3 out of 5 stars

As regular readers may know, I wasn’t hugely impressed with Series 11. With only a handful of exceptions, this was a huge step back from the last Capaldi season, suffering from thin characterisation, jeopardy-free plotting, very few novel or exciting concepts, three poorly-defined regulars who stand around doing nothing and a general sense of “Will this do?”. Given the low episode count and lengthy wait, this was crushingly disappointing.

The New Year special managed to address some of these problems. The regulars remained poorly-defined and generally still stood around doing nothing, and the plotting was still relentlessly ordinary, but the reinvention of the Dalek was fun and exciting and there was at least some jeopardy. With another entire year off to get ready for the new season of again only ten episodes, Chibnall and co seemed primed for success.

What we got was… kind of a mess.

I think the biggest problem with the Chibnall era so far, of which much of the foregoing is symptomatic, is an inability to understand how Doctor Who stories typically work and an unwillingness to reinvent them. So, without a solid version of what has worked in the past and without a brand new methodology, what we’re left with is “isn’t that the kind of thing they used to do on Doctor Who?” But the pieces are assembled clumsily, without thought as to how they are meant to fit together.

So, here we have the Doctor working in cahoots with secret government organisations, facing death at the hands of familiar devices gone rogue, working to uncover the secrets of mysterious slayings and the return of an old foe but – with one notable exception – it comes across like teenage fan fiction, rather than the expert storytelling of a master craftsman.

The gulf in approach (and frankly ability) is nowhere better illustrated than in the trio of “where have you been” scenes early in the episode, re-establishing Yas, Graham and the other one. All three have one piece of information to impart and deliver it in the most straightforward, unambitious, mediocre way possible. There’s no twist, there’s no flair, there’s no surprise. There aren’t even any good jokes (in the whole episode). Can you imagine either of Chris Chibnall’s predecessors letting three whole scenes like that trundle tediously by?

And when the story proper starts, it’s more a series of largely unrelated action beats than anything resembling a narrative. The British government kidnaps the Doctor and her companions – more exciting than just phoning her up I suppose – but then it’s those very cars which are themselves (rather feebly) sabotaged by the alien menace. Why? Why doesn’t it attack when they’re out in the open? Why have two different unrelated forces both trying to overpower our heroes, and then put them together in the same vehicle? Why wait for Fancy Guest Star Number One to dole out pages of exposition before offing him also? What does any of it mean?

The alien menace which can execute anyone at anytime then takes most of the rest of the episode off, while the Doctor and co potter about meeting Fancy Guest Star Number Two and Waris Hussein (of whom more later) and the old familiar Chibnall aimless wandering takes over. There are some shreds of interest as the, let’s call them the Voord, circle the house in the Australian outback, but I struggled to find anything of interest in the by-the-numbers tech millionaire’s HQ. And once again, most of the companions stand around doing nothing. Rewrite this episode with Yas talking to Fancy Guest Star Number Two and the Doctor on her own in Australia. Same story isn’t it? And what’s the point of the magic death ray which doesn’t kill you, it just transports you to another place and then when that environment becomes too overwhelming, it transports you to yet another different place? The major threat in this story seems to be less a deadly threat, more a handy short-cut.

When the promised James Bond spoof starts, again it’s the clothes (literally) of the rival franchise which get appropriated rather than any understanding of its appeal and the bullet-spraying bike chase is more absurd than fun. Lost in the whirl of all of this was Jodie Whittaker, who is capable of far more than she was given to work with here. Chibnall writes her largely as generic hero, and occasionally as idiot comic relief. It’s not hugely inspiring.

Just when I was about to write this off as another two-star clunker however, something happened. I’ve rarely seen a supporting character with quite so big a bright neon “I am secretly evil” sign flashing above his head as Waris Hussein has here. But I almost forgot about that in the ridiculous ambition of the plane chase. By this stage, I’d long given up on the story actually making sense or being about anything, but I did appreciate the lengths the production team were going to.

But the reveal that Waris was actually the Master took me completely by surprise, and it’s a testament to the writing (I suppose) and the PR management that I was unspoilered by this. Waris – sorry Sacha Dhawan – is a marvellous actor and his loopy giggling was quite a treat. For that, and that alone, I’ll bump this episode up to three, but I’m still pretty glum about what’s happening to my favourite show. Come at me, haters.

Maybe tonight’s episode will redeem the story. But in general, part ones are easier to write than part twos so…

Pre-Oscars round-up: The Irishman, Marriage Story, Star Wars, Cats
So… what did I think of Spyfall, part two?