They say time flies when you’re having fun and it would explain why this fast-paced, action-packed first hour of Doctor Who’s went by so very quickly. It’s a bold – very bold return for the venerable sci-fi. Also making a welcome return are the cold open and the opening credits, hopefully to stay this time. We’re presented with a classic Doctorless teaser where it would appear that some kind of phase-shifting alien race has reactivated that cold war classic ‘Smiert Spionam’ and is taking out operatives all over the world. It’s a perfectly mysterious set up for the theme tune sting into the titles. I’m still not in love with this arrangement of the theme tune – it always sounds to me like I’m listening to it through headphones where the jack isn’t quite plugged in properly – but I’d rather have opening credits than skip them altogether.
It’s a nice ‘getting-the-band-back-together’ montage, reminding us who’s who (and who has an extended family) – a necessity given the length of the hiatus but it does beg the question why is everyone focussed on how long the guys have ‘been away’? The doctor’s got a time machine, so extended absences shouldn’t really be an issue. Love the scene of the Doctor doing some external maintenance of the TARDIS, though, so much that I’m not even going to think about how that actually works with the outer plasmic shell at all.
Chibnall’s clearly still smarting from the criticism of the lack of action last season because a mere five minutes into the story proper and we’ve got a runaway robot car chase. There’s a real RTD feel to “Spyfall”. He’s still feeling a little bit prickly about his casting decisions too, hence the clumsy interchange with C (Stephen Fry) expecting Graham to be the Doctor and the Doctor’s slightly too defensive ‘Upgrade’ riposte. Still, it’s thankfully not dwelt on and we proceed to the mixing of the Doctor and the teaser plot. There’s disappointingly explicit confirmation that UNIT (and Torchwood) are no more having been unceremoniously decommissioned off-screen in “Resolution”. Despite the global nature of the threat, fifty years of Whovian internationalism summarily dismissed in favour of plucky Blighty going it alone. What next? Can we look forward to the Daleks Brexterminating anyone unwise enough to not have a blue passport on them at all times later in the season?
Stephen Fry makes for something of a classic “Doctor Who” government minister but, despite his heralded guest slot, he doesn’t last long as he’s assassinated within the headquarters of MI6. This is followed by another incursion by the phase-shifting aliens and, thrillingly, they also appear to be able to penetrate the TARDIS too.
From there, we’re off to California and the Australian outback as the adventure brings in its second and third guest stars the tech mogul Daniel Barton (Lenny Henry) and ex-MI6 analyst ‘O’ (Sacha Dhawan). From there on, Chibnall hews quite closely to his Bond-movie pastiche but he has a surprise up his sleeve – a big reveal in the last five minutes which turns the episode on its head.
“Spyfall” is a marked improvement on the previous season and everyone seems a little more settled in their characters, an ease with the roles that help them rise above some of the still clumsy dialogue, although the show is clearly still straining to find something for everybody to do. Some of Chibnall’s common faux pas are still on display: the Doctor remains hellishly cavalier about sending her companions into danger and everyone’s dialogue is clumsy, obvious and repetitious. When will Chibnall learn to show, not tell, and free his characters from the tedious burden of having to exposit to each other all the time (‘Is he just here for the running commentary?’ is a front-runner for inadvertent fourth-wall break of the decade)? But in general, the writing feels like there’s been some improvement, even if there’s still a ways to go.
The as-yet unnamed alien intruders are superbly creepy. Wonderfully realised in both their chameleonic emerging form and their blindingly bright fully manifested forms. There’s a vague resemblance between their silhouette and the last time we saw Omega but given the revelation delivered later, I’ve decided it probably won’t be that deep a cut. Their creepy forest of conduits is great too and their apparently extra-universal origins certainly seem to raise the stakes. Of course, if the threat is universal in scale, it begs the question of why the Doctor wouldn’t call on the Time Lords for help? This is exactly the kind of thing they tended to take an interest in, after all.
Chibnall promised us the biggest Doctor Who story ever but there are still times where the direction and production values still make it feel small and cheap. The action sequences are ambitious but the series’ reach exceeds its grasp, especially in a shoot-out chase scene on motorbikes where the static back-of-a-trailer close-ups are risibly discordant with the wide shots and apparently none of the cast can convincingly act like they’re riding a motorbike. It wants desperately to be international but, try as it might, Sheffield and South Africa just don’t quite convince as either California or Australia and some of the cinematography is dreadful, particularly the occasionally appallingly photographed confrontation between The Doctor and Daniel Barton. Speaking of that confrontation, it’s my favourite scene of the whole episode and the first time Jodie’s Doctor has really, really felt like the Doctor confronting a bad guy.
Unfortunately, Lenny Henry is badly miscast and deeply unconvincing as a tech giant genius bad guy. Chibnall seems focussed on building out a fictional Google for the Whoniverse with VOR but wants Barton to be a proxy for Mark Zuckerberg (although if that’s the intent, 93% human seems awfully high). It’s a good job, then, that Barton isn’t the big bad after all, just another stooge for the real villain of the piece – The Master, resurrected once again (in a presumably post-Missy) incarnation in the form of Sacha Dhawan. His characterisation is a bit all over the place – and a little too manic John Simm for my liking so far – but the utterly unexplained escape from absolutely certain doom in their last appearance and the archly convoluted long game to get to this point in time with the Doctor is absolutely on-brand for the universe’s second most famous renegade Time Lord so I’m glad they’re back.
While it may not earn the epithet of the biggest episode of “Doctor Who” ever – despite how skilfully Segun Akinola’s score works to maintain the Bond action vibe – but it certainly stakes a claim for biggest cliff-hanger ever. And there’s the rub. Part ones are easy. Chibnall has thrown a lot of balls into the air and the trick is now to catch them convincingly in part two. As well as resolving the immediate peril of the cliff-hanger (the ‘fam’ marooned on a crashing plan, the Doctor stuck in the alien Upside Down of tumble dryer exhaust pipes), we need to know who the aliens are, where they’re from and why they’re in league with/ working for The Master? If their scheme is universal, why is it centred on Earth and what role does Daniel Barton actually play? To borrow a phrase from Indiana Jones, another action icon, Chibnall has shown us that he can fly a plane – but can he land it?