Spyfall 1: It’s the End of the World as We Know It

Part 1: A Doctor Who Parody

For all its satire and playing around in other genres, Doctor Who has historically refrained from doing straightforward, sustained parody of a specific other work. While there’s a long history of the show as the subject of parody, from Spike Milligan to Robot Chicken, there are scant few examples of the show actually parodying other stuff — 2016’s Superman spoof The Return of Doctor Mysterio and 2008’s Agatha Christie love-letter The Unicorn and the Wasp being pretty much it — but still it feels so obvious it’s bordering on overdue that in 2020, with Series 12’s opening two-part epic “Spyfall, Doctor Who is finally doing James Bond.

Who’s send-up of Bond was a long time coming; it’s a longstanding, deeply unserious British institution with high stakes, silly villains, and a questionable history of sexual politics. So clearly ripe is it for crossover that by the time they got round to it, “James Bond is a Time Lord” was already a cliché. And while one might question the sense in trying to parody a franchise like Bond that is already itself a parody of more po-faced spy movies (no offense to the Powers that be), the current crop of Daniel Craig films take themselves seriously enough that there’s probably no better time to attempt it.

Which is all to say that I reckon this is a good idea for an episode.

But looking through the haze of recognisable iconography — there’s spies and gambling, betrayals and set pieces, everyone changes into tuxedos and there’s some Bond-flavoured music for five seconds — the parody itself is just bare-minimum, surface-level, thrice-recycled aesthetic riffing. And parody is more than just wearing another fiction’s skin.

The real trick in media from one genre parodying that from another is synthesising and subverting the key elements of both, and there’s several ideas in Spyfall that show a real understanding of this, like using the biggest, baddest, campiest, disguise-y-est character in Who as your Bond Villain, or the near-miss comparison between MI5 and social media as trusted institutions we’ve allowed to spy on us, or using time travel to cheat a no-way-out death-trap cliffhanger. And in this first episode in isolation, these connections are smart, and sharp, and brimming with potential to be developed on next week. By the end of this part-one, the stakes are as literally sky-high as the mashup naturally demands; the Who tradition of dramatic, if reliably inauthentic cliffhangers marry well with the Bond staple of incredible, unbelievable spectacle.

But Spyfall isn’t actually a Bond parody. Not really. It’s got the bowties and the single-letter codenames, but it doesn’t have anything to say about Bond, or about spying, despite how close it comes to drawing some comparison between the secret service and the social network. There’s no subversion of the classic tropes, just wholesale copies. None of the syntheses pan out to anything more than a pallet swap. I mean, there’s barely three Bond jokes in the whole story.

But Spyfall is still a parody.

It’s a parody of Doctor Who.

In the same fashion that, as many have pointed out, “Spyfall” doesn’t work as a pun because it’s punning spies against spies, Spyfall is parodying Doctor Who against Doctor Who.

In terms of pure pastiche, there are a number of iterations on established Who ideas that somebody less generous than myself could describe as ‘copied’: there’s murderous satnavs from The Sontaran Stratagem; interdimensional aliens that climb out of walls, taking their image from Flatline; our main characters sent on-the-run when the villain phones them up and puts their wanted faces on the news as in The Sound of Drums, an impossible pre-recorded conversation with the Doctor from Blink and many more besides. Even the structure of the story (a bombastic, 2-part, globe-trotting opener where the companions are rounded up to work with a secret service) is noticeably similar to The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon and The Magician’s Apprentice/Witch’s Familiar. This might sound like nit-picking, but watching the episode, it is striking. Just look:

But, fascinatingly, the episode also cribs beats from actual Doctor Who Parodies. Between “77 years in a sodding post-war Europe,” and “I went back and bribed the aeronautical engineer,” (not direct quotes, probably) Spyfall takes strong inspiration from the Steven Moffat-penned 1999 Comic Relief sketch-episode The Curse of Fatal Death. In the original version of these borrowed beats — the Doctor surviving mortal danger by deciding to time travel back and set up a way out of the current situation, the Master getting stranded in the past and reappearing in the present, having got here the long way round — is poking good-humoured fun at the lazy corner-cutting invited by time travel storytelling.

Both episodes have tautological titles, too.

But there’s a reason why Moffat didn’t import these gimmicks so directly as this when he made showrunner in 2010, despite flirting with and iterating on the concepts behind them across his run: they’re inherently parodical in such a way that deflates the drama. Compare the way “reading the script” is used as a cheap gag in films like Space Balls, The Muppet Movie, Men in Tights to The Angels Take Manhattan, where it costs consequence. Spyfall‘s use fits much more neatly amongst the first three.

And other features of the show turn self-parody, too. The Master is reverted to a simpler, more cackling version of the character than we’ve seen over recent years and reveals his identity in an incomprehensible twist based on information we never knew being disproved, like what you would do if you were lampooning the character.

Several celebrities, both actors (Lenny Henry, Stephen Fry) and historical figures (Ada Lovelace, Noor Inayat Kahn), appear for what seems like no other reason than to be able to say that they are in the episode. Because this brand of big name actor and historical figure are the sorta thing Doctor Who does. Steven Fry, with his history of so often almost working on the show, getting shot in the head after a single scene is hard to read as anything other than a weird joke. Lenny Henry literally starred in a Doctor Who parody (which includes, I believe, the first ‘fixing the TARDIS like a car’ gag, which itself turns up in this episode). There’s a deep sense of cynicism in everything Spyfall does, but like with Bond, not one that’s used for self-deprecation or comedy at all. So we might begin to wonder why Who is so inward-looking.

And then we get to the end of the episode…

Part 2: ‘Narrative Collapse’

Much like 2015’s Spectre which was, at the time of Spyfall‘s airing, the most recent James Bond film released, Doctor Who suddenly starts hinting towards at a hither-to unknown backstory for its lead. This will, obviously, be a recurring topic across the series, but for now, the idea exists only as a threat. The ultimate threat. Forget planes falling from the sky. This is what you’re actually afraid of.

Across her writing on Who, Elizabeth Sandifer describes Narrative Collapse, an idea which will play a starring role in this series going forward. It refers to the point at which something happens in the story that makes it impossible for it to keep being told. It’s more than just the characters dying, it’s some fundamental, existential shift that changes everything to such a degree that the show can’t keep being made. James Bond can be shot, stabbed, and exploded, but none of that is as big a deal as him falling happily and permanently in love; when Bond gets married, the narrative collapses. Those are the real stakes laid out in Spyfall 1, and they hang over the series going forwards. Doctor Who is going to tell us something about itself that changes everything.

If you’ve been following showrunner Chris Chibnall’s earlier work on Who, this is a familiar idea. His series of Torchwood plays a very similar beat in a similar way, Jack’s time-travelling dark-mirror pops up at the beginning of the series to hang the momentousness of the upcoming finale over us and then disappear until the cliffhanger of the penultimate episode, bringing death, destruction, and new revelations about Jack’s early life.

Now, Who is an interesting show to threaten with narrative collapse, because while it certainly has its staples and formulas, the old cliché is true: change is built into the show and there’s not much it couldn’t survive so long as you have people to make it. Torchwood is a very different beast in that it can’t regenerate, it can only decay — the characters die off, one by one, and instead of being recast (like the Doctor) or replaced (like companions) the team just shrinks and rots until it doesn’t exist at all — so all else aside, Torchwood is at least a show that can be killed. It’s an experimental spin-off, so it both can, and did, just end.

For Who, there’s very little that can be levelled as an existential threat to ramp up stakes; the universe hanging in the balance is a given, and even leaving cast members are just a part of the ever-rolling wheels of the story. The show got actually axed and came back bigger than ever. You can take away the TARDIS and the series still finds a way. The only thing that can really threaten narrative collapse in this show is the only actual absolute: the character of Doctor Who herself.

The only series of the show that seriously wield the possibility of narrative collapse do it by threatening to break the character of the Doctor, not just by suggesting that they might change in the present, but that they might never have been the person we thought in the first place, undermining everything that’s gone before. It’s an appropriately transtemporal, non-linear narrative collapse. We’ll go in-depth on two familiar examples later (much later), but the key thing here is the idea of the threat itself, that in the last moments of Spyfall 1 is set dangling precariously over the series with cliffhanger tension.

And in the same sense that when any episode ends with a companion being bore down upon by the new monster and we spend all week wondering if she’ll survive, when the Master imperils the very fabric of the show we spend all series worrying about the consequences and, frankly, if the show will survive, too. And we sit on the question:

Do we not really know who she is?

In more ways than one.

To be continued…

NEXT WEEK: Spyfall 2: It’s Time She Spent Some Time Alone

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