I caught wind of so many bad opinions of Wednesday’s new Doctor Who, “Spyfall Part 1", that maybe I was predisposed in its favour a bit. But I think I just kind of liked it. I applaud the return to a two parter format, the pacing feels more natural, and the new monster (unless it’s really an old monster) is genuinely creepy. Stephen Fry is good but needed more screentime and he gets a couple of too-dopey lines. Really, the main problem I have with the episode, and it is a big one, is the companions, whose dullness shines more starkly after their absence.
I can kind of dig Mandip Gil now and then but Bradley Walsh and Tosin Cole seem like they took heavy doses of novocaine every morning. Listening to them talk about how they’re not really qualified to be spies, I thought, “Yeah, it’s true, you guys don’t belong here.” As Walsh wades through another slow line delivery about how he doesn’t understand what’s going on or asks why the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) is going to do something dangerous it is rather like some random, disinterested person off the street was pulled in and forced to be the Doctor’s companion. Her affectionate calls to the “family” seem kind of sad, when you think about it.
So, it’s not like the Doctor usually pulls companions from training facilities or elite military or science corps (though sometimes this is true). Often, they’re ostensibly just regular people who get caught up in the adventure. There are two ways to make this work—make the companion a genuinely average person and dumb down all the rest of the universe to their level, or make the companion an extraordinary person whose abilities haven’t been recognised by human institutions. Usually, the show has taken the latter tact. It’s especially clear during the Davies and Moffat eras—Donna is able to spot weird things at work her coworkers can’t. When Clara is reintroduced in “The Snowmen”, she’s a woman with two secret identities and even then the Doctor tests her with the umbrella on the roof. In the classic era, Ace was an explosives expert who’d left Earth before encountering the Doctor; Nyssa, Adric, and Zoe were young geniuses; Sarah Jane Smith was an intrepid reporter. You could say Ian and Barbara were pretty ordinary but, even with them, their expertise as teachers came into play more than once. The only genuinely average companion I can think of is Tegan and it’s basically what drove her away in the end.
Thirteen’s companions aren’t just average, though. They behave average or even below average. Sometimes I think a note from the BBC after Moffat left was, “Everyone talks too fast on this show. Make everyone talk slower.” As far as the companions are concerned, it’s overkill.
But, all in all, I liked this episode.
Spoilers after the screenshot
The Master is my least favourite aspect of Doctor Who. I always felt the show lost 60% of its brain cells whenever he showed up. But Steven Moffat made me appreciate the character with Missy. She was so good, she made all the other appearances of the character better for me, except John Simm. And even he was better when he showed up at the end of Twelve’s run. This new Master, played by Sacha Dhawan, I don’t hate. He takes a page from Michelle Gomez’s book and plays the character as though he has some real mental damage and he channels only a little of John Simm’s zaniness. It’s standard for the Master to show up after being definitely killed (Moffat even joked about this) but it is disappointing to see him come back with no nod to that finale with Gomez and Simm because that wasn’t just a physical death, it was a thematic cliffhanger. There was a conflict between Master and Missy. How was that resolved? It’s natural to want to know. And Dhawan would have to be ten times better than Daniel Day Lewis to make me not want Missy back in the regular role. Was it really necessary to cut all ties to the Moffat era?
I liked the siege with the alien beings, I like how mysterious they are, though they don’t quite hit Weeping Angel heights or even the Silence. Mostly, I’m just happy to have an episode paced like a two-parter. That’s the natural pace for Doctor Who and the show improves whenever it returns to it.