Doctor Who: Spyfall ★★★★

A Masterly Sacha Dhawan energises the launch of series 12 as Chris Chibnall delivers a dark but fun-fuelled 007 spoof

Sacha Dhawan as The Master in Doctor Who
4.0 out of 5 star rating

“Call me by my name!” – the Master

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Story 288

Series 12 – Episodes 1 & 2

Storyline
When the world’s top intelligence agents are eliminated by alien forces, MI6 chief C pleads with the Doctor and her friends to investigate. Yaz and Ryan follow a lead to global digital company VOR in San Francisco and its ruthless boss, Daniel Barton, while the Doctor and Graham head to the Australian Outback to meet an old contact, Agent O. He reveals himself as a new version of the Master, who is in league with the Kasaavin, luminescent creatures from (and portals to) a dark dimension. With her friends on the run, the Doctor is trapped in England 1834, where she meets computer pioneer Ada Lovelace; and then in Paris 1943, where they’re helped by British spy Noor Inayat Khan. They must thwart the Master and Barton’s plan, threaded through time to the 21st century, to rewrite humanity’s DNA to serve as a hard drive. The Master also claims that he has laid waste the Time Lord home planet and that everything the founding fathers of Gallifrey told them was a lie…

First UK broadcasts
Part One – Wednesday 1 January 2020
Part Two – Sunday 5 January 2020

Cast
The Doctor – Jodie Whittaker
Graham O’Brien – Bradley Walsh
Ryan Sinclair – Tosin Cole
Yasmin Khan – Mandip Gill
O/The Master – Sacha Dhawan
Daniel Barton – Lenny Henry
C – Stephen Fry
Ada Lovelace – Sylvie Briggs
Noor Inayat Khan – Aurora Marion
Charles Babbage – Mark Dexter
Najia Khan – Shobna Gulati
Hakim Khan – Ravin J Ganatra
Sonya Khan – Bhavnisha Parmar
Sniper – Melissa De Vries
Passenger – Sacharissa Claxton
Older passenger – William Ely
Operative (US) – Brian Law
Tibo – Buom Tihngang
Sergeant Ramesh Sunder – Asif Khan
Mr Collins – Andrew Bone
Rendition man – Ronan Summers
Ethan – Christopher McArthur
Seesay – Darron Meyer
Browning – Dominique Maher
Inventor – Andrew Piper
Airport worker – Tom Ashley
Perkins – Kenneth Jay
Barton’s mother – Blanche Williams
Voice of Kasaavin – Struan Rodger

Crew
Writer – Chris Chibnall
Directors – Jamie Magnus Stone (1), Lee Haven Jones (2)
Series producer – Nikki Wilson
Music – Segun Akinola
Designer – Dafydd Shurmer
Executive producers – Chris Chibnall, Matt Strevens 

RT review by Patrick Mulkern

Part One

4.0 out of 5 star rating

“Everything that you think you know is a lie,” crows the bonkers new Master. Just about sums up 2019, doesn’t it, really? But his cryptic words cap an eventful launch episode that propels Doctor Who into the 2020s with a sizzle of energy – rather like its dazzling new monsters.

There’s a sense of renewed confidence in showrunner Chris Chibnall’s writing and in the polished performances of the central quartet, returning for a second lap. I’m guardedly optimistic. If they can sustain this, Series 12 might show a marked improvement on the lacklustre Series 11.

Despite the BBC bragging about the last series’ ratings success, the good Doctor, in my book, did require life-giving surgery. Earlier in 2019 I was at a big bash with a crowd who love Doctor Who and I didn’t hear a syllable of praise for its current incarnation. More tellingly, this Christmas I found my four nieces and nephews (aged 12 to 18, its key audience) entranced by a repeat of the 2010 special, A Christmas Carol. They all said Matt Smith remains their favourite Doctor, with Jodie Whittaker languishing at the bottom of their pile. They lamented Series 11’s unengaging storylines and characters, notably Yaz and Ryan. So, work to do.

Like them or yawn at them, the Tardis foursome all have plenty to chew on in Spyfall Part One. Chibnall takes a moment to re-establish the companions’ backgrounds, letting their family and friends remark on lengthy absences from home and work. Ryan’s dyspraxia is subtly touched upon. Yaz is assertive, if implausible as a journalist penetrating the baddie’s HQ. Again, Bradley Walsh lands the funnies (“Worst! Uber! Ever!”) as Graham, and maybe it’s significant that we’re reminded of his cancer scare, albeit in remission after four years. Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor remains uncomplicated and zestful, a person you might feasibly contemplate time-travelling with, despite squawking once more about her “fam”. Please stop.

Spyfall blatantly guns for a 007 vibe – and as a spoof of a parody it largely succeeds. But this is Doctor Who. Even on a 21st-century BBC budget, it can’t hack the film franchise’s sophistication – but then it’s scarcely attempting to. Part One races along and is slickly directed by newcomer Jamie Magnus Stone. His grandfather was Magnus Magnusson, the broadcasting legend behind the BBC quiz, Mastermind. A clue hidden in plain sight?

The chases (planes/bikes/automobiles) show ambition, and the action flits between far-flung locations. All the foreign ones, be they Ivory Coast or Australia, were actually only an hour or two’s drive from Cape Town. The obligatory casino sequence looks crummy and would shame James Bond, although the Time Lord playing Snap! makes me smile. A raised eyebrow to composer Segun Akinola for infusing his score with nods to John Barry. Lenny Henry lends a light touch as the (decoy) villain, while Stephen Fry adds flummery and a sip of class as MI6 boss C. His early demise is a surprise.

Spyfall’s other Big C – Mr Chibnall – keeps the intrigue flowing. It was a pleasure to watch Part One at the BFI launch in early December with an excited throng – many of them children, given plenty to gawp and gasp at. Hook and spook – that’s what Doctor Who does at its best, and His Chibs and the team score with the new monsters, radiant, indeterminate figures bursting from another dimension; with the nightmarish alien realm like a drained, dead kelp forest; and the florid reveal of the Doctor’s “best enemy”: “I did say look for the spymaster – or should I say ‘spy Master’?”

How many of you had suspicions about Agent O? Even if you’d avoided spoilers, surely it was significant that a guest artist of Sacha Dhawan’s standing was absent from all publicity – including the Radio Times cast list. He was omitted from one of the few press photos (the Tardis team in the vineyard), although we can now see he is in that scene. Did you spot that Agent O’s unlikely forcefield, which repels the aliens in the Great Victoria Desert, has a tell-tale hexagonal Time Lordy/Tardis-y pattern?

Every Doctor gets the Master they deserve. In the 1970s, Jon Pertwee’s debonair Doctor was matched by the suave and saturnine Roger Delgado. Tom Baker’s seedy bohemian incarnation was stalked by a putrescent Phantom of the Opera cadaver. The 1980s Doctors contended with Anthony Ainley’s panto-villain interpretation. John Simm provided a zany-loon counterpoint to David Tennant, while Peter Capaldi was mirrored in Michelle Gomez’s waspish, self-doubting and, of course, Scottish Missy.

I’d like to have seen Jodie Whittaker up against her own Missy (Suranne Jones!) but Chibnall opts for a reverse gender reassignment and, yes, a geographical shift to the North of England. Whittaker and Dhawan were born only 35 miles (and two years) apart, either side of the Peak District. Thus “Mar-ster” is no more. In the mouths of these actors, the arch-foe’s “a” is shortened. “Call me ‘Master’…”

Rising to prominence in The History Boys (Alan Bennett’s 2004 play; 2006 movie), Dhawan is a charismatic addition to the series. He’s been on its periphery for ages. In 2013’s An Adventure in Space and Time he played the role of Waris Hussein, Doctor Who’s founding director. Now with considerable relish he ramps up his performance from the nerdy, Doctor-obsessed Agent O to the theatrically crackers Master. The warped swine still enjoys killing with his “tissue compression eliminator” and – this is plain daft – long afterwards keeps the shrunken remains of the real O in a matchbox in his pocket. It’s a cute/shonky effect, and has been ever since its debut in Terror of the Autons in 1971.

We shan’t glean the purpose of the “spy Master’s” nutty plan until Part Two – or even later this season – but its details already show lapses in logic. Much of what has ensued is ludicrously reliant on luck: the Doctor’s team easily penetrating Barton’s party; dodging a hail of bullets in a motorbike chase; catching up with a plane and all clambering onto its tailgate before take-off – including, in the final scramble, the “I’ve never been good at sprinting” Master. What if none of this had come to pass? Naturally, the Master rejoices as if it were planned and he was keen to jump onto a plane with a bomb in its cockpit.

Silly, but why complain? It feeds into the return of a key Who hook, the crescendo cliffhanger with that melodramatic “eeeooowww” sting created by BBC Radiophonic Workshop king Brian Hodgson circa 1970. Roll on, Part Two!

Doctor Who is good at acknowledging its greats and their passing into legend. This episode ends with the caption “Dedicated to the Masterful Terrance Dicks” – the script editor, author and general writing giant who died last autumn. Dicks co-created and named the Master back in 1970. I reckon he’d have been tickled by this latest diabolic regeneration of the Doctor’s Moriarty.


Part Two

3.0 out of 5 star rating

Doctor Who’s Part Twos often fail to deliver on the promise and exhilaration of what has gone before. This was notably an issue during Matt Smith’s period. Spyfall’s culmination almost skyfalls into the trap.

It soon extricates the Doctor from her cliffhanger fate (trapped in a realm “far beyond”) and Graham, Ryan and Yaz from theirs (incineration in a cockpit-less plane) in a complicated-looking but actually ridiculously simple manner. There’s a chance meeting and a handy dimensional portal for the Doc, while she sends help back in time for her blooming “fam”. It was always going to be easy.

Part Two does sew up the threads of Part One and leave a few tantalising loose ends. It keeps stoking the threat of the dazzling aliens and insidious tech, while plunging the Doctor back to two settings in the past: the Royal Gallery of Practical Science in 1834 and Paris, 1943. Part Two feels at one with One, even though a different director (Lee Haven Jones) takes the helm (from Jamie Magnus Stone). And writer Chris Chibnall keeps us alert by opening the Doctor Who Lore Book – something he assiduously avoided in series 11 – and then tearing out its pages.

Jodie Whittaker is on convincing form. It helps that she spends most of the episode out of her rainbow garb and in a black tailcoat and bow tie. Away from Part One’s James Bond shtick, it brings her closer in guise to the second Doctor Patrick Troughton. Placing her opposite her archenemy (and a very good actor in Sacha Dhawan) also invigorates her performance.

Many will miss Missy. I do. Michelle Gomez was sublime, hilarious and alarming. Steven Moffat developed the character thoughtfully, having her eventually repent of her sins and allied to the Doctor. It’s a shame that’s been jettisoned, although nothing confirms that this latest Master is Missy’s successor. He could be an earlier incarnation.

Dhawan is terrific, though, at bringing this version to life, relishing the melodrama and gobbledegook, the casual shrink-killings, the crazy asides, sparring with Whittaker in two-handers that at first thrill, then atop the Eiffel Tower teeter towards boring. This dip is rescued when the Master rips up the myth (“When did you last go home?”) and claims that their home planet Gallifrey, still in its bubble universe, has been “pulverised, burned, nuked”. I pity the inhabitants of Gallifrey. Successive showrunners have batted it in and out of existence like a ping-pong ball. The Master will be back for sure, but let’s keep him in his sleek outfit and not swamped in engulfing costumes. When he toddles on as a Nazi commandant, it looks like Michael Bentine’s Potty Time.

Graham is amusing in most situations and doubly so in extremis, freaking out on the plane and, later, goofing around with his laser shoes to fend off assailants. Bradley Walsh gives gold. Ryan is a dullard most of the time but you can’t help feeling a twinge of joy for him when he says, “I can’t ride a bike but I can fly a plane.” Well, almost. Yaz, um, yes. She is there. She just about registers. She tries to think and act as the Doctor would do. Otherwise slim pickings. She’s no Sarah Jane Smith.

A cheer for female empowerment, though, as Chibnall again honours the more quietly sung heroines of the past. To wit, computer pioneer Charles Babbage is deftly sidelined to foreground his associate Ada Lovelace, Byron’s daughter and crucial in the development of Babbage’s Analytical Engine. She’s played with gentility and gusto by Sylvie Briggs, while Aurora Marion is handed less to shine with as Noor Inayat Khan, the first woman wireless operator dropped behind enemy lines in the Second World War. Blah, blah. The Doctor reads historical figures the first line of their Wikipedia bios to their faces – andkeeps stopping to explain the plot. To be frank, it is helpful to the drifting viewer, but there are subtler methods to dispense information.

Daniel Barton is a tricky case. Lenny Henry is such a familiar figure, I find I’m just seeing Lenny Henry. Nice guy. Not a tech giant. No villain. No menace. Even when he’s bumping off his own dreary mother. Henry is almost chilling at Barton’s conference speech, as he reveals his diabolical plan. Anything about the perils of humanity’s slavery to tech wins a tick from me. After the bizarre Master plan unravels at the first computer virus, Barton skulks off, with no payback, just like Jack Robertson (Chris Noth) in Arachnids in the UK. The door is, as they say, left open.

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I’m pleased that series 12 is embracing the Who lore it eschewed in 2018. For a fresh start, it was arguably a good move to encourage newcomers. But the mythology is irresistible. To fans. To the programme. To the unfolding text. To Chibnall. He’s delivered the Master, and now the first mention of the Doctor’s home world, and even its constellation, Kasterborous. There’s a long-awaited, startlingly plain info-dump at the climax as she informs Graham, Yaz and Ryan of her origins. And, at long last, Doctor 13 utters the phrase “I’m a Time Lord”. Baggage reclaimed.