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Recap: Doctor Who (Season 12, Episode 1)

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Let me see your O face

Doctor Who returned this year with an explosive 2-part premier titled Spyfall. Jodie Whittaker has reprised her role as the 13th rendition of the titular Doctor. Her dear companions all returned as well. It’s great to see the whole gang still together. It has truly been too long since last season.

It is my deepest pleasure to share my thoughts on the first episode with you. I hope you'll join me each week to discuss the episodes of this season as they release.

Jodie stepped in last season as the newly regenerated Doctor. We had a new showrunner in Chris Chibnall. We also got all-new companions. It was the clearest new entry point for the series in a long time. You really didn't need to see past seasons to understand what was going on. That season was also a concerted effort to avoid using old monsters, enemies, and plotlines. It was as new as new-Who could be. On the whole I definitely enjoyed it, but a couple episodes were clunkers. When it was over, I eagerly awaited the day when I'd see further adventures from this Doctor. And here we are at last!

We start this episode off with the companions checking in with friends and family back in their day-to-day lives. Ryan is playing basketball. We were reminded that he is still affected by his dyspraxia. He cannot perform certain physical tasks as well as other people. It’s encouraging to see that the writers have not forgotten about his disability (or tried to make the audience forget). Yaz is still a police officer, but she is perpetually taking time off work and her superior has grown weary of this. The marvelous Graham is seeing a medical doctor. Fortunately, this doctor has only good news. Nothing appears to be physically wrong with Graham and all test results are fine. This is a relief, but I do wonder if it’s foreshadowing for problems to come. I don’t know if I’ll ever recover if something bad happens to him.

The 13th Doctor continues to be a tinkerer. She has the TARDIS up on a lift in a garage. She’s working on it as any mechanic would work on a car. Men in suits arrive with black cars and her companions in tow. Graham indicates that this is the “worst Uber ever.” This turned out to be an understatement, as their driver was soon vaporized by the car itself.

After a terrifying driving sequence and the Doctor’s deft use of a mirror, our heroes find themselves at the headquarters of MI6. They meet “C,” the head of the intelligence Agency. They receive some marvelous spy gadgets (which are not toys!) and then witness the death of C as he is gunned down in his own office. They run to the TARDIS, gadgets in hand, and we’re off on our adventure. The Doctor must figure out who is responsible for the attacks on spies all over the globe as well as the attempts on her own life.

I must say that it's great fun to treat Who as a spy movie. There are several homages to James Bond. A number of classic Bond films have a self-seriousness blended with camp that is not at all unlike Doctor Who. It's a good pairing, and a wonder that I haven't seen them do this before. It affords great opportunities for stunts and other action.

Something I love about this particular Doctor is that she has faith and trust in her companions. She is not afraid to send Ryan and Yaz on a dangerous reconnaissance mission. She knows they can handle it. But she does offer a warning. The first rule of espionage is to trust no one. Ryan and Yaz head off to meet the Barton, the CEO of Google VOR, and steal whatever information he has. They take all the data from his computer, but also witness him speaking with mysterious beings bathed in light. It is unclear if he is giving the orders or taking them. Yaz is captured and teleported to a place filled with twisted pillars.

Meanwhile, The Doctor heads to Australia to meet a Spy named “O,” played by Sacha Dhawan (you may recognize him as Davos from Iron Fist). The luminous beings attack. O captures one in a cage and the Doctor attempts to interrogate it. She learns no details but is told that these beings are here to conquer the entire universe. Then somehow Yaz is teleported into the cage. Before long, the whole gang is back together and chasing after Barton as he is their last clue to what is really going on. They hop onto his plane, with O alongside them. This is when we learn exactly what this story (and probably this whole season) has in store for us.

O is the Master, the Doctor’s lifelong nemesis. He has taken the form of the spy known as O and shrunken the poor man to the size of a finger in a callback to classic Who. I absolutely did not see this coming. I knew that O was not to be trusted (the episode told us not to trust anyone). I wondered if he was secretly a villain. But I never suspected he would be the Master. Of course, it’s entirely possible that this isn’t the Master at all. It could be another Time Lord or some other being that is just pretending to be the Master. After all, why should we trust anything that O has to say? However, I suspect that he was being honest about this.

I have mixed feelings about the return of this character. On the one hand, the Master is a great enemy. He never fails to provide drama. He is always a real threat to the Doctor. However, I’m also sad. When we last saw the Master, he was in the form of Missy. Missy had an amazing character arc. It resulted in her mending her ways. She decided to be a good person. Unfortunately, the past literally would not let her do this. A prior incarnation of the Master killed himself and her in the process. It seems that her growth has been undone, at least to a point. I also think this would have been a good opportunity to bring back another Time Lord (such as the Rani) or introduce a new villain entirely. But in the end, I can live with the Master still hanging around. And this version of him seems delightfully twisted.

The end of the episode was a serious cliffhanger. The Master disappears with his mysterious cohorts (the beings of light shown throughout the episode). The companions are stuck on a plane without parachutes. It’s tumbling toward the ground after the cockpit explodes. The Doctor is teleported to the same strange place that Yaz visited earlier. She is clearly upset about this. Obviously, she’s upset that she is cut off from her friends and they are in danger, but I also got the impression that she recognized this place.

We leave with the companions facing imminent doom. The Doctor is trapped. The Master has escaped. The beings of light are invading the universe. All things considered, it was not a good day for the universe. It was, however, a great day to be a fan of Doctor Who.

I’ve been on board with Jodie Whittaker as the Doctor since her first episode, but this episode really cements her as a top-tier Doctor in my mind. She brings an earnestness and sincerity that I cannot help but love. Bradley Walsh, Mandip Gill, and Tosin Cole continue to perform admirably in their roles as well. Most importantly, this episode was very well written. It was thrilling. It was filled with action. It had drama, humor, and grave danger. It is everything you could want in an episode of Who. My hope is that this is an indication of the quality we can expect throughout this entire season. If most of the episodes to come are of this quality, we’ll have one of the best seasons this show has seen since its revival in 2005.

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