Warning: a plethora of spoilers follow.
The other night, my family and I sat down to watch Johnny English Strikes Again. It’s been on the to-do list for a while and we had a spare ninety minutes, which is all it takes for David Kerr to tell his tale of a haphazard secret agent pulled out of retirement when all the other active agents across the globe become suddenly and inexplicably compromised. The man responsible? A seemingly benevolent tech billionaire from Silicon Valley with designs on taking over the world. And only Rowan Atkinson, with his reliance on old school techiques and prowess with a baguette (if you’ve seen the film you’ll know what this is about) can stop him.
I can’t help thinking that such recent exposure to a swiftly flagging franchise renders me incapable of supplying an on-point and unbiased review after the spectacle we all just witnessed. Because it was hard not to feel a sense of already seen as we watched Jodie Whittaker bumble her way through an hour of awkard gags and mildly tedious chase sequences. Bond 25 is due in April and it was clear from the very first shot – a glorious African vista with a secret service operative hiding behind an oversized title card – that this was going to be a jetsetting tour-de-force of espionage and intrigue, with gadgets and guns and sharp-dressed villains. It was obvious enough from the trailer, which featured Lenny Henry shooting out the back of a moving car while Whittaker dons a tuxedo in the middle of a vineyard. This was clearly about cashing in on 007 while it’s hot – like the garage of a kleptomaniac roadworks operator, all the signs were there.
Still, needs must. I’m not sure I can say with a clear conscience that this was any sort of classic, but neither was it a car crash (although it features one or two). ‘Spyfall’ strides the awkward middle line between haphazard fun and mediocre buffoonery, equal parts cringe to crowdpleasing, and there is a sense, as its closing credits roll, of having watched something that was basically candy floss: enjoyable while it lasts but flimsily and loosely constructed, and prone to falling apart the second you poke at it. That’s probably OK: some people like candy floss.
When we last saw Team TARDIS, they were dematerialising into the sunset after the events of ‘Resolution’. A discarded calendar later, the three companions are about to go travelling again: Graham, winner of this year’s “Most likely to have his backstory sidelined” award, is having a check-up; Yas is explaining away yet another secondment; and Ryan has bunked off work for months by faking a series of health scares, including but not limited to a detached retina. (It’s played for laughs, but I had an ex-colleague who used to do this and it’s no joking matter when you spend half your working day covering someone else’s paperwork.) Meanwhile, the Doctor is in the process of changing a spark plug, or something. It’s not exactly a grand entrance, but at least she still has the steampunk eyewear.
Things kick off when the intrepid foursome are all but kidnapped by a bunch of government agents whose job it is to drive them from Sheffield to London: this being Doctor Who, the sat nav goes awry and tries to kill them en route. Before long they’re in the office of C (Stephen Fry, phoning it in from SW1), an MI6 executive whose job it is to look very grave just before he’s shot in the back of the head. It’s so sudden, Ryan almost has a facial movement. The assassins are strange, multi-dimensional chameleonic beings who can seep through walls and even into the console room, and once it becomes apparent that they’re all in danger, the Doctor decides that the best plan is for the four of them to pair off so they’re not as well protected. Thus, she and Graham fly the TARDIS to Australia to catch up with an old friend, while Ryan and Yas visit San Francisco to grill the shady internet mogul (Lenny Henry) who may be responsible.
We ought to say at this point in proceedings that for all her champing at the bit, the Doctor makes a rubbish spy. Her stratagem for getting results at Daniel Barton’s birthday party is to directly confront its host, with not a shred of tangible evidence beyond a couple of readouts, and she then wonders why he immediately jumps into a Bentley in order to escape from the crazy woman on the patio. Such a clumsily presented scene can only be there to lead us into yet another set piece, and indeed ‘Spyfall’ is full of such moments, jumping from one locale to the next with barely enough time to breathe or explore. A single scene with Yas and Ryan, perched outside an Australian cottage hiding a deep dark secret, is about the only real character-advancing moment we get: all the rest is sound and fury, signifying nothing.
It’s a shame, because Whittaker really is quite good: self-assured and endearing with just a pinch of the darkness we were hoping for. Whether it’s confusing Pontoon with Snap or using a wing mirror to deflect laser blasts in a malfunctioning vehicle, she approaches the role with grace and dignity and seems more Doctor-like than she did last year, even when Chibnall’s script hands her another clunky monologue. She even manages to make the technobabble work, just about. Likewise, the supporting cast do their thing well enough, although it’s a bit tiresome they all get on so well. No one wants another Adric and Tegan, but can’t we at least have a bit of an argument about the TARDIS lighting or something?
Two minutes from the end, the Master shows up. This isn’t strictly true, of course: he’s been there all the time, hiding beneath Sacha Dhawan’s amiable exterior. Dhawan (no stranger to Who, having played Waris Hussein in 2013’s ‘Adventure in Space and Time’) is already a likeable sidekick, but he makes for an even better villain, sneering and angry and possibly quite mad, all the things the Master should be, embodied in a single blazing sequence on board a booby-trapped passenger jet. We were promised a big bang to Episode 1, and for a change this one actually delivers, largely thanks to O’s abrupt heel turn into a character we all know, in an incarnation who is at once new and yet instantly recognisable, even if the fans are going to be arguing for weeks about the chronology. Having been set up as a feasible romantic foil for Yas, the renegade Time Lord engineers a sudden (some would say rushed) cliffhanger, with the Doctor spirited abruptly away from proceedings as her companions face almost certain death – although there’s a TARDIS with a functioning chameleon circuit just outside the window, so probably not.
There are good things about this besides Dhawan. Certainly the whole thing feels like Fleming on a BBC budget; it’s just a question of whether that’s the sort of thing that tickles your fancy or leaves you wondering why they bothered. There are briefcases full of laser shoes and near misses in plush corporate offices (although are we really supposed to believe that Barton didn’t see Yas and Ryan poking their heads three feet above that sofa?). The plot may be nonsensical but this is, at least, something that’s trying to entertain us, even if it’s occasionally trying much too hard. The visual style carries a flair of its own, matched by the score: composer Segun Akinola, having paid tribute to nineties-style Bond orchestrations in ‘Resolution’, delves into outright pastiche here as the camera pans up over the vineyards surrounding Barton’s birthday shindig. It’s ridiculous but it does the job, just like everything else.
But the giggles and surprises can’t mask the pitfalls of last series creeping in. Whether it’s the nondescript villains, the awkward social commentary, the pedestrian dialogue or Chibnall trolling the fandom as the Doctor explains her gender switch with the words “I’ve had an upgrade”, there’s a sense here that some lessons have been learned, but perhaps not quite enough. As hard as it tries, ‘Spyfall’ (at least this part) can’t help but feel like something that was so desperate to be Bond it forgot it also had to be Doctor Who. It’s gift horse and mouth territory so the temptation is to be kind, and it’s still the beginning of the run, so there’s time to get this right – and perhaps with Dhawan’s Master at the helm (or at least in the cargo bay, planting explosives), the series can get back on track without lapsing into tedium. Certainly by bringing him back in this manner Chibnall’s paved an avenue worth exploring, with a new Master / Doctor relationship ready for the harvest, like the grapes in Barton’s vineyard. “Our paths crossed very briefly once,” the Master explains to Graham, a few minutes from the end, referencing a scene that dearly deserves to be written, “when she was a man”. That’s the sort of backstory that deserves a bit of flesh, if only to find out which Doctor he was talking about. I can’t help wondering whether it was Rowan Atkinson.