What’s this? The Doctor, shedding her usual rainbow T-shirt and culottes, has thrown on her version of a tuxedo. Infiltrating a glitzy party at the behest of a plummy-voiced spymaster, she’s set on confronting a reclusive and ruthless tech billionaire, who may be behind a series of attacks on Intelligence Agents around the globe.
“The names’s Doctor….THE Doctor…” she says, ready to do some serious espionage – well, at least for five minutes before she immediately strides up to the baddie and asks if he’ll tell her his evil plan.
Yes, this new episode is Doctor Who’s take on James Bond-style spycraft (though if the title, a riff on Daniel Craig movie Skyfall didn’t alert you, you’re probably not quite cut out to be 007 yourself) – and it’s also one of the best, most enjoyable and well-developed episodes for Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor so far.
In fact, from the off this is a fairly intriguing episode, opening with a monster attack in the air (well, on an aeroplane) which quickly introduces the episode’s main villains – slightly shapeless, brightly-burning creatures who can phase through solid matter and never receive a name. Despite this, they quickly establish themselves as some unsettlingly scary new foes, and the more we find out about them the more the unease grows.
We then drop back down to Earth to catch up with the Tardis team – Tosin Cole’s Ryan, Mandip Gill’s Yaz and Bradley Walsh’s Graham – who have popped back to Sheffield for a visit, catching up with friends and sorting out a little life admin during their time and space pit stop.
After fans kept wondering last year, yes, it seems that Yaz does still have a job, and generally speaking these scenes add some much-needed light and shade to the characters, all of whom are starting to feel the pinch of travelling with the Doctor. Ryan’s friends feel neglected, Yaz’s mysterious “secondments” are frustrating her boss, while Graham’s medical care has been put on the back burner.
While these bursts of reality are quickly sidelined for the globetrotting, high-pace plot it’s a welcome hint of conflict to come in the series, especially when combined with a later acknowledgement that the Doctor has been keeping her new friends in the dark about her Time Lord background and former incarnations.
At some point, clearly, this all has to come to a head – but first, spy stuff!
Without delay, the Doctor and her crew are whisked away to MI6 by C, a spymaster played brilliantly to type by a stuffy Stephen Fry who’s soon unloading a crop of offbeat gadgets and spy advice to our heroes. Their mission, should they choose to accept it, is to find out the truth about Daniel Barton, the CEO of a Google-alike tech company who seems to have something to do with these attacks (and who is played like a more subdued modern Bond villain by Lenny Henry).
In order to complete their mission the team splits up, finally making good on the promise of a four-person main cast to tell a bigger story than would be possible with just a Doctor and a companion, with Yaz and Ryan investigating Barton (and showing off their, er, questionable detective skills) while the Doctor and Graham go to learn the truth about the aliens.
Beyond that…well, we’d be roving into spoiler territory. Just know that the rest of the episode is packed with globetrotting locations (or at least, places standing in for those locations in South Africa), some pretty impressive action for a TV budget and some big twists, all careening towards a massive cliffhanger that sets up the next episode.
Really, there’s a lot to love in this episode. Shot by Jamie Magnus Stone, it genuinely looks high-budget, lush and modern (really Doctor Who has never looked this good), with nary a wobbly set in sight. Various issues many had with the last series also seem to have been addressed, with a hefty injection of the companions’ home lives added in along with some potential conflict and drama with the Tardis itself.
The spy stuff is fun, but not overdone – it’s not as central to the story as the superhero themes were in 2016’s The Return of Doctor Mysterio, which does a similar genre riff – the guest stars are great and generally speaking this feels like a more refined take on the high-stakes, real-world sci-fi story of 2019 New Year’s special Resolution.
Of course, Spyfall’s not perfect. One or two ideas (which we won’t spoil) feel like they’ve been covered by Who amply before, and a few characters are shuffled off stage right before we get a chance to know them.
And oddly, the huge final cliffhanger – which has been teased by the production crew a lot already – doesn’t land nearly as well as you’d expect, coming slightly out of left field for a conclusion that might have more people saying “huh?” than “wow!”
But overall, this is an assured return for Who that feels like a big-budget New Year special while also setting up some exciting new dynamics for the eupcoming episodes. Consider us stirred, and not shaken.
Doctor Who returns to BBC1 on Wednesday 1st January at 6.55pm