I love a good two-parter, I really do. But I’ll also admit that it’s extremely hard to stick the landing on one. The best two-parters have pretty explosive (sometimes literally) cliffhangers that have to be satisfactorily dealt with before the rest of the episode can focus on actually concluding the greater story being told. This was something previous eras of Doctor Who had struggled with a bit; RTD tended to write himself into corners that required a deus ex machina solution while Moffat’s two-parters often were more spiritually connected than narratively. Both of them frequently struggled with figuring out a way to properly conclude the stories they were telling. With Spyfall being the first two-parter from the new showrunner, Chris Chibnall, the hope would be that he’d find a good way to thread this needle. And, for the most part, he does a pretty good job, delivering an episode that’s most definitely a narrative continuation of the previous and providing some solid answers while setting up an intriguing throughline for the rest of the season. (This review will contain spoilers for Spyfall, Part 2. Proceed at your own risk.)
Season 12, Episode 2: Spyfall, Part 2 (written by Chris Chibnall, directed by Lee Haven Jones)
In part two of this epic spy thriller, a terrifying plan to destroy humanity is about to reach fruition. Can the Doctor and her friends escape multiple traps and defeat a deadly alliance?
When we last saw our intrepid hero (Jodie Whittaker), she’d been delivered quite a shock when she learned her oldest foe, The Master (Sacha Dhawan), had been impersonating her spy friend O for all these years and was the force behind this alien threat MI6 had tasked her to investigate. Almost as soon as she’d learned this, she was teleported off the crashing plane (that had suffered an explosion from a bomb placed by The Master) and was trapped in the same strange dimension Yaz (Mandip Gill) had found herself in earlier in the episode. Meanwhile, Yaz, Ryan (Tosin Cole), and Graham (Bradley Walsh) are still on the crashing plane, their fates left in the air. Chibnall solves this cliffhanger fairly quickly in a way that feels pretty satisfying – The Doctor, through some timey-wimey shenanigans, plants some clues on the plane that lead to Ryan connecting the plane’s autopilot systems to his phone, allowing the plane to safely land and sending the trio of companions on their own quest to track down Barton (Lenny Henry) and figure out what he and the Kasaavin (the shimmery aliens) are up to.
Unfortunately, the companions don’t really get a whole lot to do in the episode, but there are some pretty fun moments where they are forced to evade Barton’s goons and use some of the MI6 tech they got. Their best scenes come in the moments where they’re alone, reflecting on all they don’t know about the Doctor and how she’s thrust them into this insanely dangerous situation and is now nowhere to be found. I’m left wondering if three companions are too many for Chibnall to handle. It’s not that Doctor Who can’t support three companions, but Chibnall has yet to quite figure out how to properly balance them all. While Yaz was given a bit more to do in the previous episode, she pretty much returns to her usual status as more of a background character to Ryan and Graham’s dynamic. Very little is made of her experience in the Kasaavin’s dimension and she doesn’t register much throughout the rest of the episode. But that’s certainly not Mandip Gill’s fault, who continues to deliver as good a performance as Bradley Walsh and Tosin Cole do. I remain hopeful that Chibnall and the rest of the writers will find a way to better balance the companions because I really do love them all and both parts of Spyfall have given each of them some really good moments to justify their inclusion in the show.
What of the other half of the cliffhanger, where the Doctor has found herself trapped in the Kasaavin’s dimension? That one’s wrapped up in a slightly clumsier fashion with the Doctor having a chance encounter with Ada Lovelace (Sylvie Briggs) which leads her to 1834, where the Doctor is left, stranded, to figure out what’s going on. She quickly deduces that this mysterious statue seen in the residence of Charles Babbage, whom Lovelace assists, and in Barton’s office is somehow connected to everything. Meanwhile, the Master quickly follows the Doctor to 1834 and the two resume their game of cat and mouse as the Doctor makes her way to 1943 (with Lovelace in tow) and meets Noor Inayat Khan (Aurora Marion), a British spy and wireless operator during World War II, who helps the Doctor get the Nazis to turn on the Master, who had embedded himself among their ranks. But not before the Doctor and the Master get a chance to talk about his plan. It’s a delicious conversation, centered around these two master chess players trying to outwit each other. Sacha Dhawan continues to be intensely captivating as the Master, this time getting to blend some of that manic energy into quieter moments of viciousness. His scenes also bring out one of Whittaker’s best performances as the Doctor. It’s nice seeing her against an enemy that really has her on her toes and Whittaker plays those moments brilliantly. Similarly, Briggs and Marion are good as Lovelace and Khan, respectively, though Marion’s Khan is given significantly less to do in the story.
It’s also during these scenes where Chibnall starts to sow the conclusion of the story and, to be fair, he does a fairly decent job at bringing the whole thing to a mostly satisfying conclusion. He does a good job of tying Lovelace and Khan into the story, using them as both an aid to the Doctor and also as clues for the eventual unraveling of the mystery – particularly in regards to the ever-reappearing mysterious statue and its ties to famous historical figures associated with technology. All of which leads us directly into the conclusion of the story: a press conference where Barton announces his plan to use his technology to allow the Kasaavin to upgrade humanity into something new – a twist that feels very Cybermen-ish. But before that can happen, the Doctor arrives at his warehouse (where the previously mentioned statue, which is key to this entire plan, is being held) and reveals that she, Khan, and Lovelace planted a virus in the machine that completely shuts it off if it detects a large amount of Kasaavin energy. The Kassavin, understandably angry, take their anger out on the Master after the Doctor reveals to them they were a pawn in his plan, trapping him inside their dimension. It feels a little deus ex machina-y, but the seeds of this conclusion are planted fairly well throughout the episode that it’s fairly easy to give it a pass. On the whole, it mostly works as a conclusion to the story, even if it’s a bit open-ended.
Where Chibnall stumbles a bit is in his explanation of just what the antagonists’ plans actually are. It basically boils down to “something, something, we’re gonna take over the world.” To be fair, that totally tracks for the Master. Historically, his plans have often made very little sense and boiled down to his desire to screw over the Doctor and vindictively destroy the human race – and Sacha Dhawan certainly sells the Master’s vindictive streak. But what I had more trouble following was what Barton and the Kasaavin’s plan was prior to the Master getting involved. I’m still pretty hazy on who the Kasaavin even are, though that’s definitely probably the least important aspect of the story – as it often is when it’s revealed the Master has been manipulating some other alien into doing his dirty work. I’m not saying this ambiguity is necessarily a bad thing – as I said, it’s pretty clear the Master is the actual villain and it’s absolutely his MO to cause chaos for the sake of it – and there is something nice about not having every aspect of a villain’s plan spelled out for us, but I feel like there might have been too little of it spelled out for us.
It’s hard to truly feel the danger of a threat when we don’t really know what that threat is. What was Barton actually trying to achieve prior to meeting the Master? We don’t know. What is he really trying to achieve now? He thinks humans have evolved as far as they’re going to and thinks our brains might make for better hard drives? Sounds pretty Cybermen-ish (which might be the point since Cybermen are coming back this season). But it’s hard to track exactly why he’s going along with the Master here. Perhaps this is intentional; the last ten-fifteen minutes of the episode clearly leave certain things open-ended as part of an ongoing arc for the season (more on that in a bit), so some of these qualms might be solved by then. Lenny Henry is very good as Barton and the show leaves a blatant opening for him (and the Kasaavin) to return, so I can’t help but think that might be exactly what’s to happen later in the season. If it is, we might get some answers. But until that point, I can’t lie and say that this lack of clarity didn’t impact my enjoyment just a bit.
That being said, it didn’t hamper the episode too badly as it was otherwise a really solid episode that did a pretty good job at concluding the story while also setting up a really exciting season arc for the show. It’s a somewhat quieter, more reflective episode. There’s still plenty of globe-trotting (and time-trotting), but the pacing is just a bit slower here and all the characters are given some much-needed time to reflect on what’s going on. The Doctor and the Master have a few really great scenes that help establish where we are in their ongoing relationship and Yaz, Graham, and Ryan have a couple of really nice scenes where we start to see their trust in the Doctor wavering a bit in the revelation of their complete lack of knowledge in the Doctor’s origins. It’s these moments that, like in the previous episode, prove the meatiest as it gives our characters something emotional to play with.
And speaking of that arc, it’s a really intriguing one. Earlier in the episode, the Master tells the Doctor that he visited Gallifrey and found it in ruins. So, after wrapping up everything with Barton, she takes a trip to Gallifrey and finds that everything the Master said was true. Inside her TARDIS, she receives a call/message from the Master (it’s unclear as to when he recorded this; he references an earlier conversation they had in the episode, which means it must have been recorded after that conversation, but is it recorded after he was trapped in the Kasaavin’s dimension?). There, he reveals he was the one who destroyed Gallifrey after learning a secret so terrible he couldn’t let them get away with it. The secret in question? Everything about Gallifrey is built on a lie related to The Timeless Child, a phrase we last heard uttered to the Doctor by a Stenza-created experiment in The Ghost Monument. The Master, of course, refuses to tell the Doctor anything further, insisting she must learn on her own.
And now we’re left with a Doctor whose faith in her past and her planet is fundamentally shaken by this whole Timeless Child business, and three companions who are desperate to learn more about this mysterious time traveler they’ve placed their trust in. All of this suggests a series rife with tension, explosive moments, and trust issues. I’m curious to see where the Timeless Child arc leads us; it must be something monumentally altering to lead to the Master deciding to completely destroy Gallifrey. And I’m really interested in seeing how this knowledge impacts the Doctor and her companions’ trust in her. It’s a devilishly intriguing storyline and it’s nice to have such a throughline for the series again. I hope Chibnall sticks the landing with this arc better than his predecessors have with their own respective ones. I’m so excited to see how the Doctor unravels all of this.
All in all, Spyfall, Part 2 is a very solid conclusion to the first two-parter of the 13th Doctor’s era. It’s definitely a narrative conclusion to the first episode, and it mostly concludes the major story elements introduced in that episode in a satisfying way. It does leave a few things frustratingly unanswered, possibly to be touched upon later on, possibly not, and those unanswered questions do prove a bit annoying. But it’s not enough to ruin an episode that’s otherwise very well done. It’s filled with some great performances (most notably from Sacha Dhawan as the newest incarnation of the Master), some great directing, and the introduction of an extremely intriguing ongoing plotline for the season. I doubt that plotline will be touched upon in every episode or anything, but it’s always exciting having a bigger mystery for the Doctor to try and uncover over the course of a season and this one, in particular, really envigorates some energy the show seemed to be missing last season. On the whole, Spyfall was an excellent opener for this season and it’s left me very excited to see what happens next with the Thirteenth Doctor and her friends.
4 out of 5 wands.