I did say look for the spymaster. Or should I say spy… Master?
There’s something strikingly anonymous about this, as has been the case with much of Chris Chibnall’s Doctor Who work.
When Chibnall was first announced as the new Doctor Who showrunner, I spent a while reading some of the interviews he’d given over the years, trying to pick up on some sense of his taste, the eras of the show he liked and disliked, anything that might prove to influence him. There was surprisingly little, in the end – the exception, of course, being that infamous video of teenage Chibnall on Points of View complaining about Trial of a Time Lord. I’ve never been able to bring myself to watch the whole thing – it’s too skin-crawlingly awkward – but, ironically enough, the excerpt I did watch acts as a fairly damning critique of his own first series, which, as we’ve established, never quite lived up to its potential.
Still, though. It’s not that having a history of hot takes about Doctor Who is a prerequisite for the job – at some point, it’ll probably become necessary to have a showrunner who isn’t a fan particularly – but that I never really got the sense that Chibnall had a particularly strong vision for the series. That, largely speaking, has been borne out on screen too: there’s something a little anonymous about it, a little impersonal. Compared to his predecessors, Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat, or the people who might once have held the top job instead of him, like Mark Gatiss or Toby Whithouse, it’s hard to get to grips with what Chibnall thinks Doctor Who is or what its for, or indeed what stories he’d like to tell with the show.
It feels, even now, fairly easy to describe what a Mark Gatiss-led version of Doctor Who would look like: quite traditional in many ways, motivated by a lot of Gatiss’ own idiosyncratic nostalgia, likely a few Gothic touches, so on and so forth. It’s much more difficult, though, to do the same for Chris Chibnall – even despite having watched a full series of the show under his stewardship. Yes, you can highlight the nods to the Davies era with relative ease, but it doesn’t feel especially as though Series 11 revealed much about Chibnall’s own individual concerns or interests – and Spyfall is much the same again.
It isn’t, for what it’s worth, anonymous in the same way that The Rise of Skywalker was: that was anodyne and hollow, cynically sycophantic in both content and construction. Spyfall is nowhere near so egregious – if nothing else, there’s actually a lot to like here, even if it is difficult to get to grips with it properly.
It’s better than a lot of series 11, certainly. The spy pastiche is a clever milieu to ground Doctor Who in, especially for what is at least nominally a New Year’s Day special; it’s a fun bit of genre-hopping, and crashing Doctor Who into a James Bond movie is self-evidently a good idea (much as I might’ve wished it had a slightly more coherent understanding of which sort of spying it was trying to be about – laser shoes are fun, extra-judicial assassinations are not). If nothing else, it’s more effective than its most obvious Capaldi-era antecedent, The Return of Doctor Mysterio, finding a lot more fun in the spy pastiche than Doctor Mysterio did with its comic book equivalent. Spyfall is well directed, too, featuring the debut of Jamie Magnus Stone, who’ll be returning once more later in the series. That said, though, it still feels wanting at times. For all the fun that Stone, Segun Akinola and Lenny Henry are clearly having with it, the episode is often oddly disconnected from the genre it’s aping – to the point that it drops out of the genre entirely in the middle, pausing to introduce the alien of the week without making a great deal of effort to tie the two plotlines together.
Spyfall seems, in short, as though it’s simply assembling a ticklist of tropes and signifiers into a series of set pieces, rather than presenting any meaningful perspective of its own. Yes, the episode gestures at the malign influence of multinational tech companies, but that never really registers as genuine critique or commentary. Undeniably, it’s better than Ker-blam! last year, but in the end it’s just throwaway: there’s no sense that Spyfall wants to be about something. Here, then, is how Chibnall’s Doctor Who feels anonymous and impersonal. Not because it’s constructed, especially – though it is much easier to pick up on Chibnall’s populist interests than his creative ones – but because it doesn’t especially feel like it has anything to say.
Which isn’t to say it’s bad, exactly, because it isn’t. Indeed, Spyfall is an episode of Doctor Who that feels properly at ease with itself in a way the series hasn’t for quite some time; it feels like the show has found its footing again, found its sense of humour. There are some genuinely nice touches – I loved that bit with the Doctor working on the TARDIS like a car at a garage – but those nice touches punctuate something that, as a whole, continues to be difficult to get to grips with.
What’s perhaps most telling, with respect to questions of Chibnall’s vision, is that cliffhanger.
Series 11 studiously avoided references to the past, or the return of old monsters. That, I’m inclined to say, was probably Chibnall’s best instinct. This year, though, we’ve got the return of the Daleks, the Cybermen, the Judoon, and now the Master – and it’s surely not out of the question that there might be more we don’t know about yet. It’s such a complete turnaround it’s hard not to wonder what prompted it: genuine desire to engage with and reinvent old favourites? A belief that, actually, Doctor Who should always feature old monsters, but not immediately after introducing a new Doctor? Or perhaps throwing things at the wall to see what might stick?
Certainly, it feels early to be bringing back the Master. Yes, it’s been the better part of three years since The Doctor Falls, but in terms of the show itself, it’s only been about twelve episodes – there were forty-four episodes between John Simm’s last appearance as the Master in The End of Time and Michelle Gomez’ first in Deep Breath (or fifty-five, if you’re more inclined to count her first appearance as Dark Water). It feels early because it is early. Bringing the character back so soon – and, indeed, bringing the character back as a man, despite how exciting it might’ve been to see, say, Indira Varma or Ruth Wilson in the role – is, I think, reason for pause. So too is how much of a throwback the character seems here, worlds away from where Michelle Gomez’ arc as the Master ended. It speaks to a limited conception of the character on Chibnall’s part, if nothing else.
Nonetheless, I’m immediately inclined to like Sacha Dhawan’s Master. I like Dhawan as an actor – he’s one of the few male actors I’d be interested in seeing as the Doctor – and he acquits himself admirably here. It’s a great performance, with an impressive, erratic physicality to it; it’s also more than strong enough to hide some of the sloppiness of the reveal itself, Dhawan making it look like the Master is desperate to reveal himself to the Doctor, obscuring how contrived that dialogue about sprinting really is.
Ultimately, then, Spyfall suggests a stronger series its predecessor. It has a lot of the same flaws, yes – Mandip Gill still seems to be struggling to find a note for Yaz beyond earnest, and I wish they’d tried to tie her fear she’d died to her rarely mentioned faith – but there is a degree more confidence to it, there is a degree more wit to it, and I had a degree more fun with it. The real question, I suppose, is if we’ll ever get a clearer picture of Chris Chibnall’s vision – and what that vision will prove to be.