‘Doctor Who’ Battles an Old Foe in an Underwhelming Season Finale (RECAP)
The eleventh season of Doctor Who has been a real journey of hits and misses. Under the watch of new showrunner Chris Chibnall, the series has found its niche with powerful historical episodes (“Rosa” being the standout) while lacking in terms of fun, inventive, sci-fi hijinks. Too often the season has been bogged down with plodding narratives, painful expository dialogue, and weak characterization, especially in the first half of the season, the majority of which was written by Chibnall himself.
Things had started to pick up in the past couple of weeks as new writers dipped their fingertips into the Who universe. “The Witchfinders” and “It Takes You Away” were two of my favorite installments of the series, both containing the kind of delight and creativity the previous episodes had been missing. The question was, could Chibnall continue this momentum and deliver a high-octane finale that would take this season out on a high?
Unfortunately, the simple answer is, no. “The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos” sounds like an insane sci-fi epic based on the title, and while the episode isn’t “bad” per se, it is seriously underwhelming (there isn’t even a proper battle!). It feels more like an average mid-season filler episode than a grand finale. There are some interesting ideas interspersed throughout the episode, but they’re either handled with the subtlety of a sledgehammer or abandoned in favor of tedious data-dumps.
Let’s start with the positives. The return of the Stenza warrior, Tzim-Sha (aka Tim Shaw), as the episode’s big bad works quite nicely. This tooth-masked hellraiser was the first villain we met in the season premiere and his responsibility for the death of Nana Grace (Sharon D Clarke) gave the finale an emotional hook for Graham (Bradley Walsh) and Ryan (Tosin Cole). Comical name aside, Tim Shaw makes for a much more menacing bad guy than Nazi Time Fonz or the Monsters Inc-looking Perting or any other evildoer we’ve seen this season.
The story itself also has an intriguing enough premise. Tim Shaw was banished to a desolate planet after The Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) defeated him in the premiere and has been biding his time for 3,407 years. In the millennia which have passed, Tim Shaw has gone from humiliated human-trophy snatcher to a powerful false god, worshipped by Andinio (Phyllis Logan) and Delph (Percelle Ascott), two members of an alien race called the Ux, who believe the Stenza warrior to be the one they refer to as The Creator.
The Ux have the ability to affect the shape of the universe by thought alone, and Tim Shaw has been manipulating them into creating him a weapon while kidnapping entire planets from their orbit. His ultimate goal? Revenge. Specifically, revenge on The Doctor, who arrives on Ranskoor Av Kolos after receiving nine separate distress signals transmitting from the planet. As a core concept for a Doctor Who plot, it’s a decent launching pad, the problem is, Chibnall’s episodes never get very far after takeoff, they sort of float around in a stasis, a bit like Tim Shaw’s captives.
For example, early on in the episode, The Doctor mentions that the atmosphere on the planet can distort reality. That immediately opens up a whole portal of possibilities for some mindbending weirdness. Instead, The Doctor instantly fixes that problem by slapping “neural balancer” chips on everyone’s heads. The only evidence of distortion is the memory loss of Paltraki (Mark Addy), the confused space pilot whose crew were taken hostage by Tim Shaw. And when The Doctor and Yaz (Mandip Gill) remove their chips later in the episode, the worst they feel is a mild migraine.
The biggest missed opportunity, however, is the conflict between The Doctor and Graham. For the majority of this season, Team TARDIS have got along like The Waltons. The camaraderie between The Doctor and her three new companions has been refreshingly jovial. But a little bit of tension is never a bad thing, and the one-on-one between The Doctor and Graham is a fascinating start to the finale, one that promises to take things in a new direction.
“I will kill it if I can. For what it did to Grace,” Graham tells the Doc, referring to Tim Shaw. He knows it goes against The Doctor’s moral code, but he doesn’t care, he, much like the Stenza, wants revenge. The Doctor tries telling him he is better than that, and that if he goes through it, then he will no longer be allowed to travel with her in the TARDIS. It creates some genuine emotional stakes for the two strongest characters of the series and we know by now that Whittaker and Walsh are more than up for the task.
The waters are muddied even further in the following scene when The Doctor herself starts whipping various weapons (including grenades) out of her bag like a sinister Mary Poppins. “I thought you don’t use weapons,” Ryan says, throwing The Doctor’s own moral code into question. She comes up with some shaky excuse about how it’s okay to use weapons on inanimate objects (like doors and walls) and how the rules are forever changing. It felt like Chiball was raising some tough questions about The Doctor’s belief system… and then just kind of… stopped.
Once the team makes it inside the floating shrine/weapon, the provocative ethical discussions and character development mostly fall by the wayside. Instead, we’re subjected to half-assed Sniperbot shootouts (they still can’t hit a target) and humdrum dialogue which is only there to move the plot along in the clunkiest manner. Just go back and count how many questions are asked throughout this episode. Who are you? What are you doing? What does that mean? Why are you here? What do you want? (most of these asked by perpetual afterthought Yaz). Here’s a question of my own, whatever happened to show don’t tell?
The Doctor and Graham dynamic is all but abandoned as Ryan takes over as the angel on Graham’s shoulder. Ryan tells his granddad not to go through with his murderous revenge plot, and he doesn’t, well, he does shoot the Stenza in the foot, but he refrains from killing him. I mean, it makes sense for Ryan and Graham to get the focus, their relationship has been central to the season and both are tied to Grace. I’m even on board with the “I love you” and long-awaited fist-bump, as both moments were surprisingly underplayed (I’m less enthused with the in unison “Grace”). It’s just a shame Chibnall didn’t dig further into The Doctor’s moral code.
The remainder of the episode struggles from the same issues which have plagued many of the stories this season. The conclusion is rushed and not particularly thrilling. It’s not even clear what exactly is happening at the end. The Doctor and Yaz stick their neural balancers on the heads of the Ux to stop them from building Tim Shaw’s weapon, which naturally is aimed at Earth. Then, after convincing Andinio and Delph that Tim Shaw is a false god, they all team up, combining the Ux powers with the TARDIS energy, and restore the stolen planets to their orbit. The universe is saved and Graham hasn’t killed anyone! Hooray!
As I said at the start of this recap, “The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos” felt like nothing more than a mid-season stopgap, and if it had appeared in the run five episodes earlier, I’d call it a passable installment of Doctor Who. As a season finale, however, it is dismally subpar. “The universe will surprise you… constantly,” says The Doctor at the end of the episode, if only this season of Doctor Who could have done the same.
The saving grace (not that Grace), is that we have a New Year’s Day special in a few weeks, and so perhaps that will act more like a season finale (the trailer alone was far more exciting than anything in this episode). It certainly needs to deliver now that we know the show won’t be returning until 2020!
— Doctor Who on BBC America (@DoctorWho_BBCA) December 9, 2018
-I know I say this every week, but I just feel really bad for Mandip Gill. Yaz practically got nothing to do in this episode. She is merely there to get info out of other characters in the most tedious way possible. Yaz deserves better. You have a year to fix this Chibnall!
-“I once towed your planet halfway across the universe in this Tardis, and turned a Slitheen back into an egg.” There were a couple of references to “Journey’s End” in this episode, and that probably didn’t help matters, comparing yourself to a much more entertaining season finale.
-“Yippee-ki-yay, robots!” Add that to Graham’s list of movie references, along with the Pulp Fiction quote from a couple of episodes back.
-Despite my criticisms, this season of Who has been a resounding a success, at least in terms of ratings, which are up significantly from Season 10. Whittaker and Walsh are both proving popular too, and rightfully so. My issues have never been related to the central performances. Whittaker almost instantly felt like The Doctor to me and has only improved over the course of the series. While Walsh has completely surprised me with his understated yet heartfelt performance. I just wish they had stronger material to work with.
Doctor Who, Sundays, 8/7c, BBC America