3.5 out of 5 stars

A few post-review thoughts on “Spyfall: Part 1” to begin with. The snarking from certain quarters that a middle-aged Yorkshire man wouldn’t know what an Uber is, and, therefore, shouldn’t be able to joke about it (one of Graham’s best lines)… or that it isn’t possible for The Doctor to be outside the police box repairing the innards of the TARDIS because it breaks (fictional) Time Lord physics of dimensional transcendentalism… and that Sacha Dhawan’s casting as The Master is a sop to diversity box-ticking at the BBC … well, it’s hors d’oeuvres compared to this week’s rather confusing piece from The Guardian that turns recent criticisms over Doctor Who becoming too ‘woke’ on their head. Apparently, it’s treating BAME and LGBTQ+ characters with disdain and The Doctor’s morals are all over the shop.

Let’s acknowledge the subtlety of Dhawan’s performance as ‘O’/The Master for starters. I did touch on this in my initial recap of “Part 1”, but a rewatch certainly pays dividends and Dhawan is quietly brilliant in how he grounds ‘O’ as a believable if unreliable narrator. There are also little physical nuances in his portrayal that hint at something beneath the surface of ‘O’, provoking a distrust of the character for reasons that we’re not quite able to discern as an audience. Until he reveals he’s The Master. By the way, I’m 57, from Lancashire, and I bloody well know what an Uber is and laughed my socks off at Graham’s line. The TARDIS is, like the rest of the show, a fiction… so Chibnall and his writers can always ignore continuity or do what they like with it. After nearly 60 years, Doctor Who‘s continuity is something of a moveable feast.

Let’s move on to “Spyfall: Part 2” and see where this hand-wringing takes us. We pick up from the cliffhanger as The Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) finds herself marooned in the realm of the glowing aliens while her companions plunge to their deaths in a stricken plane. There’s a cracking shot from director Lee Haven Jones that tracks through the damaged cockpit of the plane and into the cabin, that ensures the action is a match for “Part 1”. Often two-part stories stand or fall on the quality of the second part and certainly the sense of scale is maintained in “Part 2”—not just visually but also in terms of the narrative. Graham (Bradley Walsh), Ryan (Tosin Cole) and Yaz (Mandip Gill) only survive because, for reasons that become clear later, Ryan follows a series of messages and instructions left in the plane. They lead him to a helpful in-flight video message from The Doctor (“you’re kidding, how’s she doin’ that?” yells Graham along with viewers) and Ryan’s hacking of the onboard computers with his smart-phone. Suffice to say Bradley Walsh is a joy to watch as he talks back to the message on screen and bounces around the plane. Ryan’s phone uses Daniel Barton’s (Lenny Henry) pre-programmed flight plan to reach the ground safely. The ground crew will have to “do some tricky smoothing over with the Civil Aviation Authority.”

Meanwhile, The Doctor considers she’s trapped inside something organic (not someone’s liver, she hopes) when she witnesses synapses firing around her in the strange ‘DNA forest’. She bumps into Ada Lovelace (Sylvie Briggs), née Gordon in Chibnall’s story. Lord Byron and Annabella Milbanke’s daughter and all-round mathematical genius names the glowing aliens as the Kasaavin, leaving The Doctor to rationalise that they are in their ‘realm’ and that Ada and others are merely gateways into it. She and The Doctor are then whisked away by one of their race to an exhibition in London, 1834.

As she recovers, The Doctor notes, “steam? Why am I getting steam?” This and Ada’s presence in Chibnall’s script skews the Bond pastiche of “Part 1” and briefly visits the retrofuturistic steampunk genre. The added inclusion of Charles Babbage (Mark Dexter) and his prototype computer, the Analytical (or Difference) Engine, also reminded me of Bruce Sterling and William Gibson’s 1990 novel The Difference Engine, which established the genre, and where the information age has re-shaped the Victorian world and the British Empire because Babbage’s computer actually works and has been mass-produced. Lovelace’s theories about prototype computers aligning with the workings of the brain to offer a “calculus of the nervous system”, a mathematical model for how nerve impulses give rise to thoughts and feelings in the brain, fit right in with Chibnall’s plot, which sees the Kasaavin working with Barton and The Master to scrape the DNA of every human clean for the ultimate in data storage.

“The Marvellous Apparating Man—Lady. Apparating Lady!” soon recovers her wits to realise she’s now marooned in the 19th-century. Chibnall uses this as an opportunity for The Doctor to completely recap the story. He and other writers often stop the action and have characters spend a scene to reiterate the plot points when it isn’t entirely necessary. Here, The Doctor brings us up to speed on what happened in “Part 1” and it happens later, when she clocks who Ada and Charles are and we get potted histories as exposition, suggesting the audience can’t fully grasp who these important figures are. However, The Doctor realises that the meeting of “great minds” Ada and Charles, is a clue to what exactly is going on. Do great minds think alike? The Rani thought so when she kidnapped several scientific geniuses, including Albert Einstein, to create a time-manipulator in 1987’s “Time and The Rani”.

However, The Doctor has to gain the trust of Ada, as she’s now a de facto companion, especially when The Master arrives at the exhibition determined to stop the Time Lord in her tracks. Dhawan seizes the opportunity to dress for the occasion and show how thoroughly nasty The Master is by shrinking some of the attendees and demanding The Doctor kneel before him. Let’s not forget how cruel The Master’s been to The Doctor in previous incarnations, especially in “The Sound of Drums” when he kept an artificially aged Doctor prisoner on the Valiant. “Call me by my name,” demands The Master, seeking her approval, as he did with the Tenth Doctor by telling him over the phone, “I like it when you use my name.” Dhawan is exceptional in this quieter scene; the Master furious The Doctor escaped his clutches, and Whittaker shines when confronting him. The realisation dawns on The Doctor that he doesn’t know how she escaped, is unaware of the Kasaavin’s true function and is clearly not in control of them. “You, Barton and a race you barely know? That’s one uneasy alliance,” reasons The Doctor. Before The Master can continue, particularly when he teases her that he “brings news from home”, Ada’s manning the steam-powered machine guns at the exhibition, much to The Doctor’s disapproval.

Meanwhile, her companions have accessed Barton’s diary and head for his key-note speech in an attempt to find out what he and The Master are working on. There is much in “Spyfall: Part 2” in parallel with Russell T. Davies’ story and with Steven Moffat’s Comic Relief special “The Curse of Fatal Death”. The idea of companions on the run, where The Doctor, Jack, and Martha are fugitives from Harold Saxon and take refuge in an abandoned building, is replicated in Ryan, Graham, and Yaz’s similar predicament when Barton traces them through their phones and they “go off-grid” on a building site. The problem here is that, while Graham and, to a smaller extent, Ryan get their moments in the limelight, Yaz again slips into the background. Graham has a lot of comedy business using his laser shoes to halt Barton’s henchmen. Walsh’s playing of it is funny but Mandip Gill is relegated to sharing her scenes with him and Tosin Cole and isn’t given any significant action.

Their ensemble scenes, particularly when they’re pondering what to do in the eventuality that The Doctor never returns, are reasonably strong. One of the big problems with “Spyfall: Part 2” is how the story now demands these characters start to ask important questions. This leads to the concluding scene where they confront The Doctor and demand to know who she is. This is a little late in the scheme of things and we should’ve had similar scenes earlier in Series 11. Graham, Ryan and Yaz all seemed too easily convinced to go off travelling with The Doctor, without stopping to think who this mysterious woman is and the audience has had to make off-screen assumptions about them and their rationale.

It slightly undermines them as characters because, realistically, anyone would be asking questions first before deciding to travel in time and space with a stranger. Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat developed the companion’s trust of The Doctor over a period of time, whereas Chibnall has tackled it relatively late on, with Graham starting to get concerned about The Doctor’s identity and “something called regeneration”. Yaz, a probationary police officer, was the obvious character to fulfil this function but her skills and training have only occasionally reflected this. So, perhaps these scenes are in recognition of that lack of enquiry and for the need of companions to have their own volition when The Doctor’s absent.

Meanwhile, another artefact of note is The Silver Lady, which we first see in Babbage’s house. He was said to have displayed this automaton (an elegant Victorian lady that could bow and peer through an eyeglass) in his parlour. Perhaps she’s a metaphor for Ada’s ability to see beyond Babbage’s own view of his inventions. Again, we’ve seen references to various automata in recent episodes, from the clockwork men of 2006’s “The Girl in the Fireplace” to the chess-playing Cyberman in 2013’s “Nightmare in Silver”, itself a nod to The Turk—an elaborate chess-playing mechanical hoax of the 18th-century which concealed a human chess master inside to operate it. The Silver Lady moves but “on occasion, projects” notes Babbage. The Kasaavin have used it to kidnap Ada and study her in their dimension and, again, Chibnall pauses the action for lengthy exposition. As well as explaining The Master’s plan, whereby The Silver Lady allows the Kasaavin to stabilise long enough on Earth to spy on various time periods in Earth’s history, he also offers it as a way for The Doctor to get back to the 21st-century.

Thus, she and Ada find themselves in Paris, 1943, at the height of the war. There have been some comments that the French capital was never bombed in World War II and thus the episode employs much artistic license to show the devastation in the city and its environs. The Germans bombed Paris and its suburbs for the first time in 1940, prior to their occupation of the city, and the Allies also bombed Paris’ suburbs in 1943. So, there would likely have been some damage. The French Resistance were gathering strength in ’43 and had a huge role in preparing for the Allies’ retaking of France in Operation Overlord. Artistic license certainly (and suggesting millions being killed in bombing raids on Paris is erroneous) but not entirely groundless, the sequences in Paris add to the scale of “Part 2”. They underline The Master’s nature as The Doctor and Ada are rescued by Noor Inayat Khan (Aurora Marion), a Special Operations Executive agent and the first female radio operator to be sent into German-occupied France in June 1943, working for the ‘Prosper’ resistance network in Paris. Again, Whittaker imparts this as exposition. This shorthand exposes the too brief nature of including two such important female figures in a long two-part story. Each is surely deserving of their own adventure. The exposition is also often clunky and lacks any naturalism. However, the message is clear as she, Noor and Ada watch Paris burn. These may be dark times but they do not sustain.

Here, The Master’s using a perception filter to mask his appearance and, by extension, his ethnicity from the Germans so that he can blend in leading troops in his search for The Doctor. It’s interesting to note that Noor doesn’t have that advantage and can’t hide her Indian heritage but is still able to continue as a radio operator for the Resistance. Having Sacha Dhawan parading around in cap, greatcoat and jackboots is probably too heavy-handed a way to conflate The Master’s sadistic evil with Nazism. The Master loves disguises, so it’s not that surprising, but it’s “a low, even for him.” However, I’d put him down more like a sadistic collaborator and less of a fixated fascist ideologue.

We’re back in “The Sound of Drums” territory when The Doctor uses the drumming (originally placed in The Master’s mind by Rassilon) as a recognisable signal to send over Noor’s radio and facilitate their meeting on the Eiffel Tower. We even get Time Lord telepathy, reminiscent of the mind-to-mind contact shown in 1973’s “The Three Doctors”, between her and The Master. On the Tower, The Doctor notes the cold weather is worse than on Jodrell Bank and The Master wonders if he ever apologised for his hand in the Fourth Doctor’s demise on the radio telescope in 1981’s “Logopolis”. Mind you, there has now been much discussion as to whether the radio telescope in that story was actually supposed to be Jodrell Bank. Certainly, the model used in the VFX sequences was based on it. Again, it’s a great scene, emphasising what a good casting choice Dhawan is.

She notes The Master’s “not exactly the Aryan archetype” in his choice of disguise. His “tiny Teutonic perception filter” allows the Germans to see what they want to see. He reveals that the Kasaavin assassinated the spies because the Earth’s intelligence services were starting to notice their presence as sleeper agents. The Master took advantage of their presence and suggested a better plan. The Kasaavin and Barton are merely the means to the end, his own desire to destroy the entire human race. It’s also him seeking attention (rather like the later scene with Barton and his mum) from The Doctor, perhaps hoping for some grudging admiration at how clever he’s been. And now that he has her attention, the scene delivers its bombshell. He’s been back to Gallifrey. “Hiding in its little bubble universe” suggests this was shortly after it was frozen in time within a parallel pocket universe in 2013’s “The Day of the Doctor” and before the Time Lords moved Gallifrey to the extreme end of the time continuum for its own protection in 2015’s “Hell Bent“. It raises the question as to whether this is an earlier incarnation of The Master prior to the appearance of Missy. However, he then claims that someone destroyed Gallifrey and killed everyone.

The Guardian piece certainly gets rather bothered about how The Doctor betrays him to the Germans as a double agent and removes his perception filter after their meeting. It’s a callous decision on The Doctor’s part but he’s just revealed his plans for genocide, told her Gallifrey is destroyed and tried to strangle her. But let’s take a look at the possible outcomes. If she leaves him to the Germans it’s possible he’ll be shot or sent to a concentration camp. He could die, presumably regenerate, or simply take over someone else’s body. He managed it with ‘O’ so why couldn’t he do that again? Let’s not forget that he also possesses highly potent hypnotic abilities and he could certainly make his captors do his bidding and convince them to hand him over to the British.

Plus, if we’re concerned about the German perception of ethnic minorities then look at the situation at the time. Germany occupied large Muslim areas and populations across the world and was mobilising Islam as part of its strategy for WWII. Muslim individuals and groups fought on both sides and the Germans used religious propaganda to align Muslims with the achievements of the Third Reich. There were Muslim SS units in the Balkans, for example, and an Indian Legion created, and including prisoners of war and ex-pats, to liberate India from the British. It’s entirely feasible The Master, as a prisoner of war, would be drafted after some hypnotic suggestion on his part. The fact that he turns up 77 years later, looking the same, probably means he’s not lost his powers of persuasion. It’s rather an amusing joke that he grumbles about the places he’s had to escape from. He’s a past master of escapology, surviving his apparent death many times.

Back in the 21st-century, Daniel Barton has his poor old mum (Blanche Williams) subjected to the projections of The Silver Lady and this scene reveals some of Barton’s disturbing psychological problems. Like The Master demanding The Doctor affirms his superiority by calling him “master”, Barton kidnaps his mother to deal with some kind of Oedipal anxiety, to get from her recognition of “well done” for his success in enslaving humanity to his technological dreams. She has a problem child, it seems, and nothing will assuage him until he sacrifices her to the Kasaavin. It adds a distinctly Freudian dimension to Barton’s motivation. Barton also reveals to Graham, Ryan, and Yaz that his DNA make up is a result of testing out his latest advances on himself. They also discover his mother, now dead at the hands of the Kasaavin.

The Doctor finds the Master’s TARDIS in Paris and returns to the 21st-century, eventually travelling through time to set up the computers and messages on Barton’s plane that will rescue her companions. Chibnall finds inspiration in the time travel games of Moffat’s “The Curse of Fatal Death”, where The Master and The Doctor leapfrog in time to set and re-set each other’s traps. The forever arrogant Master, having fallen into each of The Doctor’s traps, keeps coming back for more in the hope of finally outwitting his nemesis. In the Master’s TARDIS, The Doctor explains a temporal map shows “every significant person in the development of computers through history” and the Kasaavin posted to spy on each of them and to test their human DNA.

The reason becomes apparent at Barton’s keynote speech. Like some evil version of Tim Cook, he thanks the audience for what they’ve given the company: “pieces of plastic and games and circuitry and you handed us - me, my company - total access to your lives.” We do this every day in our texts, via our camera, what we shop for and with the data we provide for security purposes. Barton is not far from the facts and you only have to think about how valuable that data has been for political purposes and the dodgy relationships between social media and companies like Cambridge Analytica to illicitly harvest that personal information. At first, I wondered if Barton’s text to every device on the planet was going to reveal another Cyberman invasion. Instead, he intends to replace the defunct peak human with smarter technology, using human DNA as a vast storage system. A planet of hard drives waiting to be reformatted with the help of the Kasaavin.

Although The Master gloats over the imminent deaths of Ryan, Graham and Yaz, Chibnall uses The Doctor’s penchant for setting traps in “The Curse of Fatal Death” to hoist The Master by his own petard. She’s already time-travelled to track down The Silver Lady to Barton’s office and infect it with a virus, and as the Kasaavin reappear, set it to exile them back to their own dimension. A recording of The Master welching on his deal with the Kasaavin doesn’t go down well and he’s dragged off to their dimension when they depart. The last we see of him is as the camera pulls back through the murky DNA forest. “Fatal Death” is evoked again as The Doctor suddenly remembers she hasn’t gone back in time yet to save her companions on Barton’s plane.

The big questions come in the final act. The Doctor removes memories of their adventures together from Ada and Noor’s minds. This is nothing new, as the Tenth Doctor had to do the same to Donna Noble to save her from the effects of a human-Time Lord meta-crisis. The Twelfth also attempted to wipe his and Clara’s memories but he ended wiping only his own memories of her with a neural block. It’s sad that Noor is destined to die, executed in Dachau, and that Ada never quite realises some of her wilder ideas before she succumbs to cancer. Back in the TARDIS, The Doctor ponders on The Master’s visit to a devastated Gallifrey and decides to see for herself.

After witnessing the burning citadel, she’s confronted by a geo-activated holographic message from The Master. He destroyed Gallifrey in revenge for what he discovered. We see memories from Series 11’s “The Ghost Monument” where the Remnants mention the Timeless Child and an unidentified glimpse of someone else, possibly on Gallifrey? It is a secret, a lie buried by the Time Lord elders in the memories and identities of all Time Lords. “The whole existence of our species built on the lie of the Timeless Child,” claims The Master. The challenge is for her to find out by herself.

So, “Spyfall: Part 2” ends on a reorganising of Time Lord myth. Chibnall’s held back from the mythology until now and suddenly he throws everything up in the air and hopes some of it lands in the right place. With The Master, it’s turned out well—benefiting from Dhawan’s casting. Poor Gallifrey though. It always ends up as the plaything of showrunners: destroyed then resurrected, destroyed again and resurrected again. Perhaps the addition of the Timeless Child story arc will sort things out. To an extent, there’s rather too much going on in this episode and it tends to feel quite disjointed in structure. It has to resolve quite a few subplots, with perhaps the weakest of these the reason for the Kasaavin visitation to Earth history.

Whittaker and Dhawan are brilliant in their shared scenes, the companions often work effectively, but Yaz still deserves an episode that better explores her character as she gets the least to do once again. A decent conclusion then and, based on previous track records for two-part stories, that’s not to be sniffed at.

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Cast & Crew

writer: Chris Chibnall.
director: Lee Haven Jones.
starring: Jodie Whittaker, Bradley Walsh, Tosin Cole, Mandip Gill, Lenny Henry, Sylvie Briggs, Mark Dexter & Aurora Marion.