REVIEW: “Doctor Who” S12E01 – Spyfall, Part 1

spyfall_no logoAfter a full year, Doctor Who has finally returned to our TV screens! While I may not have totally loved Chris Chibnall’s first season as showrunner, I did quite enjoy Jodie Whittaker as the 13th Doctor. She brought a lot of energy and commitment to the role and it was hard to dislike her as the character, even if I wish the writing of her episodes was stronger. The same was true for her friends, Ryan (Tosin Cole), Yaz (Mandip Gill), and Graham (Bradley Walsh) – all of whom brought such energy to their characters, but many of whom felt underdeveloped. Luckily, all four of these actors have returned for this sophomore outing for the 13th Doctor, and if this first episode is anything to go by, it looks like they’re in for quite the adventure. It’s always hard to judge a two-part story when you’ve only seen its first part, and that remains true for this story. That being said, Spyfall (Part 1) is certainly an excellent first half of a story, ticking every box you’d want ticked and perfectly setting up a pretty exciting second half. (Major spoilers for Spyfall, Part 1 follow!)

Season 12, Episode 1: Spyfall, Part 1 (written by Chris Chibnall, directed by Jamie Magnus Stone)
Intelligence agents around the world are under attack from alien forces, so MI6 turn to the only people who can help: the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) and her friends, Ryan (Tosin Cole), Yaz (Mandip Gill), and Graham (Bradley Walsh). As they travel the globe looking for answers, attacks come from all sides. Earth’s security rests on the team’s shoulders, but where will this planet-threatening conspiracy lead them?

Spyfall (Part 1) has nearly everything I felt much of Chibnall’s work in series 11 lacked. The pacing was much better, nearly all of the main characters got a moment to shine and got some kind of development in their overall story, Jodie’s Doctor got to have more moments that weren’t just super-positive, Yaz got the chance to do something important in the episode and had a chance to really develop as a character, and the actual threat of the episode had some development. I felt like all of these elements were missing from much of Chibnall’s work last season, so it was really nice seeing him start to work on that some. Plus, the actual plot itself was a pretty solid one. It’s always a lot of fun to open or close a season of Doctor Who with some kind of world/universe-threatening menace and Spyfall (Part 1) has a pretty great one.

The Doctor, Yaz, Ryan, and Graham are all recruited by MI6 to investigate the mysterious disappearances of numerous intelligence agents who had been investigating Daniel Barton (Lenny Henry), a mysterious and powerful man in the tech world. It’s the perfect setup to both a Doctor Who story and a spy caper, and the episode does an excellent job of balancing these two styles. Unlike The Return of Doctor Mysterio, the 2016 Christmas special that was an homage to superhero films, Spyfall doesn’t lean too heavily into its genre roots, deciding to wink that them instead. Spyfall feels like a Doctor Who story, what with all its sci-fi elements but it also feels like a spy story. The closest comparison I can think to make is to those episodes of the Third Doctor’s era where the Third Doctor worked with UNIT to stop alien threats. Much of those episodes where very spy-like, filled with elements of political thrillers and action/adventure stories, but done in a very Doctor Who style. The same is absolutely true here and it works brilliantly. There’s a scene towards the end of the episode where the Doctor and her friends are chasing Barton, following his car on motorcycles, and the score features such classic James Bond-style music and it’s an extreme amount of fun.

Obviously, this is just the first half of a two-part story, so it’s not like we get a ton of answers to any of the questions posed, but that’s exactly as it should be. This first episode does everything the first half of a story should do, and it does so with lots of style. One could argue that the pacing is a bit slow, but I think that’s actually to the episode’s benefit as it gives the story a lot of room to develop in a more organic way, rather than having tons of exposition thrown at the audience extremely quickly. It also gives the story a lot of time to dive into some character moments that I think were largely missing from the previous season. Here, there’s the time for Graham to realize how little he knows about the Doctor, for us to learn a bit more about Ryan’s home life, and for Yaz to have time to react to getting kidnapped by the aliens and transported to some extremely strange alternate dimension before getting rescued. The mystery at the heart of the story unravels fairly slowly, but never too slowly. Everything about the pacing feels really natural and satisfying. As the episode ends, we’re about halfway through the story and it feels like we have about as much knowledge as we should have at this point – we know Barton and the aliens are involved somehow, but we don’t yet know exactly what they want. Perhaps it would be better to view both parts of Spyfall as a single, two-hour film. This first part is the first half of the movie, where all the pieces are placed and aligned for the explosive climax. Hopefully, Spyfall (Part 2) will deliver an exciting and satisfying conclusion to this first episode’s excellent mystery.

Not only was the structure of the episode (its pacing, its character development, etc) an improvement on the previous season, but so was its dialogue. The dialogue felt much more natural; characters were actually commenting on and reacting to the events they were experiencing. All of which gave our group of actors a lot more to play with. Jodie Whittaker got to shine even brighter as the Doctor, showing off more nuance to the character as she’s challenged and pushed to the brink in this episode. Mandip Gill also gets a chance to really make a statement as Yaz gets intimately involved with the aliens’ plans. Much of Gill’s scenes in the second half of the episode are quiet, reflecting some obvious PTSD Yaz is suffering from the whole getting kidnapped by the aliens thing, and it’s so nice to see Gill being given an opportunity to take Yaz to new emotional places, and largely succeeding with it. This is a less-involved episode for Ryan and Graham, but both characters are given plenty to do and it’s nice to see how their relationship has evolved – and Tosin Cole and Bradley Walsh continue to have such an excellent rapport that makes them such fun to watch.

Equally impressive is Jamie Magnus Stone’s directing. I’m impressed by how much he was able to accomplish with the, presumably modest, budget given to the show by the BBC. It’s clear the episode had lots of location shoots and Stone makes the most of those shoots, using them to really add to the scale of the episode. But where his direction shines the brightest is in the action scenes. Doctor Who is not necessarily known for being an action show, so its action scenes often leave a bit to be desired. But the action in Spyfall (Part 1) are truly excellent, rivaling a number of films. There are two pretty impressive chase scenes – the first involving a car in a crowded tunnel, the second involving motorcycles and a shootout. Both are shot expertly, edited in such a way that the action is easy to follow, and presented in such a way that really ratchets up the tension. In fact, this episode is filled with tension. Some of it from the way Chibnall’s script is crafted, some of it from Stone’s excellent direction, and some of it from Segun Akinola’s excellent score. The episode is such a great mixture of excitement and tension, that it really leaves you wanting more while also being scared for what will happen next with the characters. It’s an excellent combination.

And now, to discuss a very major spoiler. You’ll have seen much touted about the major cliffhanger reveal at the end – and all of it is true. Some rumors about the big reveal had trickled out into the ether over the past month or so, but they all seemed a bit unlikely at the time, so the reveal that Sacha Dhawan was actually playing a new incarnation of the Master came as a total surprise to me. Everything about it just worked really well. It’s seeded fairly early on what’s gonna happen, but every time you find yourself starting to think the episode might be going in that direction, you stop yourself and think there’s no way that’s where they’re going – not in the first episode of the season. And then, BANG!, it’s exactly where they went and there’s something so utterly satisfying about it. It gives the ending of the episode even more energy than it already had and does a superb job at setting up both the second half of Spyfall and, potentially, the (announced) ongoing story arc for the season. It’s not a particularly original reveal or anything; Doctor Who has literally done this kind of a reveal multiple times, but it is unusual for such a revelation to come in the very first episode of a season instead of in the first half of the finale and it’s such an energetic and surprising note to end a premiere episode on. Plus, Sacha Dhawan is extremely entertaining as the Master and his scenes with Jodie’s Doctor after the cay came out of the bag were satire with such delicious tension. I’m excited to see exactly what role the Master is playing in all this – as it all seems like a pretty typical plot from him.

Overall, Spyfall (Part 1) is an excellent first half of this two-part opening story. It’s packed with great performances, lots of tension, exciting action sequences, an intriguing story, and a cliffhanger that leaves you desperately awaiting the next episode. Like all good Doctor Who stories, it flirts with some larger themes – this time, the importance of technology in our lives – but never forgets to have truckloads of fun. The antagonists – both alien and human – feel well-developed and multi-faceted enough to be compelling to watch while posing an actual threat. The mystery itself – who are these aliens and what is their plan – is well laid out and the episode’s conclusion suggests an exciting and satisfying answer to that mystery. Of course, everything could easily fall apart when the second half of the story airs this Sunday, but until that happens it’s hard to deny that this episode succeeds in everything it sets out to do. As the episode ended, I could honestly say I was excited as hell to see the next one – and that’s a feeling I’ve missed.

4.5 out of 5 wands.

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