Doctor Who: Spyfall – part two

And now we’re past the opening two-parter of Series 12 of Doctor Who.  And the result is…okay.

Doctor Who Spyfall part two b

Well, pretty decent really, at least in some parts.

And a bit disappointing in other ways.

Spoilers Spoilers Spoilers etcc

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The episode starts off strongly, with a fun and surprising resolution to the airplane cliffhanger from last time, which is actually a bit reminiscent of something Steven Moffat might have come up with.

Meanwhile, the scenes of the Jodie Whittaker as the Doctor trapped in the who-knows-where of the barely developed alien threat are also pretty good, with its funny dialogue about livers.  And its certainly an unexpected turn when the story brings us to other time periods, to meet up with some of history’s lesser known but still significant figures in computer science.  Maybe one of the most notable things about Doctor Who under Chris Chibnall is the way that it has started becoming legitimately educational with things like this and with episodes from last year like Rosa and Demons of Punjab, as it was first imagined to be.

Of course, a lot of the business of Spyfall part two revolves around Sacha Dhawan’s Master.  Now freed from the necessity of providing an arbitrary twist at the end of an episode, we see a bit more of his take on the iconic character…which is pretty much as one might expect:  a little giddy, a little crazy, a little randomly murderous.  In fact, it’s a bit contractual that a new Master has to be a bit randomly murderous–Anthony Ainley killed Tegan’s aunt, Eric Roberts killed his host’s wife, Derek Jacobi killed his assistant, and Michelle Gomez killed one of her lackeys and also Osgood.  It seems to be the go-to way of reminding us all of how wicked this creep is.

In this story, the Master’s random shrinking people to death at the science fair of the past strikes one as the laziest iteration of this trope–there is literally no story reason for it all, except to show that the Master is crazy, which is something we already knew.  Indeed, his pulling the original O’s shrunken corpse out of his pocket in the previous installment was more successful way of doing the same thing.  On the whole, Dhawan’s Master is fair to middling–he doesn’t have Michelle Gomez’ charming menace, or Derek Jacobi’s gravitas (who does?), but he’s a bit better than John Simm’s cartoonish idiocy (at least in his appearances against David Tennant).  Storywise, he comes across as a loose collection of Master-cliches, including the unnecessary disguise (from last episode), the teaming up with invading aliens, and the Master reveling in destruction for the sake of it (he wants to help turn humanity into hard drives?)

Any hint of the character development that the Master experienced with the 12th Doctor is totally gone, with no reference to his/her apparent death a couple of seasons back.  This has given rise to all sorts of fan theories that this is a Master from earlier in his timeline–maybe someone who hasn’t experienced the Time War at all yet.  I don’t mind this idea (though maybe they’ll explain that the Master went fully-bad again after the traumatic discoveries back on Gallifrey).  In general, it’s probably for the best that they leave the whole thing ambiguous.

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Another classic (but undesirable, in my view) aspect of the Master that is back is the absolute illogic in explaining any of his actions.  As I feared, there’s no reason for any of the Master’s deceit in the first half of this story other than just that the Master likes to be annoying.  Then he gives the Doctor hints about secrets in their past just before he tries to kill her.  But then she survives so he gives her more hints, and then tries to kill her again.  Then he leaves her a pre-recorded message to give her even more hints, on the off-chance that she doesn’t die?  It hearkens back to Doctor Who in the 1980’s (definitely a Master-heavy period, and not in a good way), where the villain would have death-trap layered upon death-trap set up for his enemy.  It obviously made no sense, unless we try to believe that the Master is just playing a mean game and doesn’t want the Doctor to die at all–but that’s certainly not how Dhawan plays it.  Both Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat managed to neatly avoid or address this problem in their takes on the character, but Chris Chibnall plows right into it, and doesn’t seem to care.  Oh well, maybe it’s more evidence that this is an earlier Master–he doesn’t realize what a cliche he has become.

On top of this, the Master has apparently been living as O for years, all to pull off this hard drive thing and to hang out with and surprise the Doctor for a couple of hours?  And after that he lives through the whole latter half of the 20th century and into the 21st, and never does anything all that time?  That doesn’t seem like the super-villain who revels in chaos.  Maybe a he was fighting a post-Endgame Captain America all that time?

Anyway, all this attention on the Master meant that the episode more or less lost most of its spy-mojo that it had spent the first part building up–except for Graham hopping around shooting lasers out of his shoes.  There also wasn’t much time to develop the alien Kasaavins, which is a pity because they had potential.  Things don’t really go anywhere in the end for the also-evil Daniel Barton, though the guy has a brutal scene where he kills his mother.  Actually, now that I think of it, I think I’d have preferred Lenny Henry’s Barton to have been revealed as the Master, rather than Dhawan’s O.  That would have given the character a more calculating menace, rather than yet another juvenile lunatic.  You know, back in the day, the Master wasn’t like that, but then John Simm came along and…sigh.

Finally, there’s the big reveal at the end.  We get there pretty clumsily, but finally we find out that the Time Lords are dead (again!) and killed by the Master because he was made about something that he found out about their history.  Of course, the Master already had plenty of reason to be mad at the Time Lords, but that aside, a secret from their history is a neat idea, and the “Timeless Child” is certainly a neatly intriguing name to build it around. I’m not crazy about the Time Lords being dead again (Davies killed them, Moffat brought them back and now Chibnall kills them again?), so hopefully the series will make that feel justified as it goes forward, and hopefully Chris Chibnall can take what seems to be his first big story arc as showrunner of Doctor Who and stick the landing.

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To finish on a positive note:  I like the way the story leads the companions, led by Graham, to try to pin down who the Doctor really is, just when she’s at a point where he understanding of herself is at its shakiest.  It was actually a good character moment for this cast, which have been few and far between.  This has been one of the biggest problems of the 13th Doctor’s era–that the companions have had little story-reason to be around other than to just take up space.  So this is small but positive development, for which I am hoping to see lots more.

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