Without wanting to join the chorus of voices online that weren’t overly-enthused with season 11 of the BBC’s flagship science-fiction drama ‘Doctor Who,’ it’s fair to say that many fans headed into season 12 with low expectations. Jodie Whittaker put in an admirable performance as the first female incarnation of the Time Lord during the 2018 season, but a combination of weak monsters and no over-arching theme made the last season feel hollow, and as an audience, we’d been given little to make us believe things would be any better this time around.
How wrong we all were.
As of New Year’s Day 2020, ‘Doctor Who’ is back with a bang, and what a glorious bang it was. From delving deep into the 56-year-old show’s mythos to colossal plot twists and epic stakes, the two-part season opener ‘Spyfall’ was everything that a ‘Doctor Who’ story should be – and yet in places, it didn’t feel like ‘Doctor Who’ at all. The premiere drew almost universally positive reviews, but what was it that made it so fantastic? What did this story have that the entirety of the previous season was lacking? One thing, and one thing only – big ideas.
Faced with having to make an epic opening statement of an episode to draw a jaded audience back to the product, writer Chris Chibnall drew on the only British entertainment property that’s arguably more widely-known than ‘Doctor Who,’ in the shape of James Bond. Take away the science-fiction elements, and ‘Spyfall’ was actually a James Bond episode starring Jodie Whittaker as 007, with a global network of spies to deal with and a Bond-worthy villain in the shape of the technology genius Daniel Barton. Barton, played by Lenny Henry, was Mark Zuckerberg dialed up to 11 with added malevolence, and yet he wasn’t even the biggest ‘bad guy’ of the piece. More on that in a moment.
In a lot of ways, Bond is the perfect source material for ‘Doctor Who’ to turn to at this point in its evolution. Just as the Doctor is now female, there have been many calls for the successor to Daniel Craig as Bond in the movies to be a woman. Bond is hugely influential, appearing in everything from board games to online slots games, and yet it’s historically non-progressive despite Craig’s best efforts. Even on the aforementioned online slots websites such as Dove Casino, you’ll find female depictions of James Bond in the shape of the ‘Agent Jane Blonde’ game, which proved to be so popular that a sequel was released last year. Players at online slots websites are ready for a female Bond, but apparently Hollywood isn’t. On New Year’s Day, ‘Doctor Who’ showed us that not only would a female Bond work, but she’d also be magnificent.
The Bond angle was only half the story, though. All over the world, secret agents belonging to every nation were being murdered by unseen hands. MI6 didn’t have a handle on the problem, and they suspected alien involvement. That meant turning to the Doctor was their only option, and it didn’t take long for the Doctor to confirm the worst of their suspicions. Earth was being visited by hundreds of aliens who take on the appearance of light in a humanoid shape, and they weren’t any old aliens either. These were alien spies, here to infiltrate and take over. Worse still, they wanted to ‘format’ the entire human race and use their brains as enormous hard drives in which to deposit data. In terms of creating a threat for the modern age, this was as cutting edge as it gets.
Even with so much going on and so much at stake, all wasn’t as it seemed – and this is where you should stop reading if you haven’t seen the first episode yet. Despite initial appearances, Daniel Barton didn’t control the aliens. The aliens weren’t even totally in control of their own agenda. The real mastermind behind the piece – with an emphasis on the word ‘master’ – was the Doctor’s apparent ‘friend,’ the British special agent known only as ‘O.’ In the greatest cliffhanger the show has seen in years, the climax of part one of the story saw Sacha Dhawan’s character reveal that he was, in fact, a brand new incarnation of the Doctor’s long-time nemesis and fellow Time Lord, The Master.
Where this particular version of the Master fits in the Doctor Who canon is unclear. We all saw – or at least, thought we saw – the final end of that character in its ‘Missy’ incarnation during Peter Capaldi’s swansong. It appeared to be the perfect end for the character, as Missy was fatally shot in the back by one of her previous selves in the form of John Simm’s Master. We saw her go down, and we saw the life drain from her eyes. Simm’s Master warned her that the weapon had destroyed the regenerative process, and so when Missy died, that should have been it.
We’ve seen much speculation on the topic of how Michelle Gomez’s Missy could then subsequently have turned into Dhawan’s Master, and why the Master had gone back to being utterly evil when Missy was previously on the point of redemption. It might be the case that she didn’t. Missy could still be the final incarnation, and she could still be dead. We never saw Simm regenerate into Gomez. Despite expectations, Dhawan’s Master could fit between Simm and Gomez in the timeline. He could even be a hitherto-unseen incarnation that came before Derek Jacobi’s Master, who regenerated into Simm. This is science fiction, and anything is possible.
Even ignoring the question of where this Master fits, there are bigger questions to answer. What did the Master mean when he said that everything we know about the Time Lords is a lie, and who or what is the ‘Timeless Child’ that was first hinted at back in the second episode of last season? Something huge is coming this season, and it may be something that changes the established lore of the show altogether. Doctor Who is officially back to its best, and for the first time in a while, we’re excited to be along for the ride.