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Illustration for article titled iDoctor Who /iembraces the past and resets its future
Photo: James Pardon (BBC America)
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Even more so than “Part One,” “Spyfall, Part Two” reflects the strengths and weaknesses of Chris Chibnall’s era of Doctor Who. It’s crammed full of fascinating ideas and compelling character setups, but it’s so overstuffed and poorly paced that not all of them land. Like a lot of Chibnall-penned episodes, it suffers from a curiously anticlimactic climax, despite the sky-high stakes of its central threat. In some ways, “Spyfall, Part Two” exceeded my expectations for what a follow-up to the fun spy pastiche of “Part One” could be. In other ways, however, it fell short of the potential of what that episode promised.

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Still, there are two fantastic things about “Spyfall, Part Two,” and the first is how unexpected it is. While Graham, Ryan, and Yaz continue the spy throughline from the previous episode (including putting those laser shoe guns to goofy use), the Doctor is off on a historical adventure that offers a decisive shift from the look and feel of “Part One.” Doctor Who is often at its best when characters are unexpectedly faced with the future fates of their worlds, and watching a woman from 1834 confront the horrors of WWII (especially at a time when the fears of that era feel more relevant than ever) is a brilliant example of what makes Doctor Who’s storytelling so unique.

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Indeed, the other stellar thing about “Part Two” is how it utilizes time travel. Last season, Chibnall used past-set adventures to shine an educational light on historical events, like Rosa Parks’ bus protest, the partition of India, and the Pendle Hill witch trials. “Spyfall, Part Two” has educational aims as well, specifically celebrating the accomplishments of Ada Lovelace (Sylvie Briggs)—the 19th century mathematician credited as the first computer programmer—and Noor Inayat Khan (Aurora Marion)—a British Special Operations hero of World War II and the first female wireless operator to be dropped behind enemy lines. But the episode does more than just present the Doctor as observers of their stories. Instead, they become active participants on her mission to thwart Earth’s glowing extra-dimensional alien enemies, the Kasaavins.

In a clever twist, the Kasaavins’ maps of multiple Earths represent different time periods, not parallel universes. As part of a (somewhat nebulous) plan to take over humanity, they’ve inserted themselves as spies throughout the development of the computer, leading up to their work with Daniel Barton in the 21st century. So like many would-be companions before them, Ada and Noor confidently, competently throw themselves into a situation they barely understand. Briggs, in particular, makes a strong impression with relatively little screentime, depicting Ada as a calmly logical, phenomenally capable woman of science.

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The Doctor/Ada/Noor stuff is the highlight of the episode, especially once the Master starts chasing them through history, first attacking the Royal Adelaide Gallery of Practical Science in Victorian England and later serving as a Nazi commander in occupied Paris. Sacha Dhawan is even more impressive here than he was in “Part One,” balancing the Master’s mania with a quiet, menacing callousness. Despite her exterior quirks, Jodie Whittaker is one of the most human Doctors we’ve had in a long time, and it makes sense that her version of the Master has some of that same groundedness as well.

Dhawan and Whittaker develop phenomenal chemistry as they put their own spin on the push/pull dynamic that has always defined these two mortal frenemies. There’s a deeply personal charge to their mental Skype session and their conversation atop the Eiffel Tower. As the Master almost seductively puts it when the Doctor asks him when all this villainy stops: “Why would it stop? I mean, how else would I get your attention?”

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Illustration for article titled iDoctor Who /iembraces the past and resets its future
Photo: James Pardon (BBC America)

Which brings us to the question of continuity. After a season largely devoid of connections to the past (save a spare fez or two), the “Spyfall” saga finally weaves the larger Doctor Who mythos into the Chibnall era in a big way. And that raises questions about just how much continuity to bring in, questions Chibnall seems a little unsure how to answer. For instance, we don’t get an overt explanation of when and how this version of the Master regenerated, nor does the Doctor question how far the Master has fallen from the path to redemption Missy was on the last time they were together. (Assuming this version of the Master is Missy’s immediate successor, of course.)

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Raising those questions would no doubt confuse new viewers who jumped in last season, which was specifically marketed as an entry point for newbies. On the other hand, not raising them is equally confusing for longtime viewers too. Since the Master has a habit of popping up with little to no explanation, I’m mostly willing to go with it. But after spending so much time and energy trying to rehabilitate Missy, wouldn’t the Doctor like to know what went wrong?

Of course, we do get one potential answer to that question: At some point, the Master returned to Gallifrey only to uncover a secret so monumental and foundational that it inspired him to destroy the entire planet and all of its people. You can read that as the story of the fall of Missy, although it raises some big picture concerns of its own. The Russell T. Davies era of the show was built around the destruction of Gallifrey, while a good chunk of the latter half of Steven Moffat’s run was about bringing the planet back. Does destroying it again so quickly feel like the right move?

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Though I’ll admit my initial reaction was a negative one (which is really saying something, considering how much I hated the way “The Day Of The Doctor” went about bringing back Gallifrey), I’m willing to take a “wait and see” approach. There’s a risk of turning Gallifrey into a Wile E. Coyote punchline of destruction and resurrection. But I’m curious what Chibnall has in mind for the lie at the heart of the founding of Gallifrey and how it ties into the “timeless child” we first heard referenced back in “The Ghost Monument.” Plus, anything that gives Whittaker more emotional layers to play and more potential screentime with Dhawan is a plus in my book.

Instead, the thing that drags down this episode is an element that initially seemed promising: the idea of Ryan, Graham, and Yaz stranded on their own, unsure if they’ll ever see the Doctor again. Because of the way the previous season tended to split up its TARDIS quartet into pairs, it’s rare to see our trio of companions as an actual trio. And “Spyfall, Part Two” offers a chance to reflect on just how far they’ve come since their early days in the TARDIS. The scene in which they acknowledge how little they actually know about the Doctor and yet how impossible a life without her already seems is a well-earned emotional beat—not to mention an important moment of reckoning most companions face at some point.

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Unfortunately, the companion subplot soon loses its character-centric nature and devolves into a plot-focused diversion that never really pays off. The episode hits upon something terrifying in Barton’s speech about how casually we’ve handed over our entire private lives in exchange for “plastic, circuitry, and games,” and there’s a cool idea about using human DNA as an external harddrive. But for the most part, the Kasaavin storyline lands with an anticlimactic thud. The scene of Barton killing his own mom is a particularly odd and unnecessary use of screetime, especially when the Doctor’s actual act of saving the day is relegated to an offscreen adventure. Meanwhile, Barton himself just wanders out of the story with no consequences, much like Chris Noth’s Jack Robertson back in “Arachnids In The UK.”

Still, one of the most exciting things about Doctor Who is the sense that anything can happen, which has certainly felt true of this two-part opener. The “Spyfall” saga could very well be the start of an ambitious new era for Chibnall, one that builds on the strengths of season 11 while course correcting some of its weaknesses. For now, however, Chibnall’s era of Doctor Who is balancing on a knife’s edge between one kind of past and another kind of future.

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Stray observations

  • This episode features stellar direction from Doctor Who newbie Lee Haven Jones, who gives an appropriate sense of heft and stakes to what could otherwise just be zippy fun.
  • There’s an enjoyable goofy Bill & Ted energy to the “Blink”-esque sequence where the Doctor retroactively sets up the clues that allow Ryan, Graham, and Yaz to survive their plane crash, but it’s an odd tonal fit for the more dramatic moments that surround it.
  • In terms of tragic historical realities this episode glosses over: Noor Khan was arrested by the Nazis in 1943 (the same year this episode is set) and executed at the Dachau concentration camp in 1944. She was 30 years old.
  • Having the Doctor unilaterally decide to wipe Noor and Ada’s memories is a callback to the way the 10th Doctor did the same to Donna Noble back in “Journey’s End.” This episode also gave me big “The Girl In The Fireplace” vibes.
  • I’m not sure I’ve ever given this compliment before, but the “previously on” montage was impeccably edited. It also helped me pick up on the fact that C’s dying word isn’t “oh” but “O.”
  • It can sometimes be hard to put your finger on what differentiates this Doctor from her NuWho predecessors, but the scene of the Doctor talking to herself in the Kasaavin dimension felt very unique to her. As did the way she immediately laid out the full truth of her circumstances to Ada.
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Contributor, The A.V. Club. Caroline Siede is a pop culture critic in Chicago, where the cold never bothers her anyway. Her interests include superhero movies, feminist theory, and Jane Austen novels.

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