Warning: Contains Spoilers.
Unlike a lot of other fans of Doctor Who, I did not see Series 11 as the ruination of the show. I liked the cast, I appreciated a change in musical style, and I thought that the visual changes were a breath of fresh air for a series that had basically looked the same for well over a decade. What it lacked was an essential sense of dynamism; a lot of the stories felt flat and lacking in action, even though the ideas themselves were, for the most part, sound. Generally speaking, I’m not a fan of huge casts of characters, but Series 11 seemed to go too far in the opposite direction for my taste, with the screen often seeming empty of people. It was almost as if Chris Chibnall, aware that he had an unusually large TARDIS crew, had deliberately cut down on the supporting cast to a noticeable degree. It’s particularly obvious in the season finale The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos, where there are only 2 characters other than the regulars and the villain, all rattling around a desolate planet.
Let’s agree that there was definite room for improvement and last year’s New Year special Resolution failed to deliver, despite bringing back the Daleks (kind of), so there was a lot of weight on the shoulders of Spyfall to bring the series up to speed. Some people, of course, condemned it before they had even seen a frame of the first episode; one Twitter wag posted a ‘pre-emptive’ review of the show on the day before Part 1 was aired. I’m pleased to announce that that person was wrong in almost every major respect, because Chris Chibnall seems to have taken on board the criticisms of the previous series (at least, the more reasonable ones) and produced something that harks back to the breathless enthusiasm of the Russell T. Davies era of the show. You don’t have to be a puzzle expert to work out from its title that Spyfall is an homage to the British secret agent movies, especially James Bond, but fear not if you’re not a fan, as this is merely a framework around which a much more interesting story is woven.
When I compare the story to a Russell T. adventure, I’m hardly overstating it, because it begins in a way very familiar to viewers of the early years of the new show. Each of the companions is back to their daily life, though struggling to find convincing explanations for the fact that they keep disappearing off into time and space for weeks on end. The Doctor is tinkering with the TARDIS, which she has up on a car-lift in a backstreet garage. Again, this is reminiscent of the show in the early days of its revival; I can’t imagine Stephen Moffatt introducing such a delightfully earthy conceit for one of his Doctors. Pretty soon, strange MIBs arrive and whisk away the Doctor and Co. to the headquarters of MI5 to meet C, played by Stephen Fry. “Hoorah!” we cheer, as fan fave Fry appears on the screen and… “Oh,” as he’s assassinated about five minutes later. Still, he had time to tell the Doctor that spies of all nations were being similarly bumped off by invisible aliens, prompting her to set off for Australia to meet top secret strategist O, played by Sacha Dhawan.
It’s great to see Fry in the show, even for so short a time, and he’s obviously relishing the part. For the briefest time, I was hoping that he’d become a recurring character, like a new version of the Brigadier, but it was not to be, alas. Sacha Dhawan gave a standout performance in 2013’s An Adventure in Space and Time, playing director Waris Hussein against David Bradley’s William Hartnell and it’s great to see him back on the show. The other big guest star in Spyfall is (Sir) Lenny Henry, the comedian-turned-actor who no-British viewers will probably know best from his appearance in the third series of Chibnall’s Broadchurch, but we Brits will recognise from a whole host of comedy performances. I’m even old enough to remember him as a regular on madcap Saturday morning kids’ TV show Tiswas. For anyone unfamiliar with Lenny Henry’s comedy work, check out his spoof of Michael Jackson’s Thriller, one of the best comedy sketches of the 80s.
Lenny plays Daniel Barton, the billionaire CEO of an internet search engine company called VOR. Now, you might find yourself rolling your eyes and thinking ‘we’ve seen villains like this before in Doctor Who’, which is true… but he’s not the real villain! Throughout the first episode, Lenny Henry gives a strong performance as the cold-hearted industrialist, but in a spectacularly well-handled sucker punch, it turns out that there’s an even badder bad-guy, when O reveals himself to be none other than the Master! I wasn’t expecting this at all and the twist was very, very well guarded by the Doctor Who production office. Sacha Dhawan gives a very good performance as the new Master, silky smooth and believably demented. I can’t help feeling a little bit sad that they’ve gone for another ‘crazy’ Master however; the whole Joker-style ‘villainous madman’ thing is getting a bit old-hat and I’d really prefer to see them steering the Master back towards being a Roger Delgado style suave sophisticate, which I think Dhawan could pull off really well.
Daniel Barton and the Master are plotting together to allow the extra-terrestrial invaders known as the Kasaavin egress into our dimension. In Part 2, the Doctor is separated from her companions and travels through time to meet Ada Lovelace (Sylvie Briggs) and Noor Inayat Khan (Aurora Marion), both actual historical figures that were in one way or another involved in the development of what would become the modern computer. Splitting the TARDIS crew into two groups is a shrewd move, as it allows the Doctor to be the Doctor, while Graham, Ryan and Yaz have a few very effective comedy scenes. As always, Bradley Walsh, Tosin Cole and Mandip Gill all are effective in their roles, though Bradley Walsh steals all the comedic scenes, much as one would expect. Though most rational people loved Jodie Whittaker last year, one of the criticisms levelled at the series was that she was never allowed to be very Doctorish; separating her from her ‘fam’ redresses that balance and we get possibly the best idea yet of exactly who the Thirteenth Doctor is.
Part 2 has a lot to fit into its 60-minute running time and though it does sometimes feel full-to-the-brim, it is never rushed. Besides, the leisurely first episode followed by the frenetic second only serves to draw a further comparison with the Russell T. Davies era, which – and this may be a contentious opinion – is what I think the series needs right now. Moffatt’s puzzle box approach was effective while it lasted, but you can have too much of a good thing and by the end of the Capaldi era, it definitely felt like it was starting to retread old ground. Because we have the return of the Master, it was probably wise to not start this new series with the return of an old monster. The Kasaavin are not in the top league of Doctor Who monsters, being mainly seen as gravel-voiced glowing shapes, but the concept of them is interesting and perhaps we will see more of their true form in an episode to come.
This story also sets up an arc for the coming season. Okay, sure, we’ve seen the destruction of Gallifrey before, so this might look like the series is repeating itself, but I’m optimistic enough to think that there might be much more to this story than we’re being told. For one thing, how could the Master, a single Time Lord, have destroyed the most advanced civilisation in the cosmos all on his own? He doesn’t mention having had help and it seems a separate venture from whatever deal he has with the Kasaavin, so what’s the real story? I hope it’s something that we’re going to get a decent explanation for and not a thread that’s left hanging for several series and never satisfactorily tied up, as we’ve had a couple of times in the past.
All in all, I was quite happy with Spyfall; it was an intelligent, fast-paced adventure with a beginning, a middle and an end that would please even the 16-year old Chris Chibnall who was on Open Air all those years ago giving Pip & Jane Baker a hard time. As a writer (of sorts), I can see what they were trying to do with the previous season of Doctor Who; to make it contemporary, to make it much more of a drama with sci-fi overtones, but somewhere along the line there was a misstep, a stumble, and it never quite went down the path that it intended to tread. Spyfall returns the adventures of the Thirteenth Doctor to their starting point and plots a new route that looks set to find favour with fans and casual viewers alike. Some fans have chosen to highlight Part 1’s 4.6 million UK ratings as a failure because they were down on last year’s average, but it was New Year’s Eve, which is not a strong night for TV audiences and it still managed to outperform Moffatt and Gatiss’s Dracula, which is being largely hailed a success. But then some fans would criticise this no matter how good it was – I’m looking at you, pre-emptive Twitter goon. For the rest of us, I think this points the way to something that could be very special indeed.
Doctor Who is currently showing in the UK on BBC1, Sunday 7:00pm