REVIEWED: SERIES 12 (EPISODES 1 & 2) | WHERE TO WATCH: BBC iPLAYER
[Warning: this review contains spoilers.]
She’s back! Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor returned this New Year, kicking off Series 12, her second in the role, with a Bond-inspired two-parter written by continuing showrunner Chris Chibnall. Series 11, back in autumn 2018, had some interesting individual episodes but was overall characterised by unambitious storytelling and a lack of memorable villains. Spyfall, from the off, is brazen in countering those criticisms.
When mysterious forces assassinate spies across Earth, the Doctor and her companions are recruited by MI6 – with Stephen Fry perfectly, if briefly, portraying a snooty spymaster. Their investigation brings them to sinister tech mogul Lenny Henry – who’s great, though perhaps the script demanded a younger Zuckerberg type – and eventually into the grasp of the real spymaster – or should we say spy Master? That big twist throws Part 2 in different directions, with the Doctor pursued by her oldest enemy through the history of computer programmers (plus wartime Paris) and her friends on the run in the present day.
What’s undeniable about these episodes is that they have real energy. The Bond pastiche helps, particularly in Part 1, giving a genre framework for Chibnall to hook onto as the story zips from location to location, with plenty of action, humour, fabulous tuxes, and a creepy new monster; the design of the Kasaavin is effective, with the blinding light of their bodies making them convincingly represent holes between universes. It’s a fun, fast, edge-of-your-seat story, capturing the excitement that Who whipped up under the writing of Russell T Davies and (at his best) Steven Moffat.
It’s also possibly the best looking Who story yet – another step up from Series 11, which boasted of fancy ‘cinematic’ lenses but never did much with them other than an odd over-reliance on close-ups; here, directors Jamie Magnus Stone and Lee Haven Jones pack the script’s energy into every shot, and there’s some excellent stunt work in the action scenes.
What’s also undeniable is that the plot doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. It’s not clear why the big car chase just stops, nor why the Doctor ends up in Nazi-occupied Paris for a while, nor why the Kasaavin need to spy on computer programmers throughout time. Bizarrely, the second episode’s dialogue seems to be 70% exposition – to the point of the Doctor explaining how she’s already saved the day rather than us seeing her do it – and we still weren’t completely sure what happened.
It’s also notable that, when Lenny gives his big speech supposedly summing up the ‘be wary of tech giants using your data’ theme, the story has not actually been about that, but about Bradley Walsh tap dancing in laser shoes. But sometimes that’s the kind of silliness we want from Doctor Who. We’ll take this ambitious, fun and somewhat incomprehensible Chibnall style over the clumsy mediocrity he displayed in some of his 2018 scripts.
The other flaw of Spyfall is that Chibnall still seems unsure what to do with three companions. While Walsh, Mandip Gill, and Tosin Cole all give entertaining performances, and it’s nice to see a bit of their everyday Sheffield life, the story does little to develop their characters from what we already know about them. Ada Lovelace (Sylvie Briggs) and Noor Inayat Khan (Aurora Marlon) make more interesting companions and prove valuable allies to the Doctor on their travels through time; we’d welcome a return if not for the whole memory wipe thing.
But the standout character – and the starkest statement of Series 12’s intent – is the Master. After last series studiously avoided continuity, Part 1’s big reveal is quite a jaw drop, and from the moment his entire physicality changes as he lets go of his ‘O’ persona, Sacha Dhawan is excellent in the role, capturing some of John Simm’s manic glee while adding his own quirks and avoiding going full panto (cough, Ainley, cough). Importantly, he gives Jodie Whittaker someone to play against as an equal for the Doctor, and the two really spark in the scenes they have together. It’s a shame that the story doesn’t address the Doctor’s failed attempt to redeem the Master (seen in Series 10), leading some to believe that Dhawan’s incarnation precedes Michelle Gomez’s, though we’re not so sure – this character always survives certain death – and it would be interesting to see this Doctor’s lament at her old friend having returned to his wicked ways.
The Master’s not the only aspect of continuity here. The story’s end sees the Doctor return to Gallifrey to find it destroyed... again. We can only imagine Steven Moffat’s reaction, after he made a whole big thing of reversing his predecessor’s destruction of the planet, to seeing his reversal reversed right back. Still, that’s the delightfully winging-it nature of Who continuity, and this serves to set up a story arc that could take us right back into the history of the Time Lords. Count us intrigued.