TV Reviews

Doctor Who 12×01 – ‘Spyfall’ (Part One) – Review

“The name’s Doctor. The Doctor.”

She’s back, and it’s about time.

It’s been twelve whole months to the very day since Doctor Who was last on our telly screens. If a week’s a long time in politics, then a year’s a bloody long time for the fans of TV shows. Thankfully, it’s all been worth the wait, as we’ve got a programme which is at the height of its confidence.

The last series proved to be something of a curate’s egg, as it managed to produce a rift amongst fans the like of which had seldom been seen, partly down to the new showrunner Chris Chibnall, and partly due to the controversy over Jodie Whittaker’s casting as the first ever female incarnation of the Doctor. The #NotMyDoctor crowd turned their collective backs on the show, simply because their hero was no longer a man.

Well, it’s their loss, quite frankly, as if they’re still carrying on their boycott of the programme they’ve missed out on a real treat. Granted, Series 11 was a little shaky at times, but that can often be the way with a new Doctor and production team – it takes some time for them to fully settle into their roles, and it can be a steep learning curve. Well, on the basis of this season opener alone, they’ve managed to iron out all the kinks, and the training wheels are well and truly off.

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This hasn’t been anything as dramatic as a complete 180, more of just a gentle nudge in the shape of a minor course correction. Jodie Whittaker’s rather manic, turned-up-to-eleven portrayal of the Doctor didn’t win everyone over, and may have been a little too wacky for some people’s tastes; this time round, she’s properly found her feet, and while still zany as and when it’s required, she shows a steel and mettle which seemed to be lacking at points in her first run at the part.

It’s refreshing to see the Doctor out of her depth now and again, otherwise the character runs the risk of becoming some great cosmic know-it-all, with nothing to discover. Here, Chris Chibnall’s script throws the Doctor properly in at the deep end, putting her up against a race of mysterious, seemingly unstoppable aliens who she had no clues about when it comes to their identity, what their motives are, or how to fight them. You can genuinely believe the Doctor’s scared, especially when one alien nearly manages to break into the inner sanctum that is the previously impregnable TARDIS.

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The production team seems to have learnt that when it’s a case of go big or go home, you definitely need to do the former, especially when you need to make an impact and reestablish yourself on the TV landscape. It seems that no expense has been spared, as Doctor Who has seldom looked so grand or epic. Being a playful take on spy dramas – most obviously James Bond films – we get a globetrotting story, taking us from South Africa to Moscow, San Francisco to the Australian Outback. This helps establish the huge nature of the threat, whereas the Doctor Who of old rarely ventured outside the Home Counties.

Another way in which they’ve gone big here is in terms of the supporting cast, and they’ve certainly assembled an impressive lineup. Having previously written a script way back during David Tennant’s time as the Doctor, only for it to sadly go unused, Stephen Fry ends up getting a turn in front of the cameras instead, playing the head of MI6, ‘C’ (make up your own jokes, kids). He certainly does bring a certain gravitas to the part, but it’s hard not to be reminded of him playing spymaster ‘Control’ in A Bit Of Fry & Laurie.

Another ‘name’ who’s headlining the show is Lenny Henry, originally best known for his comedy turns, but in more recent years someone who’s firmly established himself as an actor in his own right. Those in the know will recall him playing the first black Doctor in a skit on The Lenny Henry Show all the way back in the ‘80s, so he’s already had a sort of connection to the series. Here, Henry’s interestingly cast against type, playing a (but not the) villain of the piece, billionaire tech magnate Daniel Barton – sort of like an evil Mark Zuckerberg (so, like… nevermind).

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However, what turns out to be one of the most important pieces of casting comes in the form of Sacha Dhawan. He’s another actor with links to Who, having portrayed the show’s first ever director, Waris Hussein, in Mark Gatiss’ 2013 50th anniversary docudrama An Adventure In Space And Time. Dhawan certainly gets to display his range here, in a moment towards the end that’s so wholly audacious, it’s something which manages to be simultaneously jaw-dropping, yet also enough to make you want to punch the air in sheer and utter delight.

And it all ends on a cliffhanger. Oh, what a cliffhanger, to boot. I love a good cliffhanger, and this was a truly great one. The Doctor truly outwitted, in mortal peril, and with no obvious way out of her predicament. Pure bliss. And only four days until we see how it’s resolved.

Still, does anyone have a TARDIS handy, so I can nip ahead and watch it now?

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