January 1st brought us an unexpectedly strong Season / Series premiere in Spyfall Part One - an episode which confusingly, paradoxically illustrated Chris Chibnall's hitherto unrealized potential as DOCTOR WHO showrunner, while also highlighting the relative ineffectualness of series lead Jodie Whittaker.
Is Whittaker up to anchoring a show which could theoretically end up feeling more energized and robust than her own lead performance to date? Based on Spyfall Part One - arguably the most 'DOCTOR WHOish' episode of Chibnall's rein thus far - the answer would seem to be 'no.' However, part of me would like to be believe that Chibnall's chief efforts are, for the moment, oriented towards fixing a show which was in many regards inadequate and even 'broken' during much of its previous Series / Season. Perhaps once such issues have been reliably smoothed out, more attention will be paid to refining Whittaker's sometimes bewildering and mushy performance?
Come what may, Spyfall Part One - based on general reviews and substantive social media feedback - seems to have gifted those skeptical of the Chibnall era the possibility of hope. The hope that maybe Team Chibs may finally be pulling their act together. The hope that Team Chibs actually has an act to pull together at all.
Evaluating Part One is a tricky proposition, as it must be considered on several complex and intertwined fronts. Chief among them: 1) does the episode work on its own merits? And, 2) how does Spyfall look, sound, and feel when weighed against the majority of S11 episodes (a majority of which felt strangely tepid and clunky when compared to the Davies and Moffat eras).
The answer is: as an episode in itself, Part One worked quite nicely. And some of what made it work very directly informs the answer to Question # 2.
Editorial pacing and crispness was turned up a few notches when compared to S11's more languid ethos; even scenes which ran the risk of dragging felt agreeably concise and breezy. The score from S11's Segun Akinola is far more robust and narratively consequential than a majority of S11's music - less ambient and utilized more for drive, scale, and effect here. Cinematography - while still far from rising to the levels of shows like WATCHMEN, the new TREK series, or THE EXPANSE - was also afforded greater consideration. This installment of DOCTOR WHO didn't exactly 'feel like a movie ' (as Chibnall had promised before S11's arrival), but it <I>did</I> feel more in the wheelhouse what we'd come to expect given the current market place. Which pretty much sums up Spyfall Part One in a nutshell.
While a few cringe worthy moments felt discordant with the material around them (those motorcycles...)
...the whole of the affair felt tonally and energetically consistent throughout. Part One even managed to stick its landing with an admirably 'WTF?!' conclusion - a reveal which reports indicate will resonate throughout this Series / Season.
Spyfall Part One felt as if The Powers That Be have walked back some of presentational changes which rendered S11 so profoundly problematic. The result is an episode which felt 'different' from the Seasons / Series that had come before. But...unlike much of S11...also felt vastly more respectful of the energy, style, and 'vibe' which was developed so carefully over the years by previous showrunners Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat. As I suggested in a text message to a good friend, Part One felt like the show many of us were expecting to get - or al least felt might be possible - when Whittaker's Doctor debuted last year.
Considering the roundly ineffectual nature of S11 on the whole, it's going to take more than one episode of S12 to ascertain whether Spyfall Part One was a freakish one-off, or whether BBC & Team Chibnall have actually learned some much-needed lessons regarding respecting the accomplishments and 'world building' of DW's previous show runners.
Spyfall Part Two should be quite telling, as it is driven by a different director than Part One. Jamie Magnus Stone directed Part One (and will return for the two episodes which close S12), while Lee Haven Jones takes the reins for Spyfall Part Two. Issues like style, editing, scoring, cinematography, etc. all tend to be pre-determined and 'baked in' to a season's / series' DNA - with directors amplifying these baseline qualities in accordance with their individual abilities and talents. Thus, if the uptick in quality represents a genuine paradigm shift - Part Two should feel (more or less) in the ballpark of its predecessor. If the principle reason Part One shone was chiefly due to Jamie Magnus Stone? Then we're back to the drawing board...
So here we stand...
At an unexpected crossroads which may be even more fascinating, and more vexing, than the changing of Doctors, or the deployment of a new showrunner: can the existing Powers That Be reverse their own course, and successfully restore their own show after needlessly and recklessly compromising its quality across the entirety of the previous Season / Series? Managing to do so would be an admirable - perhaps even honorable - accomplishment.
Oughta be an interesting forum this week...
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COMING SUNDAY JANUARY 12: