Doctor Who: Spyfall, Part 1

"Fancy a ride in the box?"

The Doctor is back, and she's brought two part episodes back with her.

This is so much better than all but one episode of last season.

If you haven't yet watched this episode and are reading these words, please do yourself a favor and go watch it before going any further.

OK, so here's the thing, gentle reader. There's some stuff that we absolutely have to talk about. But I don't want to just blurt it out right here at the top, on the off chance that anyone wants to heed the spoiler warning. Fun fact – spoiler warnings are less effective when you go ahead and blurt out the spoiler immediately below the warning. So, I'm going to take a few paragraphs to discuss some non-spoilery things that very much merit discussion, then I'll throw in a notice that we're heading into spoiler town and we'll get into it. I do this, because I care.

So, the season opener for series 12. There was a lot riding on this one. It's probably not shocking to anyone if we go ahead and acknowledge that series 11 has problems, and has received more than a little criticism on the internet. While some of that criticism is still coming from dude-bros who just refuse to accept the role of the Doctor being played by a woman and will find any excuse to give a patina of legitimate criticism to what is at the end of the day just boring old sexism, certainly not all of it is.

Let's just say it. Series 11 wasn't very good.

Personally, I'd say that series 11 had neither the highs nor the lows of previous years. It was almost entirely middling, with two exceptions: 'Arachnids in the UK' is shockingly bad, 'Demons of the Punjab' is wonderful, and as good as anything the show has ever done, and I'll send a stern note to anyone that argues differently. The interesting question is why it felt that way, and the answer to that question only just occurred to me about two thirds of the way through watching 'Spyfall, Part 1.'

The thing is, there are two different approaches to Doctor Who storytelling. You can tell stories featuring the Doctor, or you can tell stories about the Doctor. To illustrate with examples from the same writer, 'The Empty Child' is a story featuring the Doctor, He's not the main point of the story. 'A Good Man Goes to War' is a story about the Doctor, he's entirely the point of that story. 'The Doctor's Wife' is a particularly good story about the Doctor. 'Nightmare in Silver' is a particularly flawed story featuring the Doctor. Neither approach is 'right,' per se, but stories that are explicitly about the Doctor run a far greater risk of getting self indulgent and crawling up the show's own backside.

Davies, to an extent, and Moffat, overwhelmingly, lean toward stories about the Doctor. This is incidentally what people are saying when they talk about not liking the stories with River Song; that the slider has moved too far over to the 'about' end of the spectrum and things have become self indulgent.  I don't tend to agree, but that doesn't make it an invalid criticism.

Chibnall is a 'featuring' man. Looking back at his output under the Davies and Moffat regimes, this simple realization explains a lot. For example, the tension between the two approaches arguably scuttled 'Power of Three.' But here's where the ironic problem comes in. Chibnall's story ideas just aren't as good as either of his predecessors. By making the choice to have all of series 11 stories be one parters, and choosing by inclination to make the individual stories be the focus instead of the Doctor, he essentially hobbled himself. We were left with a lot of episodes that were only about the bare bones of a story that just wasn't an interesting enough idea to hold up on its own.

If it sounds like I'm down on Chibnall, I'm absolutely not, because the decision to do two parters has allowed him to bring in the area where he genuinely is a gifted writer, and that's in the extra detail work. If I can use the same metaphor from above, the bones of this episode are allowed to have a lot of fat on them this week, and those are the parts that make the whole thing work. Graham and Ryan goofing around with Spy tech or getting hysterical about winning Roulette. Yaz getting several minutes of screentime to simply sit and be damaged by the experience she's just been through. The extra dialogue about Yaz' sister's crush on Ryan. All of that sort of thing made the characters breathe in this one in a way they were never allowed to do last year.

Which is good, because if you're doing a James Bond pastiche you need to allow the space to revel in all of the trappings. You need to take the time to do the spy-style establishing shots with city names in big letters. You need to go to an utterly unnecessary casino party, because of course you do. And note that I say pastiche and not 'piss-take,' because they're not framing it for laughs here. The confrontation on the balcony between The Doctor and Lenny Hanry's Daniel Barton is played as deadly serious as any Bond film has ever done, and far better than many of them achieved.

My only real complaint is that so many of the early 'padding' scenes (for lack of a better term – this is not a negative) felt like retreads of things we'd seen earlier. We've seen companions having to cover their extended absences before, in scripts Chibnall wrote. The 'car hijacked by SatNav' thing was almost an exact retread of Atmos, to the extent that I wish they'd had an Atmos label on it and mentioned it was an old car.

OK, we've arrived at the spoilers.

Sacha Dhawan is the Master.

Oh My God, how did they keep that under wraps? What a wonderful surprise. And it makes the Bond pastiche make sense, since the Master really is a Bond supervillain at heart, isn't he. Watching the episode a second time with this knowledge is a rewarding experience, as Dhawan does some interesting things when we're not looking. His scene with Graham over tea in particular repays a revisit. They very cleverly used the conventions of Bond films to keep us focused on Barton, while any seasoned Bond fan saw almost instantly that Dhawan's 'O' was going to turn around and be a baddie. We were so happy patting ourselves on the back for spotting that that we never saw the real twist coming.

While I'll always adore Missy, I really like what Dhawan is doing with the part. His physicality feels very much like Matt Smith's Doctor to me, am I alone in that? Bring on Part 2.



Bits:

-- They sort of acknowledged it, but wouldn't Ryan's dyspraxia be more of a hitch in his basketball game? Also, no one care what Ryan's mates think about his absences, however funny the list of illnesses was. Which was pretty funny, to be fair.

-- And just to be a hypocrite, I'm glad they finally addressed how Yaz' is keeping her job while being away all the time. Her FTO assuming she was being taken away to do hush hush secret things kind of works as a justification.

-- It's an interesting irony that they could really only do a full Bond pastiche once the Doctor was a woman, as that allowed them to not even comment on the philandering aspect of the character.

-- Mandip Gill and Sacha Dhawan have great chemistry together. That could be either fascinating or unfortunate going forward.

-- They could have done better explaining how Barton got off that airplane and what the flying house next to the plane was. We're all assuming that the answer was 'Master's TARDIS' to both questions, right?

-- They foreshadowed the Master's gender change nicely in the scene where Stephen Fry is confused about the Doctor being a woman. Speaking of Stephen Fry, I was expecting him to live longer.

-- Using the car mirror to reflect the laser back was a nice homage to Goldfinger.

-- Unpopular opinion – it's a net positive that they've eliminated both UNIT and Torchwood. Both of them have too much baggage. Using MI6 both honored James Bond and kept the government as a big shadowy off stage entity. I honestly hope they let UNIT go.

-- You just know that VOR is going to turn out to stand for something significant.

-- They did a nice job of making the aliens powers and actions feel like they have some sort of internal logic that we just don't know yet. That's hard to pull off. We'll see in Part 2 if they cash that particular check.

-- They've clearly taken on the criticism that Yaz wasn't given enough to do last season. I'd bet solid money that her trip through the giant alien shag rug of death has consequences down the road.

-- Love, love, love, that The Master still keeps tiny shrunken victims in little containers.

-- O derailed the conversation very quickly when the Doctor started talking about multiple Earths.



Quotes:

Yaz’ Dad: "Play Rubber Soul."
Alexa: "The nearest shoe shop is 1.2 miles walking distance."

Doctor: "Hi fellas. Rocking the ominous looks."

Ryan: "I decided my spy name would be Logan, and now I’m worried I don’t look anything like Hugh Jackman."

Doctor: "It’s like they’re watching us."
O: "Like animals… stalking their prey. Sorry, that wasn’t helpful."

Doctor: "What are you exactly, except for reluctant to talk?"

Graham: "How much do you know about her?"
O: "A bit. Our paths crossed very briefly once. When she was a man."
Graham: "When she was a what?"
O: "Has she never mentioned that?"
Graham: "I thought she was joking."

Master: "Everything you think you know is a lie."



They really needed to crush it with this one, and they did. There are a few minor issues, most notably the re-use of a number of elements that we've seen before, but overall this is great stuff with a pace that allows them to use the writer's strengths, and a fantastic three fold cliffhanger.  I can not wait for part two to get here.

Ten out of thirteen doctors.

Mikey Heinrich is, among other things, a freelance writer, volunteer firefighter, and roughly 78% water. You can find more of his work at the 42nd Vizsla. He's starting a petition to have all of the Doctor's companions be retirees, and lobbying hard for a Wilf/Graham spinoff show.

5 comments:

percysowner said...

I don't disagree with your assessment of Arachnids in the UK and Demons of the Punjab. I would add Rosa as one of the top episodes of season 11. Frankly, the historical episodes of season 11 were the strongest ones, which is quite a change from recent Dr. Who.

Mikey Heinrich said...

I like Rosa. I'd call it on the high end of average.

I wish that it had focused on the plot/counterplot of the Doctor and EvilFutureRacist breaking and unbreaking the chain of events, because I felt like that was the strongest part of the episode and they could have made all the same observations about race and history while doing it.

Also, I wish the villain had been half as interesting as he was pretty.

That might not be a healthy emotional response...

Witchfinders humanized King James in a way I was pleasantly surprised by. Not unlike how they were unexpectedly kind to Nixon a few years back.

Katie Hart - Pinterest Manager said...

Finally! This is actually Doctor Who. I made no secret of the fact that I absolutely hated most of series 11. For a show that is my favorite of all time, it was a hard pill to swallow how terrible it was. While I was not a fan of the Doctor becoming female (as it seemed a more pandering/polarizing move than groundbreaking, and also being straight female with a crush on the character), my problems with last series had nothing to do with that. Maybe it had to be awful so Community could be prophetic with its Inspector Spacetime and Minerva?

The first trailer for series 12 gave me hope that this series would be better, though the second one took it away and I went in with very low expectations. But this episode was good. Not exactly amazing, but easily beating every episode of series 11, and many lackluster episodes of the (Murray) Gold-en years.

The aliens were creepy (not quite sure that they aren't Cybermen as they do have some "Army of Ghosts" feel). The James Bond bits were fun. The companions had time to be themselves instead of simply plot devices. And I've been a fan of Sacha Dhawan since his "Outsourced" days, so to have him show up as a weird past MI6 agent and then actually be the Master was amazing!

I really like your insights on the two ways of writing a Doctor Who episode. I'm very much a fan of the "about" episodes myself. It sort of boils down to character-driven vs. plot-driven stories, and I definitely prefer the former. (Even if some of the "featuring" stories are more character-driven, it's likely characters we'll never see again, not the ones we're watching all series.)

There were still a few bits in this episode that bugged me, but they were small and didn't affect the overall story. I know the second part of Doctor Who two-parters generally don't match the greatness of the first. And I have 11 reasons not to trust Chibnall with the rest of series 12. But this does give me hope. And if nothing else, I got to really enjoy one new episode of Doctor Who, which is something I feared wouldn't happen until we had a new showrunner.

sunbunny said...

Better, not great. I did like that the companions were given more time to just chill and be characters and not be rushing about asking questions all the time. It felt like they were starting to bond on screen and not just off screen too.

LOVE the new Master. He's quite cute too, for a war criminal.

Giantdaz72 said...

Every white person they met in Alabama was racist it would've served the story better if at least one white person could've been an ally in the fight which would've been more accurate