Jodie Whittaker is back playing a time-travelling eccentric with flapping blonde hair, an inconsistent backstory and a ragtag of bedazzled adjuncts who’d follow her over a cliff. With a CV like that, she could just as plausibly be sat in 10 Downing Street plotting to whisk the country back to the 19th century rather than zig-zagging across the galaxy in a metal box.
But never mind – it turns out there are things in the universe even worse than an invasion of chlorinated chicken. Such as an evil Mark Zuckerberg type in cahoots with aliens made of pure light, played by national treasure Lenny Henry.
Henry has pivoted towards more serious roles lately. He’s done Brecht on stage and graced noted chuckle-fest Broadchurch. To the part of a Silicon Valley despot with Bond-villain tendencies he brings a zeal bordering on devilish. That’s just as well considering the other major antagonist in the New Year’s Day special – which fires the starter pistol on the new season – is so deeply underwhelming.
The uber-baddie (Sacha Dhawan – at one point touted as a potential Who himself) lets slip his secret identity just before the end credits. He reminds the Doctor she should be on the lookout for a “Spy Master”. “Spy... Master...” Get... it? Yes, it’s the Master. He’s having fun with his new disguise as an old MI6 pal of the Doctor’s while remaining as mono-dimensionally villainous as in any of his previous incarnations.
What awful machinations has he set in motion, though? A full 60 minutes into this two-part story his ultimate goal is less than entirely clear. It has something to do with the aforementioned light-based aliens from another continuum and their quest to enslave Earth, the solar system and the entire galaxy. Well, indeed – no point aiming low if you’re a race of light-based aliens from a parallel cosmos.
Also in league with the aliens, by the looks of it, is Henry’s Daniel Barton. Quite how an inter-dimensional invasion will benefit either him or the Master is as yet unclear. Still, the conspirators are evidently prepared to crush anyone standing in their way. That includes MI6 nabob “C”. He is portrayed by Stephen Fry in – a bit incredible this – his first Doctor Who screen appearance. (He did contribute voiceover work to a 2001 tie-in animation.)
Not that Fry really has an opportunity to revel in his happy Whovian moment. C is zapped with extreme prejudice before he has a chance to explain to the Doctor exactly what she’s up against in an episode that wears its James Bond fandom on its epaulettes. No matter – she has all the back-up required in her regular team of Ryan (Tosin Cole), Yaz (Mandip Gil) and Henry (Bradley Walsh).
As with the latest Doctor’s debut series in 2018, the chemistry between the four leads is what drives the new Who, with Whittaker excelling as the perpetual motion human gyroscope at the centre of the chaos. Everything duly pelts along. True, the James Bond winks are laid on a bit by writer Chris Chibnall, the 007 theme tune being at one point essentially appropriated wholesale.
But it’s nonetheless hard to disapprove of an action-stuffed BBC drama that, among other set-pieces, features Lenny Henry as a wicked tech evangelist locked in a high-speed chase with the Doctor (closing in via pursuit bike). Those post-Christmas winter blues may be tapping at the window. Jodie Whittaker back as the Doctor is one reason, at least, to stay cheerful.
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