In the second episode of the twelfth series of Doctor Who, the Doctor is stranded in an unexpected place while her companions must learn how to manage without her. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Doctor Who.
This was a really solid conclusion to the first half of the story! I know that there are a handful of times where the second half of a Doctor Who serial (or back-to-back episode, since these aren’t like the Classic Who serials, I suppose) isn’t as strong as the premise. Admittedly, things wrapped up very quickly in the end, but I was satisfied for the most part, though a lot of that comes from the potential for the future.
Because what the hell is hiding in Gallifrey’s past?
So, let’s start with the split in plots and time periods. Oh, how I love a good historical figure (or two!) in this show!!! And what a MASSIVELY important couple of appearances here: Ada Lovelace, who was basically the world’s first computer programmer, and Noor Inayat Khan, the first female wireless operator in France during World War II. There was something uniquely special about watching all three of these characters interact, especially since all of them are groundbreaking women in various ways. It’s also a very classic conundrum for The Doctor: How can she get back to her own time if she doesn’t have the TARDIS? Initially, that answer came with the answer to how Yaz survived the ordeal: Because The Doctor didn’t fit the pattern for humanity that the Kasaavins understood. Even though Yaz was human, she was also an anomaly because of how frequently she traveled through time. (I missed the name of the particles the Kasaavins would have detected.) But this technique only works once, after The Doctor meets Ada Lovelace, who viewed the Kasaavins as a sort of race of guardians? It’s here that the explanation for them gets a little shaky, but only because I may have missed some of the details amidst the rapid-fire dialogue that explained them. Because it seemed strange to me that Ada was spared the “transformation” that the other spies went through. But that was because the Kasaavins were using her DNA to study her, right? So they sent her back to her realm and only took her for brief periods of time. (Which I think were supposed to overlap with the ACTUAL illnesses she was dealing with in her life?)
Actually, now that I type that out, it does make more sense. The spies were killed solely for The Master’s benefit. And honestly, it took some reminding for me to recall that this version of The Master is not Missy, but John’s Simm’s character. Using an alien race to kill a bunch of spies just so The Doctor will pay attention to you? Yeah, that sounds like the Master.
I’ll get to the greater Kasaavin plot in the other section. I really wanted to discuss just how thrilling it was to watch Sacha Dhawan become The Master here. That shift in performance in “Part 1” was a delight, but seeing him fully encompass the murder-hungry, deeply hurt version of this character? Y’all. Because look, I can’t ignore what he revealed in this episode. It absolutely influenced this iteration of the character! I don’t think we would have had this kind of story without that. The Master is completely without a care here; he is burning through the universe because he can. Look, I wondered if he was telling the truth about Gallifrey because historically, he’s not actually been all that truthful before. So who’s to say he wasn’t just making all this up to distract The Doctor or, even worse, to set up another trap in case she got out of this one?
But that’s not the case. And so, there’s an emotional reason for his horrific behavior, a core basis for his motivations that I think we’re going to see a lot more of in the future. Maybe not through the Master specifically, but there’s no way The Doctor is just gonna ignore the fact that THE MASTER ERADICATED GALLIFREY IN THE BUBBLE UNIVERSE. And all because of a secret? The origin of the Time Lords is a lie? I must admit that I either don’t know or cannot remember the Time Lord origin story, so I don’t feel as beholden to that idea as the Doctor might. Still, seeing Gallifrey in ruins? Knowing there’s something about this “Timeless Child” that is the key to this massive, life-changing secret that angered The Master so much that he destroyed his homeworld and everyone on it? Oh, this is absolutely going to be a story later.
I do tend to like episodes wherein the companions learn how to fight the Big Bad without the Doctor. (At least, I think that’s generally the case.) It’s a neat storytelling trick because it shows us that humans are perfectly equipped to battle any nature of antagonists, and they don’t need fancy gear or abilities to do so. (Speaking of abilities: Wow, I don’t remember Time Lords being able to use telepathy? I suspect Thirteen was referencing a Classic episode or serial when she said she was doing it the old school way.) Though in this case, the fancy gear certainly helped! This was still a spy story at its heart, except that it involved three people who had literally no training in BEING a spy. And yet, with a little temporal help and some ridiculous shoe lasers, they fair pretty damn well.
The second half of “Spyfall” also builds a lot more on the Google / tech giant metaphor in Vero and David Barton. At times, the criticism of monopolies of data and tech is pretty over-the-top, while other times its really spot on. Most of this worked because it is true that we have signed over so much of our lives to companies like Facebook and Google and Apple, and watching this here at the start of 2021 was very, very interesting. And uncomfortable! I’ve started becoming more private about what details I put on the Internet; I’m pulling away from social media; I’m trying to find a way to have a life without reliance on so many of these terrifying large corporations. But like I said in the previous review, this had to hinge on possibility. By the end of this episode, it was clear that the show was saying that David Barton–and certainly people just like him–were absolutely capable of handing over humanity and our freedoms to other parties if it meant they’d excel at something else. That… barely feels like a Facebook metaphor. Or a Google metaphor! We’ve absolutely seen this happen in our lifetime already!
Where David Barton starts to come apart is in the specificities. I don’t necessarily get him as a person, just as a villain. Like… that whole built with his mother was weird as hell. Was that an attempt to give his character depth, to show that he’d worked against his mother’s lack of support to become who he was in the present time? Because if so, I really needed way more of that for it to have the impact that it did. (And I hate to make this point yet again, but wow, another Black woman killed onscreen and rather violently by Doctor Who.) The show is also bizarrely vague about Barton’s fate. We know the Master is sent to the Kasaavin realm for an unknown fate, and I’m sure this isn’t the last we’ll see of him. But Barton escapes out of that room after just telling the ENTIRETY OF EARTH’S POPULATION THAT HE IS TURNING THEM INTO HARD DRIVES. Like… no one stopped him? What happened to him? I suppose it’s possible that we’ll see him again soon, but as a two-parter, that part felt unfulfilling. He was one of the primary antagonists, and he just… ran away? Hmm. Not my favorite choice.
Otherwise: GODS, it is so good to be back watching Doctor Who. I did enjoy this opener, and I’m so thrilled to be back on some adventures with these wonderful characters. Onward!
The video for “Spyfall, Part 2” can be downloaded here for $0.99.
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