Opening Series 12 with a few tried and tested flourishes from Russell T. Davies’ playbook (dropping us into various global locations in Part One of the distinctly Bondian “Spyfall”) was a good start, intimating that showrunner Chris Chibnall and his team took time to reflect on the rather uneven nature of their first year at the controls of Doctor Who. The pre-broadcast talk from cast and crew of raising the bar with Series 12 was, by the time the end titles of “Spyfall” rolled up the screen, not just PR spin. This was a bold start.
And Doctor Who needed to raise its game a little. As a fan, I found myself biding my time with Series 11, like supporting a football team having a bad season when new management takes over. Not that I know anything whatsoever about sport, but for all the positives—such as Jodie Whittaker’s casting, increasing the diversity of actors, writers and directors, the stripped-back titles and music, and capitalising on the cinematic—there were several unfortunate negatives, including the difficulties of establishing and developing an ensemble of companion characters. This was a problem that the series has faced several times, with the Susan/Barbara/Ian triumvirate in the 1960s and to a much greater degree with the Adric/Tegan/Nyssa set up in the early 1980s. As a result of Chibnall’s desire to start from scratch, last year’s standout episodes seemed offset by stories that were too simplistic, and there was a struggle to establish a consistent tone with the storytelling and characterisations. Yaz (Mandip Gill), in particular, was a casualty of this approach.
“Spyfall” had a welcome opening showing each of the companions adjusting their lives around their extraordinary travels with The Doctor, reintroducing each of them to audiences in economical scenes that contrasted their adventures to the every day: Ryan’s (Tosin Cole) basketball game reminded us of his dyspraxia, a medical appointment to underline Graham’s (Bradley Walsh) health and recent bereavement, and Yaz arranging a fourth secondment from her probation period as a police officer. All while The Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) prepped the TARDIS in a local garage for the next adventure.
Naturally, like the missing spies at the heart of the story, leading their undercover lives in time and space means they have to come up with plausible reasons for their absence from friends, family, and bosses. I loved the scene with Yaz’s family as her dad tries to get Alexa to play “Rubber Soul” and was, as we’ve all experienced, misunderstood and instead informed where the nearest shoe shop is! Her sister nags Yaz for a certain phone number and this is paid off in a later scene when Ryan confirms with Yaz that he’s interested in going out with her sister and wants her number. There’s also a lovely little moment after Yaz’s ordeal in a “nowhere” dimension, where Ryan promises to keep her safe. It’s these little touches that make the characters more relatable.
To give each of them a fair crack of the whip, Chibnall wisely splits the team up and, for the most part, this works. After a globe-trotting pre-titles sequence that establishes the mysterious disappearance of spies across the world (composer Segun Akinola’s incidental music appropriately riffing off John Barry’s morse code flavoured ‘007’ cue used in From Russia With Love (1963) during the Moscow scenes), “the fam” are gathered together by MI6 spooks using the “worst Uber ever” according to Graham. On their way to MI6 HQ, “Spyfall” ratchets up the action quotient as a deadly sat nav incinerates their driver. Director Jamie Magnus Stone indulges in fast cutting, overhead shots and zooms as The Doctor struggles to control the car and thwart the sat nav’s attempts to kill them. The story’s Bondian conflation with the British is further underlined in his shots of the London Eye and MI6.
C (Stephen Fry), having missed the memo about The Doctor’s gender upgrade, immediately assumes Graham’s the Time Lord described in his files. Is this poking fun at the expense of the #NotMyDoctor section of the fandom, I wonder? C quickly briefs The Doctor and her companions: agents have been attacked using sophisticated technology and one of them, found unconscious on a flight to Tokyo, has had her DNA rewritten and corrupted. C appeals to The Doctor for help and to facilitate their recruitment as spies, bestowing upon them appropriate Bondian equipment (laser shoe guns, rocket-launcher cuff-links, to tongue-immobiliser chewing gum). I was half expecting C to ask Graham and Ryan, who both gleefully embrace a chance to be 007, to pay attention and bring the equipment back in pristine order.
Public enemy number one is former agent Daniel Barton (Lenny Henry playing things seriously as a Bond Villain megalomaniac), who’s an unsubtle stand-in for Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, or Sundar Pachai, offering a subtext iterating our current fears that products are manipulating reality and exploiting social media for political and propagandist ends. Barton’s VOR search engine is emblematic of the networked world we find ourselves living in and the algorithms we’re at the mercy of. The Doctor suggests that C get in touch with Horizon Watcher, an agent up to the task of investigating Barton.
Can’t UNIT or Torchwood help? Surprisingly, according to The Doctor, “they’re all gone.” When did that happen? Where did they go? However, before C can reveal who Barton might be working for, he gets it in the neck. “Oh!” he gasps, giving us a big clue before the twist at the end of the tale. Despite his brief appearance, Fry was clearly having a lot of fun here.
Weird figures start to emerge from their surroundings as The Doctor and her companions dodge the firepower and head for the TARDIS. Visually, these entities seem to appropriate the features around them—one emerges from a British flag and another from a portrait of Queen Victoria. The Empire is under siege and even the TARDIS doors cannot hold these creatures back! A quick Whatsapp to Horizon Watcher provides The Doctor with encoded coordinates, hidden within the pixels of the photo he sent to her. Appropriately, this is all about disguises and covert operations, as after their escape The Doctor sends Yaz and Ryan to snoop on Barton in San Francisco while she and Graham pay a visit to Horizon Watcher in the Australian outback.
At this point, “Spyfall” slows in pace as we’re introduced to Barton and Horizon Watcher/O (Sacha Dhawan, who played Who director Waris Hussein in 2013’s docu-drama An Adventure in Space and Time). The nervous Ryan and the determined Yaz secure an interview with Barton, working undercover as photographer and journalist respectively. He only indulges them because they’re British and because “my mum reads your paper” and it’s interesting that Henry’s character touches on black representation when describing his childhood, succeeding despite “being one of the few non-white faces at my school.”
There was, if you recall, a bit of a hoo-ha when Henry’s comment in a radio interview that “there’s no black people in Doctor Who” was taken out of context on social media. It was seized upon as a criticism there had never been black characters in the series when, in fact, he was observing there was perhaps less representation in the current series—particularly after the RTD era, and in UK TV drama per se. Whether you agree with him or not, it wasn’t an edifying sight witnessing the social media pile-on. Yaz pointedly remonstrates with Barton that he has ignored how the disinformation spread by his VOR search engine can lead to “online abuse… cyberbullying.” Barton reminds us that, despite his efforts to combat this, in the world of data manipulation and X-Files levels of paranoia, “you can’t entirely trust everyone.” Can anyone trust Barton when his DNA profile also registers him as only 93% human?
The Doctor meets O, a.k.a Horizon Watcher. Taking tea in his ramshackle Oz home, complete with mint editions of that bastion of the conspiracy theory and the unexplained The Fortean Times, he tells The Doctor he’s concerned the aliens will track them down. As darkness falls, the intruders indeed attack O’s homestead. We don’t get to find out what the ghostly creatures are (“not used to this planet or maybe even this reality” observes The Doctor), their origin no doubt left as a question for Part 2, but they’re suitably unnerving when they overwhelm O’s bodyguards and force him, Graham, and The Doctor to retreat. Somehow, O has the tech to fend them off and isolate one of them inside the house. Graham, entertainingly played by Walsh, has a lovely way of stating the obvious and, as O notes, providing the obligatory companion’s running commentary as The Doctor interrogates the ghostly creature and determines the aliens intend to take possession of the universe.
Meanwhile, Ryan and Yaz hack into Barton’s computer but are interrupted when he returns. Barton, apparently, is in league with the aliens and warns them to proceed with discretion. After Barton leaves the office, Yaz is attacked by one of the aliens and immediately transported to what looks like a DNA forest, enshrouded in mist. It’s reminiscent of the Upside Down from Stranger Things and director Magnus Stone piles on the atmosphere as Yaz is ejected from this realm and transported back to the trap in O’s house, replacing the vanished ghostly figure.
In hindsight, Graham’s next conversation with O about The Doctor should’ve rung alarm bells. The Doctor is still much of a mystery to Graham, Yaz, and Ryan. O calmly tells him he met The Doctor briefly when she was a man and Graham had assumed this was a joke on the Doctor’s behalf. Graham is curious that O’s willing to share a file on The Doctor but, before he can consider it, The Doctor arranges a counsel of war—planning to infiltrate the party that Barton invited Yaz and Ryan to when he cut short their interview.
Barton’s computer reveals the hidden coordinates of alien spies working undercover on Earth. Or, multiple Earths? This interdimensional espionage suggests a subtext about a new Cold War being waged in cyberspace for possession of the very thing that confirms our human identity, our DNA. In that sense, “Spyfall” is not just about our insecure and paranoid world but also our universe, other universes, and different dimensions, where reality is open to manipulation and difficult to protect if those who are given that task are not who they appear to be. Is Barton outsourcing to these non-human entities to transcend universal boundaries? And who is the spymaster? Off to Barton’s party where confronting him may provide the answer.
The episode then turns on a sixpence. Bondian vibes and stunning widescreen shots (again scored appropriately on the soundtrack) provide a backdrop to the tuxedo-wearing Doctor, companions, and O as they arrive and infiltrate Barton’s birthday party. Even the BBC has been playing games with us. In the Series 12 trailer, there’s no sign of O in the sequence of the gang arriving at Barton’s house… but he’s clearly there in the episode as Whittaker approaches the reception and announces “The name’s Doctor, The Doctor”. The party concludes with another breathless chase, this time as the Doctor and company, on motorbikes, pursue Barton after confronting him with their suspicions, to an airport and his private plane. Running after the plane and jumping onto its tailgate is perhaps taking the Bondian excess to ridiculous heights, but what happens on the plane leads to the reveal of one of the best-kept secrets of the episode as O complains he’s never been good at sprinting. The Doctor’s read O’s file, however, and he’s a champion sprinter…
“Got me,” admits O and, reasonably, the audience assumes he’s a double agent in cahoots with the ghostly aliens. That’s until he tells The Doctor and her companions to look out the window at his house (his TARDIS presumably), like Dorothy’s home flying up into the tornado on its journey to Oz, which is hovering outside the plane. O underlines the allusion to The Wizard of Oz: “A bit Wicked Witch of the West but you get the gist.” Like the titular Wizard, O’s in disguise. The mysterious Wizard was revealed to be a fraud operated by an old man. Here it’s the same, except it’s an ancient and familiar Time Lord pulling the O over our eyes. “I did say look for the spymaster. Or should I say spy… Master?”
Sacha Dhawan roars and cackles his way through the last 10-minutes, channelling some of John Simm’s manic affectations, and leaves us nonplussed as to how The Master has returned from the mutually assured destruction we witnessed at the end of “The Doctor Falls“. O (or “Oh…” given the Doctor’s dumbfounded reaction) has been appropriated, the original agent murdered and shrunk inside a matchbox, and casually tossed aside when The Master realises he’s been found out.
Everything’s turned on its head. The Master is in control of the ghostly aliens and disappears as they attack the Doctor. Barton’s no longer on the plane and a bomb goes off in the cockpit. There are two matching shots to conclude the episode: the camera pulling back as the plane and The Doctor’s companions plummet from the sky and the camera hurtling away as The Doctor finds herself in the uncanny DNA forest, alone and unable to help her friends, with The Master’s words no doubt echoing in her ears: “everything you think you know is a lie.”
“Spyfall” spectacularly confirms that you can keep major plot turns secret for the majority of the audience and completely pull the rug from under their feet. There’s a confidence to accomplishing that and it goes hand in hand with a more settled production, Jodie Whittaker comfortably at home in her role, and a story making enough room for the companions to shine. I was also pleased to see the dedication to the legendary Terrance Dicks, the show’s script editor who was instrumental in raising Doctor Who‘s game back in the 1970s and encouraging the reading habits of a generation with his Target novelisations. Wherever you are Terrance, I hope you enjoyed that.
Cast & Crew
writer: Chris Chibnall.
director: Jamie Magnus Stone.
starring: Jodie Whittaker, Bradley Walsh, Tosin Cole, Mandip Gill, Stephen Fry, Lenny Henry, Sacha Dhawan, Shobna Gulati & Struan Rodger (voice).