❉ Robert Fairclough reviews the new episode. Spoilers ahead!
Everyone’s favourite Time Lord had a bit of a rough ride in 2018. For some members of the audience, media commentators and Doctor Who fans in general, the combination of the first female actress in the title role and so-called ‘politically correct’ storylines was too much to accept (regardless of the fact that the programme has, really, been ‘right on’ for its entire existence). The situation wasn’t helped by, in general, the rather toothless nature of most of the menaces that Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor faced – without suspense and threat, what is Doctor Who?
Things picked up with last year’s New Year special Resolution. Lesson seemed to have been learned from the more sedate pace of Whittaker’s earlier episodes, as executive producer and head writer Chris Chibnall delivered an action set-piece heavy, fast moving and dramatic tussle between the Doctor and one of his oldest foes – a (scout) Dalek. For me at least, Resolution was where the tenure of Whittaker’s hyperactive Thirteenth Doctor should have started.
Twelve months on and we’re into the beginning of Whittaker’s second season with Spyfall. The title being a VERY obvious play on the James Bond film Skyfall (2012) is entirely deliberate as, this time round, the story does something that Doctor Who has always been very good at, namely pilfering from other genres. In this case, it’s the hi-tech spy-fi of the Bond films. It’s almost as if Chibnall had remembered from his youth the premiere of OO7 films on television over the festive holiday period, and designed Spyfall to fill that gap.
As the title suggested, the Bond references were admirably upfront. The episode is, of course, a worldwide travelogue, from Moscow to Australia to San Francisco, directed with an engaging sense of place. Stephen Fry as ‘C’ (the authentic designation of the head of the Special Intelligence Service, MI6) certainly seemed to know he was in a Bond pastiche and made the most of every line.
The pre-credits sequence, with three intelligence agents being killed, recalls the pre-credits sequences of The Living Daylights (1987) and, particularly, Live and Let Die (1973). Gadgets galore were de riguer, with Chibnall having fun with “rocket launcher cuff links” and “tie-immobiliser chewing gum”. The distinctive, brass-driven music that accompanies the Doctor’s bow-tied and evening dressed party arriving at the home of the smooth billionaire Daniel Barton (an effective Lenny Henry), CEO of the internet company VOR, might well have had Bond composer John Barry considering contacting his lawyer if he was still around.
If the OO7 film-referencing has a failing, it’s that on a – admittedly generous – TV budget, a set-piece motorbike and car chase between the Doctor, her chums and Barton doesn’t really come off. Barton’s inept marksmanship with a revolver recalls the enemy agents whose appalling aim was hilariously wide of spy heroes like Bond himself, Napoleon Solo and Matt Helm.
Rather more effective is the combination of spy-fi with sci-fi. The outback hideout of MI6 geek ‘O’ (Sacha Dhawan, more of whom later), nervously defended from invading, alien, glowing figures by two Australian secret service agents, was all the more effective for being set at night, as was the MI6 car’s SatNav that suddenly announced “In five seconds – die,” and tried to kill the Doctor and co. Such scenes were suggestive of that other paranormal/spy crossover The X-Files (1993-2018), and for those keen on other allusions, the actor chosen to play the Doctor’s driver was a dead ringer for Richard Madden from the lauded BBC thriller Bodyguard (2018). Yaz and the Doctor being lost in a creepy, presumably alternate dimension was noticeably a bit Stranger Things (2016- ) in feel too.
Diverting as all this Bond-with-a-sci-fi-spin stuff was, the episode really stepped up a gear with the revelation that the whole thing had been – if you’ll forgive me – masterminded by the new incarnation of the Doctor’s arch foe, The Master.
Sacha Dhawan as the latest iteration of the character was a revelation and, arguably, delivered the Chibnall era’s first classic scenes. From the affable, softly spoken, doe-eyed O to the gleefully grinning new regeneration of The Master – roughly speaking, a malevolent man-child who’s up for “lots of fun!” – Dhawan was instrumental in the double whammy of a genuinely surprising story twist, as well as firmly establishing a new spin on the Doctor’s arch enemy in only a few minutes of screen time. It’s a finely crafted performance: in retrospect, you can read his smile as he watches the TARDIS arrive, his childlike pleasure at being offered a trip in it and his aside at never having done “undercover work” in two ways. The way Dhawan’s eyes unnervingly twitched, and his face changed into a more menacing countenance when the Doctor unknowingly realised O wasn’t who he said he was, was a marvellous moment.
Elsewhere, the TARDIS team of Whittaker/Bradley Walsh/Tozin Cole/Mandip Gill were as a tight a unjt as their off-screen chemistry suggests, although Whittaker’s habit of over-emphasising certain words was a bit annoying. It’s good to see, too, that the tendency to give her info-dumping speeches has been excised – up against a threat she knows nothing about, the drama is significantly enhanced.
So there you have it: a stylish, generically playful first episode with, in Barton, a secondary villain who is at once a Bond archetype – the millionaire head of a company who’s up to no good – but an up-to-the-minute bad guy in an era when information technology is so pervasive and globally important. Not only that, but Barton’s positioning as the classic spy-fi super villain was a great example of wrong-footing the audience, an aspect of the storytelling that was absent from most of 2018’s stories. It paid off brilliantly and, notably, was also a huge vindication of Chibnall’s policy of zero advance publicity.
On this evidence, the Doctor could well and truly be back on form.
❉ 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’.