Doctor Who Season 12×01 “Spyfall: Part 1” Review

Doctor Who jodie whittaker
TV :
Christian Bone

Reviewed by:
On January 1, 2020
Last modified:January 1, 2020


Doctor Who's James Bond pastiche kicks off season 12 in style, with its flaws made up for by the truly shocking, thrilling cliffhanger.

Doctor Who Season 12x01

It’s been a whole year to the day since Doctor Who was on our screens, with the Thirteenth Doctor and her friends last seen facing a Dalek on New Year’s Day 2019. The hype has been high for the season 12 premiere, then, with fans excited to not only see more of Jodie Whittaker’s Time Lord again but also hoping that the new run would provide more of what season 11 did right and improve on some of its shortcomings. And on the back of tonight’s ambitious, shocking opener, all the signs are pointing to season 12 pulling that off.

As the title makes abundantly clear, “Spyfall” – part one of two – is Doctor Who self-consciously doing a James Bond pastiche. As you’d expect, writer Chris Chibnall gets to have some fun checking off all the things a Bond film needs to include – the pre-credits scene, the debriefing, getting the gadgets, visiting a casino, etc. Shout out to composer Segun Akinola’s John Barry-esque score, too. The production is also impressive for the series, with the overseas filming working wonders. Director Jamie Magnus Stone gives it a relatively cinematic flair, even if the limits of a BBC budget are occasionally obvious.

The opening quarter is highly entertaining, with the spy-fi material mixing in well with the “getting the gang back together” scenes which neatly reintroduce us to the companions and their home lives. Unfortunately, once it gets past the initial thrill of the genre mash-up, the plot doesn’t run out of gas as such but isn’t as much of a thrilling ride as it could be. “Spyfall: Part 1” clocks in at 65 minutes, which fits its status as a New Year’s special, but is maybe more than the story necessitated. Trimming some of the fat would have been to the episode’s benefit, tightening up the pacing issues.

Perhaps part of the problem is with how the aliens at the center of the plot are left so nebulous. Obviously, this is a two-parter, so there’s no point complaining we don’t get all the answers right away, but there’s a balance to be met between feeding us just enough information to keep us intrigued and withholding too much and this episode perhaps doesn’t manage it. We quickly learn that these light-based beings are corrupting spies’ DNA but then hardly discover anything else, which hampers their impact somewhat.

The two big guest stars of “Spyfall” likewise don’t get a whole lot to do, with their casting almost feeling like a correction of history – how have neither been in the show before now? – rather than a case of these roles demanding their talents. However, Stephen Fry is wonderful in his brief part as the M-like MI6 boss C and Sir Lenny Henry is suitably chilly and sinister as Daniel Barton, the head of an evil tech company. At first, Barton seems like a disappointingly two-dimensional Bond villain but that turns out to be entirely the point. Chibnall uses our preconceptions of the genre he’s aping against us, allowing him to pull off the best plot twist of the Thirteenth Doctor’s era so far.

Yes, while the preceding hour has its flaws, you can forgive them for that jaw-dropping last scene. We already knew going into this season that both the Cybermen and Judoon would be dropping by, making it clear that Chibnall had listened to those fans who wanted more familiar foes after season 11. One villain we definitely were not expecting to come back, though, was the Master – now played by former Iron Fist star Sacha Dhawan.

Much like previous Master reveals that have come before (remember Michelle Gomez’s introduction as Missy?), the story brilliantly misdirects us, painting Dhawan’s O as a likeable tech guy who has a flirtation with Yaz and even an established friendship with the Doc. Kudos to the casting, too, with the headline-grabbing hiring of both Fry and Henry allowing Dhawan to slip into the cast mostly unnoticed. The promo images even left him conspicuously out of shot.

So, how is Dhawan as the Master? Obviously, we’ve just got the one sequence of him actually embodying the character so far, but he appears to a very boyish iteration of the baddie, like an excitable child playing with human lives like they’re his toys. In this way, he’s a spot-on rendition of the Doctor’s “best enemy.” You could argue he’s a bit too traditional, even archetypal, but let’s see how he’s fleshed out in the coming episode – and possibly other installments of season 12 – before making our judgements.

All this being said, there’s still some grey room for Chibnall to pull the rug from underneath us again in the second half. O/the Spymaster/the Master does tell the Doctor that everything she knows is a lie, after all. Is the Master reveal a fake fake-out? Possibly, though I suspect this is more likely a reference to the ongoing story arc that’ll see the Time Lord being tested. We can presumably safely say, then, that Sacha Dhawan really is the Master.

For the bulk of it, “Spyfall: Part 1” offers much the same as season 11, with all its positives and negatives. However, the final five minutes introduce a sense of showmanship and shock factor that arguably wasn’t there last run. And with the Doctor back on our screens in style and facing the latest regeneration of a fan favorite villain, 2020 looks set to be a great year for Doctor Who

Doctor Who Season 12x01

Doctor Who's James Bond pastiche kicks off season 12 in style, with its flaws made up for by the truly shocking, thrilling cliffhanger.