Spies and Superheroes: Genre in Doctor Who Series Twelve


Image Credit: Adapted from Werner Bayer (Public Domain, Flickr)

Image Description: The Villa Diodati

By Ian Bayley

The Series Twelve opener Spyfall was titled with a clumsy pun, designed to invite us to check off the numerous Bond references in Part One: the mission briefing from C, the gadgets, the megalomaniac villain, the tuxedos, the casino parties, the car chases and the John Barry style orchestration. This blatant prompting, however, inspired me to look at genre throughout the rest of Series Twelve. 

The Bond homages made me appreciate the shocking cliffhanger even more. A seemingly insignificant character, closely resembling Ben Whishaw’s interpretation of Q, had stealthily gained the confidence of the TARDIS team and ironically played the spy game far better than they had. The ingenuity of this twist, for me, sets it above all the many other Master revelations we’ve seen in the past. His comeuppance in Part Two after the Doctor secretly records him, and a real-life wireless operator spreads disinformation about him, continues that spy theme. 

The Timeless Children later recalls these moments when the Master inflicts his ultimate revenge: he tells the Doctor who she is. At first she seems broken by the revelation; her response “I can’t be” echoing the cry “You can’t be” when the Master reveals himself in Spyfall Part One. Later on, however, after her chat with her previous self,  she tells him he has given her “a gift. Of myself.” She has turned the tables on him, just as she earlier did in the Gallery in Spyfall Part Two, when she mocked his alliance with the Kasaavin after he made her kneel. 

The Timeless Child revelation is a superhero origin story that, unusually, comes fifty-six years after the character of the Doctor was introduced. Since The War Games, we have known for certain that the Doctor is an alien among us, just like Superman or Captain Marvel. But over fifty years later, we have learned that she is actually an alien from her own people as well. Origin stories tell us why a character acts the way they do, and it appears that the Doctor wants to explore because that is how she was brought up, although she has forgotten all of it. Although Tecteun travels through space, she is dressed in clothes resembling those of Cossack or Viking explorers from our own planet’s history, as if to emphasise the archetype she represents. This experimentation with genre becomes more unusual still if one considers the previous episode, Ascension of the Cybermen, which features scenes from the youth of the Doctor disguised as episodes of a nostalgia-heavy police drama set in mid-twentieth century Ireland.

That episode’s predecessor, The Haunting of Villa Diodati, combines the Gothic genre, and its emphasis on extreme emotion, with the return of a familiar adversary. This produces a surprising first – an unstable and angry ‘Lone Cyberman’ which provides impetus to Villa Diodati’s denizens.  The residents of the villa appear talentless and indolent, mere consumers of pulp fiction until the activities of the Cyberium inspire them to write their own. Earlier, the TARDIS team’s attempt to kick-start the fateful story writing competition ends with them being forced into dancing quadrilles, as if trapped in the novels of Jane Austen. This is perhaps a suitable punishment after Graham misquoted her earlier.

Although The Haunting of Villa Diodati features three famous writers, it is Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror that more closely matches what we expect from the Doctor Who-specific genre that we call the celebrity historical. Like his predecessors Vincent van Gogh and William Shakespeare, who were also title characters, Nikola Tesla is inspired by the Doctor at a time of hardship to defeat their common foe. Tesla is fulsomely eulogised by the Doctor for the benefit of both the audience and her companions, even if less was done to inform us of Ada Lovelace’s contributions in Skyfall Part Two. Although we see the Difference Engine of her colleague Charles Babbage, and although she is important enough to be chosen by the Kasaavin, her own contributions are described more nebulously, with more attention placed instead on the biographical details of her childhood. Paralysed in bed during an extended bout of measles, and feeling rejected by both her parents, she regards the Kasaavin as her guardians. It could be that the brain-like realm of theirs in which she takes refuge inspired her later introspective fascination with mathematics and her stated wish to model how the brain works. 

The celebrated line in Orphan 55 “if I had crayons and half a can of Spam, I could build you from scratch” seems to acknowledge that the commander Kane is not only potential Dreg meat but a stock character in another genre specific to Doctor Who: the base under siege. The defences are breached quickly, however, and a monster hunt ensues, during which some dialogue teases Pertwee-esque themes about the exploitation of a native species by colonisers. Fifteen minutes before the end, we get the twist that the Doctor and friends are on future Earth, which means that the episode is intended as an environmental warning, something that is made very explicit in the Doctor’s minute-long speech at the end.

Praxeus, on the other hand, is presented as an environmental story from the start; but this is done mostly through imagery, such as Gabriela and Jamila’s polluted river bank. The possibility that an alien bacteria might exist that eats plastic is too fanciful to make us change our behaviour, but the idea that there is substantial microplastic within us is meant to be unsettling. This seems to be the idea behind the body horror in the unusual deaths – the plastic inside the victim manifests itself on the skin and spreads until they explode. The twist revealed fifteen minutes before the end this time is that Suki Cheng is an alien experimenting on humans to find a cure for the disease. Taking this into account, the episode appears to be an attack on animal testing, except for the unusual complication that that are very few members of her species left to be saved, so her actions are substantially worse for that reason.

Can You Hear Me?, promoted with the nightmarish images of Yellin’s detachable fingers, seemed to be a horror-focussed episode like Series Eight’s Listen, but ultimately Yaz’s past history turned out to be more important than the two people enjoying her nightmare. If, as is rumoured, she becomes the sole companion for Series Thirteen, then the episode has done well to give her a backstory. Expectations are similarly subverted in Fugitive of the Judoon, whose titular creatures have a number of comic gags associated with them. This suggests a light-hearted episode, rather than the canon-busting rollercoaster ride it turned out to be. We’ve all watched enough Doctor Who to think in terms of story types and sometimes these expectations go a long way to explaining why, or why not, we may like a particular episode.

The double issue of Tides 45/46 is, at time of publication, available to buy through this link

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