Doctor Who 12.1-2 – Spyfall (parts one and two)

Chris Chibnall’s run of Doctor Who has had some major obstacles about which he could not do anything, like COVID-19 and like the British media suddenly getting outraged about John Barrowman’s decade-old inappropriate behavior on set, but it’s hard to see the year-long gap between “Resolution” and “Spyfall” as anything other than a totally unforced error. Despite the outsize grumblings of the he-man woman hater’s club, there was a palpable enthusiasm about Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor in January 2019, and the BBC did nothing to capitalize on this. They should have already been in production when series eleven was being shown, to get new episodes on the air as soon as possible, but the BBC has never understood how to strike when an iron is hot.

That said, “Spyfall” is visually one of the most striking Who series openers. It’s a big globetrotting adventure with a pair of huge guest stars in Stephen Fry and Lenny Henry, some interesting new aliens called the Kasaavins who are from another universe entirely, and a plot that seems to have been written after Chibnall watched all the time travel shenanigans of “The Curse of Fatal Death” on an endless loop. We’re now comfortably back – I think! – in our son’s memory hole. He says that he remembers this series very well, as I certainly hope he should; it’s not even been two years. He mainly liked the laser shoes, of course.

But “Spyfall” has some really aggravating misfires among its visual splendor. The second biggest one is that the story takes aim at something serious in the real world: giving up our privacy to search engines and social media. But too much like “Kerblam!” for my taste, this caution doesn’t come with any bite. Lenny Henry’s character is in charge of a search-engine-plus thing called Vor, which operates in the same world as Facebook but we can intuit that Vor is larger and more youth-skewing. The story hints at the dystopian awfulness of this thing, evoking Dave Eggers’ 2013 novel The Circle, but there’s no consequence or follow-up to Henry and the Kasaavins’ plan. The last we see of him is he’s walking out a door asking for an extraction team. We’ve seen Who refuse to follow up on history-changing tech or politics several times since 2005, but this still feels incomplete, and toothless.

That said, I think that the biggest misfire in “Spyfall” is actually Sacha Dhawan’s character. To Dhawan’s considerable credit, I appreciate how frighteningly angry his Master is, marking him as very, very different from the previous versions. As I’ve said previously, I sincerely don’t believe that there should be a Master after Missy. But it’s not just “it’s the Master again” that’s the problem. It’s that O is a million times more interesting than the Master. The character that Dhawan creates in part one of this story is something that Who has never actually done well before: a Master disguise who has a life and a world that is engaging and in which we want to believe.

O could have been an absolutely wonderful new recurring villain, someone who uses all of Earth’s technology and resources, including an alleged shelf full of reports about the Doctor’s past, against our hero. When we see how dreary the Master is at the end of this series, it will really drive home how we could have had the incredibly talented Dhawan do something so much more fascinating and fun. Ah well. It’s not like this program’s not completely full of frustrating missed opportunities.

An Adventure in Space and Time (2013)

Y’all know me, or at least regular readers do. I love surprising our son with what we’re going to watch. And if I say so myself, I was positively devilishly clever in surprising him this week. As always, he demands to know what’s coming up – and often I do tell him, because I’m mischievous and not mean – and this time, I was pretty whimsical. I told him that we were watching something with three actors he’s seen fairly recently in Doctor Who. It stars Jessica Raine, who he saw earlier this month in the episode “Hide”, as a television producer, along with Sacha Dhawan, the Master in the most recent series, as a television director, and David Bradley, who was the villain in “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship”, as an actor who gets the role of a lifetime. Plus it was written by Mark Gatiss, who had written all sorts of Who adventures.

Of course, the downside to being deliberately oblique and obscure is that it dampens the enthusiasm somewhat. There was no boy standing at the foot of the stairs at the crack of dawn demanding an immediate start to the promised spectacle. This was a boy who took his sweet time finding breakfast and flopped on the sofa with the weight of obligation. Then I told him it was a true story and had no explosions, chase scenes, or fight scenes. But his eyes widened and he started to smile when he recognized the weird and distinctive “howlaround” visuals used in the original Who title sequence.

Hey, waitaminnit, my copy of that book has William Hartnell’s face on it!

Anyway, as part of Who‘s 50th anniversary celebrations, Mark Gatiss successfully pitched the idea of a docudrama about William Hartnell’s time as the Doctor, and how the show was made, from an idea by a Canadian avalanche of an executive named Sydney Newman, played here by the awesome Brian Cox, and built into life by Verity Lambert and a team that included director Waris Hussein, associate producer Mervyn Pinfield, and designer Peter Brachacki. The show takes a few small liberties with history – but don’t they all? – but it’s also full of love and in-jokes and affection.

Put another way, I enjoy most of Gatiss’s Who stories very much, and I still wonder where in the world a TV adaptation of his novel Nightshade is hiding, but An Adventure in Space and Time may be his masterpiece. This was the fourth time I’ve watched this movie and I’ve been a teary mess every single time. Lots of stories are full of triumph and feature long, sad endings, but there’s so much affection and care for this story that it just punches me in the gut, hard.

One small part of this is a weirdly personal one. Without his Hartnell wig, David Bradley looks quite a lot like my grandfather, Joseph Trummie Goggans. During the climactic “I don’t want to go” moment, he looks precisely like my grandfather. The first time I saw this, in between moments of cold fury at BBC America for all the breathtakingly poorly placed commercial breaks, I probably stopped breathing from sorrow. Then when Hartnell looks across the TARDIS console and sees that everything will be okay… I had to dry my left eye again just now typing this.

Unfortunately, for a nine year-old, that long, sad ending was probably a little too long and a little too sad. Our son enjoyed this to a point, but really it was just the triumphs that kept him rivetted. Happily, the triumphs are really spectacular. The introduction of the Daleks, the “pied piper” bit on Hartnell’s day off in the park, and Newman telling Lambert that the space monsters had brought them 10 million viewers all scored. He stays mostly quiet during movies, but he enjoyed getting in a dig when the ratings justified the budget overspending that Newman was discussing with some BBC executive played by Mark Eden. Eden is one of several performers from the original run of Who to make little cameos. William Russell, Carole Ann Ford, Jean Marsh, and Anneke Wills also got to enjoy the fun.

An Adventure in Space and Time is a beautiful look back to London, 1963, full of great clothes and hair and cars and the BBC’s big round television centre and the smoke from a million cigarettes. If the movie has a flaw at all, it’s that they cut too much out of the very short segment where electronic music pioneer Delia Derbyshire and her associate Brian Hodgson demonstrate their work, but at least more of it’s available as a deleted scene on the Blu-ray. But it’s a film full of magic and wonder and sadness and it’s far better than most movies that were released on the big screen. Do I like it more than the actual 50th anniversary episode? We’ll see later this week.