Doctor Who: Season 12 – Episode 1 & 2 ‘Spyfall’ REVIEW

Doctor Who returns with a bang – but also a lot of the same old problems.

doctor who spyfall jodie whittaker

Doctor Who is back, and at this point, does anyone actually care? It’s one of the oldest sci-fi shows on television, but watching ‘Spyfall’, the heights of the David Tennant era, when literally everyone and their mums were watching, now seems a very long time ago.

While the media storm surrounding the lead character’s gender change brought a huge boost in ratings for Jodie Whittaker’s debut, the last season seemed determined that this would pretty much be as ambitious as it got, with forgettable, underdeveloped characters, and simplistic plotlines that seemed to hearken back to the worst of the classic series, when there’d be whole episodes of running around quarries – sorry, I mean, alien planets – fighting generic baddie #456.

There were some decent episodes buried in the mix, most notably the historical episodes which revolved around Rosa Parks, or the Partition of India, but the weight of those episodes seemed to owe more to these moments in history than the specific strengths of the episodes themselves. And then we got a year long break, with nothing over the course of 2019. It has seemed like the BBC themselves were unsure what to do with the series, sticking with it out of expectation as much as anything, and casual viewers could be forgiven for forgetting it was still a thing. But now ‘Spyfall’  is here, has its time off done the series any good, or are the same issues still there?

Cultured Vultures spoilers

‘Spyfall’ aims to start off the new season with a bang, not only giving us a two-parter (something that the series had been sorely missing) that pays homage to the spy genre, but also bringing back old enemies with the return of The Master, now played by Sascha Dhawan. There’s certainly a lot more going on here than there was in the last series, going from the snooze-fest of Season 11 to a more fast paced, action packed couple of episodes that hit on all the usual beats of the spy movie – there’s a continent hopping mystery, involving a couldn’t-be-more-obvious baddie planning world domination, visits to casinos, a nefarious secret organisation, daft gadgets, and several car/motorcycle chases. And in one of the silliest moments, a scene where they chase a plane as it’s taking off. On foot. With their human legs. And they actually manage to catch up with it.

It’s clearly trying to be a lot more fun and daft than the previous season was. That had felt like the most bland, formulaic version of Doctor Who possible, with endless running about, wooden dialogue, and nothing even remotely as imaginative as seasons past. Most of all, it felt like you had seen it all before, with the same tired tropes being repeated ad infinitum. These two episodes do at least have stuff happening – it jumps from one plot point or action scene to the next at a breathless pace. Writer Chris Chibnall has grasped the idea of doing Doctor Who as a spy movie and run with it, and the moments where it takes the mick out of some of the most common spy clichés, such as Whittaker’s Doctor playing snap at the casino, are among its more fun moments.

Unfortunately, while ‘Spyfall’ manages to capture the pace of your average spy movie – it also has all those movies’ faults. It is, throughout, completely over the top, with ludicrous set pieces like that plane chase (and how they escape from the plane crashing) and cartoonish, nonsensical villains. Fair enough, this is Doctor Who we’re talking about after all. But the structure of the episodes are also all over the place.

The first episode of ‘Spyfall’ starts with a promising first act, in which Stephen Fry’s M-style character introduces the central mystery of the episode, then promptly drops this to zip between Ryan and Yaz as covert investigators, and the Doctor in the outback, investigating aliens so generic they aren’t even given any actual features. They’re just blobs of light. Neither plot strand is given any time to breath before it then shifts focus again, switching to the casino scenes, then to the motorbike chase, and the final twist where – gasp, that character we’ve never met before is actually The Master.

In fairness, it’s become a bit of a tradition for this to be how a new Master is introduced, and I for one didn’t see it coming. But this was mainly due to Dhawan’s character just kind of being there throughout the first episode and therefore seeming like he wasn’t anything more than just a random guest character, rather than some genuinely shocking twist. It’s a moment that probably worked for a lot of fans, but for your average viewer it will just be completely meaningless – a setup for a cliffhanger and nothing more.

The second part of ‘Spyfall’ is even more over the place, at least in terms of the overarching plot. As a standalone episode it is actually a lot tighter than the first, switching from the daft spy-plot to focus on the Doctor and the Master as they face off over different time periods. But this just serves to make most of what took place in the first episode seem even more pointless, as the story itself largely tosses it aside in favour of the more interesting stuff.

The scenes with the Doctor as she finds herself stuck in different eras, meeting various historical figures, and catching up with her best enemy are genuinely pretty interesting, and by far the most compelling stuff Whittaker’s had so far. For pretty much the first time she’s actually given some weightier stuff to work with, rather than simply spending her time either being Super-Nice to everyone or doing a bad Matt Smith impression. And this version of the Master is already one of the more interesting versions we’ve gotten. He’s not without his stupider, campier moments of course. In the moment where he reveals his identity we’re treated to the most overacting I’ve seen on anything in quite a while, although his flying house/TARDIS and his shrinking ray are just stupid and completely impossible to take seriously (especially where he gleefully opens up a matchbox to show off the tiny puppet corpse he’s been carrying around).

However, Dhawan is clearly a really talented actor who manages to steal every scene he’s in, and in the few moments he’s given where he’s not forced to be quite so over-the-top, he portrays a real sense of anger and danger – as opposed to the cartoonish villainy we usually get from the character. And there’s plenty of nice little callbacks, such as the four-knocks-as-code scene, which are able to work the most out of the history between these characters.

The rest of ‘Spyfall’,  however, just trundles by, and for the life of me, I could not begin to summarise the actual plot. The whole story is a mishmash of various set pieces and generic sci-fi ideas that barely gel together in a cohesive way. We spend the entirety of the first episode with the Doctor and co being aided by the Master, with no reason ever being given for why he would bother with any of this instead of simply killing them all. Lenny Henry’s secondary villain is decent enough in his role as Evil Mark Zuckerberg – or at least he’s better than I expected him to be considering I’d only really seen him before on Comic Relief. None of the scenes with him or the Generic Light Aliens – I couldn’t tell you their actual names – feel like they have any stakes, especially when companion Graham is able to fight them off by dancing with his laser shoes (I wish I was making that up) in one of the most laughable moments in the whole thing, and in the end the villains are defeated with a quick wave of the Sonic.

The companions, incidentally, are still just sort of there, with virtually no actual characterisation or development. They’ve essentially been static since they were first introduced, and it says a lot that at the start of the episode I barely remembered anything about them, other than that one was dyspraxic, and one was Bradley Walsh. That was it, that was their level of character development, and while in these two episodes, Chibnall is clearly trying to flesh them out a bit more, as they ask about the Doctor’s origins and start working independently, there’s still very little done with them. Throughout they’re consistently plucky and supportive, but never stray beyond that – none of them have any real failings, none of them feel like real people.

‘Spyfall’ does have plenty of interesting stuff in it, from the new version of the Master, to a return to the idea of The Doctor being the last of their people – something which gives Whittaker the first real chance she’s actually had to flex her skills as an actress and bring some weight to the role. But this is all stuff that’s largely incidental to the actual plot of the episodes, which is given far less thought, and ends up feeling inconsequential and weightless. The result is something that will probably please fans (or at least, those fans who aren’t still hung up on the Doctor being a woman now) but will leave most casual viewers cold.

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doctor who spyfall jodie whittaker
Spyfall all over the place – but while I was left completely unenthused by the last series, there is at least some stuff here to keep me interested in what happens next.