Spyfall is, of course, a James Bond parody. James Bond and Doctor Who are very different and while it is amusing to see Doctor Who pastiche elements of Bond (the briefing, the casino and dinner jacket, car chases and assassinations), it feels quite different to Bond, especially in the time travelling second half. Inasmuch as it is Bond, it’s more For Your Eyes Only than The Spy Who Loved Me, a slow-burning character piece rather than an epic action spectacular. In fact, the most effective scene is the horror/suspense sequence of the Kasaavin attacking the Australian agents in the Outback, which is not Bond at all.
The first part is brisk and effective, but the second episode falls apart a bit. The cross-temporal story feels bitty, not lingering in any locale long enough to build up a sense of place or tension. Daniel Barton is sidelined when we really need to see more of him and his plan. Once O’s true identity is revealed, Barton goes from master villain to henchman, which is disappointing, as Lenny Henry was sinister in the first half and later in the lecture scene as he plan appears to be about to work. I’m not sure why the Kasaavin want to turn everyone into computers or what Barton thinks he’s going to get out of it. Info dump scenes where the villain reveals his whole plan are endemic to both Doctor Who and James Bond, so it’s no wonder the Master delivers a big one here. Sacha Dhawan does at least portray a Master malevolent enough to make his plan seem reasonable, at least to a psychopath.
To be honest, I don’t like “celebrity historicals” much. They seem to assume the audience are ignorant and lazy, info dumping information for context instead of leaving the audience the fun of independent research (let’s not forget Doctor Who was originally educational). It leads to very stilted dialogue and storytelling. Ada and Noor could each have their own episodes, whereas here they are reduced to bit-players. A more focused episode two could have reduced the time travelling and spent more time on the Fam on the run.
The ontological paradox on the plane escape is a narrative flaw of a different kind, essentially just a cheat, and one already over-used by Steven Moffat.
Sacha Dhawan is probably the highlight of the story in what are essentially two different roles. More than any other Master, he seems to be playing a part as O, not just wearing a mask. He says he had “fun” impersonating O and appears to have taken the role seriously enough to work for MI6 to infiltrate properly (unlike the John Simm Master who faked Harold Saxon’s background).
The result is a story which starts well and is generally good when Dhawan is on screen, but which loses its way a bit.