❉ This mad, funny, tense, dramatic, freewheeling episode suggests that the programme has regained its creative confidence.
“This glorious mash up of super-spy movie, a science fair full of Victorian inventions, German-occupied Paris in 1943 and the Kasavin’s sinister dimension has comprehensively restored creative ambition and a sense that ‘anything can happen’ to Doctor Who.”
“Humanity is over. You have three minutes to prepare.”
If last week’s episode was a promising return to form, Spyfall Part Two upped the ante by being almost too full of new ideas, characters and narrative twists. It very much looks like executive producer and head writer Chris Chiball had taken on board the criticisms of the stories in Jodie Whittaker’s first year being rather lightweight in content – particularly the season finale, The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos – and delivered a two-part (and maybe two-fingered?) riposte to his critics that had all the energy, incident and drama of a Russell T Davies/Steven Moffat season closer. On this form, new director Lee Haven Jones is a worthwhile investment for the future.
First, some caveats:
As befits the story’s source as a homage to the James Bond films – famous for their Bonkers Plots – the second episode revealed a narrative that, although it was replete with show-stopping set pieces, didn’t make complete sense when you thought about it in detail. The infiltrating Kasavin, spies from another dimension, must be the worst covert operatives in history: the world’s intelligence agencies were quickly tipped off to their presence, with MI6 being so alarmed that they called in the Doctor – talk about drawing attention to yourself! And I wasn’t quite clear on why the Kasavin had stalk and scan everyone throughout history that was involved in the development of the computer. If they were that advanced and – with the Master’s help – could turn everyone into hard drives, surely they could have got everything they wanted from contemporary humans (like the luckless, DNA-corrupted MI6 operative the Doctor examined at the beginning?) I might have missed it, but the rationale for this complex – not to say rather convoluted – idea that didn’t seem that clear.
Yaz, Ryan and Graham continued the action/spy movie strand that Spyfall began with: on the run, pursued by super villain Daniel Barton’s hijacking of modern technology and accompanied by Bond soundtrack-style musical cues. Unfortunately, these scenes were a rather lacklustre retread of the similar situation in Last of the Time Lords (2007), when the Doctor (David Tennant), Captain Jack (John Barrowman) and Martha (Freema Agyeman) were on the run from the Master (John Simm); the dialogue given to Barton (Lenny Henry) was even similar to Simm’s in places. And I have to say that the scene where Graham threatened to deploy his “soft shoe shuffle” laser-firing footwear against some – quite unconvincing – goons sent by Barton, was the only serious lapse in Haven Jones’ otherwise adventurous and assured direction.
Now, the good stuff:
This glorious mash up of super-spy movie, a science fair full of Victorian inventions, German-occupied Paris in 1943 and the Kasavin’s sinister dimension has comprehensively restored creative ambition and a sense that ‘anything can happen’ to Doctor Who. If the plot was opaque in places, the contrasting changes of scene were held together by the primary reason to watch, Mr Sacha Dhawan as the new Master. This guy owned virtually every scene he was in: nearly feral and out-of-control as a mad Victorian inventor with his “incredible shrinking device”, sinister and silent as (perversely) an apparently Indian man posing as an SS officer, whisperingly intense while recounting the fate of Gallifrey, his and the Doctor’s home planet.
It’s a clever directorial touch that in the Master’s – very tense and well played – confrontations with the Doctor, his manic changes of mood constrained her usual flapping eccentricity so she was completely focused on him. I have to be honest and confess that in these scenes, I thought that Dhawan had the edge over Whittaker… Then again, he’s has got the best deal: being able to preen, gloat and have fun, while Whittaker is sometimes hamstrung by long speeches of supposition/exposition, which resurfaced here after being absent last week.
Perhaps appropriately for a series that now has a female lead, Doctor Who continues to highlight significant historical women figures, in this case computer pioneer Ada Lovelace (Sylvia Briggs, understated and believable) and pacifist Special Operations Executive Noor Inayat Khan (Aurora Marion, dignified and composed), the first female spy to operate a radio set in enemy territory. Of the two, Ada came off the best, being presented as a proto-feminist and allowed moments of quiet reflection at a Twentieth Century where the “world is on fire.” Despite the slightly contrived way they were brought together, thanks to the actresses’ performances Ada and Noor never felt surplus to dramatic requirements.
As well as a run of two-part stories, also returning this year is our old friend the Story Arc. Fittingly, this was part of the Master’s story, adding depth to an incarnation who has discovered something so appalling about the foundation of Gallifrey that it was enough to (presumably) throw him off the path of redemption embarked on by his previous incarnation, Missy (Michelle Gomez), enraging him to the point where he torched his own home world. This is high stakes stuff, and I’m looking forward to unravelling the implications of “the whole existence of our species built on the lie of the timeless child.”
At the end of my review of Spyfall Part One, I said that it looked like “the Doctor could well and truly be back on form.” Well, Spyfall Part Two – some reservations aside – resoundingly affirms that this is the case. This mad, funny, tense, dramatic, freewheeling episode, with seemingly more ideas and concepts than the whole of Series 11, suggests that the programme has regained its creative confidence. It was particularly notable that although the Master stepped up to Premier Bad Guy, Barton still shone as the second string villain, setting up the climatic scene and, seemingly, with an option to return at a later date. His matricide was really disturbing, and the speech where Barton told an audience how much privacy they’d willingly given away to him through their persona tech, to the point where they could be completely superseded by that technology, is the kind of contemporary satire the series has always revelled in. It was great to see.
Not everyone will agree with me, but I think Doctor Who is currently enjoying an outbreak of robust and rude health. We’ll see…
❉ Robert Fairclough is a film and TV journalist and blogger and a regular contributor to We Are Cult, ‘Doctor Who Magazine’ and ‘Infinity’. He is the author of books on the iconic TV series ‘The Prisoner’, and co-author (with Mike Kenwood) of definitive guides to the classic TV dramas ‘The Sweeney’ and ‘Callan’.