It’s 1988, and Keanu Reeves has just stepped into a phone box. It will be over a decade before he does this to escape from a hammy Man In Black; on this occasion it’s strictly academic, in the most literal sense. Keanu, you see, is playing one half of a time travelling twosome who need to pass a history test in order to save the world. In the company of Alex Winter (who did Freaked and then dropped off the radar faster than Change UK), Keanu travels back and forth through time picking up various historical figures, getting in and out of scrapes, and playing air guitar a lot. Towards the end of the film, he and Alex are in something of a predicament: how, the two of them ponder, can their report be salvaged when there’s no time left to break people out of the lockup? The only solution is to go back and do it afterwards and leave everything they’ll need lying around, so that’s exactly what they do. Three years later, while waging war with an unpleasant P.E. teacher / would-be dictator in the middle of a Battle of the Bands contest, they win by using the same strategy. It’s cheating, really, but it works.
By and large – and this is not a criticism – Doctor Who doesn’t do it. Oh, there are moments. ‘The Curse of Fatal Death’ builds its entire opening episode around the conceit, as Rowan Atkinson and Jonathan Pryce trade insults and wave metaphorical tackle over opposing sides of a castle banqueting hall. It’s something apparently dear to the heart of Steven Moffat, and there would be periods, much later on, where it would become a convenient escape device from a seemingly impossible situation (cf. ‘Blink’, ‘The Big Bang’), or even a multi-episode plot device (hello series 6, pull up a chair and have a custard cream). But stories in which time travel is used as a plot device, rather than a convenient method of establishing a setting, seem to be on the wane in this bold new vision of the show. For better or worse, it seemed like these were days we’d left behind: that the complicated bootstrap paradoxes of ‘Before The Flood’ were largely – and do excuse the pun – a thing of the past. And so they were, until tonight.
That Chibnall uses it twice in the same episode (once to resolve a cliffhanger, once to save the Earth) isn’t necessarily a problem. A surreptitious rewiring is the sort of thing the Doctor does all the time; it’s how he cheats death in ‘The Witch’s Familiar’ and ‘Evolution of the Daleks’, so why shouldn’t it work when it’s applied across multiple time periods? It doesn’t even feel like Chibnall’s out of his depth, particularly: there are undoubtedly holes in the blanket but you could say that of any of Moffat’s stories, and thus it seems churlish to look for them. And for those of us who were expecting a last-minute spiriting away to the Master’s TARDIS, accompanied by the words “I’d much rather enjoy the satisfaction of watching the Doctor’s friends die while she was here to witness it” (which is exactly the sort of thing you’d expect to happen) it came as a pleasant surprise when Ryan crawled commando-style up the floor of the jet only to see his name written on the wall, like discovering your name on a gift underneath an explosive Christmas tree that’s now caught fire. Landing a plane with a mobile phone? Well, Bond did it with a car. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel, particularly when it can spirit you away from white glowing aliens, or men with guns.
No, the problem with ‘Spyfall: Part Two’ has nothing to do with silly plot devices; it’s simply that the pacing is off. Having the Doctor travel two hundred years into the past to pick up Ada Lovelace is absolutely fine. The pages of exposition seemingly necessary to explain her importance, however, are downright tedious. It doesn’t matter whether they’re in 1830s London with Charles Babbage or war torn Paris with the cast of ‘Allo ‘Allo; Whittaker paces and monologues and gushes about the admirable pioneering qualities of the people whose memories she will eventually wipe, reeling out the history, seemingly unaware that she’s left her mates in 21st century Essex. It’s like watching a BBC Schools presenter on crack. I’m being unnecessarily unkind, but there is a reason why the Doctor is not allowed to travel alone; occasionally she needs someone to tell her to shut up.
The story – such as it is – concerns a secret conspiracy by tech guru Daniel Barton to wipe the minds of most of the planet’s populace (presumably with some sort of temporary infrastructure on standby to compensate for the socioeconomic cataclysm that would inevitably follow) in order to satisfy the whims of an alien race who, it is hoped, we will see again, if only so they can give us something by way of character motivation. There are plans to enslave the Earth, but we don’t know why; nor are we particularly concerned about any of it. The mysterious non-space between worlds is given no decent explanation, even though it is clearly crying out for one; nor do we get any real clue as to why the Kasaavin were tracking the development of technology, not least a prototype computer that never really worked to begin with. Considering they’re clearly up for teaching a bit of history it would have been nice to include at least a couple of lines about what Lovelace and Babbage were actually doing, but we don’t even get that, which makes it all the trickier to work out why the otherworldly beings were sniffing around 1830s Marylebone. Even the Gelth – as featured in Mark Gatiss’ greatly troubled ‘Unquiet Dead’ – had more of a backstory.
It’s left to the companions to fill in the gaps, which they do with varying degrees of success: Graham is clearly enjoying his laser shoes, operating them with pixel-perfect precision even in the absence of a manual (seriously, did none of this lot watch The Greatest American Hero?), while Ryan whoops and tries not to clap too loudly for fear of launching a missile from his forearms. Yas, on the other hand, has clearly been on one secondment too many, as she seems to have forgotten that she’s a police officer: finding jobs for three companions is tricky at the best of times, which was why Nyssa was always getting headaches, but Gill’s role this week is to sit in darkened warehouses looking clueless while the men have all the fun. There is a melancholy about Yas as she does this; perhaps she’s seen the scripts for the rest of the series and realised that they’re establishing a pattern.
While all this is going on, the Doctor is travelling back and forth (but mostly forth) throughout history, pursued by the new Master, adorned in any number of period costumes in the manner of a recurring Highlander villain (his induction into the Aryan-fetishising Gestapo is, at least, explained, although you can’t help thinking it didn’t really need to be). Unmasked, unleashed and quite possibly unhinged, Sacha Dhawan once again proves himself to be the best thing about this new series by a mile, trading insults with the Doctor atop la Tour Eiffel and getting trigger happy with his Tissue Compressor in polite company. The two of them even get to indulge in a bit of telepathy (after repeatedly spelling out the letter ‘H’ on a Morse transmitter) in a scene that will either make Classic fans cheer or howl with rage, depending on whether we’re talking about Gatiss or Ian Levine. Deadly when roused and even deadlier when quiet, Dhawan wears the skin of the Master like a well-fitted suit, toning down the craziness of his brief introduction last week in order to gloat and glare, before smouldering with rage when he reveals exactly who was responsible for Gallifrey’s apparent destruction.
Ah yes, that. There’s something slightly amateurish about the sight of that ashened, ruined wasteland some ten or fifteen minutes after we’ve heard the Master talking about it. It gives the Doctor a reason to pop over there (something she can apparently do at will now, even though the Time Lords are seemingly unable or unwilling to reciprocate) – still, how much better might it have been for us to first glimpse the ruined citadel completely unwarned? ‘Show, don’t tell’ is a maxim that gets thrown about far too much, but it still feels as if this was the perfect opportunity to use it – as it stands there is no shock value to the scene because we know it is coming, and the BBC presents only the most cursory of vistas, prompting only the mildest of reactions from the person looking at it. Would it have been too much to see the Doctor cry, or at least show some visible signs of upset besides sitting against a TARDIS wall, looking as blank and forlorn as Yas did earlier in the story?
Or perhaps that’s the point – perhaps this, too, is the calm before the storm, a storm the Doctor can only weather with the help of friends she is currently content to leave in the dark, thus setting the stage for six or seven episodes of skirting around the question of who she really is before a final, explosive confrontation. And perhaps that’s the only way to reinvent Gallifreyan history – something, it seems, Chibnall is about to do – without it becoming tedious. And it is destined to be tedious, this game of gods and monsters and prophecy. It is an awkward fact that stories about Time Lords – the anomaly of ‘Deadly Assassin’ aside – tend towards dullness, and it is difficult to see how the current regime could reinvent them. But it does, at least, give us something to ponder as the weeks unfold and the awkwardness in the console room builds towards an inevitable crescendo. Like it or not, we’re going back to Gallifrey, and all that remains now is to see how much of the fandom Chibnall can poke with a stick without losing the casual viewers. It’s a dangerous game, but so is getting out of bed, so one more step along the road we go.
Maybe Graham could bring along his laser shoes. That’d be fun.