry’s secondary villain Daniel Barton) Jodie’s Doctor is still absolutely magnetic to watch, even when the story around her is a bit weak in parts. She’s also allowed a very powerful showing of vulnerability with her companions after the battle with the Master is all said and done. Telegraphed by the Fam discussing how the Doctor doesn’t share much with them (a returning motif from David Tennant and Matt Smith’s tenures), it all leads to a stunning scene of the Doctor somewhat coming clean to Ryan, Yaz, and Graham about her homeworld and relationship with The Master. Though it isn’t a “showy” scene of acting; it succinctly proves Jodie’s might as a performer as well as her emotional range as the renegade Time Lord.
Also impressive is the episode’s dynamic introduction to our new Master, Iron Fist’s Sacha Dhawan. Though most of the first episode is filled with red herrings misdirecting audiences away from him, Part 2 is a proper time-spanning Doctor vs. Master tale, allowing both Jodie and Dhawan plenty of time to display the already crackling energy between the two. Though I will, like many of the rest of you, miss Michelle Gomez’s vampy Missy, Dhawan really seems to have found a wonderful take on the Master, bringing up more of the hammy, yet emotionally raw energy of John Simm and Big Finish Master Alexander Macqueen. All of the scenes he and Jodie share with one another just burst with energy and real history, even though this is their first real interaction. It’s kind of amazing and gives the second part’s planet-shattering Gallifreyian revelations a major weight, even for those coming in cold.
In place of the single episode cliffhangers, Chibnall seems to be playing a longer game — one centered around the most recent destruction of Gallifrey, on the news of a “lie” The Master discovered about the Time Lords. Something concerning The Timeless Child, first mentioned all the way back in The Ghost Monument on the planet Desolation. Though the reign of Moffat has made me leery about overarching Doctor Who storytelling, I’m very curious to see how Chibnall handles this, and I wonder just how “Time Lordy” he is willing to go. Honestly, anything that gets our new Master back sharing the screen with Thirteen, I am into.
So, there we have it, Whovians. A largely pretty solid, if a bit goofy, opening two-parter. One that seems to have its eye still very much on characters and aims to have a bit more ambition than the previous season. I am very much into it. Let’s hope it keeps it up in the coming week.
NEXT TIME: The ominously named “Orphan 55”! Until then, be seeing you.