Monday 6 January 2020

WHO REVIEW: 12-1 & 12-2: SPYFALL

Well, wasn't that a return to form? As much as I enjoyed series eleven - and I really did - there's no denying that it wasn't quite at the level we'd come to expect from Doctor Who. The writing is sharper, though hardly perfect - character's still explain what they're doing all the time, but at least the show is self aware enough to poke fun at itself while it's doing it.

But the confidence this year! We waited a full year between "Resolution" and Spyfall, Part One, the longest gap between episodes since the series returned in 2005, and then the very shortest, with only four days till part two. We needed a barnstorming return, and we got one. Episode one had scale, riffing on the Bond themes with a globetrotting series of locations, ridiculous spy tech and some serious guest casting. There's some guts in casting Stephen Fry as M - sorry, C - and then bumping him off that early, but he's always good value and it's a treat to finally have him on the series. (The TV series, that is. He's done Who before). Lenny Henry gives good villain here, underplaying the role of Daniel Barton to good effect. In spite of many years as a straight actor, he's still best known as a comedian, so this is a good reminder just how classy he can be when he wants to be.

The regular cast all get to show what they're capable of, all having material that's better suited to their characters than they often got last series. It's gratifying that Chibnall and his team have been listening to some of the complaints about series eleven and gone out of their way to fix them. There's over-the-top adventure for Thirteen and her fam, of course, but also a sense that the companions actually have lives, something that was forgotten so often last year. It's a small thing, but noting that Yaz's career has been hit by her recurrent "secondments," that Ryan's been making excuses to his mates but acquiring new skills, and that Graham needs to visit an actual doctor occasionally are all satisfying.

It makes throwing them all into the Bondian escapades all the more entertaining. Glitzing them up in their finest and sending them to the casino, and the ludicrously killer car chase where it's the car itself trying to kill them - all pure holiday season movie highlights. The show can't keep up this level of incident all the way through the series, but this is exactly what we needed for a season opener. There's mystery as well, of course, with a visually arresting alien race, conspiracies and an unknown realm all thrown into the mix.

It all builds up to that reveal, though. Sacha Dawan is another actor who seems like he should have appeared in Doctor Who years ago, especially considering his previous involvement with Mark Gatiss and other genre television, yet here he is as the likeable and handsome O. Then - my god! - how did they keep that secret? There's always a rumour that the Master will be back, but when it's true, it's usually spoilt. Everyone knew Yana and Saxon were likely to be the Master, and most of guessed Missy was as well, but this came right out of left field. Not that there weren't a couple of clues, but with the story belting along like this, they were very hard to spot. As always, the Master's patience and acting ability seems remarkable, but that's nothing new. It all pales with that reveal, and a stonker of a cliffhanger.

Part twos are never as good as part ones, but this one did come pretty close. It has the hallmarks of Moffat's classic two-parters, throwing in enough new elements and curveballing the story onto another path (and if that's not as mixed metaphor, I don't know what is). I absolutely love that the Master is using the Tissue Compression Eliminator again (I don't think we've seen that since 1984), and I had imagined that the Doctor had been shrunk. The alien realm did look rather like the fronds of a carpet, after all. But no, it was your common or garden alternative dimension. Bizarrely, we then meet Ada Lovelace and get transported with her to 1834. That's the sort of unexpected shift in location that we don't get often enough in the series these days.

Teaming the Doctor up with Ada Lovelace (a lovely performance by Sylvie Briggs) as part of the celebration of computer science is a wonderful idea, and quite right to include Charles Babbage but not allow him to overshadow her. From there we jump again to the 1943, to meet Noor Inayat Khan. Aurora Marion is especially good, although she doesn't get as much material as Ada. In some ways, this is an odd move - separating the Doctor from her companions only to give her two more - but as a celebration of two of the most incredible women in British history it's wonderful. Really, the only complaint is that either Ada or Noor Khan would have easily carried an entire story, not just a small part of one episode.

The Master pursues the Doctor through time, something that gives an air of desperation to the adventure. Given time to explore the role a bit more, Dhawan is brilliant as the Master. It's a shame, in a way, that Missy's arc has been cut off and forgotten about, but the Master was always going to come back and always going to become a villain again. It's been only two years since we last saw the Master (Masters, really) which is a very quick introduction for a new incarnation, but when the character is as entertaining as this, who cares? Dhawan's Master is a furious, hurt man lashing out at the Doctor and the world, and having fun doing it. Putting him in Nazi gear was a bit of a step - at least the script accepts that he'd never get into the SS looking like that, and came up with a bit of Time Lord magic to cover it up - and the episode's most tense moment, in Khan's house, came close to poor taste. Hell, it worked though. The WWII secret resistance brought in a new angle on the spy themes as well.

Meanwhile, 77 years later, the companions gets some strong material for themselves, showing that the best way to handle a large team is to split them up and actually give them something to do. Who'd have thought? The off-grid survival angle gives another side to the spy genre as well, more Bourne than Bond. Henry doesn't get nearly as much decent material in this episode, however. The aliens, named now as the Kasaavin, are as generic as they come, but essentially they're there to provide a threat and look cool while the humanoids do the plotting and talking.

The ending is a bit rushed, but the timey-wimey resolution works (both for the opening and closing of the episode), as long as you don't worry about the logistics too much. It's a fine line they're skirting, but Doctor Who has gotten away with more flagrant abuse of time travel before. Still, the Master, for all his contrived plotting, doesn't seem very prepared when he arrives back at the scene of the climax after several decades waiting around. I'm not entirely sure whether this story was in favour of information technology or not. While Barton lords it over the masses and blames them for allowing technology to infiltrate their lives, the Doctor hero-worships Ada and Noor Khan for their contributions to computing and coding. Before mind-wiping them, that is. She really hasn't learnt anything since she was played by David Tennant.

There's still time for that revelation about Gallifrey. Finally, the Timeless Child, after that one evocative mention in "The Ghost Monument" last series, is recalled. The Time Lords have been destroyed again, this time by the Master himself out of sheer rage at their lies. It's all very intriguing, and promises interesting things to come. Whittaker's best moments so far have been in this episode, either face-to-face with the Master or alone contemplating Gallifrey's fate, and I really hope she gets more of this sort of material. While I admire Chibnall's decision to spend his first series as showrunner focusing on the new, he failed to replace old monsters and concepts with anything equally memorable. After the Master, Gallifrey and the Daleks, there's more to come this year, and while there's a delicate balance to be found between the old and new, if it's presented with this verve it should succeed.

Time, Gentlemen: Both Stephen Fry and Lenny Henry have been involved with Doctor Who before, as Time Lords, no less. Fry played the Minister of Chance on the webcast Death Comes to Time in 2001, while Henry was the Doctor himself in his own 1986 comedy sketch - somewhere between the Doctor's sixth and seventh incarnations.

Maketh the Woman: Everyone looks great in black tie, but the Doctor's outfit is just perfect. It's not a tuxedo, whatever anyone says, but a light formal overcoat. Bringing back the bow-tie is a nice touch as well, and I love that she's still got the culottes and boots. She looks amazing.

Ethics is My Manor: The Doctor says she's a pacifist, but she's really, really not. She's just very bad at knowing when to use force. Her morals are all over the place here - she casually hands the Master over to the SS, while making sure they can see how Asian he looks. I mean, she probably figures he'll just kill them, and fair enough, but wow, that's jarring. Barton, on the other hand, seems to get away scot free.

Master-y: So, is the new Master after Missy, or from somewhere else in their convoluted timeline? I somewhat doubt he's from before Yana and Harry, but he could be between Harry and Missy. He could even be from an alternative timeline, but it's probably simplest to assume that "O" follows Missy and has reverted to type after, you know, being abandoned, dying, on a devastated starship and then discovering something nasty about the Time Lords.

I love how the Master gets beardier as his villainy goes on.

Links and references: The Master "apologises" for killing the Doctor at Jodrell Bank. Except it wasn't Jodrell Bank, it was the Pharos Project. It was just filmed at Jodrell Bank...

Missing Pieces: "O" met the Doctor in one of her earlier incarnations, all to ingratiate with her in his current plan. The Doctor apparently once lived in the Austrailian Outback for 123 years (when?!)

Patterns that aren't there: I had half convinced myself that the aliens were the Voord, if only because of the outline and the social network/search engine being called VOR. It would be willfully obscure of Chibnall to bring back such a little known monster, but it would have made them a bit more interesting.

Infinite Earths: I struggle to accept that the multiple images of the Earth represent different points in time and not different versions of the Earth. We haven't had a proper alternative reality story for ages.Unless you count the frog-verse.

Learn to talk: Chibnall doesn't know what "momentarily" means.

The Ratings War: OK, those overnights are not encouraging. 4.88 million for episode one, 4.6 million for episode two, both about 22% of the audience for the night. That's less than last year's New Year's special, but on the other hand, part one was the second most watched programme of the day, after Emmerdale, which only got 5m, and beating Corrie. Part two was the fifth most watched programme, but there still wasn't a great deal in it.

Clearly, people just aren't watching telly on the night anywhere near as much as they used to; the overnights have been dropping while catch-up and downloads have increased for some time. Nonetheless, I think it's clear that the move away from Christmas was not a clever one. Nice experiment, but it doesn't look like a New Year's launch works particularly well for the series, especially after a whole year's gap.

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