By Devan Coggan
January 02, 2020 at 07:56 PM EST
Ben Blackall/BBC Studios/BBC America

Is there any TV show as self-aware of its own traditions as Doctor Who? Ever since we first encountered the renegade Time Lord and his TARDIS in 1963, the series has been obsessed with its own trappings and legacy. The revival alone is now entering its 12th season, and by now, it’s well versed in its own established rules and traditions. Sometimes the show upholds those traditions, sprinkling in playful callbacks and picking up plot points from decades long past. And sometimes the show smashes those traditions to smithereens. With more than 50 years of storytelling under its belt, Doctor Who is distinctly aware of where it’s been — and where it might go next.

The Thirteenth Doctor’s run has been particularly willing to deviate and explore new things. Last season, showrunner Chris Chibnall vowed to deliver a new take on the Doctor, replacing the traditional single companion with a gaggle of three and eschewing familiar baddies for new foes. Even the show’s hero got a makeover, with Jodie Whittaker stepping in as the much-welcome first female Doctor. Chibnall also chose to give the customary Christmas special the boot, instead delivering a zippy New Year’s special (which also brought back the show’s most famous villains, the Daleks).

Now, the show is ringing in 2020 with another New Year’s episode, proving that it isn’t afraid to honor its roots while also forging a few new traditions. “Spyfall Part One” is a brisk adventure yarn, marrying a familiar alien investigation story with a throwback spy thriller. And indeed, the entire episode feels like a particularly goofy James Bond installment, from the winking title to the lingering shots of a roulette wheel. After a brief check-in with each of the companions — Graham (Bradley Walsh), Yasmin (Mandip Gill), and Ryan (Tosin Cole) —  we’re immediately thrown into the Doctor’s latest escapade, complete with menacing men in black and cars shooting laser bolts.

It’s special guest star Stephen Fry, playing an MI6 agent named C, who explains the central mystery. Strange beings of light have been targeting intelligence agents around the world, stripping them of their DNA and rewriting them into… something else. The Doctor and her “fam” — I love that she’s settled on “fam” — snag a few fancy MI6 gadgets and set out to investigate.

Yaz and Ryan jet off to San Francisco to tail a sinister-seeming tech bigwig named Daniel Barton (Lenny Henry), the founder of Vor. The ridiculously named startup is essentially every Silicon Valley powerhouse wrapped into one, dabbling in data, search engines, and personal information. Henry plays Barton with a sort of cold, brusque Zuckerberg-ness, and Yaz and Ryan soon discover that he’s in league with the creepy, wall-melting aliens. A DNA scan also reveals that he himself is only 93 percent human. (Personally, I wouldn’t be surprised if most real-life tech billionaires were only partially human.)

Meanwhile, the Doctor and Graham travel to the remote Australian outback to get some intel from O (Sacha Dhawan), a former MI6 agent whom the Doctor encountered once before. Dhawan plays O as a sort of geeky outcast, the Fox Mulder of MI6 who’s ridiculed for his alien obsession.

This, perhaps, is the most baffling part of the entire episode. Doctor Who has always been murky about exactly how much people know and/or remember about aliens in the 21st century. Every few years, Daleks destroy Cardiff or Cybermen pop up across the globe, and then, through some sort of timey-wimey shenanigans, we all pretty much forget about it. (Honestly, I like to believe that the Doctor really has saved us from countless Dalek invasions, but none of us remember because of general time vortex nonsense.)

The show has established that the British government’s main alien-fighting organizations, UNIT and Torchwood, are no longer active. But it’s hard to imagine the major world powers wouldn’t have some sort of extraterrestrial backup plan. Fry’s C scoffs at the idea that intergalactic powers are a major global threat, but this is the show that made Queen Victoria a werewolf! Aliens are real, and the British government already knows about it!!!

It’s also unclear as to why the Doctor would, when faced with a massive global invasion, turn to a seemingly powerless MI6 agent we’ve never met before, instead of, oh, say, Kate Lethbridge-Stewart or one of her other major government allies. And ultimately, the Doctor’s reliance on O turns out to be her downfall.

That’s right: In the final moments of the episode, the likably geeky O reveals himself to be one of the Doctor’s oldest foes, the Master. We last saw the ageless homicidal maniac during Peter Capaldi’s run, when two of the Master’s most iconic iterations (played by John Simm and Michelle Gomez) teamed up. It’s unclear exactly how the Master has returned or what he has up his sleeve, but as he cautions the Doctor, “Everything you think you know is a lie.” Gomez’s Missy ultimately redeemed herself and proved to be almost an ally to the Doctor before her death; does Dhawan’s O carry any of Missy’s memories? Or could he be an incarnation from before?

As Master reveals go, this one felt a little anticlimactic. Past versions played by Simm or Gomez always had a flair for drama, and when they were introduced, there was a sense of a grander plan in the storytelling — little clues laid throughout the episodes leading up to a Big Reveal™. Think of the Harold Saxon posters sprinkled throughout the Tenth Doctor’s run, or the cryptic dispatches from Missy before she revealed her identity. The Master may be unhinged and frequently homicidal, but he or she can also be devastatingly patient, willing to wait out a plan for months or even years.

“Spyfall Part One” tries to do something similar, revealing that O has been posing as an MI6 agent for years, all to get close to the Doctor and enact some grand — excuse the pun — master plan. The Doctor is obviously shocked, but for the audience, it’s not a particularly satisfying discovery. We only met O about a half-hour ago, so there isn’t the same sense of mystery and betrayal.

Still, it’s fun to watch Dhawan flip the switch from mild-mannered alien enthusiast to preening intergalactic criminal. Many of the Doctor’s most famous foes are notorious for their lack of emotion, particularly the Daleks and the Cybermen, but the Master is all about emotion. Dhawan seems to be having a blast, swanning about a crashing jet plane and delivering a juicy monologue about his evil plans. The episode ends with Yaz, Graham, and Ryan trapped aboard a plummeting plane, and the Doctor transported somewhere sinister. Whatever the Master’s evil plan may be, we’ll have to wait and find out.

TARDIS log notes:

  • The Master dispatched with the real O by using his tissue compression eliminator to shrink him down to the size of a matchstick — a fun throwback to a classic Who weapon.
  • “Spyfall” is actually the first two-parter of Chris Chibnall’s run. We’ll, of course, have to wait and see whether part two sticks the landing, but I, for one, love a good Who cliffhanger.
  • Sacha Dhawan actually has a prior Whovian history: He starred as director Waris Hussein in the 2013 TV special An Adventure in Space and Time, about the origins of Doctor Who. It’s a delightful look back at the series’ origins, and it’s worth the watch for any Who fan.
  • Fry’s C initially greets Graham as the Doctor, saying, “I’ve read the files, the Doctor is a man.” The Doctor’s reply? “I’ve had an upgrade.”
  • Just going on record to say that I am extremely into the Doctor’s formal party-crashing look, from the capri pants to the bow tie. At least one of her prior incarnations would find her outfit very, very cool. 

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