Airdate: January 1, 2020
Written by: Chris Chibnall
Directed by: Jamie Magnus Stone
The Story So Far: 365 days after “Resolution” wrapped up Series 11, a lot of people were hoping for better stories and more nods to the past. They got ’em.
“The name’s Doctor… The Doctor” — Jodie Whitaker in Spyfall, Part One.
The first episode of Series 12 had to do a lot of things to erase what was, for most corners of fandom, the sour aftertaste of Series 11. The legitimate complaints about Chibnall’s plotting and writing needed to be addressed. So too did the lack of any interesting or lasting contributions to Doctor Who continuity (not counting the infamous frog). Less important was to address the noisy and illegitimate complaints about the fact that the TARDIS had been taken over by non-white males, but it would have been nice to see that stuff backhanded away.
The first 15 minutes of Skyfall, Part One, go a long way towards relieving that sour aftertaste, and all of the above points. Chibnall does what Doctor Who always does when things go bad — go The Full Pertwee. So complete a Pertwee-era James Bond pastiche remount that, eventually, the Doctor marches out of the TARDIS in a tuxedo (with culottes) to the strains of John Barry-esque music. When the characters play roulette, the winning number, of course, is “7”. There’s a motorcycle chase that turns into an airplane chase. And, when the villain reveals itself, its through dialogue previously spoken by the Third Doctor. I love, love, love all that stuff. If Series 11 felt like it was made by people who’d never watched Doctor Who before, Series 12 felt like it was made by people who understood the show perfectly, who understood how to use its past to tell an exciting new story.
In a pretty decent James Bond-style montage, the cold open sees three international spies attacked in three different exotic locales, all titled on screen in what appears to be Classic Season 11 (final Pertwee season) episode title font. Then, the Doctor’s three companions are rounded up by Men in Black, and finally the Doctor herself — more than six minutes into the episode — is finally shown, in Pertwee fashion, repairing the undercarriage of the TARDIS. This second montage is both interesting storytelling, and good use of US television narrative technique, in which the first episode of a new season is acknowledged to take place several months after the previous season finale, so that the characters themselves can tell us what they’ve been up to during hiatus. We learn that Ryan still has dyspraxia (the previous season having wrong-headedly told us that you can overcome your neurologic disability, if only you want it bad enough!… which is not how that works), that Yaz’s sister fancies Ryan, and that Graham still misses his late wife.
Chibnall then writes a fairly tense sequence in which the Doctor’s MI6 limo is hijacked by alien tech, and then a briefing scene helmed by the wonderful Stephen Fry… which, shockingly but not shockingly (we see this happen in the second reel of every Bond movie, just as Bond is about to get vital information out of his first MI6 contact), ends with Fry’s character, “C”, being assassinated by hi-tech poison dart.
During this sequence, the show also does what it should arguable have done last year — finally acknowledges that the Doctor is “supposed” to be male, but has the Doctor respond cheekily to such talk by explaining that she’s had “an upgrade”… following which, everyone accepts her as the Doctor, and we all move on.
After the reunion and briefing sequences, the TARDIS crew (we call them “fam” now) splits up into its natural pairs, the Doctor/Graham, and Ryan/Yaz. The latter pair jets off to San Francisco to meet with Lenny Henry, who I’m told is someone famous in the UK. Henry plays Daniel Barton, a sort of Google mogul who, it turns out, is not quite fully human, and is in league with a hostile alien power. He’s any billionaire James Bond villain, or perhaps Stevens from The Green Death, or Professor Whitaker from Invasion of the Dinosaurs, or Professor Stahlman from Inferno, or [insert Pertwee-era billionaire industrialist or mad scientist name here].
The Doctor and Graham head off to Australia, where we learn that the Doctor once lived in the outback for 123 years and saw some really great rocks. There, they meet with “O”, another MI6 agent, played by the also wonderful Sacha Dhawan (previously seen as Waris Hussein in An Adventure in Space and Time), and are promptly attacked by an army of glowing white humanoid shapes. Dhawan, who’s warm and sincere as O, is (a bit too safely) flirtatious with the also-South Asian Yaz, although this scene is rather sweet, and subtly acted. O has also been researching the Doctor, and has a shelf full of files on them, noting the “inconsistencies”. As well as a complete library of The Fortean Times. O is definitely a character drawn from the Doctor Who novels of Kate Orman or Lloyd Rose from 15 to 20 years ago (that’s high praise, for those of you who haven’t read the books). I’d love to see a lot more of O on the program.
Because this is a two-part episode, and because Part One as the New Year’s Day special is a full hour long, the actual alien-invasion plot unfolds a bit slower than we’re used to (“Is he just here for the running commentary?”, O exasperatedly asks of Graham following some exposition). It turns out that the aliens are extra-dimensional, speak in very deep voices, and, boringly, want to conquer our Universe. They’re called the “Kasaavin” in the closing credits, a name which I don’t recall having heard in the episode itself.
But the Pertwee-era social conscience is there. O delivers a cutting-edge lecture about how Vor, Barton’s Google-esque tech company, is more powerful than most nations, because of its data access and military servers. The way the plot is told is more interesting than the plot itself, with spy-movie verve, Bond-film bombast, and Pertwee era social gloss. We get a standard (for spy thrillers) sequence in which Yaz is trying to upload the contents of Barton’s computer, and, as the counter ticks up slowly from 90%, Barton himself slowly walks down the hall, about to open the door on Yaz. Naturally, the upload finishes just in time, and when Barton comes in and demands that “they” reveal themselves, it’s not to Yaz and Ryan, who are already hidden, but to the alien invaders, who are also hiding in the room. This sequence has been done in dozens of movies, but it’s carried off quite well here.
The cliffhanger is, and it’s easy to get hyperbolic in the glow of having only just finished watching an episode, one of my favorites of the New Series. It contains a shock twist reveal (I had not seen any spoilers, and didn’t see it coming), an un-defusible bomb, a crashing plane, and a character pulled out of reality altogether.
Last season, Chibnall avoided old continuity altogether, and didn’t give us any cliffhangers. Those two problems have most definitely been solved by Spyfall, Part One, which had me on the edge of my seat more in its final five minutes than any previous Doctor Who episode since the end of Heaven Sent.
The good news is, we only have to wait four days for the resolution.
I always find it interesting when Doctor Who feels the need to reset, that we go back to the Pertwee era. It just speaks to how great Terrance Dicks and Barry Letts’ work during that era was.
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