Doctor Who: 12.01 Spyfall Part One
The first series of Doctor Who with Jodie Whittaker as the Thirteenth Doctor was a ratings hit for the BBC, but didn't exactly spark critically speaking. While new showrunner Chris Chibnall nailed characterisation, the main cast shone (particularly Whittaker and Bradley Walsh's Graham), the show looked gourgeous and Segun Akinola's score was stunning, there were plenty of issues. Chibnall's dialogue was clunky, a number of stories felt like a poor imitation of the Tennant era and there was a surprising lack of scope to the series; the return of Tim Shaw in the series 11 'finale' never really landed.
A year later as Whittaker, Chibnall et all return for the twelfth series of Doctor Who. Based on the series opener, it is back with a renewed sense of confidence and spectacle, both of which were missing at times the first go round. Spyfall is a fun, dazzling series opener, jumping from one global location to another in the first pre-title sequence since the Moffat era and then keeping up the epic scope all the way to the episode cliff-hanger - which may be one of the best jaw-dropping moments we've had since the return of a certain villain in the penultimate episode of the Twelfth Doctor's first and third series.
If I'm sounding suitably vague, it's because the big reveal at the end of Spyfall is such a doozy, it deserves to be watched unspoiled (though in these days of social media, that may be all but impossible).
Before you assume it is all sunshine and roses, there are some of the trademark issues in Chibnall's writing. There's still some clunky dialogue, that hampers Whittaker's performance; there were several occasions where it felt as if she was speaking the blindingly obvious. I wish Chibnall had a bit more faith in the audience to think for themselves. I don't think any of her explanations actually clarified anything I wasn't already thinking. At the same time, I loved Graham's role in this episode, particularly with Sacha Dhawan's O. The line 'is he just here for the running commentary?' was perfectly delivered from the episode's best guest star.
And Dhawan wasn't alone. Spyfall boasted an impressive guest line up. While his screen time was far too brief, Stephen Fry was perfectly cast as the aristocratic head of MI6 C, introducing the Doctor and her companions - fresh from the first big action set piece involving a killer car - into the world of espionage. The stakes were high; spies from global intelligence operations killed and hollowed out with alien DNA made for a intriguing mystery for the Doctor to get her teeth into. The assassination at MI6 made for another thrilling moment as incorporeal aliens ripped out of the paintings - the alien coming through the head of Queen Victoria was particularly impressive.
Lenny Henry made for an effective Bond villain. He could easily have played it OTT - and it would probably have worked - but Chibnall works best when delivering thoroughly believable characters - and Henry's Daniel Barton was dangerous and mysterious enough to be the man behind the attacks on intelligence agencies, while still feeling very human. Or almost human. From his arrogant demeanour being interviewed by Yaz to facing off against the Doctor and his party, he had great presence in this episode.
Given the title, there were plenty of Bond homages at play. The tension as Yaz and Ryan tried to avoid discovery in Daniel's office to the thrilling car chase; Henry was a badass shooting at the Doctor and her companions from the backseat of his car as they pursued on motorbikes. It was big, bold, and ridiculous, but it was a lot of fun. The TARDIS team and 0 infiltrating the party was a joy to watch, Segun Akinola playing up the big Bond themes while the team exuded style in black tuxedos. The Doctor's black tie version of her main outfit was fun. Graham and Ryan playing the grandfather / grandson bond over the gambling tables was lovely, but the second best moment of the episode had to be the Doctor playing snap. The show needs to play up these comic moments more.
The big moment of the episode was of course the final showdown on the plane. Sacha Dhawan comes into the episode as introverted, tech geek O, a former ally to one of the previous Doctors. O was such a good character, he immediately became one of those 'companions that never were', so much so that I wondered if he was joining the TARDIS - maybe the much touted cliffhanger was the death of the companion he was replacing? But even with the clues laid out, I never expected that big twist. Dhawan might have been a loveable companion to the Doctor, but his maniacal turn was superb and took the series opener to another level. Oh and that throwback to classic Doctor Who with the matchbox was a great touch,
Spyfall Part One was the best episode Chibnall has done for Doctor Who, having the sense of scale and splendour that series eleven never managed. I enjoyed the last run, but I didn't love it, But with this cliffhanger, I can't wait to see what Chibnall has in store for us next. Sunday can't come quick enough...