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.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (2005)

This morning, we sat down to enjoy the funny and very entertaining film version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It’s flawed, but I’ve always liked it very much. It’s true that it occasionally feels like the work of a talented repertory company doing a speed-read of the original, but I was still impressed by just how much of the original that they kept in, even when it wasn’t necessary. I mean, if you’re going for a lean and compact 100-odd minute movie, then the sperm whale bit is really not needed. But since Hitchhiker’s Guide was never meant to be a 100-minute movie, it was always going to feel a little odd, no matter what they included or chopped out.

I try to believe in judging things on their own merits, rather than against what came before. With that in mind, I’m perfectly pleased with what Hitchhiker’s Guide accomplishes. I think Ford Prefect is badly underwritten, and that’s the movie’s biggest mistake. Everything else is charming and fun, just a bit rushed.

So this time out, Arthur Dent is played by Martin Freeman (fourth billed!), with Mos Def as Ford, Sam Rockwell as Zaphod, and Zooey Deschanel as Trillian. Guest voices are provided by Stephen Fry, Alan Rickman, and Helen Mirren, and Bill Nighy as Slartibartfast. The story is largely much the same as episodes 1-4 of the TV series, and most of the first book, with a radically different ending, two huge detours, a lot more Vogons, and a gigantic change that actually makes a huge amount of sense: the order to demolish the Earth was signed off by Zaphod, who, idiotically, thought somebody was asking for his autograph. It helps get Arthur and Trillian together a whole lot faster, for those of you hoping Earth’s last survivors would become a couple.

The movie kind of signaled the beginning of Zooey Deschanel’s Imperial phase, where she spent the mid-2000s as the It Girl of pretty much everything I was interested in. The records she did with M. Ward as She & Him were everywhere, and she was on TV in Tin Man and breaking my heart in (500) Days of Summer. I didn’t watch everything she did, but I adored what I had a chance to see, and she’s perfect as Trillian.

She’s so perfect that the rescue scene makes all kinds of sense, while I think that if the TV Trillian were to get abducted by Vogons, I’d just shrug a little. This leads to the movie’s greatest moment: the Vogon planet’s defense system, keeping anybody on the surface from having any kind of original thought. Our son liked the film very much, but he and I howled the loudest here. The Vogons are particularly amusing. Their design is terrific and I think there’s a little sensible magic in making the guard’s “Resistance is useless!” such a dull afterthought of a catchphrase. They’re bad-tempered but really lazy, after all.

Hitchhiker’s Guide was one of those unfortunate movies that made a little money, but not enough to justify a sequel. It’s a shame this team couldn’t have taken the story to Milliways and places further on. Maybe we’d have got the Krikkitmen and Fenchurch and the Grebulons… well, probably not Fenchurch. It’s a funny, clever movie with some great visuals, “Journey of the Sorcerer,” John Malkovich, the original BBC Marvin costume, and the beautiful sight of all those bad-tempered and lazy Vogons all becoming incredibly depressed as well.

Plus, now that we’ve seen this movie, Marie can go ahead and read Life, the Universe, and Everything to our son. Just as soon as she finishes the Target novelization of “The Wheel in Space,” anyway.

The Borrowers (2011)

Several months ago, we went out to enjoy Fathom’s presentation of The Secret World of Arrietty. I read a little bit about it on Wikipedia and learned that just one year later, a live-action adaptation of the same source material was made. It’s a BBC movie made in conjunction with NBC / Universal. Was it shown on American TV, I wonder? I’m not sure how I missed this; I keep an eye on Doctor Who news when it isn’t being shown, and I’m sure I would have noticed news stories about Christopher Eccleston starring in a fantasy film like this, but I suppose it just never registered.

Anyway, this is a Christmas movie that features Eccleston as Pod Clock, one of the borrowing little people who live under the floorboards of a nice house in London. While many of the same elements from Mary Norton’s original novels are here in this version – a doll house, a sympathetic young human bean who wants to help, a grandmother who’s obsessed with the little “thieves” – this is a very different take on the adventure from what we saw in Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s animated film. The threat this time isn’t just the grandmother, it’s a lovestruck, fame-obsessed zoologist at a local university and his bloodthirsty graduate assistant.

While there’s a part of me that regrets that Stephen Fry, who plays the professor, doesn’t get much of an opportunity to share any face-off time against Eccleston, I did enjoy this much more urban take on the source material about as much as the pastoral Japanese version. Here, the Clock family is not very far from a large community of Borrowers. There’s a huge group that lives in the long-shuttered City Road Underground station, and after the family is discovered, they can make their way there for help.

They’re discovered after teenaged Arrietty, played by Aisling Loftus in full you-never-let-me-do-anything sixteen years old mode, makes the acquaintance of a Bean, setting everything in motion. Soon enough, her parents are captured, and she has to work with the Bean and another Borrower who knows more about her parents than she does, to rescue them. Our son was really pleased with the shenanigans in the climax, where poor Stephen Fry charges down university corridors chasing after a remote-controlled car. If Disney had made this in the seventies, it would have been Keenan Wynn or Harry Morgan or somebody. The special effects and the accents may change, but there is a formula to a successful kids’ movie, you know?

I thought this was a fine little morning movie, but I did quibble a little at the end. There’s a subplot about a missing coin that’s in the Borrowers’ hands, and I’d have liked it if our one heroic Bean had done them a fair swap for some items of greater value to them – say two big 50p coins in return for the gold sovereign? Perhaps I’m just sensitive to it because our son is hitting the age where trading’s okay. He came home from school this week with an extra bag of somebody’s unwanted Valentine’s sweets in return for some fruit snacks and I’ve been worried for days that the other kid was as satisfied with the deal as he was. Two coins are always better than one when you’re not using them as government-backed legal tender, right?