Doctor Who: Spyfall Part 1 - Review

Like all the movies in the Spy-genre, it was inevitable looking back that Spyfall Part 1 would end with a shocking reveal. Most films in that genre do that half-way through them but I don't think that many people were expecting the character reveal we actually got but I'll talk about all of that later. After a year where Doctor Who wasn't on our screens, showrunner and head-writer, Chris Chibnall, brought it back with a bang, following the New Year's Day special in 2019, Resolution. And when I say 'with a bang' I mean that literally, the cliff-hanger was a real "How are they gonna get out of that one," moment with The Master, played by Sacha Dhawan having finally revealed his master plan, (get it?), and leaving the Doctor's companions stranded on a crashing plane, with the Doctor having been teleported away. After a shaky debut season, Jodie Whittaker's era finally feels like the brakes are off and this was a statement that this new season isn't going to mess around.

Of course, the cliff-hanger made it much more fun to speculate on how they were going to resolve it than it was to look back on the excellent episode we had just seen and that is to be expected. With any two-part episode, the opening episode is supposed to set things up, which Spyfall Part 1 does brilliantly. And unlike Resolution, what I really enjoyed was that it didn't feel it necessary to include an obligatory New-Year's Day reference, and seemed much more interested in just kicking off the new season.

Following a re-introduction to the Doctor and her companions, Graham, Ryan and Yaz, and showing us how their travels have impacted their lives over the past year, Chibnall throws us into a story that The X-Files would have been proud off. I really liked that he seemed to hint at the fact that the Doctor and her companions don't travel together all the time. Ryan and Yaz both go back to their jobs and Yaz has to still deal with her family. Graham has to still attend post-cancer check ups. It was an element that Chibnall tried with Clara but it works better here, mainly because these are companions we actually like. But it doesn't take long for the gang to be brought back together and thrown into a spy-thriller, following a car-scene with a Satnav which reminded me of the ATMOS-Sontaran story from David Tennant's era on the show.

Arriving at MI6, the gang are introduced to Stephen Fry's C, who enlists their help in uncovering the mystery surrounding spies who have died over the course of the year. C suspects that something is afoot, though he doesn't initially suspect alien involvement because he believes that organisations like UNIT and Torchwood still exist. Torchwood finally fell with Captain Jack and Gwen in Miracle Day and in Resolution, it seemed that Brexit of all things, was responsible for UNIT no longer existing. Following a scene which was reminiscent of Fry's performance as an operative in Stormbreaker, where the gang are giving a number of unsuspecting gadgets, Ryan and Yaz find themselves in the States investigating the mysterious Daniel Barton, played by Lenny Henry, while the Doctor and Graham investigate the alien threat with the mysterious 'O', played by Sacha Dhawan.

Thinking about it though, O's backstory doesn't make a great deal of sense. If C knew of the existence of Torchwood and UNIT and O believed that aliens were infiltrating the Earth, then why didn't he just get a transfer to either UNIT or Torchwood? Well, actually, given who O eventually turned out to be, perhaps it was for the best, though I would have loved to see the Master take on Torchwood. I'd bet he could wipe the floor with all of them!

But that is just another example of how you just have to go with it and it does help that this story isn't afraid to lean on some of the goofier aspects of Doctor Who. And the references to spy-thriller movies are aplenty throughout the episode with C being a reference to James Bond's M, car chases, Daniel Barton's casino-inspired birthday party and nod to Tom Cruise's, Mission Impossible with the gang jumping onto a moving plane.

And Spyfall Part 1 is actually better at giving us a action comedy than it is at a mystery. But it seems to get a little bit muddled in the middle because it's clear it intends to raise more questions at this stage than the answers we get in episode 2. With Barton's DNA telling us he is only 93% human and in an enigmatic partnership with some strange aliens, who seem to be made out of light. The goal of these aliens seems to involve multiple Earth's.  They looked brilliant when they weren't in their light persona's, walking through walls and indeed, the TARDIS, supposedly one of the safest places in the universe, taking on the texture of whatever they've just walked through. Their voices were great too, reminding me of the terrifying 456 from Torchwood's Children of Earth arc.

The story's runtime might have been a little better served had it delved into some character story rather than giving unanswered questions but again, that's the very nature of a two-part story. But that only felt missed because the character storylines we got were so great. Yaz, played by Mandip Gill didn't get much to do last series and so it was nice that Gill got a chance to show us what she can do here, with Yaz being teleported to a strange dimension. When she gets back, she tells us she thought she was dead in a surprisingly emotional moment which helped cement a friendship between her and Ryan. Series 11 seemed to deal with the Grandfather/Son relationship between Graham and Ryan and this series seems to be looking at Ryan and Yaz.

Over the course of the two episodes, what Spyfall is really great at is delving into the sometimes murky waters surrounding the use of technology and our reliance or over-reliance on it. Chibnall makes sure to continue his educational trend and takes some time out of the story to explain to us about Barton's Google-Esc company and how those companies are now more powerful than the countries they originate from. And with governments falling behind on their understanding of the technology they are producing, the market opens up from people like Barton to take advantage to the resulting confusion, seeping into every property from home-tech to military.

I did appreciate the more mature take on the technology-babble. Davies and Moffat's eras took a little but of a lighter handle on it with killer Satnav's and Wi-Fi. And while I'm not too sure that Barton as a character fit too well into the proceedings, it was clear that he wasn't entirely supposed too. He wasn't the real-villain here, despite being in cahoots with the aliens.

The biggest thing to take away from Spyfall Part 1 though was the re-introduction of the Master. I've always liked Dhawan as an actor, and remember him playing a role in the 50th anniversary documentary, An Adventure in Time and Space. And he was also in Iron Fist. And this story gives him plenty to do. He is initially introduced to us as a loveable nerd, perhaps he was inspired by Osgood in the Capaldi era, who is obsessed with the Doctor and flirts a little with Yaz. And then he goes full on Master at the end, effortlessly capturing what it means to be that character in the Modern era, though I would have liked him to be a little more suave like Roger Delgado's Master from Jon Pertwee's era. Instead his version of the Master seems to be even more unhinged than John Simm's or Michele Gomez's. But I actually liked it. I love Gomez in the role, but I've had a love/hate relationship with Simm. I don't think he was right for the part, but Dhawan seemed to win me round from the beginning, so he must have done something right.

And the clues to O's real persona were there from the very beginning too. I first thought something was off when he was telling Graham he had records of all the Doctor's previous outings and then when he made a comment about looking for the spymaster, but I'll admit I thought that Lenny Henry was going to be the Master. But through the use of the Master, this episode shows us how little the companions actually know about the Doctor. That coupled with the Master's mysterious line to the Doctor about everything she thinks she knows is a lie, promises a larger story-arc that the last series was missing.

As the Master and the Doctor vanish and Ryan, Graham and Yaz are left on a doomed plane, Spyfall Part 1 ends on a tantalising hook. Leaving questions hanging around the Doctor's ears that are promising to crash just like the doomed plane her companions are trapped on. Doctor Who is back and its finally as brave and bold as it ever was!