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 a 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 – and keeps 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.
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.