Doctor Who #1007: Spyfall: Part One

"The name's Doctor. THE Doctor."
TECHNICAL SPECS: First aired Jan.1 2020.

IN THIS ONE... Aliens are killing the world's spies so MI6 calls in the Doctor.

REVIEW: Doctor Who returns after a year with a globe-trotting riff on 007, filled with exotic locations, spy gadgets, car chases, swinging music, casinos, aerial shots, and bombs to disarm (or not). It manages this splendidly on its TV budget, though it misses a trick by having the Doctor in a bow tie and not commenting on it. Of course, it's a little odd that MI6 has trouble believing in aliens given how many attacks Earth has suffered, or that UNIT is COMPLETELY gone (I thought it was out of Britain because of Brexit, but we go all over the world and they're nowhere to be seen), so the premise at times feels forced. We have to be told the Doctor has a tangential association with MI6 (she once met O and they've texted since, though C has never met her in any incarnation) and that's clunky. In fact, I sometimes felt like there was too much going on in this one, from the agents getting their DNA over-written to the a car's GPS disintegrating its driver, to the aliens of light, to a strange dimension, to an evil social media mogul, to the final revelations and flying houses, oh my. It felt like one of those excessive episodes from the RTD or Moffat eras and I had trouble getting into it on first watch. There's no way to really understand the plot from Part One, so I'll reserve comments for my next review, though the thing about the real villain of the piece is that his plans never really need to make sense, which I'm sure is a boon to the writers if not to the audience, and that's...

The Master. Yes, O turns out to be the Master, which for my money is wayyyyyyy too soon. The Capaldi era had a LOT of Master material, with Missy practically a cast member for the first and third seasons, and I could have done without his bonkers shenanigans for a while longer, especially if he's the next iteration after Missy (see Theories), who was on her way to becoming "gud". I like Sacha Dhawan and fondly remember him as a Waris Hussein in An Adventure in Space and Time, and he plays the madness with an underlying sadness, the reason for which will be revealed in Part Two. Does the reveal come out of nowhere on second watch? Still a little. There are moments - a satisfied smile here, the Doctor's surprise at one of his traits there - that bear it out, but a passing flirtation with Yaz and some rather human moments don't. And while "spy Master" is a good hint, what kind of a pseudonym is "O" for the Master? It almost feels like he was Omega in the first draft of the script, what with the strange dimension and eventual link to Gallifreyan history, then was changed when Terrence Dicks passed away and the show had to be a tribute to the Master's creator. A worthy endeavor, if that's the case, but there's a cost in story cohesion (but yay, tissue compression makes a comeback and it's just as silly as it used to be). What I REALLY wanted was O's contention that "everything you believe is a lie" to extend to his identity, and that the shelf of material on the Doctor was a clue that O was just an obsessed and toxic fanboy who was PLAYING at being the Master because he wanted to be part of the Doctor's story. Would have had something to say about fan culture, at the very least. But that's not the story. Part Two justifies the decision, but it doesn't help Part One, during which I sort of threw my hands in the air.

That said, it's a good episode for Jodie's Doctor. There are a couple of really nice, comic deliveries (my favorite is the whole "Kisses! It's quite french that, kisses.") and throwaway lines about all the crazy stuff that's in the TARDIS or spending more than a hundred years in the Outback (Graham was right to think she was joking about having been a man, because a lot of this stuff sounds completely made up). On the dramatic side, she gets right in the villains' faces, asking impertinent questions. Plus, the goggles. I think they're emblematic at this point. We catch up with the Fam, of course, in particular what their excuses were for missing so much work. It seems the show doesn't want to have Graham's cancer to have a sequel, which we're happy about, though there's just enough foreshadowing for us to fear for Ryan or Yaz. I would love for Ryan to go out with Yaz's sister; it has comic potential.

As for the villains we've never met before, we have stand-up comedian Lenny Henry playing the rather serious Daniel Barton, which seems a bit of a mismatch. He has a sinister, threatening manner about him, but is kind of boring as well. The aliens have a great visual, either "camouflaged" with the texture of things they walk through, or popping in as beings of light (and their home dimension, a forest of synapses, is cool too). I do wonder at their crown-like heads, which kind of looks like the Racnoss, and then there's that Racnoss-looking alien in the trailer, who could actually be an unlit one of these... Describing them as spies in our midst (but are they?) is thematically consistent with the episode's world, but I also wonder why they need to kill the world's spies, OTHER THAN to go with the theme. Part Two will tell...

THEORIES: There's no real question in my mind that the Master here is Missy's regeneration, if only because it would be too complicated for the audience if he weren't. But it's worth asking the question and full warning, I will use evidence/spoilers from Part Two to make my points. First, Time Lords have tended to meet in the right sequence as if they were synchronized, but obviously, the previous Master story had Simm out of order and the Big Finish audios have certainly played fast and loose with this "rule". So technically, O could stand between Simm and Missy, as he certainly has former's madness as opposed to the latter's new ethics, and that would make his regeneration into Missy inspired by the Doctor's own female form (and back again, in a loop). Or how about this: When we see a hologram of the Master in Part Two, he is wearing the first Doctor's costume and adopts his posture, which throws even more doubt as to O's timeline. Are they suggesting he's the first Master? No, no, that wouldn't make sense, would it? So what tends to confirm that he is post-Missy. Well, there's the bit with the flying house TARDIS and reference to The Wizard of Oz's Wicked Witch of the West, which could be an admission that he used to be Missy. More importantly, the revelations about Gallifrey are a game-changer. Not only do they justify his moral backtracking from Missy (which, granted, only really need a regenerative personality change), but acts as a tent pole moment for the character that could hardly have been at play in previous incarnations without mention. Unless future revelations change the game changer, of course. So while it might have been more interesting to have the Master NOT in sequence with the Doctor, we have to accept that he undoubtedly is.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium - Some fun bits and certainly high production values, but it's so fast and furious, I don't think it properly sells its big reveal. At this point in the story, too much hangs on the success of Part Two.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

I was fine with these episodes. And I will observe that the Master was up to Roger Delgado tricks, by which I mean: the Master allies himself with conquering aliens, thinks he's in control, turns out to be a pawn, gets some sort of comeuppance at the end. It happened over and over with Roger Delgado, it happened at least once with Anthony Ainley, basically it is the archetypal Master scheme.

So I am forced to reach a conclusion: the Master is almost always a colossal disappointment. It's one of those things I never quite put my finger on, but every time I see the Master, the episode doesn't live up to expectations. Ultimately the problem is always the same: the Master is just someone with the same skill set as the Doctor, only isn't as smart, and whose only advantages are cruelty and operating in secret until it's time to confront the Doctor.

The only times the Master doesn't disappoint me are when his relationship with the Doctor is other than antagonistic. There were times when Roger Delgado and Jon Pertwee were wandering around a Welsh gravel pit together and they felt like a bickering old couple, and I enjoyed that. And some of the Michelle Gomez / Peter Capaldi stuff worked because it was a playful rivalry. I could even almost get into it when Missy tried to make a gift of a Cyberman army to the Doctor -- almost.

But other than that ... I'm done with the Master. If you want to make the Master interesting, give him a goal or perspective that makes him worth the time and effort. I'll spitball one thing they could do with the Master: he believes in trying to alter and improve history. Maybe he believes in introducing technology to society early rather than letting us develop it on our own, or maybe he thinks WWI was a big mistake because it resulted in the downfall of empires the Master could respect. Villains with some sort of outlook that you can at least partially respect, are better than villains that you can't relate to at all.

Siskoid said...

I agree that "nuts" is not an effective motivation in the long term.

LiamKav said...

I actually really enjoyed Dhawan's performance. Yeah, we technically had the Master only 14-odd episodes ago, but the change in production and big gap between seasons makes it seem much longer. Plus, it fixes two major problems the last season had. One, it gives Whittaker a strong character to play off of (her best stuff last season was against King James), and it also gives the show a much needed infusion of energy. Yeah, we got worthy episodes where we learnt that racism is bad, but it's also nice to sometimes have a scenery chewing baddie to entertain everyone.

 

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