In case you weren’t here for my episode reviews of Chris Chibnall’s first series of Doctor Who, let me catch you up: I didn’t care for it. I thought the visuals were muddy, the writing painful, the exposition sludgy, and the Rosa Parks episode, although well-meaning, an enormous mistake. However, I did enjoy the New Year’s special, which though imperfect felt like an across-the-board improvement, and on that basis I maintained an air of cautious optimism for the followup series. Lord knows Jodie Whittaker wouldn’t be the first Doctor to have a rough first year on the job.
Well, it’s been a full year since Resolution restored my optimism, and at long last we have the premiere of a new series of Who: Spyfall. Or rather, Spyfall Part One, with part two coming on Sunday. This is a review of an incomplete story, and as such everything I say about it is a bit tentative. But I feel pretty confident saying that, unless Spyfall Part Two is a complete and total bomb, I was right to be optimistic. This series is off to a much stronger start than the previous one.
Right off the bat, you can tell that there’s been some sort of shift in production. Gone is the grim faux-prestige drama look that so plagued series eleven; the show now looks a lot more like itself, without sacrificing any visual fidelity. The colors pop, the camera is properly focused, and everything just looks better. They didn’t quite take my advice about having Graham and Ryan drag an old couch in, but the TARDIS interior set has been substantially expanded and improved, improving its appearance, giving the actors more to interact with, and to make it easier to film in. That last one is particularly important; apparently maneuvering the camera around the original set was a nightmare, which is why so little of the first series takes place in the TARDIS and why what little there was was shot so bizarrely.
Likewise, structurally, this feels like a return to form. There’s a mystery presented to the Doctor – and the audience – and the Doctor actively attempts to get to the bottom of it. That sounds like a low bar to clear, and it is, but given how much of series eleven was spent with the Doctor simply being a passive observer, or having no mystery whatsoever, it feels like a breath of fresh air. There’s actual tension!
Who are these weird aliens? Why are they attacking spies all over the world? How does Google-standin VOR’s (sigh) CEO Daniel Barton fit into the picture? I don’t yet understand, but the show has my interest. The new alien antagonists are suitably creepy and inscrutable – so inscrutable that I honestly don’t know what to make of them yet. This is the element that I feel is most tentative.
But of course, we would be remiss in discussing the villain of the piece without discussing the villain of the piece, so if for some reason you care about spoilers and have read this far, you should stop here.
Still with me? Okay.
Sacha Dawan absolutely kills it as the Master in the episode’s final minutes. The reveal is pretty expertly performed, and if it’s not quite my favourite modern Master reveal, it’s only because the competition is absolutely top-rate. Dawan plays the part like a man who has been sitting on the punchline to a joke for years, and is absolutely thrilled to be able to finally deploy it. He has some of the manic energy that Simm and Gomez brought to the role, but wrapped up in a tightly restrained facade – a facade that only cracks once, when he perceives the Doctor as underestimating him.
To be fair, the Master-reveal cliffhanger is the easy part; delivering a compelling Master story is a good deal more difficult, and of New Who, I’d argue that only Missy’s premiere and finale stories really completely stuck the landing. But if part two bobbles the pass, I’m pretty sure it won’t be Dawan’s fault.
The Master’s presence in itself is a response to an issue with Chibnall’s first series. Until the series-capping new year’s day special, there was a total absence of any of Doctor Who’s classic villains from series eleven. No Cybermen, no Daleks, no Master. While I can understand the impulse to want to add to the mythos instead of leaning on it, I think there’s nothing wrong with letting familiar iconography and villains carry some of the load while your version of the show is still finding its feet.
Well, it looks like we’ll have returning villains out the wazoo this series: in addition to the Master, the BBC have confirmed that the Cybermen and everybody’s favorite space rhino rent-a-cops the Judoon will be putting in appearances. Also missing from the previous series were multi-part stories, and we’re certainly putting that one to bed immediately.
Unfortunately, I’m afraid my praise for this episode can only be so effusive. While it’s certainly the best episode of Doctor Who Chibnall has written, save perhaps Resolution, it’s still a Chibnall episode. There’s some really godawful dialogue in spots, especially coming from the two Australian secret service agents who were so obviously dead the moment they walked onto camera that they might as well have been wearing red Starfleet uniforms. But my big bugbear with the dialogue is that as soon as an action scene of any kind starts, Chibnall apparently forgets entirely that television is a visual medium. This episode is dotted with numerous examples of characters explaining out loud things that are happening in front of them. This is a necessary if sometimes awkward device in audio dramas, but Chris. Chris, you’re not writing for Big Finish. When, for example, the car containing our protagonists is hurtling backwards towards a section of unfinished overpass, you don’t need Graham to yell ‘The road’s out, we’re heading towards the edge!’. It’s called a television show for a reason. you can just show us. Even the ending of the episode, which I otherwise loved, is spoiled a bit by this.
Given that most of these lines are delivered with the speaking character facing away from the camera, I’m really curious how many of these pointless explanatory lines were in the original script, and how many he had added in post out of fear that viewers would have trouble following the events. Does he really not understand how to write for a visual medium, or does he just lack faith in his director and audience? Who knows. Regardless, these lines are real clunkers.
(I also have to wonder if Chibnall knew what he was doing when he named his Google standin VOR, pronounced exactly like that other word. But either way we now have Stephen Fry very seriously informing us that ‘vore is more powerful than most nations’ on camera, so I suppose I shouldn’t complain)
Regardless. The episode has faults, and I wouldn’t call it an all-time greatest; but it’s solid, and bodes well for the remainder of the series. I feel much better about the upcoming series than I did at the end of The Woman Who Fell To Earth, and if this episode is indicative of the overall quality of the series, it’ll be at least enjoyable.