By Devan Coggan
January 05, 2020 at 11:54 PM EST
Credit: James Pardon/BBC Studios/BBC America

If Jodie Whittaker’s first season of Doctor Who was all about forging a new era, this second season is diving headfirst into the show’s sprawling mythology. During the first few episodes of the Thirteenth Doctor’s run, showrunner Chris Chibnall tossed in a fez or two or snuck in an occasional reference to the Slitheen, but mostly he treated season 11 as a reset for the show. Now, with one season done, the two-part season 12 premiere “Spyfall” is going full Who. First, there was the shocking return of the Master, the Doctor’s old nemesis. Now, we’re kicking off what looks like our first season-long arc, one that threatens to reshape the very nature of the show.

That’s right, friends! It’s Gallifrey time!!!

Since the revival in 2005, the Doctor’s poor home planet has been through its fair share of drama. First it was supposedly destroyed in the Time War. Then it turns out that it was hiding in a pocket universe, but inaccessible! And then the Doctor finally made his way to that pocket universe in the excellent Twelfth Doctor two-parter “Heaven Sent/Hell Bent.” Now, the very end of “Spyfall” reveals that the Master has razed it to the ground, setting fire to its great cities and spires. Both the Master and the Doctor have always had a complicated, if not fully adversarial relationship with the ruling Timelords, but the Master says he discovered a secret that shook his very beliefs to the core. “They lied to us,” he tells the Doctor. “The founding fathers of Gallifrey, everything we were told was a lie. We’re not who we think. You or I, the whole existence of our species, built on the lie of the timeless child.” 

There it is again, a cryptic reference to “the timeless child,” first mentioned back in “The Ghost Monument.” It’s fun to have a multi-episode arc again, and I’m a sucker for any sort of climactic, universe-altering plot lines steeped in Whovian lore. (Gallifrey and the Timelords are full ‘70s sci-fi nonsense, what with their crazy robes and mythology, and I’ve always been here for it.) I’m a little wary to see Chibnall burn Gallifrey again, especially after the previous showrunner Steven Moffat spent so much time bringing it back into the show. But we shall see!

I’ve mostly focused on the Gallifrey reveal so far, but the rest of the episode proved to be a solid if slightly scattered adventure story. After the spy-centric shenanigans of part one, this second installment veers into more traditional Who territory, jumping through time and space and introducing a few famous historical faces. Last episode’s cliffhanger is quickly resolved, as the Doctor uses time travel to rescue Yaz, Graham, and Ryan from their impending plane crash. (The Doctor’s prerecorded video message, complete with scripted responses, is a not-so-subtle throwback to the iconic Tenth Doctor episode “Blink.”) Now safely landed, Yaz, Graham, and Ryan spend the rest of the episode trying to stop Daniel Barton’s nefarious plan (with a little help from Graham’s delightful laser shoes). 

The Doctor’s storyline is much meatier. Stranded in time without her TARDIS, the Doctor ping pongs throughout history with the Master hot on her trail in his TARDIS. (Watching his little house swirl through space and time has strong Wizard of Oz vibes.) Along the way, the Doctor picks up a few allies: famous mathematician and early computer programmer Ada Lovelace (Sylvie Briggs) and World War II wireless operator/spy Noor Inayat Khan (Aurora Marion). This frantic historical chase culminates with a Doctor-Master showdown atop the Eiffel Tower in 1943. 

In an episode stuffed with laser shoes, light aliens, and historical cameos, it’s a testament to Whittaker and Sacha Dhawan that the conversations between the Doctor and the Master feel thrilling. Every Doctor and every Master bring their own energy — think of David Tennant facing off against John Simm, or Peter Capaldi and Michelle Gomez — but Whittaker and Dhawan spark from their very first meeting. You can feel the animosity there, with the Master’s rage and the Doctor’s quiet disappointment, but there’s also an affinity, the kind of familiarity that two people can’t help but share when they’ve known each other for centuries. The Doctor has many foes, but no relationship is as personal — or as emotionally fraught — as their history with the Master. 

The strength of the Doctor-Master plot made the Daniel Barton alien storyline feel all the weaker. If you held a tissue compression eliminator to my head and asked me to explain exactly what the aliens (who we learn are called Kasaavins) were hoping to accomplish, the best I can come up with is something about converting people into computers? By using famous historical figures who helped invent those computers? I think? It’s all a bit nebulous, and all the talk about “upgrading” people to the next phase in human evolution just felt like a Cybermen ripoff to me. A trailer released last fall confirmed that this season will feature everyone’s favorite silver menaces, so I spent most of “Spyfall” wondering when the Kasaavins would be revealed as Cybermen in disguise. (With their hazy light form, the Kasaavins look a lot like the Cybermen “ghosts” who took over the world during the Tenth Doctor’s “Army of Ghosts” episode.)

As disappointing as I found the Kasaavin plot, the connection between the Doctor and the Master ultimately redeemed this episode for me. The Thirteenth Doctor has spent most of her time running from her past, keeping her old traumas hidden from Yaz, Ryan, and Graham. The Master’s interference threatens to bring that all bubbling up into the open — along with some things the Doctor may not have even realized she buried. 

TARDIS log notes:

  • While the Doctor and the Master are reminiscing, the Master asks if he ever apologized for the incident at Jodrell Bank — a callback to Tom Baker’s regeneration storyline. There’s also a lovely moment where the pair go “old school” and have a mind-to-mind connection. 
  • I know the Master commanding the Doctor to kneel before him was supposed to feel like a powerful, demeaning moment, but all I could think about was Fleabag
  • It isn’t a Doctor Who episode without at least one great Doctor quote about perseverance and optimism: “These are the dark times. But they don’t sustain. Darkness never sustains, even though sometimes it feels like it might.”

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