Doctor Who: Spyfall, Part 2

'And now he wants me dead, whereas I am a big fan of being alive.'

The first two parter of the Jodie Whittaker era mostly sticks the landing.

The first cliffhanger of the Jodie Whittaker era has been duly followed with the first cliffhanger resolution of the Jodie Whittaker era.

Cliffhanger resolutions, in Doctor Who and elsewhere, can be a mixed bag. This is even setting aside instances where the resolution flat out cheated (I'm looking at you, 'Dragonfire.') There's certainly room for legitimate disagreement as to what makes a resolution 'good.' Moffat, for example, was a big fan of picking up the resolution somewhere completely unrelated to where we left off and gradually approaching the actual circumstances of the cliffhanger from the side. Personally, I think that kind of thing can be done well, but I know many people hate the entire concept, which is perfectly valid.

Chibnall appears, from the limited data available, to lean toward my own personal preference for cliffhanger resolutions. To illustrate why, it's probably useful to look at the individual pieces of the cliffhanger in turn.

-Cliff Number 1: Ryan, Yaz, and Graham are trapped in a plane with no pilot or cockpit, almost certainly about to crash.

Here we have what is starting to appear to be the major recurring flaw in Chibnall's scripting, as much as I hate to say that kind of thing. Namely, the resolution felt very much like a repeat of things we'd already seen in the show in other, better, episodes. The appearances of the metal plates with helpful information for Ryan to land the plane safely worked well enough to justify them not all dying in a fiery crash, but they couldn't help but feel like a retread of the 'The Doctor does something clever in her personal future and stage manages all of these clues after the fact, so everything's cool, don't worry about it' trope that we've seen too many times before. It got the job done, but it's a million miles away from fresh. I can't imagine anyone watching didn't assume that it would play out exactly like we saw it play out in the final few minutes of the episode, which made both the initial resolution at the beginning of the episode and the Doctor orchestrating the necessary pieces at the end of the episode feel like a colossal waste of screen time. Fine. Points for not actually saying 'timey-wimey,' but we've seen this before and you're bringing nothing new to the execution.

-Cliff Number 2: 'O' is The Master.

This is admittedly more of a reveal than a cliffhanger, and we'll talk more about Sacha Dhawan's take on the character in a moment, but for right now let's just say that moving the narrative away from Dhawan until the other two cliffhangers are resolved was a good choice.

-Cliff Number 3: The Doctor is suddenly in a strange place that looks like a shag rug magnified a million times. How will she get out of there and back to her friends?

And here we get to what I was referencing earlier as my favorite type of cliffhanger resolution. Specifically, they resolved the immediate crisis by introducing a completely new and unsuspected element of the story, whose introduction fundamentally changes what we understand about what's going on. I was never, for even a second, as interested in understanding what was going on in any story last season as I was when Sylvie Briggs suddenly appeared as Ava Lovelace and calmly told the Doctor that they were inside her paralysis. It didn't hurt at all that Sylvie Briggs and Jodie Whittaker for some reason have incredible and tangible chemistry together. Honestly, every scene they had together just hummed because of the chemistry between them. It's always nice to see that in a non-romantic couple. It makes everything so watchable. This actually underscores the episode's main problem shortly thereafter.

Let's just say it. This episode feels profoundly aimless. The pacing is all off, with all of the answers coming in the last five to eight minutes, and what feels like a pointless meander through the notable women of STEM taking up the bulk of the episode. This is really too bad, because a lot of the answers are genuinely interesting once they arrive, but they aren't given any time to breathe because we wanted to make sure we had a lot of time on the Eiffel Tower earlier.

A good script editor, back in the day, would absolutely have cut all of the Paris in WWII sequences, however good Aurora Marion was as Noor Inayat Khan, although she absolutely was good in the role and made a nice trio with Jodie and Sylvie. The entire Paris sequence added nothing to our understanding of what the Master and the Kasaavin are up to, and takes screentime away from more interesting material.

Ultimately the disappointing thing about this episode is that it buried its own most interesting idea in favor of turning things toward a standard 'Invasion, plus Facebook's data practices are a bit scary' plot. Troublingly, it feels like the idea that was buried is the one that most genuinely belongs to Chibnall as an individual, which makes me worry that he's throwing his own ideas away in favor of just doing things that have worked in Doctor Who before, and I genuinely hope that isn't the case. The idea in question is the core concept of, what if alien invasion, but the aliens weren't actually all that interested in invading? What if alien 'invaders' were really acting like cold war spies who didn't particularly want to act, they just wanted to make sure they knew everything about what all is going on in case it ever became necessary to act.

That is an interesting and new idea for Who to explore, and I really wish this two parter had been about the dissonance between that goal for the aliens and the Master trying to force them into the old 'invade Earth' paradigm, but failing. That would have been something new and something great, and I worry that the only reason we didn't get it was because Chibnall second guessed himself out of doing it.



Bits:

-- OK, Let's talk about it. Dhawan's version of The Master is good. It's a little jarring after Michelle Gomez' more humanized take, and for my money, her 'I'll always remember being you. And I'll always miss it' speech is one of the top three things the show has ever done. But it's no greater change than Troughton to Pertwee, and Dhawan is bringing so much energy to the role that it's hard not to root for him. It can't be denied, he does 'dangerous rage' better than any actor ever to play The Master before him, and yet somehow manages to slip between that and gleeful in a believable way, which is not easy to do.

-- I was dreading the reveal that the Kasaavin were the Cybermen. They seemed so close to doing it, so many times. Please, just stop pairing The Master and the Cybermen for awhile. Please.

-- Babbage, Lovelace, and Khan all share the distinction of being people American schools never, ever, under any circumstances, bother to teach anyone about. That made the episode feel quite old school to me.

-- Speaking of old school, lovely shout out to 'The Three Doctors' with the 'contact' moment.

-- Graham, Ryan, and Yaz on the run and hiding from technology was very Season Three and Torchwood: Children of Earth.

-- Graham called Ryan and Yaz doughnuts. Graham uses the same idiomatic slang as Ace did back in the day. Do the math, work through the implications, and weep quietly at your own mortality.

-- The entire subplot about Barton just wanting to impress his mum should have been trite and cliched, but Lenny Henry made it so damn watchable and gripping. There's a reason he's a national treasure, isn't there.

-- The Master being male and the Doctor being female added an extremely unpleasant resonance to the scene of him making her kneel before him.

-- I've avoided mentioning it until now, but it has to be addressed. Either Leave Gallifrey alone, or destroy it and be done. I am sick to death of 'Oh, Gallifrey's gone! Oh, now it's back! Nope, gone again!' plotlines. The Master intentionally nuking it has a bit of interest, but I just can't think about the whole 'They lied to us! Timeless Child!' plotline without thinking, 'Jesus Christ, do we have to? Seriously? Ok. Fine. Be quick about it.

-- I really liked that they didn't make the interior of the Master's TARDIS look like anything but the inside of a cottage.

Ryan, Yaz and Graham cosplay Torchwood season 3

Quotes:

Doctor: "Could be inside something. Oh, hope it’s not a liver. I hate being inside livers. People always get so offended."

Doctor: "I don’t think that will work."
Ada: "How will you know if you do not try?"

Ada: "I’m not a fool, Doctor."
Doctor: "And I’m not treating you as one."

Master: "Want to be smaller, ladies? You can!"

Ryan: "Sorry, did you just say 'Ryan's right'?"
Graham: "Yes, I did. Enjoy the moment, son."

Barton: "Trust me, I never use Facebook unless forced."



I think I may have enjoyed this one more than the general public did, but there were some honestly interesting ideas in here, and every single performance was above standard. It's just a pity about the lack of focus and pacing issues.

Seven 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 really starting to believe that Chibnall is as good a writer as Moffat or Davies, but doesn't have as much faith in his own ideas.

2 comments:

migmit said...

The moment she said her first name I was convinced that she is Ada Lovelace. I don't know why. It's just that she is such a big name in our area — the first ever programmer, the person who did programming before the computers even existed.

Jodie Whittaker is extremely talented, and she manages to sell this pretty ridiculous outfit the Doctor usually wears. But the Bond-esque suit with short pants... I doubt there is a single person in the world who can make this work.

Giantdaz72 said...

The question and answer Did the Facists win ? Never. Was loaded and unbelievable. The question Noor would've asked was Did the Germans win or did the Nazis win and the answer should be no. But we have to be told that too many people have voted in right-wing governments lately and all those people are facist but they won't win.. never ..