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Doctor Who: Spyfall
(2 episodes, s12e01-02, 2020)

Timestamp 294 Spyfall

Custard cream, shaken, not stirred.

Part One

In various locations worldwide – Ivory Coast, over the Pacific Ocean near Tokyo, and Moscow – operatives are attacked by strange creatures that emerge from the walls. Meanwhile, Team TARDIS is getting some much-needed downtime.

Ryan is spending time with his friend Tibo, Yaz is packing for her next trip, Graham visits the doctor for a checkup after a procedure four years prior, and the Doctor has her TARDIS on a garage car lift while she performs maintenance. All of them are interrupted by official-looking men in black suits.

While the team is driven to a mysterious location, a red beam shoots out of the GPS unit and vaporizes the driver. The car then starts acting on its own with an ominous message that everyone inside will die in five seconds. After trying to solve the problem with her sonic screwdriver, the Doctor eventually grabs the rearview mirror and reflects the killer beam back into the GPS. With the program stopped, the Doctor stops the car just before it falls off the roadway.

As the team recovers, a voice identifying as C convinces the Doctor to come to MI6 in London. The team arrives with the TARDIS at Vauxhall Cross and is met by C, who mistakes Graham for the Doctor because of the extensive files on the Time Lord. The Doctor quips that she’s had an upgrade and C tells her that he’s been authorized by every security agency around the world to ask for her help.

Intelligence officers worldwide have been attacked. Their DNA has been rewritten, leaving the body as a shell to hold whatever remains. C offers the team some briefcases of spy equipment and a dossier on Daniel Barton, the founder of VOR, a modern technology company that is more powerful than most nations. The Doctor asks for C’s best man, someone named O, but C has fired him because UNIT and Torchwood can handle things.

Unfortunately, those organizations are no longer viable options, so the Doctor sends a voicemail to O to get his location. She receives a fish image in reply, and soon after, C is killed by a sniper. Aliens begin phasing through the walls and the team runs for the TARDIS.

The Doctor uses the steganography of the fish picture to track the agent to the Australian Outback. They escape just in time as one of the beings was phasing into the TARDIS, something that the Doctor didn’t know was possible. The Doctor decides to send Yaz and Ryan to VOR while she and Graham meet with O.

Yaz and Ryan head to San Francisco while posing as journalists to meet with Daniel Barton. Yaz uses a bioscanner and Ryan duplicates Barton’s badge with his spy equipment. The interview is cut short by a phone call, but Barton invites them to his birthday party tomorrow to get a better profile of him. Yaz is concerned because the bioscanner shows that Barton is only 97% human.

Meanwhile, the Doctor and Graham are met by O and agents Seesay and Browning. Inside the house, they discuss the situation and O’s history of chasing alien incursions, but O is cautious because the threat will likely follow her. Later that night, the movement sensors start tripping. Luminescent figures attack the two agents and surround the house, and O’s security field takes out all of them but one. The last one enters the house and is trapped by a glass cage. When it speaks to the Doctor, it says that it is from far beyond her understanding. It’s also ready to take over the universe.

Yaz and Ryan use Barton’s security credentials to access his office. As Yaz copies his laptop drive, Barton returns, forcing the amateur spies to hide. He tells two glowing figures to show themselves and then discusses a project before Barton leaves. As Ryan and Yaz get ready to leave, another glowing figure attacks Yaz and makes her disappear. Ryan is left with no option but to run.

Yaz wakes up alone in an alien landscape filled with giant stalks. As the Doctor and Ryan interact with the glowing creatures, Yaz is surrounded by white light and transported to the glass cage at O’s house. As Ryan calls the Doctor, she gathers the team. The next morning, Ryan comforts Yaz while O discusses Graham’s knowledge of the Doctor. The Doctor finds alien code in Barton’s system files that reveals the intruders’ locations around the world. O recommends taking their concerns directly to Barton at his birthday party.

Joined by O, the team takes the TARDIS to Barton’s home. They don dinner jackets and hack the guest list, but when they go inside, Barton receives the footage from Yaz and Ryan’s sneaking about. The Doctor confronts Barton, but Barton denies everything before leaving in a car. The Doctor, Graham, and Yaz pursue on motorcycles with Ryan and O as passengers. Barton shoots at them and escapes to his private jet, but the group hides in the hangar with the plan to jump onboard.

O claims that he was never a good runner, but the Doctor calls his bluff. The O that she knows was a champion sprinter. Once they board the plane, O reveals that he has been the spymaster all along.

Or rather, the spy… Master.

The Doctor’s old friend and enemy took O’s form – killed him on his first day at MI6 and shrunk him – and has been controlling Barton and the aliens. His house is his TARDIS, Barton has vanished, and a sonic-proof bomb counts down in the cockpit.

The Master summons two of the aliens as the bomb explodes. The plane plummets to the ground and the Doctor tells her that everything she knows is a lie. The aliens teleport him away, taking the Doctor with them in a surprise move, and leave the companions to die.

Part Two

The Doctor wakes up in the alien dimension and tries not to panic. On the plane, the companions are panicking, but Ryan discovers several plaques with his name on them under the seats. He follows them to a guide titled “How to Land a Plane Without a Cockpit” and shows it to the others. They find a video guide produced by the Doctor that leads to an app on Ryan’s phone that allows them to steer the plane to safety.

The Doctor finds a woman dressed in early 19th-century clothes named Ada. Ada believes that she’s dreaming while paralyzed in the real world, and she’s been here many times before. She mentions a name – Kasaavin – and one of the beings appears. Ada offers to take the Doctor with her, and they grasp hands and vanish.

In his TARDIS, the Master calls Barton about the success of their plan. Barton is notified that his damaged plane is about to land. The Master promises to find the Doctor while Barton takes care of the companions.

The Doctor and Ava arrive at a science convention in London, 1834. The Doctor vows to find her companions and then attempts to explain herself to Ava. They are interrupted by the Master as he blusters into the convention and starts shrinking people with his Tissue Compression Eliminator. The Doctor reveals herself and the Master forces her to kneel before him. He reveals that he knows almost nothing about the creatures except general interests and a name: Kasaavin.

The Master offers news from home, but Ada shoots him in the arm with a steam machine gun. The two women escape.

The companions decide to follow Barton to his next engagement in London, but Barton uses their phones and profiles to make them public enemies. Ryan destroys their phones and they run.

The Doctor and Ada meet up with a colleague, the polymath Charles Babbage with his difference engine, and the Doctor realizes that her friend is the future computer scientist Ada Lovelace. Babbage has a statue called the Silver Lady that has projected the Kasaavin to Ada since she was young. The plan is to place spies throughout Earth’s history. The Doctor uses her sonic screwdriver on the statue to summon a Kasaavin. The Doctor plans to use it to return to the 21st century, but Ada grabs her hand at the last moment and tags along for the ride.

The companions take refuge in an abandoned construction site as they plan their next moves. They also discuss the Doctor and what they know about her. When the Kasaavin appear, the companions use what remains of their spy gadgets to defend themselves.

The Doctor and Ada appear in Paris, 1943, in the middle of a bombing raid. They hide with another woman as the Master arrives in a German army uniform. The woman – Noor Unayat Khan, the first female radio operator to be placed behind enemy lines – hides the Doctor and Ada under the floorboards while the Master and his troops search her residence. Ada’s presence is what dragged the Doctor to this time and place. What lies ahead is an enormous task.

In the modern day, Barton and the Silver Lady stand before an older woman tied to a chair. She’s Barton’s mother and he wanted to see her on “the last day.” The statue activates and the Kasaavin surround her as she screams. Elsewhere, Yaz uses a phone box to call home. The call is tracked by VOR, but that was the plan all along. Holding the VOR agents at bay with a laser shoe, the companions steal their phones and escape in their car. Unfortunately, they later discover Barton’s dead mother and a message that they’re too late to stop his plan.

The Doctor uses Noor’s telegraph to tap out a four-beat code. It signals the Master and the two Time Lords make telepathic contact. They promise to meet up alone at the Eiffel Tower. The Master reveals that he’s using a perception filter to fool the Nazis before admitting to hijacking the agency car and killing C. He didn’t bring the Kasaavin to Earth, but rather suggested a different plan for the spies on Earth. That plan is to eliminate the human race and then dispose of the Kasaavin.

The Master also claims to have visited Gallifrey in its little bubble universe. It has been burned to the ground.

The Nazis arrive, having been tipped off about the Master acting as a double agent by Noor. The Doctor jams the perception filter and leaves as the soldiers turn on him. The Doctor joins Ada and Noor at the Master’s TARDIS, armed with the understanding that the Kasaavin have been tracking people who worked in the development of computer science.

Back to the modern day, Barton delivers a speech thanking the public for giving him all of their information. He sends a text – “Humanity is over. You have three minutes to prepare.” – and explains that humans will make perfect hard drives. The Silver Lady summons the Kasaavin as Barton prepares to wipe humanity’s DNA for use as data storage.

The companions arrive but are unable to stop the Silver Lady. The Master also arrives, angry at having to live for 77 years on Earth. Surprisingly, the Silver Lady stops and Barton runs into hiding. The Doctor enters the room with Ada and Noor, revealing that she knew that Barton would use the statue so she re-engineered it to shut down at a mass Kasaavin gathering. She plays the Master’s plan – in his own words – to double-cross them, and the Kasaavin swarm the Master. He screams as he is teleported away.

The Doctor promises to explain everything and returns Noor and Ada to their proper times after wiping herself from their memories. She also plants the instructions for Ryan to pilot the plane. Finally, the Doctor travels to Gallifrey.

The Capitol has been destroyed. As the city burns, a geo-activated holographic message from the Master is triggered. He reveals that he razed the planet, furious that the whole existence of their species was built on the lie of the Timeless Child. The words spark an image in the Doctor’s mind of a young girl standing by a tower. It’s a vision hidden in all Gallifreyans, but the Master refuses to make it easy for the Doctor.

Days later, the companions have visited five planets with the Doctor. They demand to know about her, so she opens up about her home, why she travels, and her relationship with the Master. Yaz asks if they can visit Gallifrey, but the Doctor replies, “Another time.”

This entire story is an obvious parody and homage to the spy genre, specifically the James Bond franchise. From the single-letter pseudonyms and the hyperbolic gadgets to the names with double meanings – Agents Seesay and Browning are obviously nods to the “See Something, Say Something” (SeeSay) mantra that evolved after September 11, 2001 and the Browning Arms Company, the latter of which ties back to Nazis with Hanns Johst’s propaganda play Schlageter – this story is packed with references. It even includes some deus ex machina hand-waving conveniences to get our heroes out of jams.

For that alone, I loved it. But then we get Sacha Dawan as the Master. The performance is amazing on its own, but the demeanor shift when he drops his disguise is perhaps the most brilliant part. He turns on a dime from sane and reasonable to off-his-rocker batshit crazy. The return of the Master is why this story in particular is dedicated to Terrance Dicks, the script editor for the character’s debut in Terror of the Autons. Terrance Dicks was one of Doctor Who‘s most prolific writers, from novels and episode novelizations, and was the editor for the Troughton and Pertwee eras. He died on August 29, 2019.

Specifically, Spyfall nods to a few James Bond properties: The title comes from 2012’s Skyfall; the themes of gambling and aristocracy hail from the 1953 novel Casino Royale; the plane sequence can point back to 1964’s Goldfinger; and the car sequence is derived from Live and Let Die from 1973.

This adventure marks a departure from the impenetrable TARDIS that we’re used to, showcasing the first time that a villain has been able to physically break through the TARDIS doors. We’ve seen other things do the same, most recently in Kerblam!, and no explanation was provided. It just… happened.

I was also not happy with the mind-wipe for the historical figures. Sure, I get why it was necessary to preserve history, but it still didn’t sit well. Those two downer items and the usual rapid ending aside, I really enjoyed this adventure. The writing was a bit more engaging and the overall production was fun.

Rating: 5/5 – “Fantastic!”

UP NEXT – Doctor Who: Orphan 55


The Timestamps Project is an adventure through the televised universe of Doctor Who, story by story, from the beginning of the franchise. For more reviews like this one, please visit the project’s page at Creative Criticality.

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