Check any corner of the the internet where Whovians regularly congregate, and you’ll find a myriad of Doctor Who fans bemoaning the recent loss of the show’s coveted Christmas Day time-slot – as well as its subsequent move to New Year’s Day. It’s understandable to a degree – Doctor Who‘s pure magical quality is perfect fare for a day ingrained with childlike fantasy, themes of hope and family, and even the occasional bit of spookiness. The First Doctor himself, William Hartnell, even compared the Doctor to Father Christmas when discussing the creation of the character way back in the 1960’s. Simply put, Christmas Day isn’t the same without a dose of Doctor Who.
But don’t write New Year’s Day off just yet – after all, what better way to see off a hangover and prepare yourself for a return to work then with a fun, bombastic hour of television that encompasses everything from gripping sci-fi to the action-packed Bond movies of yesteryear? Doctor Who suits the after-party atmosphere of New Year’s Day to a tee, especially with its oft cartoonish aspects and its power of pastiche dialed up to eleven.
Spyfall, Part One, the first episode of this new series of adventures for Jodie Whittaker‘s Doctor and her trio of companions, is fully aware it needs to be loud and proud to stir an audience that’s either too partied out from the night before or dreading the inevitable return to normalcy that follows the festive period. In that regard, this opener for the new series is a blinding success!
As the title suggests, the plot is heavily influenced by Bond, Bourne and all things spy related, as the Doctor is called in by MI6 to investigate mysterious alien attacks on secret service agents from across the globe. In proper Who fashion, the show takes the more recognisable spy genre trappings such as gadgets, tuxedos and shady corporate villains (showcased here by a menacing turn from Lenny Henry), and subsequently augmenting them to suit the science fiction house style.
From the off, there’s a more confident, self-assured swagger to proceedings compared to Series 11. Perhaps it simply comes with the story’s territory but the episode feels more polished and sure of itself then half the episodes from last series combined. Head writer Chris Chibnall finally strikes the right balance between the main plot and the smaller character moments, whilst the concepts, imagery and the overall global scale feel bigger and braver after a whole season of self-contained stories.
The two-part nature of the story is a big help in this regard, allowing more time for the story to breathe. And yet there’s plenty of incident and high-concept sequences packed in, ensuring the whole shebang never feels drawn out or plodding. The script throws in bike chases, runaway cars, espionage and infiltration galore, plane crashes, flying houses, creepy aliens and even the surprise return of an old enemy to cap things off, and yet it all works in the service of the larger story. The humour hits more then it misses, despite a few cheesy dialogue duds here and there, and the smaller character moments, like that of the scene between Ryan (Tosin Cole) and Yas (Mandip Gill) after her near-death experience, are treated with the right amount of care and attention so as elevate the drama, not distract from it.
All of this is further complemented by wonderful imagery and cinematography – from the scenic vistas of the Australian outback and the sun-drenched San Francisco cornfields to the shapeless, illuminated aliens that step through walls, the visual effects and photography are nothing short of gorgeous. The kinetic direction from Jamie Magnus Stone and the excellent, John Barry-influenced score from Segun Akinola add plenty to the spy setting as well, whilst the creepier moments peppered throughout are given plenty of dramatic, atmospheric weight. Spyfall may well be one of Doctor Who‘s most aesthetically pleasing and stylish episodes in years.
Of course, everything here has been leading up to the big talking point of the episode – the return of the Master, now played by Sacha Dhawan (in arguably one of the show’s best-kept casting secrets of recent years). Dhawan is superb as the Master from the off, playing him like a demented, malicious version of Matt Smith‘s Eleventh Doctor, and clearly relishing the conniving, mocking nastiness the character emits.
The twist itself is perhaps a bit more clumsy then some will initially give it credit for – after all, the reveal relies solely upon revelations and inaccuracies about a character we’ve never met before, and so the Doctor’s deduction that something is fishy about ‘O’ is rather forced. ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ is pretty much the best take on the issue. Perhaps if we’d met ‘O’ in a previous episode, it would lend the reveal more dramatic weight? Regardless though, it’s out there now and we’re still pumped to find out more – even if the shock twist may not hold up to future viewings.
Nonetheless, it’s all in service of the blockbuster aspect such an episode in this time-slot should deliver, and it does so with a self-assurance that cannot be faulted. Spyfall, Part One is not only a strong start to this new series of Doctor Who, but it also provides everything you’d want from post-festive season telly.
Never mind the lack of a Christmas Day episode this year – frankly, having watched this episode, it feels like the day all over again!