Doctor Who: SPYFALL Part One Review - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Doctor Who: SPYFALL Part One Review

Tony Fyler lets the spyfall...

After Series 11 got mixed reviews, with some thinking it heralded a fresh, bold direction, tedious people whinging about the femaleness of the new Doctor, and other, more rational viewers highlighting issues with the scripts, occasional companion-time unbalance and a Doctor taking her time to find her feet in a pretty training-wheels universe of peril, a lot hung on Spyfall, Part 1. Would it be more of the same, would it veer screamingly back to older days, or would it find a way to take the best of the old and the new and forge an intriguing, hook-laden story that gave everyone something to do?

The jury probably won’t come properly in on any of that until after Part 2 is broadcast on January 5th, but despite low overnight ratings, many fans who weren’t impressed with Series 11 are claiming the launch episode of Series 12 has them at least cautiously optimistic.

The pre-credits sequence was a welcome return, although it was far more Mission: Impossible than anything Bond ever did, and ultimately, it probably needed a scream from the third spy in a row and a higher sting on the theme music to really work. That said, it immediately established the ground rules for this story – spies being endangered by things that apparently can come through any physical environment. That’s cool on two levels – there’s no point hiding behind your sofa if the monsters can come through your sofa and still get you, so a big tick on the ‘scaring the little buggers silly’ front, and also – spies. No-one knows yet quite why trans-dimensional aliens would be targeting spies, but cool – as much of an excuse as we need to go on a Doctor Who Does Bond adventure.

The ‘companions’ lives back home’ section was perfunctory but at least functional, showing us the kind of stuff we’d need to invent if we were away on the Tardis – the whole ‘I can get you back by five minutes ago’ of yesteryear seeming somehow no longer to be an option. Before we know what’s what, we’re in The Sontaran Stratagem with deadly satnavs and self-driving deathmobiles. Hoorah – touch of Tenth Doctor nostalgia, but then Stephen Fry is talking through the satnav and it turns out he’s C, Head of MI6.

There’s really quite a hefty amount of plot in Spyfall, Part 1 – spies being targeted and having their DNA rewritten as something alien, weird glowing shiny people walking through any environment, including the Tardis doors, a techie genius from Bromsgrove sitting on top of the world and being a colossal dick about it, people getting zapped into a kind of ‘dataverse’ when the shiny people touch them, multiple Earths, no sonic readings, absolutely truckloads of alien spies all over the world, who are now apparently ready to take ‘this universe,’ the Doc’s mate O, who’s quit espionage and gone to live in the Australian bush surrounded by tracking and defence tech, tech genius Daniel Barton being in cahoots with the Shiny Folk, being only 93% human and having alien code at the very fringes of his business…and then of course there’s the last ten minutes or so, where everything goes totally tonto, we get a reveal of an old frenemy in a new body with an intensely camp persona and a flying presumably-Tardis-house.

Lots to unpack there. Lots and lots and lots. But don’t take our word for it.

Don’t trust anyone.

The nature of the story of course means that none of what we see in the first episode of Spyfall is necessarily true. We may not be in the universe we think we are – everything might have been a computer-generated simulation since Team Tardis got in the car, we might be in one of the ‘other’ Earth dimensions, Daniel Barton and the newly-revealed dancy Master may not be who we think they are – or even who they think they are. But the point is that the episode gave us lots and lots to think about. Where’s the place to which both Yas and the Doctor get zapped? How come the spies get their DNA rewritten but our time travellers get zapped to what I’m going to call the Code Forest? Who the hell are these glowing gits with their disregard for decent boundaries? In what universe do the odds seem likely that Ryan wins a fortune on red lucky 7? Is this really the Master? If it is, what’s he actually up to, given that ‘everything you think you know is a lie’? These and a host more are questions which pull us through the episode and on into breathless anticipation of Part 2 – which for many Who fans who were dismayed by the likes of The Ghost Monument, where the answer to the big question in the episode turned out to be…erm…written on the floor, or The Tsuranga Conundrum, where the solution turned out to be an atomic game of ‘Fetch,’ or even Kerblam! in which the villain got just enough time to explain ‘Capitalism bad!’ before being blown to bits, this will signal a ‘welcome return to old-style Who,’ simply because there are things the script makes us want to know, and which are dangled over our heads while we wait for a second episode.

It’s true of course that Who has never really looked as good as it has since the dawn of Series 11 – the expedient of ‘filming in one of the most spectacular landscapes on the planet,’ as opposed to ‘filming in a slagheap within fifty miles of Cardiff’ is always going to pay you dividends as far as the visuals of your show are concerned, and certainly, Spyfall, Part 1 wins on its international looks, which add that touch of transcontinental Bondian flair to the whole affair. But looks without story and performances won’t get you there. Fortunately this time out, there’s enough story to keep us guessing, and the performances…

Well, in terms of performances, Stephen Fry could play tweedy pomposity with a consummate ease on a wet weekend in Halifax if he had to, and he adds a sense of traditional ‘gentleman spycraft’ straight out of Sixties Bond movies, rather than the modern secret service. Props in this episode to Mandip Gill, who, having suffered sometimes from Nyssa Syndrome in Series 11 – that curse where one companion gets to stand about doing nothing – really gets to add some flesh to her character here, and emotes like a good ’un. There’s something of a neat tension developing between Yas and Ryan in this episode, she the go-getter, he the sensible, conservative hanger-back – the look she gives him when he says no to undercover work is pure disappointment, and when he tells he he’ll never let her get killed, she doesn’t have to say ‘But you did, though’ – it’s all in her face and the tear that rolls down her cheek.

Jodie Whitaker feels almost instantly more at home in the Doctor’s boots in this episode than at practically any time until at least Resolution in Series 11, but she maintains her Doctor’s ability to be utterly blindsided by cunning plans when O reveals what’s been going on, and she’s unable to react instantly to such revelations, to the potential endangerment of herself and her friends – this is very much a ‘One Plan’ Doctor, and it usually takes her some feverish improvisation to come up with it, but at least in Spyfall, Part 1, she has an initial multi-stranded plan to deal with what she thinks is happening, which itself feels like an evolution and a deepening of her Doctor’s characterization.
Lenny Henry as Daniel Barton is astonishingly good. Not astonishing because we expected he’d be dreadful – nothing could be further from the truth. But astonishing because in an episode crammed with good things, he mostly steals the show, by virtue of his scene with the Shiny Gits, standing up to them in spite of their otherness, and of his scene one to one with the Doctor, where, by neither overplaying it nor underselling the power he has at his potentially malevolent disposal, he sends a dedicated shudder down the spine of the viewer.

And then of course, there’s Sacha Dhawan.

Oh, we liiiike Sacha Dhawan. When you first watch the episode, he’s utterly plausible until suddenly he isn’t, and you go ‘Oh, wait a minute!’. Every subsequent time you watch it, you’ll get extra shivers of squee down the spine at every smile, every lie, every sideways glance. Whether he’s the Master he says he is remains to be seen (although he probably is, and we rather hope he is, so he gets to develop this camp, raging, John-Simm-meets-Andrew-Scott incarnation), but whatever turns out to be the truth, he’s worth every second of screen-time he gets and he pulls off probably the best cliff-hanger reveal since The Stolen Earth, if not since Utopia. That adds fuel to the fire of those claiming that the Series 12 opener is a ‘return to form’ for Doctor Who.

If we’re going to quibble – and really, must we? – there are significant swathes of Spyfall, Part 1 where you could probably go and make yourself a cup of tea and not miss much, and most peculiarly, given their aim, the action sequences – the runaway car, the bike chase, the run to catch the plane etc – feel plodding and pedestrian, lacking any of the adrenaline they need to convince us of rapid forward motion. Whether that’s down to conventional direction or simply a lack of punchy accompanying music is as yet unclear, but whereas for instance some of the car chases in Resolution left you feeling exhilarated, in Spyfall, Part 1, they’re about as exhilarating as a travellator.

But overall, in the number of dangling, unanswered questions it demands we ask, in the maturing main cast performances, in some cracking guest stars, and both Lenny Henry and Sacha Dhawan knocking their respective roles out of the park and carving their names on the legend of Doctor Who, Spyfall, Part 1 is not so much a return to form as an extension of a form that both looks back to the likes of The Invasion – many people have noted a similarity between Barton and Tobias Vaughan – and forward to Doctor Who thrilling and scaring a new generation of fans, as well as making them giggle and play snap.

And that’s a cracking way to kick off a series.

Tony lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at

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