It is fair to ask what, at this point, we want from Chibnall-era Doctor Who. Obviously I want $800 a week to watch it in the first place, but since you’ve all decided to give me that, I suppose here we are. (Thanks, by the way. You’re all ridiculously generous, and I’d have felt terribly sad not reviewing this.) But more seriously, we should discuss what a successful Chibnall episode would be. After all, if we draw the line at “be at least as good as Dracula” then we’re just going to be depressed for nine and a half weeks. We’re going to need some sort of notion of what a good Chibnall story might be in the same way that one needs a notion of a good Eric Saward story or a good Bob Baker and David Martin story.
Spyfall, after all, gets a lot of things not wrong. For instance, it has a coherent point and a sense of itself as being about something. There’s not a lot of follow-through on it—no real substance to its sense of “vastly powerful tech companies are dangerous and scary” or engagement with the materiality of these things—but it has a point. There is also no particular reason for this point to be wedded to a James Bond pastiche, but it’s certainly not inimacable to the genre the story is playing with. And certainly the presence of a genre to play in is a good thing, giving the story a clarity of focus and purpose that, say, The Battle of Ranskoor av Kolos or Arachnids in the UK did not really have.
Obviously this consists of setting an extremely low bar and allowing the show to step over it. And the show doesn’t even manage this without stubbing a toe on the way, with its middle section being curiously unmoored from the James Bond pastiche in favor of a ghost story in the Australian outback. But there’s a minimum standard of competently constructed television being met here in a way that was in no way routine last year. And there’s a certain acceptability to it—if Chibnall at his best can come in around the level of The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky (since he nicks a set piece out of it and all) then all right. That’s basically fine, y’know? Especially if the other writers—and it’s a pretty tasty-looking set of them in the middle six episodes this season—can provide some high points.
All of which is to say that things might basically be OK. Series 11 might turn out to be an unfortunately awkward blip before Doctor Who settles into something that’s not as scintillating as either of the eras before it, but that’s at least not so infuriatingly crap that one is left wanting to charge exorbitantly high amounts for reviews in the desperate hope that you won’t have to actually do them. On the basis of part one, Spyfall looks like it belongs to a perfectly adequate era of Doctor Who.
Look, following Michelle Gomez was always going to be a heck of a big ask. And it’s impossible to judge off of a handful of minutes of over the top reveal. Maybe Sacha Dhawan will surprise everyone and I’ll delightedly eat my words next week. But on the early evidence, he’s aping John Simm and doing it badly. More broadly, though, Chibnall’s bringing back the Master feels reactionary. For one thing, there’s the fundamentally unfortunate logic of “well we brought the Doctor back as a woman so we’ll make the Master be a person of color,” which entails finally making the character into an actual shifty foreigner. But that’s a particular bum note in a much larger pile of “ooh, that’s not great.”
I’m going to get around to An Increasingly Inaccurately Named Trilogy IX eventually, but one of the biggest problems with The Rise of Skywalker is the way in which it feels like it’s an active rejection of The Last Jedi, going to childish lengths to undo that movie’s innovations. And it’s hard not to worry that Chibnall is doing much the same thing. Missy was a tour de force—a version of the character that simply worked in a way that no previous iteration ever quite did. She was the first version of the character where you went “oooh, a Missy story” instead of “ah well.” And she had an arc that actively developed the character and tried to make her interesting and give her interiority. Reverting her to a homicidal megalomaniac in the wake of all that work feels unusually egregious. At best Chibnall is cutting off his nose to spite his face. At worst, he’s genuinely oblivious to what made Missy good, idly manipulating tropes in the dark without any real understanding what they mean or how they work.
But we’ll learn more about that in a few days. For now, things look reasonably sunny. Which isn’t something I expected to be able to say on New Year’s Eve, Let’s call it a win.
- Since Chibnall has obviously decided that classic monsters are not only allowable but desirable, it’s difficult not to be tempted by the idea that he’s brought back the Vardans. If so, credit due for taking a relationship with the past that’s interested in things other than the greatest hits.
- I mentioned the The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky riff, but note also how the not-Vardans are being used in a way that visually riffs on Army of Ghosts. Chibnall really does have a specific era he’s modeling himself after.
- I do like what is presumably the Master’s TARDIS whizzing alongside the plane. That’s a nice touch.
- Segun Akinola sounds like he’s having a lot of fun finding a variety of ways to rip off the James Bond theme.
- Stephen Fry clearly only had one day free on his schedule and spent it being blandly Stephen Fry, but Lenny Henry is proving delightfully compelling as the human baddie. So far a case of getting a way better actor than a part requires and then studiously making the most of it.
- My family, as you might imagine, basically lost it at the various uses of the word “vore.” “Vore seeps into every corner of modern technology” is probably my favorite. Here’s hoping part two continues to give us delightful jokes about extremely niche fetishes.
- On a bum note, Graham’s reaction to “the Doctor used to be a man” sure isn’t great, is it.
- Whatever else we might complain about, let’s all smile about the fact that the Master is shrinking people again.
- Realizing as I wrap this up that I’ve said nothing at all about the companions. As I stare at the screen racking my brain, I’m beginning to see why. They have more or less defined personalities, or at least more or less defined tropes, but they’re not really doing anything besides dutifully poking a second strand of the plot.
- Spyfall Part One