Friday, March 20, 2020

12.1 Spyfall part 1

You Only Live Thirteen Times

I can tolerate any Doctor Who story no matter how silly, provided Stuff Happens: and in tonight's season opener, stuff never stopped happening. Secret agents killed in the the pre-cred. Yaz, Ryan and Graham kidnapped by the Men in Black in the opening scenes. The kidnappers assassinated by their own sat-nav. Lenny Henry as Evil Steve Jobs. Stephen Fry as -- well, to be honest, Stephen Fry as Stephen Fry. And that's before the plot has really got started. Doctor Who benefits tremendously from 60 minute episodes: this one whizzes past at a full sprint, with each short scene releasing a new plot development into the wild. It is recognisably a Doctor Who story, but it is specifically a Jodie Whitaker Doctor Who story. You couldn't imagine Matt Smith or David Tennant in this one. 

Doctor Who has always been about appropriating imagery from other genres. This isn't merely a spy story; it is very definitely a James Bond story. Something suspiciously like the 007 theme tune plays in the background when our heroes arrive in the MI6 building, and when they leap onto hot-wired motorbikes to chase Lenny Henry's limo. You never expected Doctor Who to do realistic spies or John Le Care spies or even a Daniel Craig version of James Bond. This is a world of smart suits, anesthetic darts and shoe mounted laser guns. You expect Roger Moore to walk in at any moment. 

Spy stories are all about cheating and deception and sneaking around: the Doctor comes back loaded with sonic screwdrivers and psychic paper and a computer which can translate every language in the universe. Yaz and Ryan do their best to crank up the tension when they have to infiltrate the IT magnate's high security corporate offices. Ryan panics and is way out of his depth while Yaz tries to hold things together. But we know that the Doctor will find the answer using pixie dust before the episode ends.

This is a Doctor Who story: so the solution to the mystery is that the spies are being killed by Aliens. The Aliens are killing spies because they want to conquer the world, no, sorry, universe. The Aliens want to conquer the universe because they are Alienses and that is how they roll. 

Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat were both massive Doctor Who fans. But they weren't the kinds of fan which obsessed about the furniture. They wanted to make good TV first and good Doctor Who second. Chibnall's particular kind of fannishness involves laying down a trail of Plot Biscuits and immediately consuming them himself. A good Doctor Who story is one that brings back a famous old enemy. The best Doctor Who story would be one that totally redefined who the Doctor was. 

Some of you may have seen a popular American situation comedy set in the afterlife; and some of you will know that at a certain point there is a major revelation in which one character turns out to be not at all who you thought he was. And when you go back and watch the series again, it is quite clear that this was set up from the beginning. There are hints and "tells" all the way through. 

You may also have read a series of children's books about a training academy for young wizards. In one of those stories, there is a nice teacher who is consistently presented as a nice teacher; who indeed dispenses excellent and wise advise to the protagonist; until the very final scene in which it turns out that the nice teacher had actually spent the whole novel tied up in a cellar while a nasty teacher took his place and was only pretending to be nice. There was no way you could possibly have guessed. This felt so fraudulent as to spoil the rest of the series for me. 

Go back and have a look at the scene in which "O", the retired spy specializing in extraterrestrial stuff, goes into the TARDIS for the first time. He is surprised and full of wonder, just as anyone would be going into the TARDIS for the first time. There are hints that he knows slightly more about the Doctor than he is letting on, but not the slightest hint that he is anything other than he appears. Only in the final scene does Chibnall pull out of thin air the shock revelation that O was the Master all along.  

This is not a convincing narrative development. In fact, it is barely a narrative development at all. The big revelation is not that an apparently nice spy is actually a nasty spy pretending to be nice. The big revelation is that THE MASTER IS BACK; THE MASTER HAS BEEN RECAST; and THE MASTER IS NOW BEING PLAYED BY AN ASIAN ACTOR

So long as you don't care to much about narrative coherence and are thrilled about having a new picture to glue into your "many faces of the master" montage, the last ten minutes of the episode are very well done indeed. Chibnall keeps turning the jeopardy levels higher and higher.

Our heroes get on board Daniel's private jet through a cargo door after it has already taken off! "O", who everyone thought was on our side, is really the Master, who everyone thought was dead!! Daniel isn't piloting the plane after all!!! There is a bomb in the pilot's seat!!!! Surely "will the bomb explode" must be the cliffhanger? But no... Chibnall lays down another plot biscuit. "Everything you think you know is a lie" says the Master!!!!! The bomb goes off!!!!!! And the Doctor is transported to an alien dimension!!!!!!! 

The problem with this kind of story is that the stakes are so high -- both in terms of dead companions, the possible destruction of planet earth, and the Master's promised shocking revelations -- that we doubt if the next episode can possibly live up to them. 

Ryan promises that he will not let Yaz die, which makes her "companion least likely to survive the season." Given her supposed background, it would have been nice if she could have felt a little bit uncomfortable at a party replete with alcohol and gambling.

I'm Andrew. I like God, Doctor Who, Star Wars, Wagner, folk-music and Spider-Man, not necessarily in that order. I have no political opinions of any kind.

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Stephen Watson said...

A colleague remarked it reminded him of the Jon Pertwee era. Appropriate given the dedication.

Mike Taylor said...

What made you decide to start up this process?

Andrew Rilstone said...

are we looking for a harder answer than "because i've suddenly got a lot of free time"?

Mike Taylor said...

Oh yes, that makes sense. (I've not found that effect for myself yet, which is why it didn't occur to me.)