September 27, 2020

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Doctor Who (BBC)

DOCTOR WHO (2005- ) S12E01 “Spyfall (Part 1)” review

Doctor Who airs new episodes Sundays on BBC One in the UK and internationally via BBC America.

Synopsis

When intelligence agents around the world come under attack from alien forces, MI6 turns to the only person who can help: The Doctor.

Review

The Doctor is back in session. Exactly one year to-the-day since the last new episode aired, the series returns with “Spyfall (Part 1)”, the explosive beginning on series 12.

I made no secret of the fact that Jodie Whittaker’s version of The Doctor was a much needed breath of fresh air with series 11. Teamed with new show runner Chris Chibnall, Whittaker was able to breathe new life in to a show I had loved and begun to lose.

Series 11 brought so much new creative energy to the show that I was intrigued to see if that would progress in this new episode, or keep the status quo.

Whilst it remains to be seen whether “Spyfall (Part 1)” is the exception to the rule, it does set the bar incredibly high for the latest batch of episodes.

The episode boasts a number of exotic locations and it’s abundantly clear the Doctor Who crew didn’t solely film in Cardiff or Sheffield for this episode. We’ve seen the series attempt this “global” scale on a shoestring budget in the past to much less successful levels.

“Spyfall (Part 1)” navigates its locations with brilliant cinematography. The visual flair which Catherine Goldschmidt brings to the episode is unparalleled. The sweeping landscapes of the Australian Outback are bathed in golden sunlight whilst the utopian look of San Francisco is bathed in oceanic blue skies and sharp metallic buildings.

Likewise the episode features some immersive set design including an updated TARDIS and the creepy, nightmare landscape where Yaz (Mandip Gill) is transported to. It seems that, at least when on Earthly planets, Doctor Who is determined to use practical locations rather than specially constructed sets and this adds a great design dimension of reality to the series.

The bonds between cast members are abundantly clear. There’s no doubting that Whittaker has shrugged off any concern at being the first female Doctor, it’s even highlighted during a scene with Stephen Fry’s character C, and is just enjoying the ride.

Time is also taken to focus on the relationships between Ryan (Tosin Cole), Yaz and Graham (Bradley Walsh). Each is reintroduced here as it’s clear they have been living their normal lives for a period since the last series. If any aspect of Chibnall’s series needed beefing up it would be the outside lives of these three.

Some of the most memorable assistants past, Billie Piper’s Rose and Karen Gillan’s Amy Pond to name but two, had well developed backstories and lives. Adding this extra dimension makes the assistant more relatable and more real to the audience. Whilst Ryan, Yaz and Graham are definitely real they’re not quite grounded enough to entirely fit with the series aesthetic.

Guest stars Stephen Fry and Lenny Henry are well placed. There’s always been something M like about Fry and this may be the closest he gets to the role. He is very much himself, as he always is, and it fits well with the tone of his scenes.

Henry’s Daniel Barton is the type of generic, enigmatic businessman I Would have expected from Who. There seems to be some groundwork laid for him to do more in part 2 so I will reserve final judgement until Sunday.

“Spyfall (Part 1)” is relentlessly paced. The cold opening feels a little like a classic episode of Torchwood and leads in to The Doctor and her crew landing in peril almost immediately. The pacing rarely lets up for the entirety of the show’s runtime. At times it feels exhilarating, particularly during the third act, but at others it feels like the episode needs a little more time to breathe.

By the time the episode – written by Chibnall – has The Doctor and co. riding motorcycles through a vineyard I realised the episode was really trying to evoke the feeling of a Bond movie. It is a little OTT with Bond references but it’s very in keeping with the humour of Doctor Who.

“Spyfall (Part 1)” really comes together in its third act. I’ll try not to spoil too much but the plot twists on a knife edge and does so in a way which utterly flawed me. I didn’t see it coming at all and only even suspected it as the turn had already begun.

The reveal of Sacha Dhawan’s true identity does slightly overshadow the perilous situation The Doctor ends up in at the cliffhanger. The episode was likely constructed that way so that when the episode picks up we’re all suddenly reminded it’s not looking good for the team.

“Spyfall (Part 2)” airs on Sunday, come back then for our verdict on the rest of the story!

Verdict

Doctor Who returns with an episode that sets the bar high in terms of the scope and action in series 12. Though its pacing leaves little room to manoeuvre the spectacle and third act twist make this an explosive return for The Doctor.

8/10

Doctor Whostars Jodie Whittaker as The Doctor, Mandip Gill as Yasmin Khan, Tosin Cole as Ryan Sinclair and Bradley Walsh as Graham O’Brien.


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