Welcome back, fellow Whovians, to Doctor Who! It’s been a whole year since we last caught up with Team TARDIS. But “Spyfall, Pt. 1” wastes no time in getting us wrapped into another mystery, so neither will I!
While Series 11 had several high points, showrunner and head writer Chris Chibnall struggled to write strong stories that brought both character development for the entire cast, raised the stakes and kept it fun. Whatever course corrections he made during 2019, they’re working wonderfully so far. “Spyfall, Pt. 1” is the best episode of the show that Chibnall has solely written to date. It drops us into a world of espionage that gives everyone a role to play, keeps the plot moving at a brisk pace while also slowing enough for good character beats, and ends with a hell of a cliffhanger.
The Doctor and her companions Yaz, Graham, and Ryan are picked up by MI6 to investigate the murders of intelligence agents across the globe by extraterrestrial beings. Once they arrive in London, the group is greeted by the head of MI6, C, played with aplomb by Stephen Fry. His presence adds some heft to what is basically an exposition role, before he’s murdered by the same creatures.
The only clue The Doctor and friends have to this new threat is the involvement Daniel Barton, CEO of a Google-style tech conglomerate called VOR. To tackle the problem, The Doctor assigns Yaz and Ryan to go undercover as reporters to investigate Barton under the guise of an interview, while The Doctor and Graham head to the Australian Outback to meet one of her contacts, Agent O, and see if he can help. Refreshingly, the team is facing a big enough mystery that everyone has something to contribute.
Yaz and Ryan make a good pair for the undercover work, with Yaz getting to use her police training and Ryan hilariously overthinking his cover. As Barton, comedian Lenny Henry brings a mixture of reserved mystery but also charm to the role. If we didn’t know he was already up to something, he could be a false lead. But Yaz and Ryan discover that the CEO’s DNA is only 93% and run into the creatures of light that were killing agents. At the same time, The Doctor, Graham and O discuss the phenomenon as well, with O’s MI6 paranoia and skillset allowing him to trap one of the beings. They come off as pretty creepy, not only for how they bleed through surfaces to get anywhere and everywhere (almost including the TARDIS!), but also for how they mock The Doctor’s efforts to stop them. The Doctor is a bit out of her depth here, one step behind the creatures and still unsure of their plans. It’s a nice change of pace from the godly, unstoppable Time Lord of the Steven Moffat era.
Attacked by the creature, Yaz is teleported to a strange environment, only for the captured alien to use her to swap places with himself. She survived, but Yaz is clearly shaken by the experience. Mandip Gill does some great work here, dealing with the fear of her near-death experience. The material gives her a chance to shine that was rarely seen last series.
After confronting Barton at his birthday party, and dressed in some snazzy tuxes, Team TARDIS, plus O, go on a cool motorcycle chase that really leans into the Bond-style send-up. It even ends with them running after Barton’s plane on takeoff, with O barely making it.
On the plane, the Doctor recalls that O is an expert sprinter, catching him in a lie about his athletic abilities. With that, O drops his serious, sweaty façade, smirks and reveals himself as the spymaster. Or, as he puts it, spy Master. Yes, O is actually The Doctor’s oldest adversary, The Master, back again! This version seems to have none of the potential for good found in Missy. Instead, he relishes in the destruction he’s causing. Actor Sacha Dhawan does a fantastic job of switching from the O persona to The Master, his glee reflecting The Doctor’s horror. He dances, he mugs for his audience, he flips to pure rage at a moment’s notice. It’s a brilliant surprise and performance.
To close out the episode, The Master sets off a cockpit bomb and has his light creatures teleport The Doctor to the same place where Yaz was, leaving her companions stuck in a damaged, falling jet with no parachutes on board. This is how you start a season! I can’t wait to see where this story and Series 12 go from here.
- The real O has been dead for years, as The Master displays his body shrunk down in a matchbox, courtesy of the old-school Tissue Compression Eliminator from the classic series. Plus, his house in the Australian Outback is actually his TARDIS, as it’s seen flying alongside the plane during his big reveal.
- Sacha Dhawan may look familiar to Whovians as he played the role of Waris Hussein, one of the early Doctor Who directors for An Adventure in Space and Time, a TV film about the making of the show. He’s clearly having a ball playing The Master. You’ll want to rewatch the episode and see all of O’s subtle comments as having far more sinister intent.
- The Master also tells The Doctor, “Everything you think you know is a lie.” Hmmm…
- Graham learns that The Doctor used to be a man, showing just how little her companions know about her.
- During the creatures’ attack at O’s Australian Outback home, The Doctor naturally says, “Let’s look outside.” Graham’s retort: “Looking outside was actually quite low on my list.”