Doctor Who (Modern): S12EP1 “Spyfall, Part 1”

Series 12
Directed by Jamie Magnus Stone
Written by Chris Chibnall

Welcome back to another season of Doctor Who.  Last we checked in was a year ago with the New Year’s special, “Resolution”.  It was the wrap up to a year which could probably be best described as disappointing.  I really wanted to like last series a lot more.  The show had its back against the wall again as the BBC was (and still is) being threatened with substantial cuts while ratings were falling after three great series that just turned viewers off for whatever reason (yes, I’m aware of the arguments, but I choose not to presume for everyone and it was probably a many factored issue).

Beyond that, it was also the debut series for Jodie Whittaker’s Thirteenth Doctor, the first female Doctor.  It was a great moment and the role was put in worthy talented hands, regardless of all the twats who opposed it sight unseen for sexist reasons.  The show had a diverse supporting cast complete with a character prominently suffering from a disability and the last two times the show soft rebooted, we got Series 1 and Series 5, two of the better NuWho series.  I definitely went soft on the show though (much softer than I have on my classic era reviews), and I sort of regret that now, but it’s in the past.

The show probably got the softball treatment largely because many of the issues weren’t apparent early on or at least it wasn’t apparent that they were going to become issues.  The plots were incredibly formulaic and samey with its “the thing that seems like a monster isn’t really a monster” plots, sci-fi elements that felt disconnected from the stories, sloppy scripting, underused companions who received little development as the show again proved it couldn’t handle three companions at once all that well, a lead companion who was an absolute nothing (and whose disability felt squandered in potential use), and tiring lectures from The Doctor to everyone she came across (frequently about things her past selves would do often).

Still, the show had one major job and it largely succeeded at that (even if it squandered a fair bit of that as the series went on).  It revitalized the franchise in the eyes of the public and definitively answered that the role of The Doctor was not defined by gender.  It may have been a lesser season, but I enjoyed it overall and the decision to move on to new villains (aside from the finale and special) was one of the main strengths.  I can’t say I am entering this season excited for more Doctor Who, but it will be nice to have it back.

While the classic era certainly had some very obvious outside influences on display (and we just finished a season that had one eye on Quatermass‘s paperwork), I think it’s fair to say that NuWho has leaned more towards direct takes on other media, especially as it has gone on.  This time out, the target of homage is the Bond franchise overtly (as blatantly spelled out by the title which changed literally one letter of a Bond film into one that is allegedly a pun) with more than a touch of Predator.

Agents all over the world are being attacked (the similarities here to Bond parodies/deconstructions Johnny English and Kingsman: The Golden Circle did not go unnoticed) and left in a coma like state.  More pressingly, their DNA has been rewritten and the bodies left as glorified husks.  The attacks come in the form of strange humanoid creatures which come out of walls and take the appearance of the wall itself.  The Predator comparisons come in because of how remarkably similar they look with their later humanoid shapes of pure light only making that comparison starker.

The show moves into a bit of a reintroduction here for the characters and premise which is probably smart, but surprisingly they don’t seem to include their actual names or at least not for a while.  It took me a bit to even remember Yaz and Ryan’s names since they left such a big impression last season.  The companions have been making excuses to the people they know for why they keep sneaking away (various illnesses, special assignment, traveling in retirement).

The team is rounded up by men in black working for MI6 who have been tasked by every security agency around the world (somehow, I doubt that) to seek out The Doctor and to get her help her with the attacks on their agents.  As for why it is MI6 and not say UNIT, UNIT is apparently gone (along with Torchwood which after the last season I can safely say “good riddance”).  MI6 is being headed up by a man named C (played by Stephen Fry!) or at least for a few minutes on the show it is before he gets sniped to death.  C also has to double as Q, handing out the trademark accessories in a very quick scene.

The creatures register no readings from the sonic screwdriver and with the untranslatable alien language later introduced (and then cracked in seconds), the show certainly goes through the paces of hinting at another “creatures from another universe story”.  A story added probably just to stick it to me for the discussion we had in the last Classic Who section where it was brought up that the show has mostly avoided that (aside from the one from the RTD era).

The team proceeds to split up with The Doctor and Graham visiting O, an agent who had theories about all of this but was sacked prior to the start of this episode, while Yaz and Ryan investigate a former agent (Daniel Barton) who is now CEO of a tech company and who is rightly suspected of working with the enemy.  O has sequestered himself in the middle of the Outback with plenty of research on The Doctor and traps for defending against any attackers.

Barton’s company is a thinly disguised Google with a bit of Facebook in there, but I have no clue why the show went with VOR for the name of the company.  Besides sounding identical to a very specific fetish, it is also one that is a letter away from an explicitly privacy focused service in Tor when this company is accused of all sorts of shady behavior (behavior which feels crow-barred in to make a point and has little to do with the story.  Ryan is unsurprisingly shit at spy work and inexplicably doesn’t immediately blow their cover.  Heck, even after Yaz grills the CEO on the practices of his company, Ryan and Yaz are just left alone to basically wander the company’s building for no adequate reason.  They do manage to find out that the CEO is 93% human though.

The creatures prove them quite the fans of horror as they move away from the slow approaching out of walls kills to increasing attempts at appearing out of nowhere and killing by jump scare.  There are some effective moments of horror scattered in though with the creature entering the supposedly impenetrable TARDIS with a struggle and the beginnings of the night Outback scene, but it abandons them as it moves from the more unique initial design to just a bunch of glowing shapes.  They also lose a lot of the horror element when they reveal the ability to communicate and their desire to take these forms to “mock” the humans.  A baffling claim since they have zero subtlety and nothing about them is mocking until that moment.

The episode really wanted this to be a big globetrotting adventure with the big idents for places all over the world regardless of how much time we spend there and the countless set pieces all taking off stock spy tropes.  Even with the story being a two-parter, the show seems determined to rush through events and give no time for anything to breathe.  It’s a pure quantity or references over quality situation and the rate of plot burn doesn’t do anything to make it feel fast paced.  The show tries to cram as many references to older stuff as possible, but someone should tell Chibnall that merely reusing a bunch of tropes with maybe a quick joke about is about the laziest form of humor.  The show rushes through an undercover casino party assignment and it could have been cut completely with zero change in the plot.

Visually they never try to make it look like a Bond film even with the knock off Bond music that plays when the soundtrack isn’t being handed over to an elementary school orchestra told to make as much noise as possible.  They are alleged to be alien spies, but they are spies who apparently don’t have any sense of discretion and don’t seem to gather any intelligence.

At one point Yaz is attacked by the glowy creatures to wake up in a foggy place with pillars that stretch up to infinity.  She barely spends any time there though after she is transported to the Outback by another glowy creature attack with no one even questioning if the creatures did something to her like they did to everyone else.  The plot just rushes through with a quick “I will never let something happen to you scene” between her and Ryan before forgetting about it.

The big reveal here of course is that the friendly O is actually The Master and his house is a TARDIS, a reveal that lacks any sort of appeal to me.  The show barely waited after killing Missy off supposedly for real.  I mean, we knew it wasn’t the end of The Master/Missy, but some more down time would have been ideal.  The artist formerly known as O actually becomes less interesting after the reveal even with the giddy excitement he has in it all.  He went from enjoyable companion-lite to goofily cackling madman who just starts yelling a bunch of things at The Doctor.  His much more malevolent behavior and attitude should set him apart from the other NuWho Masters, but he fails at being threatening as the show intended.

There’s like one line indicating a bit of thing between Yaz and O, but the show can’t even commit to the misdirection.  The Master is found out when he claims to have never been good at sprinting despite O having been a champion sprinter.  Just an abrupt switch and then chaos at end as he shows off control of aliens, sets off a cockpit bomb, tells the Doctor that “Everything you think you know is a lie”, disappears, and transports The Doctor to that other world which the pullback shot makes look like he landed on a giant’s hair.

I can’t say something as big as invading the universe (which the show first teased) would be anything less than a terrible way to set up the season, but immediately going for The Master is somehow worse.  You are supposed to build to these moments.  The show benefited last season from some distance from recurring villains, but whether they intended to or not, they have stated with this episode that that decision was a mistake and they are moving on.

The show went big to start, but it fell flat.  It feels premature to judge the show until Part 2 airs, but any moderate excitement for a new season has gone.  I want to know what happens next, but more from a sense of “how the hell are they going to salvage this mess they got themselves into” then in story intrigue.  I’m also curious if this is meant to be season wide tone setting or just a desperate attempt to get people to keep watching after the premiere.  We’ll see on Sunday.

Grade: Incomplete but let’s go with a C- for now

Stray Observations

– It was very strange that the show went with the name (Ivory Coast) and not Côte d’Ivoire, their government’s preferred name.  I guess the former is still the more used name, but feels very much like the colonial British tone the show had in the past and that I had hoped was a thing of the past.
– Speaking of spy things, we get the stereotypical hidden message delivered in a thing of toothpaste.  For some reason all of the set up for it (putting the message in the tube which is in a bag) all feels needlessly overdone but I get that it is just going for referencing the trope.
– “In five seconds, die”  That was not funny in the way I think you were intending to, writers.
– Also in unintentionally funny moments, the inexplicable basketball slow motion leading to a miss for Ryan’s reintroduction.  Just an absolutely baffling directorial choice.
– The Doctor’s reintroduction here with her busy fixing up the TARDIS again really leans into the steampunk aesthetic and mechanic attributes.
– I think the joke about Fry confusing Graham for The Doctor at first was meant to be both a bit of exposition and a joke, but in execution it fell flat.
– The Doctor lived in the Outback for 123 years, 123 years that I am glad we never got to see.
– “Like animals stalking their prey”, you’re just getting lazy here writers with trying to cut off complaints that you are ripping off Predator even with this play of the knowing homage card.
– The glowy form of the aliens or whatever was too damn bright especially when being viewed by a writer who has had a non-alcohol related headache all day.  I can’t imagine any time where I would have found them an acceptable choice in design as besides being lazy looking, bright lights (especially sustained ones) are just downright mean.
– Apparently Ryan and Yaz’s sister are interested in each other which I have no clue if it was a plot last season but I am positive that I don’t care about it.
– The Master shrinking the original O down before his first day and carrying him around in a matchbox, but I’m not sure if the terrible effect for it was intentionally cheap looking or just laughably bad.
– The Master apparently met The Doctor previously in his current form which is either setting up an earlier chronology set episode or is just a lame taunt “ha I met you looking like this then and you didn’t notice me and I did nothing of note then so really there is no reason this is relevant!”
– In positive comments, the sound mixing seems much better this year though and never drowns out the show.
– Going forward, there will not be a live thread portion of this review for those who are wondering what happened to them.
– Once again, welcome to all those joining for the first time and welcome back to all those who read and commented last year.
– This Week in Cliffhangers: The last few seconds were cut off on my recording but thankfully I left the channel on before starting the recording and didn’t miss anything.  Also, nothing happened in that time despite a final reveal being set up.  Still I guess it is a traditional cliffhanger as none of the questions posed have been answered and The Doctor is trapped somewhere unknown while the companions plummet to their death.  It is not as interesting as it sounds.

Next Up:  The conclusion of this story isn’t even a week away as the Thirteenth Doctor returns at its regular slot on 1/5.  For those who missed the last review, not planning on getting to any more Doctor Who Classic any time soon, but there are plenty of ones to read in the archives if you are so inclined.


The Reviews from Last Year:

E01 “The Woman Who Fell to Earth”
E02 “The Ghost Monument”
E03 “Rosa”
E04 “Arachnids in the UK”
E05 “The Tsuranga Conundrum”
E06 “Demons of the Punjab”
E07 “Kerblam!”
E08 “The Witchfinders”
E09 “It Takes You Away”
S11E10 “The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos”
Special “Resolution”