Doctor Who Review: Spyfall (Part Two)

doctor who review spyfall part two chris chibnall lee haven jones jodie whittaker sacha dhawan gallifrey timeless child

A little chaos is a wonderful thing.

A few days ago, I asked just what Chris Chibnall’s vision for Doctor Who was. I’ve struggled – across series 11, and now as series 12 begins – to entirely get a handle on just what it is that Chibnall likes about Doctor Who, what inspires him, what influences him, and what sort of stories he’d like to tell.

The answer, it’s starting to seem, is “exactly the same stories Russell T Davies was telling a decade ago”.

I think everyone always assumed, more or less, that Chibnall would owe something of a debt to Davies as showrunner. In fact, that’s exactly what I said when it was first announced that Chibnall would take over from Steven Moffat – forgive the needlessly dramatic headline, I was still working a lot of this out – although it was hardly a unique observation on my part. After all, it was an easy enough prediction to make from his Doctor Who work – especially something like The Power of Three – and his working relationship with Davies on Torchwood. To say nothing of his work outside of Doctor Who: I’m inclined to suspect, though it’s an admittedly slight assertion, if you asked Moffat and Davies to write a drama about a murder in a small coastal town, Davies would write something more closely resembling Broadchurch than Moffat would.

This largely proved a sensible assumption across series 11. Granted, it was always a slightly superficial bit of analysis – sure, we saw Ryan and Yaz’s family, just like we saw Rose, Martha and Donna’s, and Demons of the Punjab definitely had some Father’s Day vibes, but beyond that there was an obvious gulf between what Chibnall and Davies did with their respective supporting characters. Still: whether consciously positioning himself that way or not, Chibnall did indeed have a lot more in common with Davies than his immediate predecessor. Spyfall suggests series 12 will be shaping up the same way. The first part of the story had plenty of what we might charitably call little nods to Davies throughout – the death-by-SATNAV set piece lifted from The Sontaran Stratagem, the Kasaavin owe an obvious visual debt to the Cybermen in Army of Ghosts, that sort of thing.

It’s not, obviously, that imitating Davies is a bad thing. He’s a talented writer who made huge creative contributions to Doctor Who: returning to and recontextualising those ideas anew holds a lot of potential. That’s not limited to Chibnall either, after all – The Pilot was quite clearly Steven Moffat doing Russell T Davies, so to speak, and that’s a perfectly charming series opener.

After Spyfall Part Two, though, it looks rather like Chibnall doesn’t actually have any ideas of his own to add to this – his vision for Doctor Who is increasingly looking like a weak cover version of what’s gone before.

doctor who review spyfall part two graham bradley walsh ryan tosin cole yaz mandip gill chris chibnall

Let’s take a sidestep for a moment and look first at Ryan, Yaz and Graham, if only because I largely neglected to mention them last time. But then, that’s understandable, I think: there’s still so little to say about them.

It’s difficult to articulate exactly what the issue is with the ‘fam’ – it’s something of an imperfect storm, I suppose. In part, I’m inclined to criticise the actors themselves: Mandip Gill, I’m increasingly convinced, puts on a voice as Yaz, the overly earnest intonation of a children’s TV presenter, drawing attention to quite how hard she’s acting without really evoking anything you might call ‘character’. But then, that feels a tad unfair – how else is she meant to ask “what’s the plan?” five times an episode?

There’s a moment in his book, The Writer’s Tale, where Russell T Davies is talking about The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End, and juggling the dialogue for each companion while still ensuring each character remains distinct. “They’re all sci-fi women on the side of good”, he says, or words to that effect, “so they’re all going to be giving broadly similar speeches”. Davies goes on to explain how Rose, Martha and Donna’s specific, individual character traits influence the rhythms and perspectives of those speeches, keeping the lines distinct, but you’d be forgiven for assuming that Chibnall’s version of the same would’ve cut that explanation short.

Yaz and Ryan are both still given largely interchangeable dialogue, veering between inquisitive and expository; Graham fares a little better, although that’s mostly down to the gravity Bradley Walsh exerts on the script.  Four companions was always going to be difficult to juggle. I’d assumed, wrongly, that there might be an effort to dedicate an episode to each companion – a Ryan focused piece, not unlike an American procedural drama, or something out of 90s Star Trek (which I’m convinced Chibnall is quite heavily influenced by, actually). At this point, though, it’s difficult to imagine that working: I don’t think for a second that Ryan, Yaz, or Graham could sustain a Doctor-lite episode like Flatline, Turn Left or so on.

I’m just not entirely convinced, I suppose, that anyone involved – actors or writers – have a particularly strong handle on who these characters are supposed to be. Dropping them into a more or less straight recreation of The Sound of Drums largely confirms this: Yaz gets the ‘Martha calls her family’ beat, but you’d think, perhaps, as a police officer in training she might have had a slightly different reaction to being on the run. They each have their moments, sure – Ryan has a few cute moments, and Graham’s laser tap dance was charming, if a little tonally off – but for the most part, they remain frustratingly anonymous, still little more than vague archetypes. It’s hardly encouraging at this point.

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That, actually, is what gets at me about the Russell T Davies of it all: Chibnall isn’t actually particularly good at it. ‘Character focused’ is a fairly superficial reading of Davies – and more than a little uncharitable to Moffat – but you’d hope that if Chibnall was going to simply rehash what we’d seen before, he’d at least do it well.

But, no: the Bond parody falls apart, turning briefly into a repeat of The Sound of Drums before being entirely forgotten. Lenny Henry’s Daniel Barton simply leaves, not unlike a lot of series 11’s villains; perhaps we’ll see him return to team up with Chris Noth’s President Robertson, in a toothless wannabe-satire that says nothing at all about right-wing politics or powerful tech companies. The Master, unfortunately, is a caricature rather than a character, an attempt to ignore Michelle Gomez and return to John Simm, with none of the personality that made Simm’s Master work. The series arc – Gallifrey’s mysterious destruction – is, in effect at least, an almost wholesale recreation of the Time War. Spyfall even lifts from Moffat, actually, with some timey-wimey back and forth drained of all the bravura and panache it used to have.

It’s difficult to muster much enthusiasm for this when I can just open iPlayer and watch the better versions of the stories that inspired Chibnall.

Most striking, though, is that it just feels thoughtless. Deeply, deeply thoughtless. Which is fine – well, ‘fine’ – when thoughtless means recreating Simm’s Master without realising why he worked in the first place. It’s ‘fine’ when thoughtless leads to one of the most bafflingly erotic scenes in Doctor Who history, apparently without even slightly realising how intensely sexual it is. It is not fine when thoughtless means repeatedly introducing Ada Lovelace as Byron’s daughter, rather than in terms of her own achievements; it is not fine when the Doctor tells a woman the fascists never win, a few months before she dies at Dachau; it is not fine when the Doctor defeats the first POC Master by very nonchalantly sending the Nazis after him. There is at times something quite ugly about Chibnall’s Doctor Who – accidentally, I’m reasonably sure, but in a real sense it’s far more reactionary than anything that ever provoked the ire of the stfu-moffat crowd.

Sometimes, I feel like I’m doing these episodes a bit of a disservice with the rough wordcount I stick to. At some point, I suppose, I’d like to do a podcast, or some other more detailed breakdown of these episodes (yes, I am asking to be invited to your podcast or roundtable discussion or similar), because there are absolutely lots of little moments in these episodes that are worth celebrating and shining a light on, which I never quite find the time for in amongst the complaints. But also, well, ugh. What on earth was that?

In the end, I’m reminded of this joke – I think from Robert Holmes – that Doctor Who only ever uses the best original ideas, just not necessarily its own original ideas. Spyfall, I think, might just be the perfect illustration of a version of Doctor Who that only uses its own original ideas – long after they might reasonably be described as “original ideas”.

Related:

Doctor Who series 12 reviews

Doctor Who series 11 overview

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Doctor Who Review: Spyfall (Part One)

doctor who review spyfall part one jodie whittaker chris chibnall sacha dhawan the master lenny henry wayne yip

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.

doctor who review spyfall part one jodie whittaker james bond chris chibnall wayne yip lenny henry

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.

doctor who review spyfall part one sacha dhawan master o missy michelle gomez chris chibnall wayne yip waris hussein

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.

Related:

Doctor Who series 12 reviews

Doctor Who series 11 overview

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