There are enormous spoilers at the end of this post.
Man, it felt good to write that. Actual spoilers. For actual, big Stuff. It's been far too long since we've had that on Doctor Who.
I'm deploying a double layer of spoiler protection for this post. I'll be providing a quick and spoiler-free verdict like I did last year, then talking about the less-important spoilery stuff for the episode. But I'm saving all my discussion of the last five minutes of Spyfall Part 1 for an extra-spoilery section at the very end of this review.
And yes, I meant to save this post for Friday, but…what can I say; I'm excited.
The Quick and Spoiler-Free Verdict
The massive twist at the end of this episode isn't the only thing the story has going for it. The James-Bond homages are fun, but what really makes Spyfall Part 1 shine are the ways in which it sets about solving the problems of Series 11. Granted, one episode isn't enough to fully accomplish that, but the better handling of both the Doctor and her companions, as well as the high-stakes nature of the alien threat, are big steps in the right direction. Not to mention the fact that the rich past of Doctor Who is finally being addressed in the current era. Old and new fans alike should not miss this premiere. If the rest of Series 12 lives up to this standard, we are definitely in for a treat. (And yes, I know I said something like that about The Woman Who Fell to Earth…but trust me, something is very different this time around.)
Minor to moderate spoilers begin here.
What I Didn't Like
It may be a little too early to complain about this, as he could return in some form, but killing off Stephen Fry's character so early in the story was kind of unfair to both the actor and the fans. Fry has been circling Doctor Who for so long, trying to get involved, and fans have been looking forward to seeing him take part, so I don't really know why Chibnall decided to eliminate him so quickly. However, it's entirely possible that this issue will be remedied somehow in the future.
Also, while the premise of having the Doctor work with MI6 worked much better than I had anticipated, I don't get why Chibnall insists on keeping UNIT (and even Torchwood) off the board. I'm hoping this is justified somehow in the long run, but for the moment, it feels like an odd choice that isn't entirely considerate of what Big Finish is trying to do with the expanded universe of Doctor Who.
The spy-movie homages occasionally verged on being silly and superfluous. Still fun, though.
The Doctor's reference to her regeneration as an “upgrade” was slightly cringey, but not that big a deal. Missy made the same joke in Series 9, so… *shrug*
As I said in my quick verdict, one episode isn't quite enough time to get all the problems of Series 11 fixed, so there are still some things that I want to see in the future. The Doctor's mysterious past was teased, but I still want to see that filter into Jodie Whittaker's performance. I'd like more darkness and intensity from Thirteen. That said, there's a very, very good chance we'll see more of that next week and in the rest of Series 12.
What I Did Like
Lots to say here, and not just about that ending. Let's start with the music. Segun Akinola's score has been a high point of the production for this era of Doctor Who from the start, and he kicks it up a notch here, delivering playful Bond-esque soundtracks with a touch of Murray Gold thrown in for good measure. I can't wait to have the music for this episode on my Spotify playlists.
The rest of the production values were superb as well. This episode takes a “less-is-more” approach to the CGI elements by keeping the alien menace vague and mysterious, thereby amping up the creep factor. (We'll talk more about the monsters shortly.) There were also enough good practical effects in the mix to make things feel more realistic. And the use of varied settings and on-location shooting truly did make the premiere seem global in its scope.
Spyfall Part 1 improves on Series 11 right out of the gate by giving us further insight into the companions' daily lives, evoking what we saw of Amy and Rory's everyday existence in “The Power of Three”. We finally get reminded that Yaz is a police officer in training and Graham is a grieving widower still in remission from cancer. Ryan perhaps doesn't get as much development as he should, but at least his unique personality shone through in this story–it didn't feel like he was just along for the ride.
As I said above, I still want to see more facets of the Thirteenth Doctor's personality apart from the delightfully goofy mom-friend we had in Series 11. However, even though that's still the persona Jodie Whittaker portrays in Spyfall Part 1, I do feel that she comes across as more confident in the role at this point than she did early on (which is only to be expected). Her distinctive interpretation of the Doctor may still need more development, but it's coming along nicely. It helped that she had to face some genuine challenges this week. Granted, she still doesn't seem quite as capable and take-charge as her predecessors, but at least this time there's a good reason. I think even past Doctors would have been out of their depth facing what Thirteen is currently up against.
The guest cast did a great job as well. While I think we should have gotten more of Stephen Fry, he was great in his brief scenes, and had a good dynamic with the Doctor. Lenny Henry's character is an intriguing, unusual villain for Doctor Who; a very modern type of bad guy that still meshes well with the premise of the show. And while it was kind of disappointing that the Doctor's phone call was to a character we've never met before (which I expected, given Chibnall's stubborn reluctance to incorporate past characters into the current series), Sacha Dhawan was a great addition to the “fam” in this story, providing a welcome point of contact for established fans of the show. It felt like having a classic Doctor Who fan along for the ride, given O's past experience with a different incarnation of the Doctor.
Last season was hampered by very non-scary monsters week after week. That definitely changes in Spyfall. When the still-unidentified creatures said “We take this form to mock you,” I punched the air. We haven't seen something this alien and unsettling on Doctor Who in a long time. Plus, there's the fact that these beings appear to be threatening the entire universe, not just Earth. Of course, there's always the chance that Part 2 of this story will be a letdown in regard to the alien threat, but I'm hopeful that this won't be the case.
Especially since there appears to be something very big going on here. The tease of “multiple earths” was certainly intriguing. At first, I thought that this would end up being a reference to the creatures being active in multiple time zones, but now I'm not so sure. I don't think that the reference to multiple earths would have been tossed into the script unless that was actually part of what's going on. Plus, there's a certain line at the very end of the episode that raises a number of fascinating questions on this point.
Being brutally honest and tempering expectations, we have yet to determine whether Spyfall Part 1 will be a fully successful episode of Doctor Who, since that question can't really be answered until Part 2. We had a very solid premiere in Series 11 that ended up leading to disappointment. However, all the elements for an excellent year of Doctor Who are on display in this episode. If the rest of this series can remain this strong, then perhaps the show has a bright future ahead after all.
Okay, last warning if you haven't seen the episode. Time for the big spoilers.
Here we go.
The Spoilery Part Where We Talk About That Ending
The Master has returned with a new face and an old gender. At the moment, I'm still reeling from that reveal, as I truly never imagined Chris Chibnall would give us a twist that big. Yes, I know it doesn't automatically resolve all the issues with the current era of the show, but there's a lot more to this than just the Master showing up.
First of all, let's take a moment to appreciate the fact that this happened in the premiere, not the penultimate episode or the finale. If the Master's return is only the tip of the iceberg, than what other surprises might be in store? Plus, talk about a big shift from last season's policy of no returning monsters or characters whatsoever.
And yes, I totally lied about Sacha Dhawan's character in the earlier part of this post. If you've read my books, that shouldn't surprise you at all.
Also, I'm floored by how literally “classic” this version of the Master is. Chibnall's even brought back the good old Tissue Compression Eliminator, for pity's sake. And this Master is worming his way into positions of power, assuming identities for disguise, etc.–all elements of his character that fans of the Third Doctor era with the Roger Delgado Master remember fondly. It's also kind of hilarious that after Chibnall set the Who fandom on fire by making the Doctor a woman, he's now turned the Master back into a man. I don't think anyone expected him to do that.
It was a clever choice, though. Any woman cast immediately after the amazing Michelle Gomez would have inevitably stood in Missy's shadow. I look forward to seeing another actress play the Master someday, but it makes perfect sense to cast a man in the role at this point in time. Especially since Sacha Dhawan is doing a brilliant job so far evoking the familiar essence of the character. There are shades of Masters gone before in his portrayal, both from the classic and new eras of the show, but he's actually leaning a bit more into the classic version. True, I've only seen a few minutes of him in full Master-mode, but I really like him as the character so far.
Then there are all the continuity implications. There's not much point in asking “How did Missy survive?” The best response to that, in the words of a certain lesser-known incarnation of the Master, is “Don't be tiresome.” Of course she survived, and somehow regenerated. Or did she? What if this is a past regeneration of the Master, from before her final demise? I have a feeling that's not the case, but I'm not ruling it out. But now that the Master is back, the Doctor will have no choice but to face the past she's been running from ever since she regenerated. Her companions are going to have a lot of questions for her moving forward.
More importantly, what's the Master really up to? This definitely isn't the first time he's formed an alliance with a powerful alien race to wreak destruction. He's teamed up with the Daleks and the Cybermen in the past, to name only a couple of monsters on the list. So who are these extra-universal beings he's joined forces with? What's the “multiple Earths” thing all about? And what did the Master mean when he told the Doctor “Everything you think you know is a lie”?
Big questions. And Doctor Who has been lacking in big questions for a very long time. So while I don't know whether the rest of Series 12 will be as satisfying as Spyfall Part 1, for the moment, I'm very happy. I haven't felt this excited about Doctor Who in years. Bravo, Chibnall. Keep it up.
However, let me put on my curmudgeon hat for just a moment…if we don't get to hear Dhawan's Master say “I am the Master, and you will obey me” before the end of Series 12, I am totally going to quit watching the show forever.
Okay, maybe not.
Quick postscript: One more thing…the flying house outside the plane? It's almost certainly THE MASTER'S TARDIS. Which means that those scenes inside O's house were the first glimpse inside the Master's TARDIS that we've had on the show in decades. Here's hoping we get a peek at the console room at some point too.