[Warning: The following contains spoilers for the Season 12 premiere of Doctor Who, "Spyfall, Part 1." Read at your own risk!]
After avoiding classic villains for Jodie Whittaker's first season in the TARDIS, Doctor Who made a resolution to keep up with more old foes this year -- and it's not wasting any time. The sci-fi drama came crashing back to Earth on New Year's Day, bringing the Doctor's "best enemy" along for the ride. Fasten your seatbelts: The Master is back.
Doctor Who's long-awaited Season 12 premiere, "Spyfall, Part 1," ended with the smash-bang reveal that MI6 spy O (Sacha Dhawan) is actually the Master. The Doctor's homicidal old pal from Gallifrey has been masquerading as an agent -- because it wouldn't be a spy caper without an undercover twist -- and driving his boss (Stephen Fry) up the wall with his extraterrestrial theories. (The Master going full Mulder... I would like to see it.) His endgame is still unclear, but it involves a mysterious organization of alien spies embedded around the globe and on other worlds, and they all answer to him. The spymaster is the spy Master.
It's a thrilling reveal, mostly because Dhawan absolutely nails it. As much as I'd love to watch Whittaker's Doctor face off against a female incarnation of the Master like Michelle Gomez's Missy, Dhawan is just having too much fun for anything else to matter. He plays up the character's unhinged, childlike glee at making a mess, which definitely doesn't discredit theories that the Master is the "Timeless Child" mentioned last season, and there's more than a little of John Simm's Master in the way he yells, almost growling, at the Doctor when she finds the bomb on the plane.
Also there's a bomb on a plane. Let's back up.
"Spyfall, Part 1" is Doctor Who by way of a Bond movie, recruiting the Doctor and her pals -- Yaz (Mandip Gill), Ryan (Tosin Cole), and Graham (Bradley Walsh) -- for a super-secret mission. Spies are being targeted by an alien race that erases and rewrites their DNA, and the only thing they have in common is that they were all investigating a powerful tech executive named Daniel Barton (Sir Lenny Henry), whose search engine company now basically controls most governments. Barton claims to be your basic "started from the bottom" success story, but he's got secrets: His DNA is only 93% human, and he's in league with those unnamed aliens, who, on Earth, take the form of blindingly white lights shaped like people. Kids, remember Barton's secrets the next time a billionaire claims he never had any help from anyone.
While Yaz and Ryan investigate Barton, the Doctor, Graham, and Graham's adorable glasses consult with O in the Australian Outback. The Doctor met O years ago and they've been lovingly WhatsApping ever since. It's later revealed that O was a real person once, but since the Master stole the man's identity when he was on his way to his first day of work at MI6, the Doctor has probably only ever dealt with the Master in disguise. The Master has been playing a long con.
In retrospect, there were hints at the Doctor and the Master's long history throughout this episode. Early on, the Doctor instinctively calls O her "old mate," then backtracks: "I met him once, but he seemed very nice." And the Master, who loves one-upping the Doctor's companions in a battle over who knows the Doctor best, seems happy to remind Graham that he doesn't even know where the Doctor is from. Of course Thirteen clicked with O; she and the Master can read each other, and the Master weaponized that connection.
Dhawan's Master is already an old-school take on the character; he did away with the real O by shrinking him with tissue compression, one of the Master's go-to tricks in the classic series. ("It's a classic" is a meta line.) And we still don't know exactly how Missy survived after Simm's Master blasted her with his screwdriver at the end of Season 10, which was supposed to stop her from regenerating, but this isn't the first time the Master has stolen someone else's body to get around that problem.
Anyway, everyone winds up chasing Barton from his swanky birthday party to his swanky private plane, where the Master drops the act after the Doctor catches him in a lie. He also reveals that his house is flying next to the plane. TARDIS or Wicked Witch of the West -- who can say? From here, things go truly and gloriously off the rails. Barton is somehow no longer flying this plane (the Master "called him away" at the last minute); there's a sonic-proof bomb in the cockpit, which explodes, sending the plane crashing through the sky; there are no parachutes on board; the Master vanishes, leaving the aliens to zap the Doctor out of the plane and into their other realm; and the real O is a tiny man in a matchbox on the floor somewhere. It would be too much if "too much" weren't the Master's whole thing.
Questions? I've got some! Where is Barton? Why was Yaz sent back after her near-death experience in the other realm, and is this even still our Yaz? Where did she get that sequined blazer? What is the Master up to? And what are these aliens? It's tempting to draw comparisons to the Cybermen, which we know will be back this season: They played a major role in Missy's story; the Doctor told C that she's "had an upgrade"; we've seen Cybermen cross between parallel worlds before, in "Army of Ghosts," which also made them look like glowing humanoid figures; they're big on erasing the things that make us human (whatever happened to the spy whose DNA was rewritten seemed almost like a reverse Cyberman situation); and the Cybermen, just like this all-powerful search engine, are a cautionary tale about how technology overrides empathy. But these aliens don't talk or behave anything like Cybermen.
The Master leaves by telling the Doctor, with tears in his eyes, "One last thing, something that you should know in the seconds before you die: Everything that you think you know is a lie." Which probably means there's no point in theorizing.
Doctor Who airs Sundays at 8/7c on BBC America starting Jan. 5.
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