So, remember how I've said a couple of times over the past two years that Chris Chibnall isn't willing to take risks with Doctor Who?
I really don't think anyone can say that now.
Name any game-changing moment for Doctor Who over the past couple of decades; Spyfall Part 2 is at least as significant. And even if you've seen a spoiler or two for it, you probably don't know the full story.
Ladies and gentlemen, Doctor Who is event television again. And I couldn't be happier.
There's another big surprise to keep under wraps this week, so I'm saving the super-spoilery stuff for the end of the review. Be aware that the whole of this review contains big spoilers for Spyfall Part 1 and moderate spoilers for Part 2. I'll warn you before we get to the really huge stuff.
The Quick and Spoiler-Free Verdict
Even aside from the massive impact this story has on the Doctor Who universe as a whole, Spyfall Part 2 is a very strong Doctor Who episode which blends the Black-Mirror-esque take on big tech from Part 1 with a captivating adventure through history. It also gives the Doctor and her companions the serious challenges and character development they've been lacking for a long time. I would go so far as to say that this is the moment when Jodie Whittaker truly became the Doctor in my eyes.
Moderate spoilers start now.
What I Didn't Like
I didn't feel that the James Bond trappings ever fully meshed with the main story of Spyfall. The brief scene with C in Part 1 still feels somewhat superfluous in Part 2, and while the spy gadgets did play a role in the story, they still felt like something out of Get Smart. Yes, it's fun to see Graham firing at monsters with his laser shoes, but honestly…laser shoes? It clashes with the more grounded elements of the rest of the episode. I think what mainly frustrates me about it is that UNIT is, in part, an intelligence organization, so it would have fit into this story just fine. C could have been replaced with Kate Stewart, and it would have worked perfectly.
What I Liked
That said, however, Spyfall Part 2 did justify the story's use of espionage in general as a theme rather neatly, and managed to weave it together with the technology subplot. Last season's thematic elements always felt very heavy-handed and obvious, but that's not the case here. There were one or two moments in Spyfall Part 2 that touched on political themes, but I didn't find it blatant or off-putting. If future episodes continue to handle deeper messages in this way, then Series 12 will be a major improvement on Series 11 in that regard.
The historical scenes in this episode were extremely well-done, with high production values and great casting. (I LOVED the steampunk stuff in the nineteenth-century sequences.) These portions of the story were very well-written, too. I criticized Series 11 for taking the audience back in time only to pontificate on all the injustices of the past. While the dark moments in Earth's history are addressed here, there's also a sense of wonder and adventure that was missing from Series 11. Plus, the story put just as much focus on the positive aspects of history as the negative ones, highlighting the remarkable accomplishments of female historical figures without reducing them to mere object lessons about gender politics.
Separating the Doctor and the companions for most of this episode was a great choice, and it's used to strong effect. In essence, it “reboots” the Doctor/fam relationship by the end of the story. The Doctor is forced to come face to face with everything she's been hiding while running around the universe with her new friends, and the companions are forced to stand on their own and ask questions about who the Doctor truly is. The distinctive personalities, roles, and skills of Graham, Ryan, and Yaz were all on display in this story. For the first time, it didn't feel like there were too many companions on the show.
Sacha Dhawan is a brilliant Master. True, we didn't find out any concrete information about how Missy survived and regenerated into him, but I do feel that the story gave sufficient justification for his current evil alignment, which I'll discuss more in the spoilery section at the end of this review. (For now, I'll just say that I'm pretty sure this Master is not a pre-Missy incarnation, as some have suggested.) The Master Dhawan reminds me of the most is John Simm, but he creates a perfect balance between the frighteningly-erratic version of the Simm Master as written by Russell T. Davies and the more restrained, quietly-menacing version penned by Steven Moffat. In the end, though, I'd describe Dhawan's Master as a very original interpretation, with a different impetus for his crimes than Masters we've met before. He's angry like the Simm Master, but with a purpose. He's betrayed and desperate, seeking solace in the chaos that was his purpose for so many lifetimes.
Finally, the Doctor. Wow. This is what we've needed for Thirteen for a very long time. Real conflict, challenge, and tragedy. At last, Jodie Whittaker gets a chance to delve fully into the character of the Doctor, both the lighter and darker sides. Her full potential in the role is on display in Spyfall Part 2. I touched on this before, but I don't think I've ever really looked at the Thirteenth Doctor and seen The Doctor until this episode. Which brings us to the Big Spoiler Section.
Definitely do not read further until you've watched the episode, unless you're sure you don't mind being spoiled!
The New Doctor Who
I'm using that title for this section because I truly do feel that a new era for the show has begun, and I for one am very happy about it. It's no secret that Steven Moffat regretted bringing back Gallifrey and the Time Lords. I'm ambivalent about it, myself–I wouldn't change a thing in The Day of the Doctor, but I feel like the show never really knew what to do with Gallifrey once it was back. This is evident in Hell Bent, which wasn't a bad episode, but didn't fully deliver on the promise of having Gallifrey restored to the Whoniverse. And while I do think it's possible to tell modern Doctor Who stories with Gallifrey in the mix (Big Finish does it all the time), it can't be denied that Russell T. Davies' destruction of the Doctor's home planet breathed new life into the show's mythology and redefined the character of the Doctor in an amazing way. So much of what makes the Ninth, Tenth, and Eleventh Doctors tick relies on a past Doctor having destroyed Gallifrey. One could even say that some of the problems with Twelve's characterization were rooted in the fact that he hadn't destroyed Gallifrey anymore. The arc of him searching for his lost home didn't always work, especially since he barely ever actually looked for it.
And now, the Time Lords are gone again…and it's the Master who destroyed them. Because of some dark secret in Gallifrey's past. That, in my opinion, is a brilliant twist. It solves the problem of Gallifrey's awkward return by taking it off the board, and restores both the Doctor and the Master to the status quo of the Russell T. Davies era, the last of the Time Lords locked in a battle between dark and light across time and space. Simultaneously, this development plants the seeds of a mystery which promises more exploration of the Gallifreyan mythos than we ever got during the days when the Time Lords had been restored.
Will that promise be kept? We shall see. I will admit that there's a great deal of risk involved here. Chibnall is approaching Moffat-levels of tinkering with Doctor Who mythology. I don't know what the upshot will be, and I'm sure it'll make a number of people unhappy–there's no getting around that. Clearly, there's some kind of retcon in store, and there's a decent chance that I'm not going to care for it. However, I do have to applaud Chibnall for being willing to go this far, especially since I was disappointed by how “safe” Series 11 felt.
Destroying the Time Lords has already changed the show, and especially the Doctor, in a good way. It's given Jodie Whittaker the chance to tap into the Doctor's deep pain and anger, which she did brilliantly in Spyfall Part 2. It's also re-established the mystery of her character for both the companions and the audience. This is a small thing, but I loved the moment when she said “Another time” in answer to Yaz's question about visiting her home planet. In that moment, Thirteen, who has been explaining everything and wearing all her emotions on her sleeve since she regenerated (often too much), becomes reticent and mysterious. That's the Doctor. Not Ms. Frizzle, the Doctor. Plus, even we, the audience, aren't sure of who the Doctor is. What does the Timeless Child mean for the Doctor's very identity? I'm not sure if I'll be satisfied once I do know, but for the moment, I'm quite enjoying not knowing. It takes me back to the very first Doctor Who episode I ever watched, “Rose”, in which the Ninth Doctor's little speech about feeling the turn of the Earth first clued me in to the fact that this wasn't just any old quirky British sci-fi show.
The Master also gets a reboot…though technically, he didn't need one. Basically, there were two options for the Master after “The Doctor Falls”–never bring him back, or reboot him. (Or bring back a past Master, but I really don't think there's a good way to make that theory for Dhawan's incarnation fit with the post-Time-War Gallifrey we see in this episode. Not impossible, but not likely.) I don't feel that what Chris Chibnall has done with the Master hurts Missy's amazing arc, though I understand why many might not agree with me. Yes, the Master has gone back to being evil after all the hard work Twelve put in on redeeming Missy, and her decision to step into the light in her final moments. But, at least some enormous revelation seems to have driven the current Master to this extreme, instead of him conveniently backsliding into his own ways for the sake of the plot. He has a reason. He found something so shameful in the Time Lords' past that it drove him to destroy his own people and to revert back to the lonely, furious Master of the Simm era. And yet, there's more to it than reversion. There's something new as well. As I mentioned earlier, the Dhawan Master is seeking comfort in chaos. That's his current raison d'etre. Like the Doctor, he's traumatized and on the run. He's not just burning everything for fun anymore; there's a desperation to his madness that we haven't seen since the days when he was a withered husk at the end of his first regeneration cycle. In a sense, this is the most “classic” Master we've seen in a very long time. (Plus, the “contact” and “four knocks” references were, respectively, great callbacks to both the classic and the Russell T. Davies eras.)
Much of the success of Chibnall's bold gambit relies on how the rest of this series plays out. Moffat often failed to stick the landing after bold promises in a premiere episode; I don't know if that will be the case with Chibnall or not. But at least we have an actual story to get excited about this year, and there are already some tangible benefits for the show from what Chibnall has done so far. On the whole, I'd call Spyfall Parts 1 and 2 a resounding success and a major improvement on the problems which plagued Doctor Who throughout Series 11. I don't know where we'll go from here, but I can't wait to find out.