“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.
Sacha Dhawan and Waris Hussein’s first meeting in January 2013. Photographed by RT’s Patrick Mulkern.