Doctor Who Series 12, Episode 2
“Spyfall, Part Two”
Posted by Sage
Part one of the season premiere ended on a note of blind panic, the Doctor banished to what we would come to know as the realm of the Kasavin, and Graham, Ryan, and Yaz hurtling towards earth in two-thirds of a plane. As Kim talked about in her recap of that opener, it felt like the first moment of good old fashioned Doctor Who peril to befall this TARDIS team…meaning that it felt GOOD. Things going to hell with the Master in the driver’s seat (almost literally – he commandeered the sat nav) = our show is back.
Would the conclusion deliver on all of the elements that the first episode presented so stylishly? The answer is a hearty, “Well, kinda.”
Some of the criticism that last series generated had to do with the Doctor’s relative lack of Big Damn Hero moments, but what I was also missing was the angst. It’s true that not every regeneration wears the “curse of the Time Lords” like a weight around their neck, but still. In almost every single moment of Series 11, Thirteen appeared to be unencumbered by her past. In a series that dealt with grief, even, we saw so little of hers.
But there’s nothing like the the arrival of an old frenemy to stir up all the shit you don’t like about yourself. Because as perky and go-go-go as this Doctor likes to be, the Master knows her. He knows where she comes from and the loss she’s endured and the devastation he’s seen. He knows where the bodies are buried, so to speak – because he also knows that the Doctor has killed. It’s difficult to reconcile that history with the characterization of her that we’ve been given so far, but “Spyfall” reintroduced a little of that darkness. We’re being eased in.
The way she grits out “Questions?” in that last gif…the Doctor would love nothing more than for this to be the end of the conversation. And it may be, because the TARDIS fam is just so nice. They’re not going to pull a Clara or a Donna and force it out of her, which I fear may eventually put them back in danger.
I think that some of the Doctor’s hesitation to let her companions in on this dark past arises from what happened when they met. They were all grieving Grace – Ryan and Graham most severely, of course. Aside from that moving speech that she gives them after the funeral about carrying her lost family with her, she tries to keep things light. Anyway, it wasn’t until the end of the third episode that the human travelers came on board for good. The Doctor isn’t under any obligation to open a vein for three people she’s just met and will soon say goodbye to.
I loved the way that O was written (and performed, obviously) – watching the first episode back, there were so many clever references to his true self. But honestly, the Master didn’t entirely work for me here, due to no fault of Sacha Dhawan’s. (He remains excellent. We stan. We’re in love. We need him to come to a con so we can tell him this to his face.) Some of his dialogue in Part Two…it was a little Villain 101. (“A little chaos can be a beautiful thing.”) His motivations, too, were muddled. Why would the Doctor have wanted the Kasavin to kill the Doctor when, he tells her on the Eiffel Tower, he did all of this to get her attention? Why would he have wanted her dead before he told her about Gallifrey and the lie and “the timeless child” and set her off on her quest to unpack all of that? Why want her dead at all when his true desire has always been to bring her to her knees?
Which brings me to:
Ho-ly shit. Controversial or not, this is the Master that makes sense to me and gives me hope that he could reach Missy’s level when it comes to changing the game. It would have made more sense for him to have orchestrated this moment instead of being surprised by her presence – for him to have instructed the Kasavin to deliver her to him somewhere in the past. But look at him: the man almost weeps with joy to hear the Doctor call him by his chosen name as he looks down on her. Maybe I’ve been watching a lot of You lately (I have!), but I can’t be the only fan who lives for the continued evolution of this fucked up psychosexual dynamic. (And what Fleabag fan among us doesn’t have a Pavlovian response to the word “kneel,” especially when said in a British accent?)
On the complete opposite end of the spectrum, cinnamon rolls are gonna cinnamon roll, and that’s where we find Graham, Ryan, and Yaz. I continue to enjoy watching them gel as a team, and it was so smart narratively to have them share a moment when they have to take stock and decide what kind of people they’re going to be when the Doctor’s not around. (“Yeah, the pair of you. Right couple of donuts. But there’s no one I’d rather be on the run with.”) Not every companion has the chance to share that with someone who understands. Think of Rose trying to explain her predicament to Jackie and Mickey after Nine leaves her behind or Donna watching the stars with Wilf. But these three get to approach the crisis as a team, and it’s clear that the decision that they make will go for all of them. They know enough now that they will never look the other way, even if they’re not sure that their resources will be enough to get the job done. They’ve come so far from when we first met them, thanks to the faith the Doctor has shown in each of them.
Their plan is a right mess, but it keeps them alive. Never mind that with everything Barton has at his disposal, his men would have realistically caught them almost immediately. But Graham gets to use his laser shoes and Ryan triumphantly reveals their next move and they make it to the warehouse where Barton left his own mother. Who he murdered with whatever tech he developed with the Kasavin. And then they just…stay there?
The last act of this episode is a whole mess, even though it was fractionally easier to follow the second time I watched. The second time, I was better able to track the involvement of the future Ada Lovelace (“Who knows? Maybe you’ll meet a nice earl.”) in the plans of the Kasavin. But if the Kasavin needed to study the development of computers across human history, how did their own technology become so much more advanced than ours? Where and how did the Master recruit Barton and, if he’s so keen on moving past “peak humanity,” why isn’t he more interested in the opportunities presented by, idk, the fact that humanity is not alone in the cosmos and that there are other sentient beings living in parallel universes? If Barton allowed himself to be tested by the Kasavin, then what can he do? Is he part hard drive or (as I suspect) does that not matter in the least? Was Noor Inayat Khan only involved so that Chris Chibnall could work in the (admittedly awesome) moment where the Doctor taps out their secret code to the Master?
Both Ada and Noor could have each easily had their own historical episodes, which made them feel a little shoehorned in here. Ada’s contributions to computer science are alluded to but never explained. And as cool as it was to learn about Noor, who was a hero, I wonder if bringing in another of the Kasavins’ targets would have made for a smoother narrative.
Plus, there’s no reward for helping the Doctor defeat the Master. (Ada, presumably, is not longer taken and studied by the Kasavin, but that’s about it.) Instead, the Doctor wipes their memories without her fully explaining why or them agreeing to it. Mind wipes are a sketchy device that understandably angers a lot of fans. What happened to Donna Noble was tragic and demeaning; Clara later insisted on her right to keep her memories. The way I see it, there are two choices being made in this episode, and you can feel some type of way about each: Firstly, what’s the moral obligation of the show itself in making this choice? Secondly, how do we judge the Doctor for it?
It hurts to see a character like Ada begging for the knowledge she’s earned and being denied it, but I can see why the show, in this moment, wouldn’t have wanted to retcon her accomplishments by suggesting in canon that it was what she saw with the Doctor that prompted her advancements. With Noor, it’s a bit more complicated. She didn’t learn anything that would change her work. What she wanted to know was whether the Fascists won, and considering that the Doctor knows very well that she’d die in a concentration camp a year later, couldn’t she have at least left her with the confirmation that the risks she took would help bring about the end of the war? It’s a cold sentence, enacted gently. (Watching both women instinctively pull away from her hand is a lot.) The Doctor believes she’s doing the right thing, which leaves us with something else to grapple with. This character has a long history of being a self-righteous jerk who thinks they know best. It doesn’t bother me all that much that we’re finally dealing with that side of Thirteen, though I’d love to never see a memory wipe ever again.
And then there’s the utterly indefensible. I have no idea what Chibnall was thinking writing that the Doctor – after setting the Master up as a double agent – would take off his perception filters so that the Nazis could see him as he really is. As many have pointed out, it doesn’t even make sense, as he wouldn’t look like the man they know as an officer. But to have the Doctor using Nazi hatred against her enemy flies in the face of everything we know about her and everything we want to believe that this show holds dear. Whatever happened to “be kind”?
It’s a big “wha??” moment in an episode that tries to do too much. The most unfortunate evidence of that is the amount of “tell” we get in that last act. Instead of seeing it, we have to settle for a verbal recap of how the Doctor, Ada, and Noor preempted Barton and the Master’s plan, which is also a remarkably easy fix when you really think about it. (Though, it’s a special and fitting punishment that he has to hang out in the 20th century just to get back to his prey.)
Fortunately, the episode ends on a more menacing note: the Master’s reveal that it was him who destroyed Gallifrey. (*extremely John Mulaney voice* THAT’S WHAT I THOUGHT YOU’D SAY, YOU STUPID SUPER VILLAIN.) He won’t tell her the reason, though he does give her the clue that it has to do with their identity. Did the Time Lords conscript children from other worlds? Was there some other plan for them besides the one that the Doctor and Master ran away from? Whatever the lie is, it’s something else to unite them. These two are so obsessed with defining themselves that they chose new names and built entire lives to fulfill the promises those names made. We’ve already seen what happens when the Master sees his own legend shattered; what will happen when the Doctor loses hers?
- “A grenade for the home.” Somewhere in time, Strax just got his wings.
- “They promised us war at this scale would never happen again, and yet here we are.” Dark.
- Speaking of dark, I cringed at the Doctor’s response to Noor, when she says that the “dark times never sustain.” It felt very First World-centric, as the Doctor ought to know very well that there are places where oppression and violence are daily occurrences not limited to world wars. Dark times sustain for a lot of people all over the world.
- Kim and I watched the episode together and shrieked when the Doctor initiated a FORCE BOND with the Master. “You’re not the only one who can do classic.” Just KISS.
- No, but really.
- SHE’S CUTE.
- Sonya is trying to keep up her bratty sister act when Yaz calls, but she actually sounds terrified for her. A really nice little moment for Bhavishna Parmar.
- “You kept clicking ‘agree,’ and now we can do anything.” Also dark!
- “You have a lot of explaining to do.” “Like what?” “Like who are they, and are we being replaced?”
Thoughts on the second part of this whopper of a premiere? Leave them in the comments!
Featured Image Source: James Pardon/BBC Studios/BBC America