WHO WATCHES THE DOCTOR? Series 12: Episode 1: SPYFALL Part 1
Welcome to my new series of reviews for the new series of Doctor Who. Each week, a recap will be posted here after the episode has aired IN THE US. The first episode has just aired, so, let’s get started.
Well, I don’t think there is any doubt in anyone’s mind anymore as to whether or not the current production crew knows how to make “proper” Doctor Who. The premiere episode of the new series hit the ground running and never let up, There were several shocking moments building to a cliffhanger that left you breathless. I have finally picked my jaw up off the floor and am now able to order my thoughts on what I saw. Though, right off the top, this episode seemed to serve a a giant proverbial “middle finger” to any of the naysayers from last series who claimed that Chris Chibnall and Jodie Whittaker had doomed the series. This episode was “proper” Doctor Who at it’s finest.
WARNING! I AM ABOUT TO DISCUSS THE PLOT OF THE EPISODE IN DETAIL – THERE ARE MASSIVE SPOILERS BEYOND THE DOTTED LINE – YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!
In the most basic terms, the plot sees the Doctor and her “fam” (that’s Ryan, Graham and Yaz for those of you playing along at home) recruited by MI-6 (Yes, we’re going full James Bond here) because operatives around the world are being attacked, and the nature of the attacks is decidedly non-terrestrial. Because of the nature of the attacks, the Head of MI-6, C, sends for the Doctor. The Doctor and fam get to MI-6, though not before an incredible opening sequence where they are almost killed by a hacked satnav. The attacks also seem to be linked to a powerful but mysterious man named Daniel Barton.
After a tense encounter with the alien adversary at MI-6 Headquarters, it is decided that the team will split up. Ryan and Yaz go undercover as journalists to determine Barton’s role in all of this. Meanwhile, Graham and the Doctor go to the Australian Outback to visit O, the only analyst at MI-6 who worked with the extraterrestrial. He had been fired by C, and has since become a hermit. But, of course, the Doctor can find him. Encountering Daniel Barton, Yaz and Ryan discover that he is only 93% human. After he is forced to cut their interview short, Barton invited them to his birthday party the following day to finish their profile. After he leaves the office, Yaz and Ryan encounter the alien creatures. They envelop Yaz with a blinding flash and she disappears. Meanwhile, in Australia, the Doctor and O are catching up, when his house is attacked by the aliens. He activates his security fencing, which gets rid of all but one of the creatures. The remaining creature invades the house, but is captured in a special cage.
The alien manages to tell the Doctor in mocking tones that they are from far beyond her understanding and that they are there to take over the universe. Suddenly, in a flash of light, the alien in the cage disappears and is replaced by Yaz. Yaz was in a sort of limbo-like place after being zapped in Barton’s office. As the gang work out their next move, O asks Graham how much he knows about the Doctor, telling him he has a whole file on her that he can look at. Before Graham can take a peek though, it is time to go to the party.
Into the TARDIS they go, and one wardrobe change later, the Doctor and fam have gone full spy, complete with tuxedos. As they enter the party and begin to mingle, the Doctor catches up with Barton. After their chat, Barton leaves in a car, The Doctor and the gang follow on motorcycles, and we have our second chase scene of the episode. Arriving at Barton’s hanger, they sneak on board his plane as he is taking off.
Entering the main cabin, “O” makes a slip, blowing his cover. He reveals his true identity to the Doctor, telling her he did tell her to look for the Spy MASTER! That’s right, O is really THE MASTER! He reveals that he used Tissue Compression to shrink the real O on his first day of work and he has been taking his place at MI-6. He tells the Doctor to go and look in the cockpit, where Daniel Barton sat is a cockpit bomb. As the Master goes full on insane, he reveals he is also in control of the aliens, who zaps the Doctor as the bomb goes off. The Master disappears leaving Graham, Yaz and Ryan on a plane that is about to fall out of the sky, as the Doctor appears in the limbo-like space Yaz found herself in earlier.
There is so much that is exceptional about this episode, but we have to start with the Guest Stars. Stephen Fry is exceptional as C, the MI-6 Spymaster. It seems as though they really only had to ask him to play himself. He imbued his character with the same sort of intelligent air and command of respect he displayed as the quizmaster on QI. Well, at least he did until he was shot through the window. Likewise, Sir Lenny Henry is fantastic as reclusive billionaire Daniel Barton, who is not quite what he seems. He is mysterious and guarded, but you can just tell there is something sinister about him. But, the spotlight, as far as guest stars, firmly shines on Sacha Dhawan, a guest star we didn’t even know about. And yet, it turns out, the most important guest star in the episode, as he is revealed to be the latest incarnation of The Master, one of the most celebrated villains in all of Doctor Who. There are still a lot of questions, most of which arise from the circumstances in which we last saw The Master. Hopefully, we will get answers, but for the moment, there is little doubt that the Doctor’s most celebrated frenemy is back. And, he is as insane as ever.
Next, we need to talk about our TARDIS team. At this point, Jodie has definitely found “her” Doctor, with the portrayal coming off as much more confident this series. Her Doctor has grown emotionally, and is more serious and less aloof. I also love the horror the Doctor expresses when The Master reveals himself. At the same time, Jodie has managed to incorporate some of the Doctor’s trademark mannerisms, such as fast talking, that make her Doctor fell more familiar. Likewise, the rest of the fam has had a ton of character growth as well. This episode begins with something we didn’t see much of last season: the lives of the companions when they’re not traveling with the Doctor. Ryan plays basketball with his mates, while keeping up his cover story about why he is missing all the time. Yaz meets with her family and boss, explaining that she has been selected for another secondment, which will explain her absence. And, Graham meets with his Doctor, getting a clean bill of help. There is also less of a focus on Grace’s death, which they seem to be moving on from. I love this little bit of fleshing out they are doing with the characters, showing their lives beyond the TARDIS. It is also very encouraging to see that the writers fell confident in splitting the team up, creating some great story moments for all of the characters, and creating a great balance of screen time. The characters are also able to express a wider range of emotions, and Yaz gets a really great sequence when she is kidnapped and returned by the aliens. I am really looking forward to the continued development of these characters.
This episode is beautifully shot, with almost cinema-quality visuals. Doctor Who has never looked this good. And speaking of looking good, Costume Designer Ray Holman deserves special recognition for the extraordinary “black-tie” outfits the Doctor and the gang are wearing in the episode. The outfits seem tailored to each character, with the Doctor getting black trenchcoat, complete with rainbow striping and Yaz getting a non-collared shirt and a bow tie necklace. Finally, also getting an upgrade this year is the TARDIS interior. The set looks bigger and is much better lit. I also love the new display “screens”, which are made from steam.
Finally, I want to talk about the writing. This exactly the type of episode you should start the series with. The balance between action, scariness, humor and quiet character moments that many would say was not there in the previous series is absolutely present here. Kudos to Chris Chibnall for an amazing first act in what I believe will be a truly epic story. And, a further round of kudos for being able to keep that amazing plot twist/reveal a secret until transmission. I can’t wait to see how this story ends. And, if this is what we have to look forward to from the series as a whole, this could be one of the best yet.
SERIES 12 CONTINUES WITH SPYFALL PART TWO, THIS SUNDAY ON BBC ONE AND BBC AMERICA