TARDIS fam, it’s been a hot minute—or more like a year—since Doctor Who has last graced our screens. After a low-key and seemingly lackluster introduction to Jodie Whittaker’s effervescent incarnation of the Time Lord in Series 11, I was reluctant to jump back in the box. But it seems with the first part of “Spyfall” dropping on New Year’s Day that Chris Chibnall has sorted a lot of things out.
The episode opens a la Mission Impossible with MI6 agents getting knocked off left and right by shape-shifting forms of light. Back in Sheffield, the Thirteenth Doctor’s companions, Ryan, Yaz, and Graham are checking in with work and family before their next outing with the time traveler, only they get intercepted by undercover agents. (“Worst. Uber. Ever.” Thanks, Graham.) The agents come for the Doctor as well, who is busy at getting her best old girl (the TARDIS) back in shape for their next trip.
En route to an undisclosed location, the undercover agent’s car malfunctions in a major way, with the driver getting zapped away and the TARDIS fam close to getting killed, too, and finding out who’s come to collect them—it’s MI6 and they need the Doctor’s help.
Shortly after arriving at headquarters and getting intel and tech from C, the head of MI6 (Stephen Fry in a fantastic cameo), the attacks keep coming, with C getting killed in the process. Thinking on her feet, the Doctor splits the team up to cover the most ground. Yaz and Ryan will go undercover at a San Francisco tech company called VOR, and she and Graham will go to the outback to meet recently fired but alien-savvy MI6 agent O (Sacha Dhawan).
At VOR, Yaz and Ryan pose as a journalist and photographer writing a piece on VOR CEO Daniel Barton (Lenny Henry). They make small talk, get an invite to his birthday party the following day and are able to hide out and get more intel after hours. There’s some weird signs too, with Barton only showing up as 93 percent human, and the light creatures (literally) come out of the woodwork when Barton returns later that night to fetch a bag. After he leaves, Ryan’s ready to retreat but Yaz tries for more info, only to get snatched away and placed in a nowhere land of vine-like cables.
The same aliens are causing a ruckus down under but O’s got them mostly under control since his digs are kitted out with all sorts of tech and booby traps. (He’s also got files on the Doctor, which he tempts Graham to take a peep at later on.) The alien forms come in strong, and when O and the Doctor trap the last one in a glass box, it sputters off a warning before disappearing and replacing itself with a very shaken Yaz.
The TARDIS fam and O try to make sense of the intel they got, and the Doctor finds alien code embedded in one of VOR’s companies but nor the Doctor or the TARDIS can translate it. They dig a little deeper and figure that there are alien spies implanted all over the earth and O reckons they need to find the spymaster (we’ll come back to that later). All MI6 signs point to Barton so the team scrubs up well and hits his birthday party in their best Bond-inspired attire. (“Doctor, the Doctor,” Thirteen beams at check-in. All that’s missing is a Vesper martini.) The Doctor calls Barton out, but he plays dumb before making off, leaving the TARDIS team to follow on motorcycle to an air hanger before they sneak onto one of VOR’s planes.
However, there’s a twist: turns out this was all a goose-chase lead by O, the—WAIT FOR IT—Master. It’s hard to keep a bad Time Lord down, and he is after all the Doctor’s “best enemy.” The Master snatches Thirteen away to the weird nowhere land, leaving the rest of the fam on a crashing plane.
“One last thing you should know before you die…everything you think you know is a lie.”
It feels like Chibnall read the room and took last series’ notes to heart. The episode gets right to the point and raises the stakes. In Series 11, it always felt like the Doctor was protecting her companions and they trusted her implicitly. After Yaz’s trip to the not-upside down, we know there are consequences to traveling with the Doctor and we see the physical and emotional impact they can have. It’s a small but pivotal moment for this TARDIS team. Then there’s O showing off how much her companions don’t know about her and I hope we come back to that now that we know O isn’t so much a fanboy as the ultimate frenemy.
And about that shocker—that was some Russell T Davies plot twist if I ever saw it (I mean, y’all have seen Utopia, right?) It’s only been a couple of series since we last saw Missy as well as John Simm’s Master together so it both feels bold and crazy to bring the Doctor’s oldest and most complex relationship back into the mix so soon. If Chibnall’s smart, he’ll thread it through the whole season instead of the opening two-parter (like other showrunners have done, but in reverse.) It also feels like Chibnall walked the character back a bit as a male incarnation after Michelle Gomez’s lusciously wicked turn as Missy, but Tumblr might actually catch fire if Thirteen and Missy ever met outside the likes of fanfic (The Doctor’s upgrade line was a nice nod to the female time lords Steven Moffat built, though.)
Mix in all the fun James Bond references (Tuxes! Gambling! High-speed chases! The score!) and this was a cracker of an episode from start to finish. It also felt like the characters had more room to breathe, and I was happy to see Yaz get more of the spotlight she was denied last series.
As far as series openers go, I’m shook and counting down till next week’s episode, which will be here in a matter of days. What a way to start 2020 off—now I need a drink, shaken, not stirred.