13 December 2021: not really a review of Flux added.
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It's been a while. Chris Chibnall has had lots of time to think about where he wants to steer Doctor Who next. So let's speculate. What were his New Year's resolutions for Spyfall?
First of all, make a splash, especially with the overseas audience. Critical! Can't let the BBC's cash cow give less milk. Might also be a good idea to listen to some of the criticism of the first season: let the companions out of their bubble wrap in order to get into danger and do things. Not to mention give them some room to do them in.
Then there are the personal resolutions. Play with more of the biggest toys in the Doctor Who toybox. And wrest control of the Whoniverse back from previous showrunners and undo all the mistakes they made.
So if you were Chris Chibnall, how would you go about crafting a story that won over the audience and put to rest any doubts about your competence? We know how we'd do it: we'd write an absolutely cracking story packed with originality, real characters and a great Doctor. That didn't exactly require a massive feat of cogitation: we just copied what the series itself did, right at the beginning. After a fantastically intriguing beginning episode, the first Doctor Who story slumped into a dull and trite historical. If that had been the future direction of the series, it would have died in a ditch decades ago. Instead, it was saved by The Daleks, a story that packed such a powerful cultural punch that schoolchildren all across Britain were acting it out in the days following the broadcast. That's the power of story.
Sadly, Chris Chibnall is no Terry Nation. From everything we've seen by him, we just can't see any evidence that he has it in him to write that kind of superlative science fiction. So what does he do instead?
Imagine an enormous room filled with shelves and tables. On those shelves and tables, in towering stacks, are scripts from everywhere. Classic Who scripts, NuWho scripts, and scripts from many genres of film and TV.
The doors open and in throngs a crowd of people. They scoop up the scripts and fling them upwards until the air is filled with whirling white pages, then leave, slamming the doors behind them. As the pages begin to settle, the door opens again, and in walks Chris Chibnall. Wading into the sea of pages, he bends down, scoops up two handfuls, and shuffles them into a stack.
That's Spyfall. A bunch of elements that have worked in other places - Bond stuff! Name guest stars! A plane crash! Nazis! Tricksy timey wimeying! Big tech moralising! The Master! Gallifrey! - randomly strung together by someone who couldn't structure and pace a story if the life of his dog depended on it. And this is his slam-bang, win back the audience story. The best he can do.
The question we asked ourselves after watching Spyfall: if we'd only just started watching Doctor Who with these episodes, would we be fans? Nope. Would we, in fact, even have continued to watch it? Noper. We wouldn't even have got through the two episodes. The best Who, of course, is Who we love. Even episodes that infuriate us at least make us feel something. But Spyfall left us utterly bored and disengaged.
It's spectacular, we'll give it that. But all the cash thrown at fancy locations and effects won't drag an audience in unless the plot makes sense and builds on itself. Nor will the audience be engaged unless they care about the characters the expensive things are happening to.
The characters, then? Chibnall does at least get one thing right. The two-part structure allows the three companions more room, and for once Mandip Gill actually gets things to do and say. Not enough, still, but it's a start. We've always thought she had a lot of potential given the chance, and here she's brave, resourceful and smart. Yay. Contrasting her reaction with Ryan's when the Doctor asks them to do undercover work sells it to us for once that she's had police training. And we love that for once they're not up to their ears in health and safety.
Ryan makes a fun contrast to Yaz, but Graham doesn't fare so well. Having Graham accompany the Doctor leaves him with virtually nothing to do, and while it's always a pleasure seeing him onscreen, in plot terms he could have nipped out to film a couple of episodes of The Chase without anyone noticing he was gone. And this is exacerbated by Chibnall having wound up Graham and Ryan's character arcs last year. Grief done? Tick. Antagonism gone? Tick. There isn't much left but for them to stand around wondering belatedly who the hell the Doctor really is.
Then there's the Master. We really, really don't like him.
Let's look at some of the Master's previous incarnations. They're all so different. The gentlemanly Delgado Master. The straightforwardly evil chuckling Ainley Master. The manically deranged Simms Master. And….no, there are no words. Let's just say Michelle Gomez's utterly sublime Missy.
So you'd think, wouldn't you, that another incarnation of the Master would be equally distinct? Well, if you did, you'd be wronger than a penguin at Santa's workshop. Because he's exactly the same as the Simms Master. Only infinitely more boring, because we've seen it all before. Aha! you riposte. That's because he's actually an early incarnation! Yeah, we thought of that too. So what? Even if he were the Simms Master wearing a rubber mask, we don't care. Been there, done that, want to see something someone else hasn't already done to death. What's more, although Sacha Dhawan does his best with the dreck handed to him, he's a lot more convincing as nice guy O than he is as the Master. Shout as he might, he's about as menacing and evil as a fluffy little lamb gambolling in a field of flowers. We lost Missy….for this?
And then there's the Doctor. And here, we think, is where Chibnall is at his most unforgivable. He's had plenty of time to figure out where he went wrong, but has he fixed her? Has he heck. Her first reaction, when Stephen Fry lays the problem out for her, is to panickily turn to someone else for help. Time after time, instead of being in charge of the situation, she stands around, mouth agape. Where's the intelligence? Where's the charisma? Where's the cunning plan? All of what should be her skills seem to have boiled down to waving the bloody sonic screwdriver. That. Is not. The Doctor.
And the plot? Well, we say the plot. But it isn't really. It's just a string of things happening. More precisely, it's just a string of things happening to the Doctor as she stands passively by. She's scooped up by the Men In Black. The car tries to kill her and she can't stop it. C turns to her for help with the dead spy crisis, and instead of applying herself to the problem (didn't she used to be an advisor to UNIT for precisely this kind of situation?) she turns to some human rando she barely knows. Mysterious entities invade the TARDIS and she runs away.
What's more, there are some ridiculous leaps in here. Sorry to go on about this, but what would make the Doctor think someone who's not even working for MI6 any more would know more than her about aliens? Yes, a spy's had her DNA rewritten, but why would that prompt the Doctor to want to scan Barton's DNA? It’s not as if he's zombiefied like the spy. Why would O have been allowed to keep MI6's records? And why is their security so lax he's been able to "monitor the chatter"? Why doesn't any of that trigger the Doctor's suspicions?
Then woo! Attack Of The Beams Of Light In Amusingly Shaped Hats! Could these be the dullest Doctor Who monsters ever? Back at Vor, Yaz and Ryan outwit heavy security by hiding in a cupboard and get up to some highly unlikely downloading shenanigans before Yaz is whisked away to a mysterious spindly forest. It looks nice, but to be honest it seems curiously pointless. Once she pops back into our dimension, they're off to investigate Barton at his party, although by "investigate" all the Doctor ever seems to do is ask totally on the nose questions that only a yoghurt of a villain would actually answer. Justifiably irritated, Barton huffs off, but our gallant heroes are right on his tail. Why this urgency all of a sudden? After all, they knew he was dodgy before. Because a motorbike chase looks nice and is Bondesque, that's why. What's all the Bond stuff even doing in here, anyway? Our theory is that it's that overseas audience thing. Bond has to be one of the UK's biggest exports, and we're guessing it’s an optimistic punt at making Doctor Who seem more successful by hitching it to Bond's success.
They fling themselves aboard Barton's jet, and The Master finally reveals himself, Barton's gone, and there's a bomb in the cockpit. In case the sight of a ticking parcel covered with wires and with a digital countdown is somehow ambiguous, the Master helpfully explains: "Cockpit bomb". Thanks for that.
The Doctor compounds her uselessness throughout the episode by being unable to defuse the bomb. The Master stops capering for a moment to tell her everything she thinks she knows is a lie. Yes, it's the unmistakable sound of a showrunner ripping up everybody else's continuity and wedging his own stuff in instead. And then the Doctor's whisked off to the spindly forest.
That went well, didn't it? It's hard to identify a single moment when the Doctor wasn't clueless, useless and on the back foot. Yep, that's what we signed up for, all right. What's more, how annoying is it that all that spy stuff was purely to get the Doctor's attention? He couldn't have just texted her? Because the Doctor never has the good sense to leave the Master alone, she would have zipped over there just as speedily. What a massive waste of time. Chibnall clearly thinks his revelation that O is the Master justifies the buildup of most of a whole episode. We, however, do not.
On we go to the second part. Thanks to the Doctor's said uselessness, the companions are about to cark it on the plane until Ryan finds a clue that leads to the Doctor telling him what to do via video. And if this isn't the most shameless ripoff of Blink we've ever seen, we're a waltzing yeti. Back in the forest, the Doctor makes a friend called Ada. We knew instantly this was Ada Lovelace - we've always thought she'd make a great Doctor Who character, and while we wish she was in a better story than this, as she was in life she's pretty bloody cool.
Back aboard the Master's TARDIS, Barton is not impressed by the change of itinerary. Isn't the Master supposed to be controlling this dude? Doesn’t look like it to us. 93% human or not, he's hardly under the Master's thumb, so ???.
Some period-appropriate condescension from Charles Babbage, some kickassery from Ada, and the Master turns up. And here comes the absolutely worst scene in the entire thing. The Doctor asks "What do you want?" and the Master replies "Kneel!" ("Who's Neil?" one of us said. "And what does he want with him?"). She obediently falls at his feet and obeys his command to call him Master. Utterly vomitorious. What is this, 50 Shades? We can't think of a single other Doctor who would ever have behaved remotely like this. It royally sucks.
Describing this stuff is making us lose the will to live, so let's summarise. From the nineteenth century to World War II Paris. The Master posing about as a Nazi (creative bankruptcy much?) More of the ultra-tedious aliens. Barton, after a lecture on the evils of giant tech which are already stunningly apparent, explains that humans' DNA will now be turned into hard drives. Um, what? The Doctor infuriatingly gives Ada and Noor the Vulcan mindwipe whereas Babbage is allowed to remember everything. Are their poor female brains too delicate? And speaking of female brains, when we think about it, we realise Ada, Noor and Yaz are all kicking ass and taking names in this far more than the Doctor does. That's very, very bad.
And finally, the Doctor sorts everything out. How does she do this? By going back in time and fixing it. What a brilliant plan! Why has no Doctor ever thought of it before? Oh, that's right, they have, but they discarded it for some trifling little reason or other. Something something the devastating effects of breaking the laws of time, we think it was.
Not that, of course, we actually get to see this. Yes, do let's do the denouement offscreen and just have the Doctor yap about it afterwards. Sigh.
And just when you think it's all over, the Doctor's back in the hideous giant-toffee-fingered TARDIS getting the rundown from the Master about Chibnall's shiny new arc. Clearly not a fan of Steven Moffat hauling Gallifrey out of the ruins, Chibnall's decided to burn it all down, retcon everything we ever knew about it and replace it with his own mythology. All right, Chibnall. Come and have a go if you think you're hard enough. But it's pretty funny that you started your tenure by wanting to chip off all the fans-only mythology encrustations and now you're lobbing them straight back in.
It looks nice and it has some good character moments from the companions. But what decisively sinks Spyfall is a really, really bad Doctor. Get that wrong and nothing else is right, and this is so wrong. We’ve had some Doctors we've liked more than others, but none of them have been as far from where the Doctor's character should be as this one. So disappointing.
Why are the companions having to make excuses about being sick etc? Which part of Time And Relative Dimensions In Space does Chibnall not understand?
BETTER THE DIESEL YOU KNOW
If your car did its best to kill you, would you just blandly drive away in it afterwards? Or would you get the hell out tout de suite?
C (THE BACK OF HIM)
We seriously hope MI6 isn't actually so stupid as to have its head sitting with their back right next to a window.
It's a lovely little moment when Ryan takes a photo with the lens cap on.
Why didn't the Doctor recognise the Master the first time she met him? Hasn't the Doctor always before? And how can she go inside his TARDIS without recognising it for what it is? It must fair reek of artron energy and telepathic fields.
What did the Doctor do with the Master's TARDIS? Nothing sensible like disabling it, clearly.