Maybe you parsed it out when former agent “O” (Sacha Dhawan) tempted Graham (Bradley Walsh) with his “research” on the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) or when he suggested tracing those mysterious beings of light back to their “spymaster.” But the Doctor herself doesn’t realize that the Master has returned to Doctor Who until it’s almost too late. The two-part season premiere, “Spyfall,” rocked our hero to her core in more ways than one. During the fam’s recent visit to New York City, Nerdist spoke to Whittaker, Tosin Cole (Ryan), and Mandip Gill (Yaz) about how these revelations will reverberate throughout Series 12 and show us a side of Thirteen that we haven’t seen before.
“That’s the first time she’s really on the back foot,” Cole says of that moment on the plane where O lets the veil drop. “[Typically,] she’s on the back foot for a second, but then she figures it out. But to get the wool pulled over your eyes for an hour — a whole episode — she has to figure out, how did she let this happen?”
“And for her to say [to her companions], ‘I can’t help you,’” Gill adds. “Not very often [does she] say that.”
Whittaker adds that the other actors’ reactions to Dhawan’s magnetic, malevolent shift were “real, because it’s us batting off each other in the moment.” Every Doctor/Master combination in the history of Doctor Who has a different flavor, though certain underlying truths carry over. (The Master wants the Doctor’s attention. The Master will kill to get it.) Whittaker says that she and Dhawan didn’t plan out their dynamic in advance, favoring the urgent and discomfiting interplay that we see in those first two episodes.
“If [I] had to play someone’s wife or partner in something, I wouldn’t try to plan the relationship. It just is. The beauty of having chemistry with different actors is that you can’t predict it. And the thing about Sacha is that he’s very unpredictable and his performance is unpredictable. His energy is incredibly generous, he’s always listening. So his performance isn’t about him,” she explains. “But if you start to try and choreograph it in any way, you’ve lost the fun.”
“Fun” is a relative term, however. Though Whovians have gleefully embraced this new Master, the chaos he spreads leaves the companions reevaluating their own relationship with the Doctor. In a moving scene in the second part of the premiere, Graham, Yaz, and Ryan take stock of their circumstances and, for the first time, discuss what they would do if the Doctor was really and truly gone for good.
“Do we fold up and quit or do we just crack on?” Cole says. “And Graham’s like, ‘Let’s crack on and try to complete this mission to the best of our abilities.’ And that shows the confidence and growth within the characters that the Doctor’s kind of instilled in them.”
Confidence they may have in spades, but that — plus a few spy toys Graham and Ryan nicked from MI6 — is pretty much all the fam has in their toolbox. But that, Whittaker points out, is what makes their Doctor-less adventures so realistic and in line with their respective personalities.
“It’s so convenient to turn characters into athletes who can suddenly do this, this, and this, but what’s brilliant is you’re completely clumsying your way through it all,” the actor says to her costars with a laugh. “[Ryan reveals] your plan, and Graham’s shooting, and it’s all going a bit wrong. It’s chaotic, and it’s still within the realm of their characters’ abilities.”
Speaking of, many fans of the show have been eager for more opportunities for Yaz to shine. Gill too was pleased to put some of her investigatory skills to work in this premiere. “I think she’s become a better police officer in space than she would have done in Sheffield,” the actor says. She also hints that this series will “delve into [Yaz’] past” and “why she wanted to go into that profession.”
Ryan’s past and interpersonal relationships were a major focus of Series 11, on the other hand. So after bonding with Graham and making peace with his dad (as his late nan would have wanted), what’s next for him? “Dunno, just going along with the gang, finding his way,” says Cole, who’s about as laid-back as Ryan often isn’t. “Hopefully just taking his adventures head on and going with the flow, really. Riding the wheels till it falls off.”
As for his future with Yaz’s sister Sonya (Bhavnisha Parmar), who pleads with Yaz to give her Ryan’s phone number, Cole is tight-lipped. (Because he’s smiling smugly, which his costars call him out on.) “We only go back now and then so it wouldn’t be a very great relationship,” Gill argues. “He’s goin off with me into space, she’s gonna get jealous and stuff.” She also jokes that Yaz is “over Ryan at this point,” hence how receptive she is to O’s flirting — before he reveals himself to be time and space’s definition of Chaotic Evil, that is. Gill teases that even more furtive glances between the two ended up on the cutting room floor, so fanfic with that information what you will.
Though the premiere finds each of the Doctor’s companions as strong and prepared as ever, it also introduces doubt. O’s meddling doesn’t cause Graham to mistrust the Doctor, but it does make him curious, and that curiosity spreads. After the Doctor checks in on Gallifrey, confirming Master’s claim that it was destroyed, she finally gives the fam the basics of her biography.
While certain Doctors (*coughTencough*) can’t stop telling humans about “the curse of the Time Lords,” Thirteen has been particularly cagey. In Whittaker’s estimation, it’s because she’s familiar with “the inevitability of human curiosity.” Graham cops to having “loads” more questions after her mini-monologue, and Yaz’s first request is to go and visit the Doctor’s home planet, which she brushes off. Giving answers means looking for them within herself, which adds a layer to this Doctor’s typically cheerful and optimistic manner. Like all the iterations who came before her, she’s running from her past.
“I suppose it will raise so many questions within her to do it,” Whittaker adds of the Doctor sharing more with the fam. The actor also notes that the loss that the character has experienced over the millenia leaves her hesitant to reveal too much. “With the hindsight the Doctor has, she knows that this isn’t forever.”
With the Master trapped in the Kasavins’ realm and Gallifrey seemingly done for, it appears that the Doctor will keep doing what she does best: moving forward. But what she sees shakes her, and not for the reasons you might have assumed.
“I think the biggest reveal for the Doctor in that moment is not just that it’s burned but that he did it,” she says of the Master’s geo-locked message where he takes responsibility for razing their home planet. “The Doctor’s not the character to place ultimate, final judgment on someone,” she continues, pointing to the Twelfth Doctor’s (Peter Capaldi) successful appeals to Missy (Michelle Gomez) as an example. (Incidentally, we don’t yet know whether this regeneration of the Master came before or after her.) “To have that betrayal and that sense of cost for everyone and a history and future when you have destroyed somewhere that is the only uniting thing in them at that moment is devastating,” she says.
Plus, there’s still the matter of the “lie” the Master tells the Doctor Gallifrey’s “founding fathers” fed them — the return of “the timeless child” mystery, first mentioned back in “The Ghost Monument” episode. It leaves the Doctor “scrabbling for something,” Whittaker says, which should please Whovians who missed having a season-long puzzle to solve during the mostly standalone Series 11.
That said, Series 12 will still offer plenty of monster-of-the-week shenanigans, including the return of the Cybermen and the Judoon. The cast agrees that the threat in Sunday’s episode, “Orphan 55” is the most frightening creature they face (“I can’t wait, you know,” Whittaker enthuses.), though there are other episodes where the terror is more psychological than physical. Whittaker gives a one-word summary of one such adventure — “orientation” — that probably won’t strike fear into your heart (or hearts.) “But if you know what I mean, I’ve just described it perfectly,” she teases.
One thing fans shouldn’t expect out of this series is any attempt to recapture the singular power of historical episodes “Rosa” and “Demons of the Punjab” — the impact of placing the Doctor and her companions on a segregated bus in 1955 Montgomery, Alabama cannot be recreated, the cast agrees. But the show will continue the Doctor Who legacy of addressing social issues through its unique premise.
“The truth just came out, and it resonated with a lot of people because everyone can feel the pressures and the tension and the emotions and the weight of what was going on,” Cole says of that “Rosa” scene. “Each episode that talks about a certain subject is going to affect the people that it’s gonna affect,” he continues. “And it’s not to say that we’re gonna replicate the same thing over and over again, but we’re just trying to target different situations to cover the whole world perspective.”
Get me one (1) pair of laser shoes and Graham is on notice. pic.twitter.com/KqofnwYHe4
— Sage Young (@sageyoungest) January 7, 2020
“We talk about stuff that’s happening in the world that’s very current, even episodes at the time [of filming] I didn’t think were so important,” Gill adds.
The cast gives props to showrunner Chris Chibnall and his writing staff (which includes several Doctor Who newbies this year) for upping the game and providing the variation by which the series survives and thrives.
“We live in a country with such incredible writing quality; it can feel frustrating when the same voices are the only ones credited,” Whittaker says. “I think what’s wonderful about Chris is that when he’s picking his team, he does work with people again, but he’s so excited about a new voice. And we benefit from that. And our characters benefit from that.”