Doctor Who has a very bad habit of doing cliffhangers for cliffhanger’s sake, writing some dull peril into the final moments of an episode and resolving it in the first of the next, born purely out of the structural conventions of the show. They’ll have the Doctor shot at point-blank range, only to reveal that the attackers missed, or have him caught in a trap and electrocuted, and then announce that he’s just sorta immune to electricity. In a sense, this is only the natural result of the format of the show, especially the early seasons, in which serialised episodics centred volume and variety, but in another sense, it’s still lame.
In lieu of a genuinely satisfying resolution, one way episodes manage to make this less lame is by suddenly changing context, leaving you guessing for a moment, and catching you up as we go along. It gives the Part Two a little time to re-establish the situation, and through that also allows the conclusion to the cliffhanger to be a little more complex (see: Donna in the dream world in Forest of the Dead) or at least distracts from its disappointment (see: River just using the squareness gun to escape the monsters in, uh, also Forest of the Dead).
So, with that in mind…
Part 3: Consider the Doctor
This opening does a number of things very well: It uses the sudden jump in context to clearly identify us with the perspective of a character, as neither we nor Clara yet know how she and Missy survived extermination; it gives us a satisfying resolution to the cliffhanger from the tail of the previous episode, which also doubles as an explanation for an unresolved question from the tail of the previous series; it shows off the growing peership between Clara and the Time Lords; it’s fun as hell; and, most importantly, it teaches us something about the Doctor. Bechdel be damned.
The blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance of the First and Fourth Doctor re-establish a clear statement of the Moffat era: that the Doctor is the same person regardless of their face (an idea that’s going to be very relevant in a few episodes’ time), and the likely unreliable narration is almost a trial run of that series’ finale, which is itself a story inside a story (connections, connections). But the biggest thing here is that Missy describes the Doctor “on the run, no Tardis. No friends, no help,” as “the Doctor, happy”. Now, we know, from this very episode, from the series finale, from all our prior knowledge of Doctor Who in general, that Missy is wrong. In fact, what we learn from this episode, from the series finale, is that the Doctor alone is a deeply unhappy Doctor. And when he takes control of the Dalek Empire just to demand that Clara (and only Clara) be returned to him, we see that getting the Doctor alone reveals a lot about what their priorities are, about how far they will go, and about, fundamentally, who they are…
We left off last week with the Doctor stranded alone in another universe worrying about her friends, who are at this moment in terrible and imminent danger of doing a Best of New Who clip show. We catch up with her here, scared of losing them, lost in this totally alien-beyond-alien environment, worried about the existential threat of “everything changing” that the Master drops on her with his reappearance, and most importantly, totally, completely alone.
This situation would be a dramatic one for any Doctor, but Thirteen is defined more than most by her relationship with her companions, being so rarely separated from them before. She starts immediately talking to herself, but there’s a rhythm to their ‘call, response, response, response’ dialogue that is fundamental to this version of the show, and that we feel is missing. We really notice their absence through this, and that’s effective. We’re left wondering if this Doctor can function on her own. We wonder what she’s capable of when threatened like this, and with her safety net taken from her. We wonder what new depth and range we might discover in this Doctor now that she is so totally alone.
And then Ada Lovelace appears.
Oh well. Nice idea. Never mind.
It wouldn’t be fair to say that Ada Lovelace and Noor Inayat Khan’s roles in the episode are purely as direct replacements for ‘the fam’ — both women are significant to the plot and relevant to the themes in their own right, and they don’t replicate those specific rhythms of dialogue — but it’s hard to ignore that Nicola Tesla gets his own episode while Khan and Lovelace are relegated to companion stand-ins in the second part of a story not even remotely about them. Their inclusion isn’t meaningless, they’re monumental historical figures and each reflect one of the story’s main themes (of “spies” and “technology” respectively) in a way that is only a little more blunt than it is actually sorta clever, but they don’t help synthesise them into a clear vision for the episode, and it doesn’t really have anything to say about either woman. In fact, the two are treated as historical facts rather than human beings, with both of their future achievements tiptoed around like fragile fixed points, while also treated as inevitabilities in a way that makes them feel like historical symbols rather than characters and something similar happens with the Doctor.
While “a short tour of amazing historical women” is a nice idea, and definitely a well-intentioned one, their inclusion ends up underusing and undermining two women more than deserving of their own stories, and underusing and undermining the Doctor, too, who would at this point have been well served by a story about her. After a full series, it still feels largely like Whittaker is playing the idea of the Doctor, rather than the character. But instead of serving as a Heaven Sent or Midnight for the Doctor, in which they’re isolated and pushed to their absolute incarnation-specific limit, highlighting all their strengths and flaws, this is more or less business as usual for Thirteen. She misses her friends, but she’s not untethered without them. We don’t see by their absence how they hold her back or lift her up because she isn’t allowed to be alone.
But the fam is.
For the first time, Ryan, Graham, and Yaz are left to fight for themselves. The Doctor has been whisked off, and the world is in danger, and they are (apparently) the people best served to save it. So, what do we learn about them through this experience? Well, were I feeling generous I’d say that they need her, not so much emotionally as practically, and were I feeling slightly less so, I’d say that they’re plainly useless without her. They struggle to so much as confront the main villain in an episode bookended by them failing, about to die, and the Doctor stepping in to save them with the parodic time travel shenanigans we talked about in Part 1. And this is how the scenes are actually presented: the Doctor appears and saves the day, as if an act of God.
We’re not Considering the Doctor. We’re not thinking like she thinks, working things out for ourselves. We don’t get insight into her method or her mind or what’s below the surface. The framing of these moments keeps her at arm’s length and keeps us passive. And maybe this is intentional. Maybe the Doctor is kept distant from us at the cost of a satisfying resolution because she’s been distant from the other characters. And maybe they are our useless viewpoint because we all need to learn to step up to save the world like they do across the series. But when Revolution comes, they’re still useless, and I still don’t know this Doctor.
Part 4: A Clash of Symbols
Of course, this symptom has many causes, but the one that most jumps out is this era’s privileging of symbols over story, character, and any sense of sustained material reality. This Doctor isn’t written like a distinct person with specific wants and needs, she’s written as The Doctor, the idea and collected attributes of the iconography of the lead of this TV show. This is a recurring feature of the series, but to introduce it quickly now, take the destruction of Gallifrey at the end of this episode.
I don’t want to belabour the point here, but the Citadel isn’t Gallifrey, it’s just one bit of one city. And while it works fine as a visual shorthand, so leaning on this iconography really highlights what the episode is doing. It’s an image that comes from S3, from the peak of Gallifrey-is-gone drama, which S12 is trying to relive — from the Simm-ish Master, to the Judoon, to Jack, to the chameleon arch making an unexplained return — that one would worry alienated audiences, if S12’s audience wasn’t primarily people with fond memories of 2007.
Gallifrey getting destroyed isn’t a thing that has happened to a people, it’s a thing that has happened to a piece of iconography. When the fam ask “who are you, Doc?” her response is that same iconography, a near-exact repetition of the (S3) David Tennant “constellation of Kasterborous” intimidating boast. Even the Master’s motivation for doing it, he says, is that the idea of Gallifrey is a lie. It’s all images and labels and parody. And the threat of narrative collapse is much the same: undermining the Doctor by attacking the iconography that the show uses to represent her.
It’s a powerful image, but that’s precisely the point. It’s just the image. It’s amaterial.
Spyfall doesn’t just wear the iconography of Doctor Who, like it does with Bond, it cannibalises it. It becomes about it’s own image. It gets kicks and laughs by holding up bits of older Who that you recognise, and while it might not be aware of the irony, you certainly feel it. When, after taking apart the morality of mind wipes over the last few series, the Doctor just reverts to it as per usual, it’s ironic. When the Master spouts how entirely, inherently, irredeemably evil he is after a long form deconstruction of that very idea, that’s ironic. When we’ve just unburdened the Doctor from Gallifrey, and divorced the show from its mythology and “origin stories” in general, and then we get straight back on for another go-round, we get the impression that, like The Curse of Fatal Death, this is an ironic reconstruction from bits left behind, looking back on the show that has been.
This isn’t a death knell (or ‘cloister bell’, if ya nasty). The Curse of Fatal Death is, after all, very good. But this heel-turn from a fresh-faced reboot into symbolic self-obsession is a sign of the show’s current sense of purpose.
But these are just the seeds. We’ll see how this all pans out across the rest of the series.
Here’s hoping it goes smoothly…
NEXT WEEK: Orphan 55: Climate Chaos in Cardiff