Doctor Who: Spyfall Part One Review

The whole business with the casino theme at the party means little -- but it's a Bond style story, so there MUST be a casino.

The Doctor is back for season 12 in a New Year’s Day special two-part story, and here’s my early thoughts. Spoilers lurk within!

As I usually do, I’ll leave a little spoiler space here, because I firmly believe that it’s a terrible thing to spoil a show or movie (or any bit of entertainment, really) for anyone. My review is CHOCK-FULL of spoilers, so if you go beyond the video before seeing Episode 1 of Season 12, on your own head be it.

However, unlike previous years, I’m not doing this as a by-the-minute stream of consciousness. I watched Spyfall: Part One a fair few hours ago, and while it’s also running in the background while I write this, I wanted to write a more “complete” review.

Of course, that’s a rather difficult task when you’re faced with only the first part of a two-part story, because that second part could entirely redeem or doom what the first part sets up.

That being said, while I’m more than delighted to see Doctor Who back on my TV screen… I didn’t particularly like Spyfall Part One all that much.

For a story that runs a full hour, and of course has another episode to come, it felt like it had a lot of conceptual weight crammed into its 60 minutes that it didn’t quite back up with the actual on-screen action.

I’ve written before how I don’t mind the ensemble cast idea for Doctor Who, and I’m generally enjoying the adventures of Graham, Ryan and Yaz alongside Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor, but this episode really felt to me like it sidelined the Doctor in favour of just about… well, everyone, really. She’s there to provide tech explanations of what’s going on, but the story is largely told through the lens of the companions, with just about every spy clichĂ© thrown in as well.

The whole business with the casino theme at the party means little -- but it's a Bond style story, so there MUST be a casino.
The whole business with the casino theme at the party means little — but it’s a Bond style story, so there MUST be a casino.

Which in itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Doctor Who has had its James Bond moments before — most obviously in the way that many of Jon Pertwee’s classic stories were staged — but the involved cast really isn’t given much of a chance to breathe before the next crisis emerges that they have to react to. It lowers the stakes and makes it feel all rather silly, and I can’t help but wonder if it’s not a few old M.I. High scripts stitched together to save money.

The whole scene with the car being taken over is a good early example. Puts the whole crew in peril, but then it’s not really clear why the aliens, who could have laser-killed anyone in the vehicle didn’t do that instead of rolling it backwards through traffic. So many chances to kill The Doctor… and so many misses, because that’s where the story needs to get to.

As an aside, it was interesting to see the BBC play both its Stephen Fry and Lenny Henry cards with this story; that’s a lot of UK-centric star power to throw at the show. Well, it is with Lenny, but much less so with Stephen Fry. I’ll pay the Doctor gender misidentification gag here, but it also doesn’t help that Fry is both the voice of Dangermouse’s Colonel K and that his appearance is essentially just that of a cameo.

"I'm most awfully sorry, but I'm not in this one for all that long at all. Sorry."
“I’m most awfully sorry, but I’m not in this one for all that long at all. Sorry.”

It’s also a cameo that seems to brush over a LOT of important information. Why doesn’t C know that UNIT’s been disbanded? Why does he get shot by a sniper that we never see, only to have the aliens merge in through the walls anyway? Again and again, this story takes you on a rollercoaster ride promising a payoff that we don’t get… at least, for now.

Again, I have to temper that with the fact that there’s a second part to come, but again Chris Chibnall’s script can’t help but decide to rest on twists and turns, not all of which feel earned, ultimately. He seems to think that the viewers will simply get excited if you keep saying “spies!” over and over again, and while you could plot out a good Doctor Story around espionage, you’d need to give it more breathing time than you get here.

There's some good acting talent here (I've seen Lenny Henry do Shakespeare, and he was great), but the script isn't quite up to the calibre of the talent.
There’s some great acting talent here (I’ve seen Lenny Henry do Shakespeare, and he was great), but the script isn’t quite up to the calibre of the talent.

That’s also true for the story’s main “twist”, which is the return of The Master. Sacha Dhawan does appear to have the acting chops to carry off a nicely devious take on The Master, but it just feels like stacking up “surprises” for the sake of it, without providing much in the way of context.

Sure, I don’t want Chris Chibnall’s script to drop too many hints, but even one of them would have been nice, and it’s a genuinely weird idea to have The Master join MI6 in order to lurk there for years because… he could?

The Master’s ambition has always run much further than just Earth, and that may be apparent in the whole “everything you know is a lie” line, but that’s again a chunk of dialog that doesn’t entirely feel earned. And that’s without even getting into the whole Master/Missy redemption arc, which I’m guessing is either being ignored or outright retconned!

So for now, Spyfall Part One was fun, because it’s Doctor Who and I do like Doctor Who, but it doesn’t feel like a strong or confident start to the series.

At least not yet. We’ll have to wait and see.

I'll be back.   No, wait, wrong movie franchise.
I’ll be back.
No, wait, wrong movie franchise.

Other smaller observations and thoughts:

  • I watched this on iView — ABC’s transmission schedule means that I won’t be waiting for its Thursday timeslot — which meant no episode of Bluey beforehand. Although I could have watched one on iView. I’ll have to remember to do that next time.
  • South Africa doesn’t quite look like Australia. For a start, if this is meant to be current, it should pretty much all be on fire.
  • That whole business with the cameras at Vor is wildly inconsistent. They’re hidden by the spy gadgets when they’re in the area outside Daniel Barton’s office, but then forget to do the same when they’re in his actual office? His security system doesn’t track unusual use of passes after hours? For such a huge global business, its security model is a MESS.
  • Lenny Henry actually makes a good and creepy villain, even if he’s given mostly pantomime lines to read.
  • “I had to fire half the PR team”
    “You haven’t!”
    “No! Not half! He’s kidding… just… two.”

    That did make me laugh. US big tech firms are EXACTLY like this.
  • Ryan shoots with an Olympus superzoom camera of some description. All spy-enhanced of course, because spying is exciting, kids!
  • Yaz isn’t much of an interviewer, and arriving with no notice and then pursuing an aggressive line of questioning isn’t likely to work all that well.
  • So the glowy aliens can rewrite your DNA, or send you to a forest of strands — I’m getting something of a classic Skaro vibe out of this, although that’s total guesswork — but how and why do they pick? I’m hoping we’re not just in for another Toclafane Master reveal here.
  • The Doctor really is given the idiot ball to play with in this episode. The aliens say that they’re after all of “this universe”, and the Doctor can’t work out why she doesn’t understand their language. Maybe, just maybe, it’s because they’re not from this universe? Likewise, she doesn’t understand the idea of alternate universe Earths — but she’s visited quite a few of those!
  • For such a huge tech billionaire, Daniel Barton doesn’t seem to have all that many friends. Certainly none that notice the TARDIS very flagrantly hanging around in the vineyard just outside the gates!
  • Why did Barton he go from racing from his party through a vineyard to getting to the airport… and then wandering around at a leisurely pace? If he’s worried about The Doctor enough to flee a scene, surely you would keep on fleeing?
  • Where did Barton go on the plane? I mean, if he’s teleporting out (or even just bouncing out on a parachute) why would you need the bomb at all? Disable the controls, teleport out, let the Master return. There is a line (on second watching) about him not being there since takeoff – but again that doesn’t make a lot of sense.
  • I did cheer when the Tissue Compression Eliminator came back. Which means I’m both properly old school, and just a little bit sadistic. Maybe I’m The Master? Maybe that’s the twist. I’ll never tell!

    Doctor Who Season 12: Episode Rankings

    Well, with only one story to go on, Spyfall Part One is the best and worst story so far. I do hope it’s going to get better this season than this, because there’s just a few too many narrative holes, and bit too much wink-wink-spy-spy-nudge-nudge at the audience for my tastes. But we’ll see. For now, though, it gets position 1 in the rankings.

    1. Spyfall Part One

    At least I won’t have too long to wait for Spyfall Part Two, which will hit ABC iView on Monday 6 January 2020. Although if you want to watch broadcast Who in Australia, you’ll have to wait until Thursday 9th of January. Weird timing, ABC.

    Next time: More spies — and hopefully more than a few answers too.

    I’m sure I’ve heard that tapping pattern before…

    Images: BBC

Author: Alex

Alex Kidman is a multi-award winning Australian technology writer, former editor at Gizmodo, CNET, GameSpot, ZDNet, PC Mag, APC, Finder and as a contributor to the ABC, SMH, AFR, Courier Mail, GadgetGuy, PC & Tech Authority, Atomic and many more. He's been writing professionally since 1998, and his passions include technology, social issues, education, retro gaming and professional wrestling.

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