Broadcast Date: 01 January 2020
Written By: Chris Chibnall
Featuring: 13th Doctor, Graham, Ryan and Yaz
*Warning: This review contains MAJOR spoilers of the plot. Please leave the page if you want to watch the episode unspoiled.*
A breathless spy-based episode kicks off Series 12, as a familiar foe is reintroduced to the show in spectacular fashion.
From the very first second of this episode, “Spyfall” feels less like a way to open a new series of Doctor Who but rather a story that is more fitting that the previous series finale or the 2019 festive special. The stakes are raised as viewers witness spies of all nationalities being assassinated by mysterious entities that seem to phase through solid walls and completely alter the DNA of the individuals targeted. These impossible murders lead MI6 and its pompous head (played by Stephen Fry in a great piece of casting) to issue the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) and her compassions a mission. They need to investigate the founder of one of the world’s biggest tech companies, Daniel Barton, in a mission right out of a James Bond film (hence the episode’s name and its many nods towards spy thrillers), before things get really out of hand once the TARDIS crew become targets of Barton and the entities. This is a massive improvement in writing from Chris Chibnall, after a hit and miss Series 11, as he is able to take so much influence from spy thrillers but keep it quintessential Who.
Being an episode heavily featured by spy films and fiction, two elements stand out quite a lot to me: the pacing and the amount of action. Compared to the lacklustre finale to Series 11, this episode is breathless from the start, as the Doctor and her companions go across the world, from Sheffield to Australia, in the hunt for answers. The pacing of this really amps up the excitement factor for viewers, even more so than the Dalek episode for New Year’s Day 2019. I feel that Chibnall and the writing team have looked at the mixed reaction from viewers and fans towards Series 11 and is learning from what didn’t quite work. This is also helped by some stunning cinematography of locations, from a villa on top of a hill in the sunny Mediterranean to a hut in the middle of the Australian outback. On the flip side, and I can’t quite believe that I am saying this, the onslaught of travelling from place to place, scenario to scenario, almost feels like too much, like the writers are trying to stuff in all of the detail of a feature film into an hour.
In a similar way, the amount of action featured in this episode is the most so far of the Chibnall era. I wonder whether this is down to the plot being influenced by spy thriller films or is going to be the new direction of the show, as this is the second story in a row that seems to be completely separate from the previous series and the lack of action that had. In just the space of an hour viewers are treated to: a runaway self-driving car, gunfire at MI6, a high speed pursuit and an bomb in the cockpit of an aeroplane, which explodes and sends its terrified occupants falling through the sky. There are other major events that occur in this episode, such as poor Yaz (Mandip Gill) being transported to an unknown plain and back again. My minor criticism of the pacing also applies to the number of action sequences; there are some traumatic events but these are either referred to in a couple of lines or in a short scene, but forgotten by the time it gets to the next set piece. These are some very minor quibbles though. As a whole I do like this new flavour of Doctor Who, with the cinematic visuals really being backed up by some great writing.
Speaking of great writing, I can’t write this review without discussing the plot point that leaved me and the nation shocked for the first time in years when watching Doctor Who. Major spoilers upcoming but I did warn you readers at the top of this review. The revelation that the kind yet geeky MI6 analyst who was alongside the TARDIS team in this story is in fact the latest incarnation of The Master was the perfect cliffhanger to this episode, especially when it took place during the plane crash I mentioned above. I heard some rumours that Sacha Dhawan was in line to be the next Master, but most rumours of this sort turn out to be false. This did not limit my shock in any way and I think the way the revelation was done is up there with one of the most memorable moments in the show of all time. I also loved the re-introduction of The Master’s Tissue Compression Eliminator, taking me back to episodes I watched when I was young. This episode was dedicated to the late Terrance Dicks, the script editor of Doctor Who between 1968 and 1974 and I think he would have loved this episode that brought back an adversary introduced during his tenure of the show.
The first part of “Spyfall” was a white-knuckle breathless affair that brilliantly combined Doctor Who with spy thrillers it was influenced by. The shock re-introduction of one of the Doctor’s greatest adversaries right at the climax means many more viewers will be scrambling to their TVs for the next episode to see what will happen next.
Star Rating: 4.5/5
What did you make of “Spyfall: Part One”? Let me know your thoughts in the comments section below, and don’t forget to like and subscribe to get notified via email when new posts are published.
Part two of “Spyfall” will see the action switch from the present day to historic Paris, but what will The Master and the alien entities do here? You can see my review of the episode in the next couple of days and to wet your appetite further, here is a trailer courtesy of the BBC.