An Opinionated Review of Doctor Who's 'Spyfall'
This focuses mainly on Part Two of the opening two-parter for the 2020 series of Doctor Who, and contains spoilers and some very personal opinion — but it’s what might be called an ‘educated’ opinion, as I’ve been following the show since it began in 1963 and have written extensively about it elsewhere.
After waiting throughout 2019 for the new series, expectations were high when it finally hit our screens on New Year’s Day, especially because the preceding series had been so controversial. But this brings up an important background point about Doctor Who: as the longest-running science fiction series of all time, it has accumulated both an enormous internal back story and a huge range of audience opinion. Add into that mix the prevalence of social media in the last decade or so, and it’s unlikely that the subject of Doctor Who can ever raise its head without also raising a storm of protest from some quarter. Keep that in mind while reading the following.
The first part of this thrilling two-parter left us with a number of cliffhanger questions, including who the light-beings were (many said that they thought their outline resembled that of the Cybermen — perhaps a deliberate red herring on the producers’ part?) and what was going on with that weird petrified forest? My first thought on watching Barton and discovering that he was 93% human was 1968’s ‘The Invasion’, perhaps the best of Patrick Troughton’s stories, in which a worldwide electronics company, International Electromatics, builds slave circuits into almost all electronic devices with the aim of conquering humanity — and the secretive villains modify their human servant Tobias Vaughan until he is bulletproof. The Big Reveal in that story was one of the high points of Who: mysterious figures burst through barriers (much like these shiny people in Spyfall) to eventually be recognised as Cybermen, sending dramatic chills down at leat one eight-year-old’s spine at the time.
To be honest, the last ten minutes of Part One, when the Doctor’s old MI6 pal ‘O’ turned out to have been the Master all along — the minutes which generated such excitement amongst watching fans, per social media — was a let-down for me. I’ve never been a fan of the Time Lords or this ‘evil twin’ trope of the Master, whose last incarnation played by Michelle Gomez was, in my opinion, one of the best, not least because there was some kind of character arc involved (now apparently nullified). But there is no doubt that it provided a great final cliffhanger for Part One, with the Doctor in the petrified forest (Skaro?) and a plane plummeting to Earth with all the companions in it.
Then Part Two brought us a triumphant pastiche: we had the Moffat-like mucking about with Time and the kidnapping of someone since they were a child as in Girl In The Fireplace; the Davies-like 'fugitives in modern Britain’ companions sub-plot, perception filters and the Time Lord heartbeats; and flashbacks to Classic moments: the ‘Contact’ telepathy between Time Lords springs to mind, for example.
Apart from a forward-thrusting narrative which pulsed along at a fair pace, there were some golden moments and performances, of which the foremost to me was Sylvie Briggs as Ada Gordon whose totally unexpected appearance in the petrified forest was gripping on many levels. Another such instance was the meeting of Doctor and Master atop the Eiffel Tower during the Second World War— Chibnall going for ‘iconic moment’ without much apparent effort.
Part Two is also when we start to see some real depth from Whitaker’s Doctor: a face-to-face meeting with a truly psychotic and sadistic Master, especially in the ‘Kneel and use my name’ scene gave her a chance to get into the bones of the role unlike any episode since she took over.
For me, the last ten minutes seemed rushed and too obviously ‘Let’s-lay-some-basic-groundwork-for-the-Doctor-during-the-Chibnall-period’-esque. But I was very happy with the content. And I’ll tell you why, as, if you’ve read this far, you might be interested.
When the Time Lords first made their appearance in 1968’s ‘The War Games’, they brought with them perhaps the biggest goosebump moment of the show’s 57-year history: they took away, in a stroke about as magnificent as possible given the special effects of the time, the whole mystery which had throbbed at the heart of the programme for the preceding five years: Doctor ‘who?’ Our central character's back story had been almost completely obscured up until that point -- even the show's producers and writers had not know who the Doctor was. Revealed as god-like beings majestically overseeing the fate of the universe, the appearance of his race of Time Lords was a fitting end to the tenure of Troughton (as well as Hartnell) and didn’t disappoint. It was what happened over the Pertwee years that ruined this: the god-like grandeur of the Doctor’s race was emasculated. The grand and god-like Time Lords were reduced to grotty, two-dimensional political corrupt patricians, awash with arrogance, and their mystery and glory was utterly dissipated. This got worse and worse throughout the next decade or so, until the wonderful enigma which had been at the core of the show was entirely gone.
One of Russell T. Davies’ strokes of genius on bringing the series back in 2005 was to remove this entire back story with one stroke: the Time Lords and their world were erased from history by an impenetrable Time War — with the Daleks, no less. The Doctor was left on his own again, with all the innate drama that that brought with it.
Gradually, ineluctably, the Time Lords crept back in, as though Gallifrey’s gravity exerted a real influence — and we had the debacle of Tennant’s ‘End of Time’ swan-song. Since then, we’ve had bubble universes and flashbacks and inexplicable appearances, ret-con after ret-con almost episode by episode until viewers were puzzled as to where the Time Lords were and whether they were active or not. Now, in Spyfall # 2, we have I hope a ‘final’ answer: an eradication that will leave a vacuum, which will in turn create a dramatic engine which can be used to add power and life and interest to many a future tale, if it’s left alone.
These things come in cycles. No doubt a new writer or show runner will (mistakenly, in my view) believe that Gallifrey and its inhabitants are due a return. But for the moment, a kind of theatrical balance has been restored and we have a protagonist with a really powerful motivation and a plot vacuum with real potential. Some hint of 'heart' has been returned to the show.
There’s lots more that could be said about Spyfall, but overall in it I sensed Chibnall clutching the reins tightly and bringing together many strands with a degree of success which I hadn’t looked for. So I was content, and now feel like watching the show based on its merits rather than because I have done so for 57 years.