Doctor Who is back with Spyfall, Part 1. After a year away from characters we’ve only had one series to get to know so far, there’s a lot up in the air as we open. Has the hiatus and reaction to the previous series changed things for this Tardis team or is it business as usual?
Ultimately Doctor Who lives or dies by how fun it is to go on adventures with the Doctor, and Jodie Whittaker has consistently done a good job being charismatic even when she’s not getting the best stories, which is a testament to her skills as an actor. However, it would be fair to say the previous series was a mixed bag (but that’s always been true of Doctor Who), with the scattered high points such as the God Frog from “It Takes You Away”, the pesudo-Amazon warehouse adventure of “Kablam”, and the exploration of an underrepresented bit of Asian history in “Demons of the Punjab” compensating for the time it turned out the villain was haunted mud undermining “The Witchfinders”. So does this new episode have the creativity and dynamism of the shows best, or is it another monster-of-the-week story?
We start this new season with aliens, who are doing something to the DNA of spies across earth which the Doctor has to get to the bottom of. Along the way she meets various shifty characters played by Stephen Fry, Lenny Henry and Sacha Dhawan while her ever reliable companions add levity to what could be too dour otherwise. Graham (Bradley Walsh) remains a delight, and there’s a sense that the younger Mandip Gill and Tosin Cole are really growing into their roles of Yaz and Ryan after a previous series that didn’t always give them much to do.
But Doc and the fam, aren’t the only thing that’s back. The previous series was distinct in that it didn’t have two-part stories – but this episode isn’t just “Spyfall”, it’s “Spyfall, Part 1”, with the second part coming soon. Two part stories can be great, but by their nature the first part is incomplete, so a key consideration is how well it sets up the second part, instead of how well it provides its own satisfying experience.
The initial globe spanning spycraft works well as an excuse to visit a lot of different locations, which combine with beautiful lighting to make an episode that looks stunning all round, especially the aforementioned aliens. However, this is an episode of two halves, with the initial story about spies being attacked by aliens slowly turning into something more exciting and character-focused. And that shift is a magical thing that truly makes the episode in a lot of ways that I dare not spoil here. It’s that increased focus on fun and dynamic characters (as opposed to the faceless, impactless aliens) that will keep you excited to see how this story continues.
Unfortunately a consequence of it’s two-part nature is that the story doesn’t really click as long as you’d hope. As it’s mostly set up, there’s not really a sense of closure or explanation, meaning we’re left with a lot of pieces that rely on vague platitudes about how the Doctor’s “never seen anything like this before” to have any weight. Annoyingly, the seriousness of these pieces conflict with the fun romp that the Doctor and her companions are having by playing spies in their own uniquely clumsy ways.
The spy plot lacks also personality, especially after it’s done tragically under-using Stephen Fry as pompos head of MI6, although Sacha Dhawan playing O – introduced as someone the Doctor used to know, making me really worried I was forgetting a face but, no, he is new – does have fun with his part. Lenny Henry is also here as Daniel Barton, the boss of a tech company, who comes off as a stock character but performs well given the limited amount of things he has to do this episode. His main contribution to the episode is that the company is called VOR, pronounced “vore”, just like a certain fetish for being eaten, which contributes to a more comic tone undermining the seriousness, resulting in a more enjoyable episode for its silliness.
What we’re left with is an episode where the plot feels like it doesn’t go anywhere for a tad too long and one that isn’t especially interesting due to lack of personality, until the ending which isn’t just a great reveal (good job BBC for keeping that quiet!), but it also helps re-contextualise the rest of the episode and make it more fun on rewatches. It’s a two star set up that get elevated to three stars on the strength of a bonkers ending and goes to reaffirm the fundamental truth that this show is strongest when it knows not to take itself too seriously and makes its stories personal. As a result, it feels good to be excited about Doctor Who again. Bring on part two.
Doctor Who: Series 12 continues on Sunday January 5th, 7pm, BBC One. The DVD and Blu-ray will be out March 16th 2020, available to pre-order from Amazon.co.uk and other leading retailers.