This is the shortest we’ve ever had to wait for a resolution to a Doctor Who cliffhanger. Last week’s ‘Spyfall: Part One’ rounded off a briskly-paced and substance-lite collection of spy film motifs before leaving Yaz, Graham and Ryan abandoned on a nose-diving plane and The Doctor being whisked away to her doom by none other than a disguised regeneration of The Master. ‘Spyfall: Part Two’ does manage to answer a hefty amount of questions whilst offering some new ones, and even introduces some much-needed stability to this Chris Chibnall era of the show, but its disruptive tone and unimaginative method of storytelling often prevents it from rising above average. That’s not to say there isn’t stuff to like, of course.
That resolution. It’s commonplace for Doctor Who’s time travel element to allow various deus ex machina to swoop in at the last minute, but thankfully Chibnall takes a note from his previous showrunners and goes the long way around with Ryan discovering an exit plan pre-determined by The Doctor herself with a handy guide on how to ‘land a plane without a cockpit’ (lovely little visual gag there). The ‘fam’ soon find themselves in Essex, England and continue to spy on Lenny Henry’s billionaire villain Daniel Barton.
Meanwhile The Doctor discovers another trapped soul in the mystery forest she’s been sent to, and discovers that the invading aliens – revealed to be called the Kasavin – are actually living portals through time used to monitor and spy on events. She hitches a ride with Ada Lovelace (Sylvie Briggs), a scientist and one of the first to realise the potential of computers, back to 1834 and so begins a time-hopping mini adventure as The Doctor flees from a disgruntled Master (Sacha Dhawan). It’s a departure from Part One’s tone in regards to The Doctor’s narrative, but it actually gives Jodie Whittaker some pathos to work with without having to fight to get a word in amidst her three other companions.
That’s not to say Chibnall makes it easy of course. As well as Ada, The Doctor also picks up Noor Inayat Khan (Aurora Marion), a special operations officer and Britain’s first Muslim war heroin, during a hop to World War II. Both Marion and Briggs play their historical characters with quiet aplomb, asking questions and forming their own backstories naturally. It’s, strangely, a more consistent offering than we’ve had with the actual companion trio over the past season and for a moment feels like The Doctor is actually in charge of proceedings. Back in Essex the gang continue Spyfall’s genre theme by going on the run from Barton who has the ability to track them through their devices. They end up hiding in a construction site, talking about what The Doctor would do in their situation. Whilst a moment like this could have been used for some much-needed characterisation, it was mostly more meandering plot speak as they each lamented how little they actually knew of the alien they’ve been travelling with for the past year. Whilst not an unpleasant detour in this two-parter, it feels like a little bit of a wasted opportunity. Graham’s laser-shoes and Ryan’s missile-watch gadgets from before were also nice homage gags in reference, but the episode’s reliance on them visually needs… a lot to be desired.
It’s during The Doctor’s stint in WWII where The Master dons an SS uniform and scours the land for his enemy, Inglorious Basterds-style. It’s silly of course but the set design offers a complete Nazi takover of Paris, and even a standoff amidst the top of the Eiffel Tower feels suitably grandiose between The Doctor and her old nemesis. I’m not quite sold on Dhawa’s incarnation of The Master. There’s a bubbling rage and gleeful insanity that escapes as visual ticks and twitches sure, but it’s the quiet moments where he escapes the John Simm comparisons and becomes genuinely threatening. The back-and-forth between the two Time Lords is something I’ve always loved, and whilst there were glimpses of it throughout the episode I still feel as if we’ve got some way to go.
Of course, much like ‘Spyfall: Part One’ the second segment came with its own revelation as The Master reveals he’s committed mass genocide and destroyed their homeworld of Gallifrey. It’s here where the Kasavin problem essentially disappears completely. The Doctor travels home after stealing his TARDIS to discover the planet burned to a crisp. And suddenly there’s a spark of hope. Jodie Whittaker’s a remarkable screen talent, but Doctor Who has yet to make use for her …until now. Because there’s now personal investment for The Doctor we’re shown her emotional side through a mere number of glances and looks of devastation. Could this be her version of the character finally coming to fruition? Ignore the groan-inducing dimwittedness but maybe recontextualise those moments into someone who’s bad at displaying ‘serious’ emotion? It’s something to aspire to, and the fact that this starts an ongoing story arc actually places the rest of the season in an assured pair of hands.
This is at the cost of Spyfall’s actual plot however. As Barton murders his own mother just for the fun of it (oh how evil he is!) we’re treated to a long-winded speech about humanity’s acceptance of being monitored and spied on by corporations and technology. It’s not at all subtle and reeks of Cambridge Analytica (though the timing’s rather nice). As Barton smirks through a public presentation and divulges his evil plan, people around the world (including Yaz’s family) are being absorbed thanks to the Kasavin’s tech. Lenny Henry’s performance is perfunctory and he never truly engages with the material enough to be considered an antagonist, it’s all very blasé. But don’t worry, by the time The Doctor, Ada and Noor show up the Kasavin disappear as it turns out they’ve fixed all the problems already in the past.
Doctor Who has always had a problem with solutions. To solve a problem visually without appearing cheap is tricky with such an endless concept. But ‘Spyfall: Part Two’ is probably one of the worst offenders in recent memory, reducing the Kasavin to a forgetful nuisance and not even bothering to follow up on Barton’s own fate. But who cares about that? We’ve got The Master and Gallifrey back in business! It’s fitting that the spy two-parter turned out to be a MacGuffin for an emotional arc reveal I suppose, but it makes much of the surrounding adventure feel lifeless and… pointless. This is a show that’s deftly managed to introduce year-long arcs through background visuals and fleeting moments alone, yet here all pretenses were dropped the moment The Master arrived.
Then there’s that old Gallifrey chestnut. There’s some debate online about Chibnall’s apparent undoing of Russell T Davies’ and Steven Moffat’s previous work with the show by both undoing the Master’s (then Missy’s) redemption arc through Series Ten as well as destroying Gallifrey after saving it in Day of the Doctor. It’s definitely an interesting point but one that could hold future surprises thanks to the time-travelling nature of the show. Is Dhawan’s Master a post-Missy version? Back in ‘The Doctor Falls’, John Simm’s incarnation became befuddled over his future version’s compassion for the ‘goody-two-shoes’ Time Lord. Perhaps this is an act of vengeance? I guess we’ll have to wait to find out.
Overall then, it’s another mixed bag. It feels good to finally have a structure to Doctor Who again though, and I’m hoping this allows the writing moving forward to focus and deliberate on the important things like story and character. I also hope Whittaker gets more emotional attachment as we dive deeper into the secret of ‘The Timeless Child’ first referenced last year. The fan service helped for sure, The Doctor’s ‘four beats’ call out to The Master and Graham’s conversation with a pre-recorded message via ‘Blink’ were nice little callbacks to previous adventures that helped maintain a sense of continuity. But what the show needs now is a batch of strong weekly stories that allow the characters to thrive, and fingers crossed that’s what we have coming over the next few weeks.