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“Rule one of espionage: Trust no one.”

It was all but inevitable that an episode about spycraft would end with a secret identity reveal, but “Spyfall, Part One” earns major points for just how big of a reveal it is. After a season of easing viewers into this new era of Doctor Who, showrunner Chris Chibnall follows up a 2019 New Year’s Day special that reintroduced the Daleks with a 2020 New Year’s Day special that reintroduces the Master (now played by Sacha Dhawan). It’s a statement of purpose that this new season isn’t messing around.

It’s also a brilliant example of using audience expectations against us. Previous showrunners Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat both took their time in reintroducing the Doctor’s “best enemy,” and the character seemed to get a pretty definitive sendoff in Peter Capaldi’s penultimate episode, in which Michelle Gomez’s Missy and John Simm’s Master simultaneously murdered each other. So while I expected the Doctor’s Gallifreyan frenemy would eventually make their way back to the Doctor Who universe (the Master has a habit of doing that), I certainly didn’t expect it to happen so soon. Coupled with a stranded Doctor and an explosive plane crash, “Spyfall, Part One” delivers a whizzbang final few moments to kick off the New Year and the new season.

Of course, the episode’s exhilarating finale makes it more exciting to speculate about the future than to reflect back on the fun spy romp we just watched. As is common for the first half of a two-parter, “Spyfall, Part One” is a lot of setup without much payoff. It’s also much more interested in kicking off the new season than in serving as a holiday special. (I don’t think we even get an obligatory reference to New Year’s Day.) Still, it’s an appreciably confident return for an era of Doctor Who that spent much of its first season struggling to find its feet.

After re-introducing the companions and hinting at the ways that traveling with the Doctor has impacted their lives (both for better and for worse), “Spyfall, Part One” jumps into a story that’s part spy thriller, part UFO conspiracy tale. A mysterious glowing alien threat is rewriting the DNA of spies from all corners of Earth, and since that’s a little bit out of MI6’s usual mission parameters, head of the organization “C” (Stephen Fry) enlists the Doctor and her companions to figure out what’s going on. While Yaz and Ryan set off to America for an undercover investigation into British tech giant Daniel Barton (Lenny Henry), the Doctor and Graham head to Australia to connect with O (Dhawan), the soft-spoken MI6 analyst ostracized for his belief in aliens.

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Admittedly, the latter idea doesn’t make a ton of sense within the context of Doctor Who. Though the show has always played fast and loose with how much humanity remembers about the many, many planet-wide alien invasions that have happened during the show’s tenure, it’s hard to buy that MI6 knows that UNIT and Torchwood exist (or at least used to before the Brexit-related budget cuts we learned about in the previous New Year’s special), but still treat O as a Fox Mulder-esque alien conspiracy theorist to be shunned. Seems like he should’ve just applied for a transfer!

It’s one of those “just go with it” indulgences that tend to be a requirement of enjoying Doctor Who. It helps that “Spyfall, Part One” isn’t afraid to lean into its goofier impulses. Before he’s murdered, C hands out spy gadgets including rocket launcher cufflinks, tongue immobilizing chewing gum, and a laser shoe gun. This episode follows up a James Bond homage at Barton’s casino-themed birthday party with a nod to Tom Cruise’s Mission: Impossible franchise as the Doctor and Co. jump onto a moving airplane.

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In fact, “Spyfall, Part One” is better at action comedy than mystery, which gets a bit nebulous as it becomes clear the episode is planning to raise a bunch of questions without answering any of them yet. Barton is 93 percent human with an enigmatic relationship with the alien creatures (see the Stray Observations for more on that). The aliens’ goal is to take over the universe and it somehow involves multiple Earths. And Yaz has the spooky experience of being zapped across the planet via an ominous alien forest that may or may not be a fiber-optics cable—at least that’s what it looked like to me.

Photo: Casey Crafford (BBC America)
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“Spyfall, Part One” might’ve been better served by filling out its extended runtime with more character-centric moments rather than more unanswered mysteries. Especially because the character moments we do get are great. Last season, Mandip Gill’s charisma helped paper over the fact that Yaz was the least developed member of the new TARDIS fam. In this episode, Gill gets to show off some impressive dramatic chops too, as Yaz tells Ryan about her unsettling brush with death via alien teleportation. Last season was anchored by the Graham/Ryan relationship, and “Spyfall, Part One” seems like it might be setting up a new focus on the Yaz/Ryan dynamic.

Maybe the most interesting thing about “Spyfall, Part One” is its willingness to dig into the murky waters of technology in a thoughtful way. Continuing the trend of returning the show to its educational roots, Chibnall pauses the episode to have O explain the idea that big tech companies (like Barton’ Google-esque conglomerate VOR) are now more powerful than most nations. As governments fall behind on their understanding of technology, countries outsize their tech requirements to private companies that transcend national boundaries. Those companies are then able to seep into every corner of technology, from leisure to commercial to military.

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After eras of the show in which Davies and Moffat tended to rely on rather goofy riffs on evil technology (think deadly sat navs or killer wifi), it’s a relief to see Doctor Who take the topic a bit more seriously. It remains to be seen how Barton will ultimately fit into this two-parter. He’s not a total red herring, as he’s clearly involved with the aliens somehow, but he’s not the ultimate spymaster either. Still, it’s nice to find myself actually looking forward to a Doctor Who episode that comments on technology, rather than dreading it.

But the biggest takeaway from “Spyfall, Part One” is definitely the re-introduction of the Master. I’ve been a fan of Dhawan since his days in the original cast of The History Boys, and he was consistently one of the best parts of Iron Fist. “Spyfall, Part One” lets him show off a whole range of acting skills, establishing O as a likable nerd (with maybe a little bit of a flirtation with Yaz?) before going full-on supervillian for his final reveal. His version of the Master is even more manic and unhinged than either Gomez or Simm, which is really saying something. Dhawan’s take on the character snaps into focus with the vicious way he shouts, “Do you really think that I would not make that sonic proof, Doctor? Come on!” And once you know the big twist, it’s fun to rewatch the episode and see just how many layers Dhawan is weaving into his performance throughout.

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The Master’s manic nature starts to bleed through in the scene where O chats with Graham about his obsession with studying the Doctor. That scene also offers a fascinating insight into just how little the companions actually know about their intrepid leader. Graham thinks the Doctor’s references to being a man were just a joke, and none of the companions seem to have any inkling about where she’s from or what her life was like before she met them. Coupled with the Master’s ominous line to the Doctor, “Everything you think you know is a lie,” it seems like this season could be leaning into the larger Doctor Who mythos in a way last season didn’t. (There’s still that “timeless child” reference from “The Ghost Monument” hanging around too.)

Though it remains to be seen if “Spyfall, Part Two” can stick the landing, this exhilarating premiere gives it plenty to work with. The holidays may be over, but Doctor Who kicks off 2020 by giving its fans one last gift: Four days of rabid speculation.

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Stray observations

  • Sacha Dhawan previously played original Doctor Who director Waris Hussein in the docudrama An Adventure In Space And Time.
  • Despite Ryan and Sonya’s mutual interest, Yaz isn’t eager to set up her new mate with her younger sister. (Ryan makes an endearing pitch that he’d be a great brother-in-law.) I’ve long wondered if we’re in for a Ryan/Yaz romance, and this is yet another question mark in that column.
  • In order to assume his identity, the Master shrunk down the real O with his Tissue Compression Eliminator and has been carrying him around in a matchbook in his pocket. Fantastic!
  • From his banter with Graham to his panic over his Hugh Jackman-inspired undercover alias “Logan Jackson,” this is a great episode for Tosin Cole’s comedy chops.
  • Composer Segun Akinola has a lot of fun weaving Bond-esque themes into his score.
  • This episode is dedicated to Terrance Dicks, a prolific Classic Doctor Who writer, script editor, and producer who died in August of 2019.
  • For speculation purposes, here’s the exact exchange Barton has with the glowing aliens who show up in his office:

Alien: There have been obstacles.

Barton: I told you to be discreet.

Alien: We must remove them all immediately.

Barton: No.

Alien: The project must continue as planned. We must defend.

  • Welcome to 2020 and see you back here on Sunday for “Spyfall, Part Two.”
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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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