“Two pacifists and a 19th Century descendant of Byron, against the Nazis in Paris, and an alien invasion across multiple dimensions. That’s a big ‘to-do’ list.”
Well, like the Doctor emptying out her capacious pockets, there was certainly a lot to unpack. And, at times, something of am overambitious hot mess, with ‘Spyfall’ seeming to fall into the trap of other previous two-part stories by going a little off track, and not quite delivering a satisfactory resolution. To say that ‘Spyfall’ (Part Two) was ‘busy’ would be an understatement of near-monumental proportions.
The main thing to address here was the big reveal at the end of last week’s cliffhanger, with Sacha Dhawan being revealed as the latest incarnation of renegade Time Lord the Master. One of the good things about Doctor Who is that there are a few perennial elements of the show that Joe Public knows, even if they’re not avid or regular viewers – the Doctor, the TARDIS, Gallifrey, Time Lords, and the Master, to name but a few. The Master’s also been featured a number of times since the series returned in 2005, portrayed variously by Sir Derek Jacobi, John Simm, and Michelle Gomez.
The last two paired up in Peter Capaldi’s penultimate tale in 2017, ‘World Enough And Time’/’The Doctor Falls’, where Gomez’s incarnation – known as Missy – had gone through a change of heart(s), and was about to make a final stand with the Doctor. However, her predecessor was sickened by what he would become, and after being mortally wounded by Missy, he returned the favour, by apparently killing her with no hope of regeneration, in the most literal murder/suicide pact you’re ever likely to see.
Fans love things to be neatly explained about as much as they like exactly the opposite. Sometimes, they’d rather have things left ambiguous so that they can come up with their own version of what’s happened. Inevitably, the Internet was ablaze with speculation and arguments about how the Master could return after he/she (pronouns are tricky if you’re a Time Lord) had seemingly died. It’s the sort of thing that’s best left for them to quibble over, as the casual viewer probably doesn’t necessarily remember what happened last time; all they need to know is that it’s the Doctor’s best enemy, who keeps popping up like a bad penny.
Of course, Series 11 avoided past continuity like the plague, and did its utmost not to reference anything which had gone before, presumably to avoid overloading any new audience. The ‘Year Zero’ take mirrored Russell T. Davies’ approach in 2005, only moreso, as it steered clear of mentioning or explaining anything from the show’s history. Now, showrunner Chris Chibnall is freed up to let some of this legacy come to the surface, and we got a handy ‘Q&A’ info dump right at the episode’s end, to helpfully clear up what had just happened for any viewers who might be flailing a bit. And after the big, climactic revelation here, it was sorely needed.
Dhawan has excelled in giving us a Master with genuine menace, and a sense of real unpredictability and instability, who could genuinely do – and, evidently, did – the unthinkable. Coming after Gomez’s ‘Mary Poppins on speed’ performance, virtually anything would have come as an improvement, but Dhawan genuinely does deliver, and is shown to be not only ruthless, but also a real threat. It was, however, a nice touch to have the Master hoist by his own peTARDIS. Sadly, the only thing which took the edge off the huge reveal of the Master’s act of revenge was the fact that it came across like a remix of Russell T. Davies’ greatest hits, and had an awful sense of déjà vu, rather than pushing the show in a new direction.
In fact, although the whole episode built up to the unveiling of a new, epic story arc (first hinted at in Series 11’s ‘The Ghost Monument’), Chibnall’s script was quite frankly all over the place. For starters, it came up with one of the most contrived, timey-wimey resolutions for a cliffhanger which even Steven Moffat would have been embarrassed to put out. The sidelining of the Doctor for most of the action didn’t help move things along, and the time hopping – complete with introduction of historical figures – really didn’t seem to gel properly; it almost felt like Chibnall had incorporated fragments of two separate stories ideas he couldn’t quite get to work on their own, and crowbarred them in here.
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One of the biggest disappointments in all this was the almost total waste of Lenny Henry. His character – tech magnate Daniel Barton – was almost irrelevant for much of the episode, and was only there at the end to make a not-so-scathing bit of supposed commentary about social media and privacy, before escaping unscathed when things went wrong. It seems that Chibnall still hasn’t learnt the lessons of Series 11, when far too many baddies got away without consequences. It feels as though ‘Spyfall’ might have been better served if Barton had been the sole villain in cahoots with the alien invaders, or the Master had been masquerading as Barton. Alas, he just felt surplus to requirements here, with a strangely muted performance from Henry throughout.
However, there were also some positives to be found in ‘Spyfall’ (Part Two), most notably with Whittaker doing a compelling job in dispelling any doubts people may have about her playing the Doctor – she was magnetic when facing off against the Master in 1943 Paris, and more than held her own against him, as well as convincingly conveying her heart(s)break when finding out the truth of what the Master had told her. Both her and Dhawan even managed to get through with their dignity mostly intact after the weirdly off-kilter psychosexual moment when the Doctor’s made to kneel before him and call him ‘Master’. That’s offputting and wrong on so many more levels than I could ever hope – or want – to address.
So, very much a game of two halves, not just between the two instalments, but even within the same episode. Tonally, it was all over the place, veering from silliness with laser shoes, to crushing and world-changing disclosures. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite manage to even be the sum of its parts, yet still somehow delivered something which was at times thrilling and engaging. The news that there are more two-part tales later in the series doesn’t exactly inspire confidence, but perhaps time will tell.