Doctor Who: 12-02 “Spyfall, Part 2” Review
Reviewed by Ryan Monty.
(This review continues spoilers. Read on if that doesn’t bother you!)
Talk about making up for lost time after a year away, Spyfall-Part 1 saw our heroes split up and The Master returned, all summed up for us neatly in a novel little “previously on” Doctor Who narration from Jodie. So, the situation is a little dire leading into Spyfall-Part 2 (how very retro) and the Chris Chibnall era’s first attempt to combat the oft-dreaded diminishing return pitfalls of a Doctor Who two-parter.
In truth, looking at Spyfall in full, Chris Chibnall has certainly cribbed dramatic flourishes from his two modern predecessors, continuing the breakneck pace of Russell T Davies’ showmanship or some patented Steven Moffat timey-wimey. For a cliffhanger which saw The Doctor lost and with Yaz, Ryan, and Graham crashing on a plane, it’s a typically daft Who solution to the high stakes- bringing out a cute character callback for Ryan and some great physical comedy from Bradley Walsh (making up for his background designation last time).
There was no greater background presence last time than Sacha Dhawan’s O- or should we say, The Master. It was a performance that had me on tenterhooks from the reveal and Dhawan’s Master is fully realised here – allowed to run through a playbook of tricks new and old in his star turn. Aided by his TARDIS (which is…still a house! And with odd but cool touchpads on the console!) and one of Segun Akinola’s most accomplished themes yet, dripping in pure triumphant – and at times more sympathy inducing – evil, The Master’s influence is keenly felt. Measured and manipulative until he feels his authority slipping, responding with spiteful, childish histrionics. There’s a bitter menace within his euphoria, a calmness until the façade slips, his rage on very thin ice.
It’s a masterstroke (sorry) to pit him against Jodie Whittaker’s Thirteen. She has needed someone at this threat level to bring out her darker edges, and they positively bristle against each other. There’s a sense of rediscovery to their relationship, even amongst the references to their prior battles (“contact”, four knocks, Logopolis, oh my). While disappointing Missy’s development has been smoothed over (though a reference to “the betrayals” from Thirteen could hint towards how she didn’t know Missy’s ultimate fate after she stood with the Simm Master), it’s a joy to see Dhawan’s massive anger and glee in this new incarnation as he tests and chases The Doctor to finally get her attention for the story’s huge dénouement.
It all lets Jodie dive Thirteen into new depths. The Eiffel Tower meeting as she dresses him down, sheer contempt written on her face, validates The Master’s return as development for her. Watching the two of them spar across time is fascinating, with the Eiffel Tower scene even leading to physical confrontation. Though her leaving him to be likely taken to a concentration camp is rather uncomfortable. Their moment in the inventor’s gallery is another highlight, letting The Master be darkly humorous (and for us to see the Tissue Compression Eliminator in action!) before ordering The Doctor to kneel, authoritatively demanding she says his name- like Simm did- describing how killing people makes him feel. Whatever your thoughts on bringing the character back just twelve episodes after such a bittersweet story, Dhawan is a genius bit of casting for maybe the most unnerving Master portrayal we’ve had.
The Master is such an overpowering force here that it’s in a bit of a detriment to the other villains. Lenny Henry’s Daniel Barton is a villainous presence for the rest of the gang, yet other than a couple of strange video calls and a neat scene where his captured mother brushes off his petulant desire to be appreciated for his success, he shuffles into the background this week. Even at our story’s close, Henry delivers a wonderfully sneering, judging speech, addressing the audience and continuing our Big Tech, security and surveillance themes from last week- quite literally laying out the basic things his company give the public against the gigantic information they give in return, signing everything away against your interests. He simply exits stage left once the plan is foiled without much fanfare (even if “there’s an app for that” is a terrifically witty line). The ghostly Kasaavin too are secondary, with little going for them other than a handful of spooky visuals again as they appear out of the dirt and gather en masse. It’s a shame given the potential they had. Whilst they all form a classic Master uneasy alliance and his ultimate punishment is fitting, there’s a lot left by the wayside between them.
The plot suffers from the sheer amount packed into the script. The two Time Lords sparring and playing 3D chess across time (with The Master in different costumes, including a literal Nazi commander) is fascinating and works, but the actual details of the story are so dense, the villain’s plans a little poorly defined, so while it’s satisfying enough, it all clumsily comes together by the end. It’s always enjoyable to see The Doctor thrill over meeting historical figures, this time two important, stunning women from history in WWII British spy Noor Inayat Khan (Aurora Marion) and 18th century computer forerunner Ada Lovelace (Sylvie Briggs), but Marion doesn’t have much to do, even if she gets to show off Khan’s determination, sure-footedness, and bravery well.
Briggs as Lovelace has a bit more involvement, showing off her well-spoken, intelligent and proactive nature. And the three are a good team, however, the focus is too busy being elsewhere to fully enjoy it. Still, the three amigos have a heartfelt and powerful moment as Ada discovers the war to come (reminiscent of Mark Gatiss and that “One” discovery in Twice Upon a Time) and The Doctor assures her that darkness never prevails. The production design for the periods is also realised superbly, with the candle lighting in the 18th-century hall giving a particularly gorgeous look.
Even if the story has a sugar rush focus, splitting The Doctor and her friends allows them to develop separately to analyse their relationship. Jodie is fantastic, carrying scenes with confidence- no more falling behind. While she’s still playful, she takes charge, bravely takes a stand. She calms herself, talks herself through situations, thinks on the spot, deducts where she is, confidently tells a crowd of onlookers that she’s The Great Apparating Man (Lady). When The Master strolls into view. While Thirteen is maybe a bit too fond still of relaying the story, it’s a joy to see Jodie working things out, propelling events forward with determination, especially as the story barrels towards its conclusion and she must get her new mates to trust in her manic energy. When Ada tells Noor that The Doctor is wise and unafraid, we believe her, because we’ve *seen* it.
Yaz, Ryan, and Graham get a very The Sound of Drums on-the-run story, evolving the spy motif from Bond into Bourne territory. While it’s very much playing second-fiddle, they’re still involved- Bradders and his dancing laser shoes forcing special agents to timidly put their weapons down as Ryan explains the plan is very funny, but the peak of their thread is their construction site chat. It might be retroactive, but it highlights how little they know of The Doctor again, needed to finally get around that problem, and shows off some of their learning so far- with each of their responses to how they’d deal with the dire trouble thinking what The Doctor would do. Analysing the situation together, with some humour- these are the insights we so badly need into them regularly!
While it’s rushed coming together, the resolution of Spyfall-Part 2 is still engaging, The Master’s almost boiling confidence falling foul of The Doctor’s knowing assurance in herself- even if the resolution happening off-screen feeling like a cheat. The time-loop wrapping up is a laugh at least (that video feel a little Blink doesn’t it?) while I’m unsure of Thirteen’s mind-wiping (has she ever done that to historical figures before? Much less after we established a couple of series ago it’s not a good thing?) Even if her chat to asleep, Ada about her being the first to “figure it out” is nicely melancholic.
And then our series story arc is lain out- The Master having destroyed (a finally mentioned and visited!) Gallifrey’s citadel and people, having discovered an awful secret revolving around the Timeless Child. The Ghost Monument tying back in, Series 12 gains some real thrust here, even if I’m personally hesitant as it seems like a retread of previous drama. Nevertheless, it’s worth it for now at least- to see Thirteen become pensive, pent-up frustration showing. We’ve rarely seen her as vulnerable than as under that luminous mood lighting- nor as solitary and very old history holding than when she explains, at last, some of her story to her friends. It’s much-needed development for this era and I welcome it, with reservations (meanwhile, *please* let the cast do something around this new spacious TARDIS other than awkwardly standing around!)
With so many spinning plates, it’s a miracle Spyfall-Part 2 is as enjoyable as it is. While the plot elements clunkily come together as plans are revealed, it still mostly manages to be mysterious and entertaining. By bringing into focus how little The Doctor’s friends know her, setting up a massive story arc for the series, we can hope that the Chibnall era is done with what felt last series like treading water. I hope that certain plot developments aren’t going to turn out to be the show’s Rise of Skywalker, but the ambition on display throughout both parts of this story is an admirable enough statement of intent. Sacha Dhawan’s Master bringing out the best in Jodie Whittaker is worth the price of admission alone. Next week brings the new story from the writer of my favourite Series 11 episode, Ed Hime, so let’s hope the momentum keeps up!