Doctor Who season 12 is off to a solid start with “Spyfall, Part One”, an episode that embraces every James Bond trope imaginable in the lead up to a buzzy, shocking cliffhanger.
Warning: There are spoilers for the Doctor Who season 12 premiere, “Spyfall, Part One,” here. Proceed with caution.
One of the most consistent trends of Doctor Who during Jodie Whittaker’s first season in the TARDIS was straightforward, standalone episodes. Other than starring the same characters, the stories barely connected, and their arcs were wrapped up in an hour or less, and other than the 2019 New Year’s special “Resolution,” it included very few references to the series’ past. This was, of course a big change from the Steven Moffat era, which leaned heavily into the idea of season-long arcs and long-running puzzle box twists.
But now, with the Thirteenth Doctor firmly established, that seems ready to change. Because the premiere episode of season 12 not only ends on a very definitive cliffhanger, it also brings back a significant element of the series’ past. It’s a twist so big and unexpected that it’s actually difficult to evaluate in terms of an episode that’s so clearly part of a larger whole. How it will play out, in a larger sense, is almost impossible to to guess just yet, and is part of the reason the premiere cliffhanger works so well. (Plus, since it’s not like we’ve done one of these before in the Chibnall era. We don’t know what to expect.)
As the title hints, most of “Spyfall, Part One” is a riff on decades’ worth of James Bond films, as Thirteen and friends sport tuxes, break into well-guarded offices to steal secret documents and even take part in a wild outdoor car chase on motorbikes. They visit MI-6, meet agents known only by single letters and attempt to figure out the origins of a bizarre new group of aliens, who appear as glowing silhouettes of light and can phase through solid objects and briefly take on the texture of whatever they pass through.
Given that it’s a two-parter, the fact that we get little in the way of information on these creatures is understandable, but nevertheless frustrating, as the simple fact of being visually interesting doesn’t exactly make up for a story. Who are they? What do they want? And what’s up with the strange, nebulous in-between void they seem to flash through like electrical currents?
And, though the over-arching spy-theme is fun, it does get old fast, and I’m not 100% sure it can carry another entire episode. Some bits of it work better than others – Ryan and Yaz’s break-in to billionaire David Barton’s office is straight out of Mission: Impossible, and provides these two characters with some quality one-on-one time. This isn’t the first time it’s felt as though Doctor Who is building toward something like companion romance between these two, though Yaz’s sudden and obvious discomfort with her sister’s crush on Ryan isn’t exactly what you’d call subtle.
On the plus side, it’s nice to see Yaz with something significant to do after multiple season 11 episodes that barely acknowledged her presence. But, unfortunately, that increased presence comes with a cost – and that cost is Graham. The elder (human) member of Team TARDIS gets almost nothing to do this hour, though it’ll be interesting to see if his open interest in the Doctor’s history leads anywhere.
It’s also interesting to note that Thirteen, despite having declared Ryan, Yaz and Graham her family and traveling about the universe with them, has apparently decided to tell them nothing about herself or her history. It doesn’t sound like she’s mentioned Gallifrey, or even explained that regeneration – and her previous incarnations as men of varying ages – is a thing that really happened.
Mostly, this episode is entertaining, fun and fairly throwaway, until you get to the very end. Where “Spyfall, Part One” pulls out its biggest twist, a move that’s basically guaranteed to bring audiences back for “Part Two” in four days.
Because it turns out that Thirteens sometime friend “O” isn’t precisely who he seems. No, he’s the Master, somehow. How this revelation fits into the events of season 10’s “World Enough and Time”/“The Doctor Falls” two-parter, which saw female Master Missy confront her previous incarnation John Simm and ostensibly die without regenerating is extremely unclear. Is this a previous version of the Master we just haven’t met yet? Is it the Master reborn, again? An alien merely obsessed with Time Lord and/or Gallifreyan lore?
It just feels awfully soon to bring the Master back again, doesn’t it?
Plus, and no shade to Sacha Dhawan who is an actor I’ve enjoyed in multiple other things, this take on the Master initially comes off as nothing so much as a poor man’s Simm, complete with drumming and knocking and maniacal laughter. Though his nerdy obsession with the Doctor, as well as his mysterious parting shot about everything we know being a lie, is pretty fun, it’s also not something that I feel this Doctor needs right now in her story.
I’m (desperately) hoping that the second half of this two-parter – and the rest of season 12, come to that – proves me wrong, because I deeply dislike feeling like the only Whovian out there who isn’t screaming with glee over this twist. (And, to be fair, there were more than a few fun callbacks at work here, and there’s a nice symmetry to bringing the Master back during a two-parter that’s essentially James Bond fanfiction, since the character originally appeared during Jon Pertwee’s time as the Doctor. (Whose run was, for better or worse, an attempt to rewrite the character as a Bond-esque action here.)
I guess I can’t say I’m not intrigued to see where this is all going. Thank goodness we’ve only got to wait four days for Part Two.
What did you think of the Doctor Who season 12 premiere? Let us know how “Spyfall, Part One” worked for you!