Spyfall Part One.
TV Happy New Year! Blimey, blimey, blimey, blimey, blimey. Did I see that coming? Put it this way, as the fam were arriving at the casino party, I was guessing that the big shock would be that Graham and Ryan would be leaving at the end of the story (Sheffield 2020!) with O revealing his full name and joining the Doctor and Yas as the new companion. Instead, somehow, in this social media saturated environment and despite the preview screening at the BFI we have this Masterful reveal of such audacity that even as Adele thrums along in the background as I write, I still don't quite believe it and am looking for reasons why this might be a bluff, that it isn't quite the Master.
Up until that point Spyfall is an above average example of a Doctor Who romp in the Chibnall era referencing on a modern genre. It's fine. There are riffs on the gadgets and gambling and the other furniture of the Bond films wrapped up in a slightly tortured explanation as to why MI6 are investigating this alien threat because for reasons I hope are explained more thoroughly UNIT and Torchwood have folded ("The Twenty-first Century is when everything changes and we gotta be ready .... so long as our funding remains intact ..."). Who's in charge of the Black Archive now? The Zygon refugees? Sorry, I seem to have strayed off point and it's only the second paragraph.
The apparently trans-dimensional aliens are pretty intriguing fodder, their brilliant white form almost luminous enough to create screen burn, their basic silhouette somewhat giving away the notion that they're spies from another universe. Who are they? Chibnall's clever enough on this occasion to keep that reveal until the second half of the story which is just the sort of thing you can do when you're making stories with multiple episodes. If they're not a manifestation of the Faction Paradox or the Toclafane, they're probably something entirely new. Unless they're the Cybermen from Pete's World again ("Listen to me Den Watts. I don't care if you have come back from the grave, get out of my pub!"). Or they're just killer dandruff from the planet Hairfollical.
The biggest surprise is the scale. Where once, three chunks of studio floor and ingenious set design would allow the Doctor and his companions to criss-cross the globe now the show's budget seems to be able to stretch to feature a dozen locations worthy of a Futura Extra Bold caption, even if a couple were probably filmed on consecutive days in South Africa. This is now a show with the confidence to hire Stephen Fry for what pre-publicity implied would be a huge role only to have him killed off very early on. Even the Davies era, having a Fry in the cast would be more than enough but here Lenny Henry too as the false antagonist. As far as we can tell.
There's also numerous course corrections. The Doctor has far more agency within scenes, proper close-ups without quite so many moments in which the focus remains on the reaction of her friends to her goofiness. Unlike previous stories, the characters bifurcate into their own storylines rather than all following a single narrative thread, albeit motivated by a mission mentality rather than because of a kidnapping or poorly timed forcefield or some such. Chris Chibnall's writing has also become fairly self aware, with amongst other things Graham's tendency to narrate everything enunciated, albeit for reasons to do with providing the viewer something to notice in a rewatch when they're scrutinising everything for tell tale signs.
But then, stellar. Absolutely fandabidozi. Everything about the introduction of this new incarnation of the Master is machine tooled for maximum effect. Sacha Darwin is already a fan favourite thanks to frequent collaboration with Mark Gatiss, notably his casting as Waris Hussein in An Adventure in Space and Time, so having him as the surprise special guest already seems like a big enough post-Christmas present. Locking him into the story as a previous acquaintance of the Doctor during some unseen adventure further transports him into the friend's zone. Did anyone else spend half their time trying to remember if Darwin had indeed appeared as this character in some previous story in such a minor role that we'd forgotten?
My favourite part of the reveal is that the Doctor's only at about stage one of her suspicion and the Master just assumed she'll get there eventually so why wait? As with Missy, it's not entirely clear how he's able to mask his identity given that Time Lords are supposed have a "feeling", but that's been less than a vague notion since his completely new regenerative cycle. Plus we haven't yet had an explanation as to how he survived the ark ship at the close of business on The Doctor Falls, how he was able to regenerate and how he managed to take O's form and in some ways I don't want to know. One of the best elements of the classic series was that the Master just survived. How exactly he got out of Castrovalva, the Planet of the Ogrons or Lanzarote was besides the point.
While Davos in Iron Fist called upon Darwin to give a rather one-dimensional callousness which wouldn't necessarily suggest him as an obvious replacement for Michelle Gomez (assuming he isn't some earlier previously unseen incarnation), his performance is extraordinary, channeling the manic camp energy of Ainley and Simm (and Jacobi in the audios) rather than the avuncular logic of Delgado. It's early days, but arguably these few minutes are as ballsy and rewatchable as Tennant's introduction as the Doctor during The Christmas Invasion, so brilliantly does he nail the lunacy of the character. Now that the jellicle has the escaped the receptacle, I can't wait for him and Jodie to be properly locking their Northern vowel sounds.
Is he a Master from an alternative universe, rather like Mark Gatiss in the Big Finish Unbound episodes with the various earths overlapping with one another an indication of some kind of multiversal crisis? That would explain why the Doctor doesn't sense his presence. When he says to her "Everything you think you know .... is a lie ..." does he mean since the start of this story or earlier? Was she already in some kind of alternative reality were UNIT and Torchwood had much less influence anyway? Or is it simply that Yas has been replaced by an imposter or sleeper agent? Will all of this be resolved in the next episode or are we going to have a season long arc? Wow.