This review contains spoilers for Spyfall, Part One. If you have not seen the episode yet, please go away and come back after watching!
The name’s Doctor. The Doctor. We’re on the list.
Intelligence agents around the world are under attack from alien forces, so MI6 turn to the only one who can help: the Doctor.
And one year later, the Thirteenth Doctor is back! Spyfall Part One certainly enters with a lot of confidence and swagger, feeling like a cross between a James Bond film and The X Files in a story with a truly global reach. It’s safe to say that I really love this story of espionage and globe-trotting, with some small reservations. My smallest of these is that I still cannot stand the fact that we’re sticking with UNIT no longer existing, but this really pales into insignificance as I went along for the ride on a fun romp.
My biggest issue with this story is probably the fact that there are some leaps of logic and poor bits of dialogue that really let the story down. The biggest red flag here is the sudden appearance of Yaz into O’s hut in Australia, especially when we know that the mysterious creatures can shapeshift. I’m willing to overlook this one though, as I have a hope that this will be addressed in the second part, but if not, it seems like a leap of logic not to check Yaz out considering her mysterious disappearance from San Francisco and equally mysterious appearance in the Great Victoria Desert. There are some poor bits of dialogue – for instance, informing the Doctor that they are being shot at or that the SatNav doesn’t normally malfunction – that really stand out, but again, I’m largely happy to overlook these as the story works really well. I did feel the beginning scenes of the story did drag a little bit, which may well be Chibnall taking advantage of having more time to tell the story, but as it moved towards the finale, it really picked up the pace nicely towards the cliffhanger.
Be spies, basically.
What, with absolutely no training?
We’ve got the gadgets.
All the gear, but no idea.
Yaz, Graham and Ryan
One of the things that I really liked here was that Chibnall seems to have taken on board some of the criticisms of Series 11. Whilst I still feel that the TARDIS is overcrowded, having different combinations of the team than we have previously seen is really nice. It feels as though Ryan and Yaz barely spoke to one another last series, whilst here they get some really nice interaction, like Yaz reassuring Ryan before they go in to speak to Daniel Barton and the pair talking about Yaz’s sister wanting Ryan’s number. Yaz is given much more to do than previously, and I’m pleased that Chibnall seems to have remembered that she is a police officer. Equally, having Graham and the Doctor paired off together works well and they are a good pair – both comedically and dramatically and Bradley Walsh is probably one of the strongest elements of the show, even if the narrative doesn’t really give him much to do. I do feel as though Ryan may have the least story left available to him, with the series wrapping up his relationship with his father at the end of Resolution. I also like the reintroduction of the cold open, which is surely a homage to the opening of Bond films, but reinforced how much I missed them in Series 11. I really liked Whittaker’s Doctor in the previous series and I feel that she continues to turn in good performances, especially when confronting the captured creature.
Speaking of the villains of the piece, they are visually intriguing and really quite sinister. Their power to rewrite human DNA for nefarious purposes is also something that I can’t remember seeing before in Doctor Who. However, I don’t feel that we learn that much about them, other than their desire to conquer the universe and that they are, apparently, everywhere. Again, it is possible that we will get answers to this coming up on Sunday, and I would especially like to know the nature of that realm where Yaz and later the Doctor find themselves. They are effectively scary though, helped by some great direction by Stone and another strong score from Segun Akinola. I really liked Lenny Henry’s Daniel Barton, who is obviously an amalgamation of figures like Zuckerberg and Bezos, who surprised me with quite an understated performance as I’ve never really seen him in a serious role. It would be quite easy in this story to turn to the Bond-villain archetype of overplaying it and reverting to a cat-stroking villain leading the all-powerful technology company VOR. It’ll be interesting to see how Barton is used after the reveal in the closing moments of this part though, as he may take a back seat to someone else. His conversation with the Doctor at his party is superb, helped by good performances by both Henry and Whittaker.
[Serious spoilers ahead: if you have not seen Spyfall, Part One, please look away now.]
Over an hour after watching the episode, I’m still slightly in shock. Casting my mind back to Series 10, when the return of John Simm was featured in a trailer at the end of The Pilot, this reveal is so well done and Chibnall and all of the production team deserve a massive amount of kudos for keeping the twist under wraps. Equally, I feel that the story moves so quickly to stop you thinking too hard about the character O, who at the end of the episode is revealed to be the Master! Some may have reservations about the return of the Master, especially after the whole redemption arc in Capaldi’s last series and the superb performance of Michelle Gomez as Missy, however, I am totally on board with the decision to bring the Master back, and Dhawan is a great choice to play him. The focus on Barton and the aliens distracts you from O, but on rewatching with the knowledge of his true identity, you do see some hints that he is more than just a guest character, especially the fact that he has more knowledge of the Doctor than he lets on, and the fact that he has weaponry capable of repelling the aliens. Dhawan blends into the background so seamlessly in scenes of the Doctor with her companions that when the Doctor picks up on the fact that he isn’t good at sprinting, contrary to his MI6 file, the reveal of O’s true identity is a true rug pull and both actors do superbly. There is also part of me that is slightly ecstatic about the fact that we get the return of the Master’s TARDIS (taking the form of O’s hut) and the Tissue Compression Eliminator! Whittaker’s reaction to the reveal is great and I’m interested to see what Dhawan does with the character.
Oh come on, Doctor, catch up. You can do it.
That’s…that’s my name, and that is why I chose it. So satisfying. Doctor, I did say look for the spymaster. Or should that be spy…Master?
You can’t be.
Oh, I can be. I very much am.
So what’s going on, then? He’s not really O?
I’m her best enemy. Call me Master.
O/The Master, the Doctor and Ryan Sinclair
Verdict: A strong, confident opening episode of Doctor Who kicks off Jodie Whittaker’s second series. An homage to Bond and the spy genre as a whole works really well, thanks largely to good performances and a solid twist. I can’t wait to see how this wraps up! 9/10
Cast: Jodie Whittaker (The Doctor), Bradley Walsh (Graham), Tosin Cole (Ryan), Mandip Gill (Yasmin Khan), Sacha Dhawan (O), Stephen Fry (C), Lenny Henry (Daniel Barton), Shobna Gulati (Hasna), Bhavnisha Parmar (Sonya), Ravin J Ganatra (Hakim), Sacharissa Claxton (Passenger), Struan Rodger (Voice of Kasaavin), Asif Khan (Sgt Ramesh Sunder), Buom Tihngang (Tibo), Andrew Bone (Mr. Collins), Christopher McArthur (Ethan), Darron Meyer (Seesay), Dominique Maher (Browning), Melissa De Vries (Sniper), William Ely (Older Passenger), Brian Law (US Operative) & Ronan Summers (Rendition Man)
Writer: Chris Chibnall
Director: James Magnus Stone
Behind the Scenes
- The first two-parter to be directed by two different directors, with Part Two directed by Lee Haven Jones.
- Jamie Magnus Stone directed The Last Day, a minisode for The Day of the Doctor in 2013.
- The second two-part story to have the same title since The End of Time.
- Stephen Fry was originally supposed to write a story for Series Two, which was moved by then showrunner Russell T Davies to Series Three due to concerns about the necessary budget. The story was ultimately never put into production as Fry did not have time to make the necessary amendments (including changing the companion from Rose to Martha).
- Fry also played the Minister of Chance in the Doctor Who webcast Death Comes to Time
- Lenny Henry also played the Doctor in a sketch for The Lenny Henry Show.
- Sacha Dhawan has previously played Waris Hussein in An Adventure in Time and Space and appeared in a Fifth Doctor adventure for Big Finish, Fallen Angels. He is also the youngest main actor to portray the Master.
- Sacha Dhawan is the fifth member of the original cast of Alan Bennett’s The History Boys to appear in Doctor Who. The other four are: Clive Merrison (Jim Callum in Tomb of the Cybermen and Deputy Chief Caretaker in Paradise Towers), Samuel Anderson (Danny Pink), Russell Tovey (Midshipman Frame in Voyage of the Damned and The End of Time, Part Two) and James Corden (Craig Owens in The Lodger and Closing Time).
- This episode saw the return of the cold open, which last occurred in Twice Upon A Time.
- The episode carried a dedication to Terrance Dicks, writer and script editor for the show during the Troughton and Pertwee eras, including the Master’s debut in Terror of the Autons. Dicks passed away on 29 August 2019.
The approach of the creatures to O’s shack in Australia is really well done – it feels very atmospheric and almost like something out of a horror movie thanks to Segun Akinola’s music and Stone’s direction.
Doctor, the security of this entire planet is at stake. Can we rely upon you?