Doctor Who Spyfall review – opening episodes hit the mark

Posted on 7 January 2020
By Dana Andersen
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Having had such a long break from TV, it was an air of excitement and a degree of nervousness that accompanied Doctor Who’s return. Having had an entire year free of any new episodes, I expected it would return with a bang and this double parter, did not disappoint.

The first two episodes of this season have been action packed, full of reveals and dropped plenty of things for long term fans to recognise from Artron Energy to the sound of drums.

The episode begins slowly, making us wait a little before we get to see the companions and the Doctor making it all the more exciting and familiar when we finally greet them again.

The James Bond Spy theme of the episode begins immediately and gives us the fun, but intense car scene ending with Stephen Fry’s introduction over the SatNav. Having Stephen Fry as ‘C’, the head of MI6, is fantastic.

He exudes his typical ‘posh, uptight British man’ vibe that we all know and love and having such an iconic actor play such a hyped character who dies so soon after being introduced is a bold move, but it was a typical case of getting a well known actor to play a short role that simply provides necessary information to more important or long lasting characters.

In this case he was just needed to give the Doctor and her companions information on ‘Horizon Watcher’, Daniel Barton and a few cool spy gadgets important in part 2.

On a second watch of Spy Fall Part 1, there are several moments when the Doctor first meets Horizon Watcher, or Oh as we find out, where we can see him as the Master instead.

When he laughs while the TARDIS materialises, before it was a man who had met the Doctor before and was still amazed by her and the TARDIS, on a second watch its the Master laughing because he knows she’s falling right into his plan.

As she walks past him into the house we later find out is his TARDIS, he looks back at her and scoffs lightly, before it was in disbelief or again amazement of the Doctor and her TARDIS, but knowing he’s the master we can assume he scoffs at her for once again doing what he expects of her.

We also have many hints that we can’t trust who and what we’re seeing. The Doctor tells Ryan and Yaz the X-files tag line ‘Trust no one’, Oh tells them he’s ‘cautious not paranoid’ in regards to the cameras around the property and Barton looks Ryan and Yaz up online to ensure they are who they say they are before allowing them to interview him.

For all Oh’s cautiousness, on the first watch it doesn’t seem odd that he would suggest a strategic retreat, but on a second watch it theres no suggestion in his tone. He tells the Doctor to make a strategic retreat because thats what will make things go to plan for him and because she trusts him, she does it. Not to mention the most obvious of hints, him telling her to look for the spy… master.

Having Ryan and Yaz go off on their own to do some undercover work not only utilises Yaz’s skills as a police officer but also gives us a chance to see them be clever and improvisational without the input of the Doctor and gives us the opportunity to experience them as necessary and useful characters rather than just companions to the Doctor.

It would have been nice to see them succeed fully though. Yaz being rushed by the alien gave us the chance to see the unnamed aliens ‘realm’ and have Yaz arrive with the Doctor in Australia in a cool and unexpected way, but it once again left Ryan as the ‘useless’ member of the companions.

Shouting at the alien and later telling Yaz he’d ‘never let that happen’ after she admits she thought she was dead are useless when he did let that happen and considering Grahams connection to the Doctor after Grace dying to help her as well as Yaz’s skills and confidence, it really does leave Ryan feeling as though he’s only there because he was in the right place at the right time when Tim Shaw came to earth.

Graham is the first of the companions who seems to get close to Oh, asking him if he gets lonely to which he replies that its ‘for the best’, which has meaning to us as viewers who know the Masters past and know that Oh is the Master.

Oh offering to show Graham his files on the Doctor comes across as mischievous and malicious on a second watch rather than just two people who have experience of the Doctor bonding over the limited information available about her.

The information Yaz and Ryan found out about Barton is vague enough to assist the plot but not enough that I found it gave anything away, though it was a nice place to begin placing doubt on if Barton really is the one in charge of the aliens, and having the alien code they found somewhere in Vor be the same type of code they used to find Oh’s position was a nice hint at what was to come.

Having him be so excited to go in the TARDIS, call its interior ‘ridiculous’ and also mention that he’d never done undercover work before despite having been an MI6 agent were also all hints I didn’t initially pick up on, but very much have meaning on the second watch.

Barton’s party was a great way to have Doctor Who be in America once again, which I’m sure the American fans enjoy, without it feeling too Americanised and seeing everyone tried to blend in had an understated humour that allowed the audience a tension break before we resume the action with the Doctor questioning Barton and the motorbike chase.

Having the Doctor give a throw away line regarding why they’re all able to ride motorbikes was something I appreciated and Oh asking if its always like that with the Doctor is funny and typical initially, ironic once you know who he really is.

Plane chases seem like big budget Hollywood movie stuff, having it in Doctor Who assisted the episode in feeling more like a movie and the Doctor clambering in and turning off the planes alerts was one of the brief moments when we get to see how quick and clever the Doctor really is, right before we see her be even quicker and smarter by questioning Oh for saying he’s never been good at sprinting when she’s read his file and knows he was.

“You got me. Well done” was the first time I had any idea while watching the episode live that this could be the Master. That line, the bite in his voice as he said it and the slight change in his demeanour gave me chills. Seeing his house from Australia flying alongside the plane was the silliness i expected in early new who while still being ominous and finally, finally letting the Doctor start to catch onto whats happening.

Oh, what a reveal! It may not be the most complicated or meta reveal of all time, but we all had that Oh moment and it was brilliant. I’d go so far as to say this is one of the best reveals we’ve ever had of the Master, everything is there leading up to it and its so obvious once you know, but until he told the Doctor well done there was no way for me to slot the pieces together.

Seeing the shock, fear and devastation on the Doctors face following her figuring it out was perfect for her coming face to face with the Master for the first time in this incarnation and having her go to warn Barton, only to find a bomb was the type of drama filled plot twist this episode felt like it had been leading up to while I still wasn’t expecting the Master to return. With his return though, it just became a terrifying reality that the Doctor was well and truly following the plans the Master had laid out for her.

If you want a cliffhanger, one where the Doctor has just been told everything she knows is a lie before ending up in an alien realm while her companions are in a plane without a cockpit almost certainly about it to die is a pretty big one, and it definitely pulled me in hook line and sinker ready for part two. I’m almost always of the opinion that the second part of a multi episode story should continue directly from the first so I’m glad we rejoined the Doctor in the alien realm right where we left off.

Wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff like the Doctor having already put a plan into place to save the gang on the plane while having not actually done it yet is always a highlight of Doctor Who, and having her speak to them through the screen knowing when they would be speaking not only shows the Doctor as knowing her companions very well but also gives up a bit of a homage to Blink.

Ryan being the one the Doctor’s plan is aimed at and having him be the one that saves the day (with the Doctor’s help) somewhat resolves the issue of him being quite pointless in the previous episode.

Revealing the aliens as being Kasaavin does little to help us with the questions this episode raises, but having the Doctor leave the alien realm with Ada Lovelace and step into 1834 at least solves the cliffhanger of how the Doctor was going to escape!

Having her kneel in front of the Master and call him by his title, to then jump to Paris in 1943 with British spy Noor Inayat Khan and the Master as a Nazi is exciting and somewhat shocking, and its great to see the Doctor with these temporary companions while our main gang go through an experience reminiscent of what the Doctor, Jack and Martha had to go through while escaping Saxon.

Leaving them without the Doctor, having to come up with their own plans and ideas gave each character a chance to show their skills and weaknesses and become stronger characters for that. Ryan telling Barton’s men their plan was still annoying and made me feel that they would be a stronger team without him, but I do also think I’d miss him were he not there.

Impressively enough, between searching for Yaz, Graham and Ryan and scheming with the Master and the Kasaavin Barton finds time to kill his own mother on what is revealed to be the ‘last day’.

While the Doctor seems to have the upper hand in 1943, the rest of the gang are lagging behind Barton’s plans despite them thinking they were finally going to get somewhere, and Noor and Ada have their own plans given to them by the Doctor making them into genuinely interesting characters.

With this incarnation finally facing off against her ‘best enemy’ gives us fantastic dialogue between the two, the Doctor is usually the smartest person in any room and the Master is an even challenge for her, which gives a great tension and speed to both their conversations and the show.

This is especially apparent when the Master finally realises that the Doctor is winning anyway, having had Noor use her radio skills to fool the Germans into thinking he’s a British spy.

With fifteen minutes left to the episode and the Master gone, things could have gotten boring from there but instead we have the Doctor find the Masters TARDIS while Barton in present time moves on to give a Steve Jobs in Black Mirror kind of talk revealing that Vor knows everything about everyone, and they agreed to it all.

And so the 3 minute timer starts until humanity is over, of course once again because of the master, only to be thankfully stopped thanks to the Doctor-last year.

The various time lines in the episode provides and interesting plot device and is well laid out. It doesn’t get too confusing thanks to them all being reasonably short and having the master be sent to the Kasaavin realm due to a secret recording of him, pulling the episode back to the original spy theme was a great note to end the meat of the episode on.

From here the episode suffers a similar fate to Lord of the Rings, it feels like its over but then it just sort of…carries on. We see the Doctor return Ada and Noor to their times and wipe their knowledge of the experience, and though I did enjoy her doing that it felt like a way to just fill time having already done all the important stuff, and showing her go back to sort out everything for her plan on the plane also felt unnecessary, though its nice to see the continuity.

You may think that’s the ending, but we then see the Doctor return to Gallifrey laying burnt and ruined like the Master threatened. The close up on the Doctors face, the tears in her eyes and the ragged breath, would have been a beautiful and emotional ending but again we then have a scene in the TARDIS with a hologram from the Master.

This is where we have a scene that again feels important. The Master telling the Doctor that everything they know about their people and who they are is a lie is sure to be something revisited later in the series and gives us a lot to look forward to in regards to what the Doctor will discover and how Doctor Who’s lore could come to be expanded upon.

Still though, it doesn’t end. I’m glad the companions finally got an explanation of who the Doctor is, and ending with the Doctor looking tired and sad with her back to both the companions and the control centre of the TARDIS is poignant and building for the character who unto this point has been bubbly and upbeat, but i think it would have been a more meaningful and natural feeling ending had we gone straight from the Master in the Kasaavin realm to the Doctor seeing Gallifrey, and ended with that chain of events.

Both episodes were filled with action and clever plans, the first episodes cliffhanger was truly frustrating and the second episode jumped straight in at the deep end leaving the two episodes almost feeling like on epic Doctor Who movie. Not everything about them was perfect, but as someone who has spent many seasons now saying I want Doctor who to feel like it did when I first began watching it, it was close enough for me.

The plot was fully engaging, the reveal of the Master was shocking, but not unfounded, each character served a purpose and had their own set of skills that were important for the survival of everyone (Ryan less so but still to a degree) and everything that happened felt like it had a full set of reasons and causations behind it rather than just being plot fodder.

The final thing we need to explore though is what the Kasaavin could be. Their shape was chosen to mock humans, they just appear and don’t abide by the laws of physics on earth. Barton isn’t entirely human and upon beginning the ‘process’ says that we’ve reached peak human.

The process would have wiped out humanity and replaced our DNA to turn us into hard drives. I don’t know about anyone else, but considering we already know the Cybermen will be making a return this season I’d lay a wager that it’s them.

Their light up, appearing forms are already reminiscent of the ‘Army of Ghosts’ we saw the Cybermen start with back in season 2, and we all know they’re big fans of making humans ‘better’. I’ll be looking for more theories on this one though, just in case I’m wrong!