Doctor Who Comes Back Shaken, Not Stirred, in “Spyfall, Part One”

The Doctor and fam are finally back with a spin on one of Britain’s favorite genres—it’s time to gather the gadgets and infiltrate in style as Doctor Who goes all in for spy craft.

Summary

Ryan, Yaz, and Graham are getting ready for another trip with the Doctor, despite people in their lives starting to wonder where they’ve been. The trio (and then the Doctor) are nabbed by secret service types in a black car. On the way to their unknown destination, the car’s systems are hijacked, and they almost die. They find out that they were supposed to be delivered to MI6, and head there at once. There they are greeted by “C” (Stephen Fry), who tells the Doctor that spies all over the world are being killed by mysterious figures that rewrites their DNA. The Doctor agrees to help if she can call on a man who used to work for MI6—a guy who they fired because he cared too much about aliens. There’s another man named Daniel Barton (Lenny Henry) who might also be involved. He used to work with MI6 until he elected to create his own tech conglomerate (that started as a search engine) called Vos. Before they can make a full plan, C is killed, and the mysterious beings come for the Doctor and company, almost breaking into the TARDIS… which should be impossible.

Screenshot: BBC

Yaz and Ryan go to San Francisco to check out Barton, while the Doctor and Graham go to meet her old mystery contact. The man is living in the Australian outback and calls himself “O” (Sacha Dhawan) because that’s what people at MI6 seemed to utter whenever he entered a room. He tries to help the Doctor figure things out about the mystery figures, but they arrive to attack. O has some very special tech he’s cobbled together that manages to keep them at bay, but one breaks into his house and talks to the Doctor, telling her that they plan to take over the whole universe. Ryan and Yaz try to interview Barton, but he’s called away, so they get an invite to his birthday party. They break into his office late at night, and download everything on his computer, then see him in contact with the mysterious figures, though they can’t tell who has the power in their dynamic. Yaz gets attacked by one of the figures and vanishes. She’s transported to a place that looks a bit like a forest of conduits, then gets sent to the house in Australia somehow.

Screenshot: BBC

The Doctor looks through Barton’s computer and finds some alien code that shows how many of these alien entities are on Earth. She knows she’s still missing something, so she decides that they’ll all go to Barton’s birthday party, O included. Once there, the Doctor tries to confront Barton about what he’s doing, but he refuses to talk, then leaves the party in a car. The group follow on a few motorcycles, catching up to Barton at his own airfield. He gets into a plane and they make to follow, though O has some trouble keeping up. When he claims that he’s terrible at sprinting, the Doctor realizes something is wrong because his MI6 file said the opposite. They suddenly see O’s house whirling beside the plane in midair, and the missing puzzle piece slots into place—

—O is the Master.

He’s put a bomb on the plane, and it goes off. As they begin to crash and the mystery figures start coming after them again, the Master tells the Doctor that everything she thinks she knows is lie.

Commentary

You know, you can spend a whole episode watching a new character and going “he’s charming as all get out, almost too sweet, and I love it but something’s off?” And then you remember that Doctor Who has had characters like that before in Osgood and so forth, so maybe it’s nothing, and you enjoy yourself, and wonder what this guy’s deal is, and if he’ll maybe become a companion down the road, or perhaps he knows more than he’s letting on—

—and then he says “Come on, Doctor, catch up,” and your heart genuinely skips a beat because you know what you want, but that seems like a New Year’s miracle too far. 2020 can’t possibly start out that great.

Screenshot: BBC

I’m sure plenty of people won’t be into this reveal, either because they don’t much care for the Master, or because it hasn’t actually been that long since we’ve seen the character. But as a person who frequently refers to him (and/or her) as “my murder baby”, and who was incredibly disappointed with how the Moffat era ended the character’s tenure, this feels like a gift aimed explicitly at me, and I intend to grab it with both hands.

This episode had all the hallmarks of a classic Master reveal: a disguise (less about costumes this time, but a disguise nonetheless), a little flirting with one of the companions, a plot within the plot, and a lot of gloating and potential death once the big reveal comes about. Sacha Dhawan clearly knows what he’s jumped into, giving ample homage to Roger Delgado’s charm, Anthony Ainley’s flair for dramatics, and infusing it with Michele Gomez and John Simm’s sense of camp to create his own fabulous take. Once he makes the switch, he becomes utterly hypnotizing—and what’s more, the Thirteenth Doctor needs this. She needs someone around who can occasionally squelch her unflappability. She deserves her own perfectly paired best enemy, and you can tell in the mere moments he gets to make his introduction that Dhawan is definitely it.

Screenshot: BBC

My favorite thing about watching the Master is all the ways that the character’s need for the Doctor’s attention come through, even when he’s trying to be discrete. In “O”, the Master has created the perfect lure, but also the perfect facade by which to gain praise and focus from the Doctor. She knows him and says they “text” each other, which means that the Master has been planning this for ages, living on Earth, constructing the sort of person the Doctor would come to in an emergency. When she calls, it’s all about telling him how “right” he was and how terrible MI6 was for treating him poorly. When they meet, he has all the things needed to keep the alien incursion (however briefly) at bay. And then the Doctor actually treats him like a companion, inviting him aboard the TARDIS and outfitting him for a “trip”—which we know, from Missy, is all the Master ever really wanted. His friend back.

Well, that and the ability to terrify and upset his friend constantly. That’s also a large part of it.

We don’t know where in their collective intertwined timeline this version of the Master heralds from, but it’s possible that he predates Missy entirely (and Simm and Jacobi and Roberts and more for that matter), since we know there are a lot of incarnations we’ve never seen. The fact that he has his TARDIS makes this even more likely. The fact that said TARDIS contains a shelf of books about the Doctor is the most On Brand thing the Master has ever admitted to (even if he was admitting it under the guise of being another person).

Screenshot: BBC

Outside of the mega reveal, this episode is a delightful pastiche of the spy genre, and James Bond in particular. Composer Segun Akinola deserves the majority of the credit for providing that atmosphere, sending up decades worth of James Bond soundtracks with flawless panache. The comical choice to bring in Stephen Fry as the head of MI6, only to murder him minutes later is frankly too much fun. The city-hopping with the places all labeled out was also a great touch, and watching the Doctor and crew get spiffed up in tuxes and gamble (poorly) is guaranteed to be one of my season highlights, even knowing that we’re just one episode in.

Amongst the TARDIS crew, we’re seeing a little bit of the strain that traveling is putting on Ryan and Yaz’s lives. Yaz is getting close to irreparably damaging her career, though we don’t yet know if she’s soured on it after seeing the universe. Ryan’s absences are starting to get noticed by friends, his excuses getting more and more ridiculous. The dynamics between the three of them are better fleshed out now than ever. Graham’s keen on lots of it, but is more than willing to say when he’s had enough. Yaz is into the idea of pushing farther and breaking more rules than she can in her normal life—and we have to expect that this will eventually become an issue. Ryan has the relatable problem of real anxiety that he has to constantly navigate his way around as they go on adventures. It’s gratifying to see someone who doesn’t have the usual TARDIS buddy bluster still get the chance to be a companion and grow from it.

Screenshot: BBC

Yaz gets a real scare in this episode, believing briefly that she’s died when the alien zaps her away to that weird conduit forest. She’s an excellent spy, but it seems as though she’s learning a little about caution, while Ryan is learning more about stepped up and being a part of things. Their friendship has clearly grown, and we’ve got a little bit of family drama with Yaz’s sister asking for Ryan’s number and Yaz being fully against the whole thing. (Ryan’s right, though—he’d be a great brother-in-law.)

Who are these mysterious beings who mean to conquer the universe, and what do they want? They could be the Cybermen; the body shape looks similar, and we know they’re set for a return and a reimagining this season. It would make sense to pair the Master with them, since he’s pulled team-ups like this before (and there’s also the possibility that he’s just siding with them until the Doctor can figure out a way to stop them). This might also serve as something of a continuation of the Davies era Cybermen—RTD partly used the Cybermen as a commentary on technology’s presence in our lives, with the Cybus Industries earpods serving as they method by which people could be hijacked and converted. In the Vos company, we’ve got a more immediate and obvious analog to technology companies and how they infiltrate every single facet of our lives.

Screenshot: BBC

There’s clearly more going on than we understand—the Master says as much—and it’s unclear if this will all get wrapped up in part two, or if it’s ultimately going to be part of a season-long arc. Either way, the second half of this story can’t come soon enough.

Things and asides:

  • “O” claims to have met the Doctor back when she was a man. WHICH DOCTOR. I need to know.
  • The Doctor claims she lived in the Outback for 123 years at one point, and honestly, I think it’s time that fandom acknowledges that the Doctor has no idea how old she is, or when things took place in her life, or for how long. It’s better this way, I promise.

Screenshot: BBC

  • We need to know what that previous motorcycle adventure was all about. I also love Ryan letting Graham drive him around on it.
  • The Doctor’s adding rooms and levels to the TARDIS again. I wanna see the Rainforest Floor.
  • We’ve had references to and uses of the Master’s tissue compression eliminator in New Who before, but this time they played it less for scares, and showed the shrunken fellow the Master replaced in a matchbox. More of this, please.

Screenshot: BBC

  • It looks like people called “C” simply cannot be put in charge of MI6; in addition to the death of Stephen Fry, Andrew Scott played a character dubbed “C” by James Bond in Spectre. C tried to take over the organization using surveillance and technology, and ended up taking a very long fall.
  • Time Lords are supposed to be able to recognize each other on sight, but the Master has hidden that from the Doctor before, so presumably something similar was at work here.

Emmet Asher-Perrin is proud of themself for not making this review just a video of them screaming like they did at the tv. You can bug him on Twitter, and read more of her work here and elsewhere.

citation

Back to the top of the page

37 Comments

Subscribe to this thread

Post a Comment

All comments must meet the community standards outlined in Tor.com's Moderation Policy or be subject to moderation. Thank you for keeping the discussion, and our community, civil and respectful.

Hate the CAPTCHA? Tor.com members can edit comments, skip the preview, and never have to prove they're not robots. Join now!

Our Privacy Notice has been updated to explain how we use cookies, which you accept by continuing to use this website. To withdraw your consent, see Your Choices.