While still a clear improvement over the previous season, Doctor Who still has a barbed attitude and is mired in a problematic Pound Shop Bond parody.
This recap of Doctor Who Season 12, Episode 1, “Spyfall — Part One”, contains spoilers. You can check out our thoughts on the previous season by clicking these words.
The second season of Doctor Who under showrunner Chris Chibnall premiered on New Year’s Day on BBC1 and Jodie Whitaker was back as The Doctor, and so was her Tardis-busting crew of companions including Bradley Walsh from The Chase.
The funny thing about Bradley, apart from his ability to laugh like a child at the mere mention of the name Fanny, is that in the previous series, which seems like it aired years ago, he was probably the highlight of the last series. He had a bit of an arc character-wise, and his performance was always capable.
So in the cold open for Doctor Who Season 12, Episode 1, “Spyfall — Part 1”, we see a number of different and mysterious people being taken out by an unknown, presumably alien, assassin. I liked these aliens, although we still don’t know what they really look like; I liked the way they assimilated the background of what they were phasing through.
After the credits roll we are reintroduced to Ryan, playing basketball and offering up excuses to his friend explaining away his absences lately. Ryan’s deadpan delivery though means that even if he said “I have a new alien friend that takes me on adventures through time and space” it would still sound boring. Ryan is greeted by the men in black at this point, and he gladly jumps in their kidnap-mobile no questions asked. The same device is used for Yazz, who reminds the audience that she is still a probationary police officer, despite never actually being at work. This idea is reinforced by her boss who actually tells her she is his best probationer, even though she seems to never be there, and then she disappears again with the men in black. It’s the other probationers I feel sorry for, they are probably working their socks off, never missing a day and getting no rewards, as Yazz is the best — yay. Chibs then reminds us that Graham had a backstory, then he is also picked up by the same plot device. The Doc finally appears, and the whole Scooby gang are in the back of a black car, on the way to MI6, where the plot finally is explained after the driver is evaporated and the car drives on its own attempting to kill the cast onboard.
At MI6, which is run by Stephen Fry — I knew it! — we find that agents around the globe are being taken out by an alien force, and MI6 wants The Doc to sort it out. Remember when UNIT would ring The Doc up and ask for help? Well, now we need the first act of “Spyfall — Part One” to do this. Another action set-piece takes place and the team split up to investigate. Yazz and Ryan go off to meet Lenny Henry, who owns Google now — I knew it! — and Graham and The Doc go to meet an ex-MI6 employee in Australia that may have answers or something.
With every James Bond cliché in the book being thrown into Doctor Who Season 12, Episode 1, you begin to wonder if this is really just a parody that you are watching now. The musical stings go as close to the Bond theme as legally possible, gadgets are given to the characters to help the plot, we have already had a car chase, soon to be followed by a bike chase, the cast ends up in tuxedos and then attend a casino-themed birthday party.
Can I maybe suggest that to take Doctor Who this far into parody on the first episode of a new season does seem to signal that the writers are already out of original ideas for this run? Everything in “Spyfall — Part One” is so sledgehammered into the face of the viewer that it actually fails to be amusing or entertaining in any way.
However, the worst is yet to come.
There is a reveal at the end of “Spyfall — Part One” that is given literally no foreshadowing or build-up whatsoever. This reveal with a returning major villain from the show’s legacy is treated with as much respect as the rest of the targets on Chibnall’s hit list. The Master is back, and it is shoehorned into the plot amidst a Jenga tower of ideas all fighting for dominance. A reveal that could have been built on and nurtured for at least one episode is vomited into the proceedings with less dramatic relevance than an existential frog, and as a viewer, I was left feeling deflated rather than excited at an actual villain making a triumphant return.
As Jodie and the gang are sent crash-diving in a plane to their certain deaths, The Master and his new alien friends disappear, The Doc then also disappears, and the episode ends.
On the plus side, there is at least a smattering of a plot here. Aliens working with The Master to pick off human agents and rewrite their DNA sounds promising, but it’s just all the rubbish it’s wrapped up in that’s the problem. The dialogue is so barbed and vicious, particularly from Jodie, that The Doctor just comes across as petty and snarky.
When Stephen Fry remarks that the Doctor is a man in his files, she replies, “I’ve had an upgrade.” This may be a cute, bitchy line for the actress to smugly convey, but no matter where you stand on the matter, it comes across as a snub to every actor that has played the part before. It is tonally wrong, and is the first of many lines that the writer has peppered his script with attacking “legacy media” and “cyber-bullying”.
It is nice that there is a good cliffhanger here, and a returning villain, and a story, but the good parts of the process are crushed by stupid James Bond cringe-worthy motorbike chases. Did you learn nothing from the TV movie, and dialogue that is either badly written or badly delivered?
I do take some solace from the fact that after stating two years ago that there would be no two-part stories or returning villains, Chibnall has obviously had his knuckles rapped by fandom and executives alike and U-turned. Doctor Who needs returning villains and cliffhangers, so that was good. The Master may help in re-engaging many fans that have dropped this show completely, but doing it in a Pound Shop Bond parody was problematic. Scenes of the gang gambling in a mock casino were again tonally wrong.
I would have re-introduced Kate Stewart as a character, why would they not? It was so obvious. And I would have held off the Master reveal to at least the second episode.
“Spyfall — Part One” was a definite improvement on ANY of the previous season, but there still seems to be a barbed side to Doctor Who that has to be addressed or it may write itself into cancellation.