Doctor Who: Spyfall part one

I’ve been a regular viewer of DOCTOR WHO since around 1981, starting with Tom Baker (his first three seasons, which were ubiquitous here in the U.S. for many years) and I’ve watched it regularly and continuously since then–albeit with the huge gap in the middle that everybody suffered through in the 90s. In my household, a new season of DOCTOR WHO starting up is something of an event. And so, looking around for new and different things to do here on this page, I thought for a change that I’d post my impressions of the new season in real time, every week. I don’t see these as being reviews per se, though they’ll no doubt veer in that direction at points. But I don’t think what I’ll be writing will ever be quite as organized as a proper review would be. Like most of what I do here, I’m going to try to shoot from the hip and fly by the seat of my pants. And hopefully, some of you will find something of value in it. If not, well, it’s not a very long season, so it will all be over soon. And, hey, you made it through the entire series of STAR BLAZERS, dealing with this should be much simpler. If noting else, it’ll all be over sooner.

So, SPYFALL part one. I liked it, didn’t love it, which feels like damning with faint praise. As with the previous season, the show is looking great visually and sounding great–it feels like a real and proper modern television program now, a direction its been moving in for several years (it’s a bit shocking to do back and look at Christopher Eccleston’s season now and how phony and low rent it looks–at the time, that was as good as DOCTOR WHO ad ever come across.) I like the cast, though I have my quibbles with the characters and the way they’re being approached.

The best moments with the cast were those in which they got to interact with one another, and we got a sense that these were all people who had lives apart from being on a daffy science fiction series. All of the introductions were good, and helped to ground these people. The exchange where Ryan and Yaz banter about the fact that Yaz hasn’t given her sister Ryan’s phone number was great, more like this, please. In those moments, these people felt like people to me. Far too often–and it’s a bit of a condemnation given that they’ve had a whole season prior to this to work on this–I’ve felt as though this cast was pretty interchangeable. Te most well-drawn of them all has been Graham, but he’s got the easy hook of being the older bloke. But in any given episode, I’ve felt as though you could switch all of the Ryan and Yaz dialogue and you wouldn’t really have to rewrite it. They need more moments where they can shine as individuals. Say all you like about Amy and Rory and Clara and Martha and Rose and Donna and Bill, but I feel as though they all became relatively distinctive relatively quickly. I want to like these people, but in order for me to do so, they need to start acting more like people and less like a piece of a storytelling engine.

I also don’t feel as though the current series structure works right. I like and appreciate the idea that Yaz, Ryan and Graham have regular human lives which include jobs and friends and responsibilities that they are in no way able to walk away from or turn their back on. I applaud that–it helps to make those characters feel fully realized. But the part I don’t buy is the Doctor hanging around in Sheffield waiting for everybody’s day to be done so that they can go have adventures. That feels entirely too sedentary for the character to me (and yes, Jon Pertwee did it, but he had no choice–he was in exile. The second he got his dematerialization codes back, he was off onto the open road.) You could make the same argument of Matt Smith/Peter Capaldi and Clara, except there I got the distinct sense (even if the show never came right out and clearly stated it) that the Doctor would drop her off on Monday morning for work, swing back into the Tardis, immediately jump to Friday at 5:00 and pick her up again only seconds later from is point of view. Or, alternately, he’d go off and have years, decades worth of adventures on his own until he remembered to stop back off for her. The Doctor as a homebody feels wrong to me.

The other flaw that I think the current series hasn’t yet overcome is that they keep forgetting to make the Doctor the hero. Now, granted, the previous regime had its trouble with this concept from time to time as well, but maybe it’s the size of the cast, but I rarely get the sense that the Doctor is driving the story at any point. And that’s a pretty key bit to be leaving out. These people all around her are wild about her and are impressed by her, so we need to see her doing things that are impressive and that make us love and respect her in the same way. In SPYFALL, in the opening sequence with the runaway car, I felt as tough the Doctor was no more effective than any of the three other companions for most of it–she was just as flat-footed, she was just as planless. And yes, she solved the problem by using the rear view mirror, but it felt like it took forever to get to that point, and also like something that any one of the others might have done if they had happened to have been sitting in the front seat instead. I don’t need the Doctor to solve everything, but I would like to see her solve something. By the time we got to the episode’s end, and the Doctor couldn’t come up with a single thing to do about a conventional explosive on board a regular human plane once the sonic screwdriver was ineffective, I about wanted to smash my head against the screen. And especially since the Master (or the mysterious light-beings) zap the Doctor away before she can act anyway, would it have hurt for her to have had the makings of some sort of a plan?

Speaking of the Master, those last ten minutes or so completely snookered me. I didn’t see it coming. Partly, I think, that was due to the fact that I kept waiting for the glowy aliens to be revealed as the Cybermen, whose silhouette they resemble, so I was looking for the villain in the wrong place. And that reveal immediately ramped up the interest level, especially when it comes to giving the new Fam insight into who and what the Doctor is and what she’s done over the course of her 2,000 years. Tons of potential there. And also the potential to see her holding her own against her own Moriarity. Sacha Dhawan was really fun in the role for the little bit of time we got to see him out in the open, and I look forward to seeing more in a few days.

So, bottom line impression: it was a decent outing but not a spectacular one, but there are some markers towards the right direction in evidence. It also feels good that the show is beginning to touch on its mythology a bit again (though I am a little bit worried concerning the Master’s pronouncement that everything that the Doctor thinks she knows is wrong–I don’t know that a wholesale upsetting of the apple cart is the best idea here. Still, let’s see what they’ve got in mind.) For a while, especially towards the end of the Capaldi/Moffat era, it did begin to feel as though the show was spending a bit too much time staring at its own history and backstory, for all that I both appreciated and enjoyed most of those moments. So I was all for going to new places and seeing new things last series–I just wish that I had found more of those places and tings to be a bit more interesting. Here’s hoping that things can strike a nicer balance this time out.

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