The 11th (new) series finale of Doctor Who is upon us, and like the rest of this somewhat uneven year’s offerings, it is (once again) a decidedly mixed bag. This season has hit brilliance with “Rosa” and “Demons of the Punjab,” only to fall flat with “Kerblam!” and “It Takes You Away.” Renewed Doctor Who’s 11th year has thrived on historical/personal dramas, but has faltered with some of its more science-fiction heavy stories.
Sadly, “The Battle Of Ranskoor Av Kolos ” is one of the latter.
****TARDIS-SIZED SPOILERS AHEAD! *****
The story begins thousands of years ago, with what appear to be two Jedi knights known as the Ux; a race of (only) two religious zealots (like Star Wars’ Sith; a master and apprentice) named Andonio (Phyllis Logan) and Delph (Percelle Ascot). The two possess godlike powers, with the ability to shape the universe, but are curiously ignorant in rational thinking…their abilities are derived entirely from blind faith. As a science geek, I won’t even get into the issues I have with blind faith over rationality, so I’m moving on…
A mysterious ‘guest’ materializes in the middle of Delph’s glowy-eyed force training…a ‘guest’ who will reshape their faith and weaponize their abilities. And no, it’s not the Doctor’s TARDIS…
Cut to the present day.
The TARDIS answers a distress call and materializes aboard a seemingly abandoned alien ship. Once there, the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) realizes that she, Graham (Bradley Walsh), Ryan (Tocin Cole) and Yaz (Mandip Gill) are all being attacked by powerful psionic waves emanating nearby. As a precaution, she gives each of Team TARDIS neural inhibitors which nullify the effects of the waves. Looking for signs of life aboard, they find a frightened, semi-amnesiac man named Paltraki (Mark Addy) searching for his kidnapped crew, being held somewhere on the rock quarry-ish Jedi planet called Ranskoor Av Kolos. To help calm his mind, the Doctor gives him an inhibitor and promises that they are there to help (“Like it says on the box”, a reference to the St. John’s ambulance sticker on the TARDIS’ exterior).
In the ship’s cargo hold, the Doctor finds a strange, translucent container holding what appears to be a furiously spinning little orb of unbelievably high density. She is, against all the laws of physics, able to lift the container despite its dense content. Paltraki begins to remember that this object was very valuable to whomever kidnapped his crew. They receive a threatening call from the surface; the Doctor recognizes the voice…it’s the alien hunter, Tzim Sha, aka “Tim Shaw” (Samuel Oatley) whom the new Team TARDIS encountered in their first adventure together (“The Woman Who Fell To Earth”). Apparently, the DNA bombs hurled Tim Shaw back in time several millennia to Delph and Adonio’s little reality-bending session seen earlier. The fugitive alien has set up shop as the powerful and long-lived Ux’s resident god.
What could possibly go wrong?
Team TARDIS & Paltraki venture onto the surface of the planet and begin searching for Paltraki’s kidnapped crew, using the translucent container and its contents as a bargaining chip. At his insistence, the Doctor and Graham have a word together; Graham warns her that he will kill Tim Shaw on sight if given the chance, since Tim is responsible for the death of his beloved wife Grace (Ryan’s grandmother). The Doctor tells Graham that he is better than revenge, but Graham is unswayed. The team moves on…nice pep talk.
Contradicting what she just told Graham moments earlier, the Doctor attaches grenades (yes, as in deadly freaking weapons) to her ‘bargaining chip’ object in the event negotiation with Tim Shaw fails; kind of the exact opposite of the we-don’t-murder-for-revenge spiel she just gave to Graham. In a weak bit of dialogue designed to gloss things over, the Doctor admits her own ‘rules’ are subject to change. Standing just underneath Tim Shaw’s floating temple/ship/thingamajig, the group are transported inside of it and immediately set about finding Paltraki’s kidnapped crew. Yaz teams up with Paltraki, Graham and Ryan go off together and The Doctor seeks out Tim Shaw, with a bagful of weapons and the grenade-laden object.
Hmmm…okay. This is the same Doctor who never carries a gun (?).
Ryan and Graham are surrounded by and immediately dispatch two groups of deadly ‘assassin androids’ (the same kind they encountered earlier this season) by simply ducking and letting them blast each other with their own crossfire. A funny little bit, yes, but it completely undermines any threat these droids have (or will have) in the episode. Later on, more of these droids are taken out, when Paltraki shoots a squad of them before they can react. I mean, these droids are supposed to be assassins; that generally implies some measure of stealth or cunning…otherwise they’d just be security guard droids, right? The “Robots of Death” from the classic series would’ve had these guys for lunch.
Soon enough, the Doctor encounters the alien predator/hunter Tzim Sha/Tim Shaw, who is now a god on this planet, thanks to the willful ignorance of the powerful-but-stupid Ux. Tim and the Doctor hurl a few insults at each other, as Tim begins monologuing about how he arrived in the past, became a god, planned his revenge against Team TARDIS, yada, yada, yada. Another badly written Exposition Dump. This season of DW has had a few of those. Exposition in itself is not a writing crime, so long as the audience isn’t so acutely aware of it. A writer should convey vital information in clever ways (visually, or in natural-sounding dialogue), rather than just having a single character rattle it off like a grocery store list. The Doctor soon realizes that Tim’s coveted object is actually a shrunken, living planet trapped inside of that clear container, and she runs off… literally leaving Tim standing alone, monologuing to himself. It’s a weird and embarrassing bit of dramatic staging.
It’s around this same time that Yaz, in another part of the temple/ship/thingamajig, discovers more of these furiously spinning little planets inside of their clear cases, with an empty vessel earmarked for Earth; the planet where Tim first encountered Team TARDIS. This is his ultimate revenge against the team…snatching their planet from orbit and dropping it into the receptacle, harnessing the universe-bending power of the none-too-bright Ux to do so.
Through a complex bit of technobabble (less techno, more mystical-babble), the Doctor wins the Ux over by convincing them that their ‘god’ isn’t the true god (taking a page right out of Captain Kirk’s “How To Sway The Natives” playbook), and summons the TARDIS with her sonic screwdriver (it’s official… the sonic can now do everything; let’s just call it a magic wand now, okay?).
Yaz and the Doctor temporarily surrender their neural inhibitors to the Ux (risking fogginess and a bit of a headache) to block the deadly beam that’s currently shrinking the Earth.
With Earth saved, Yaz, the Doctor, and the powerful Ux use the Tardis as a transmitter and set about returning the captured planets back to their proper spacetime.
Meanwhile, Graham and Ryan find Paltraki’s crew in cryogenic suspension and set about freeing them, as Graham confronts Tim Shaw, the creature that killed his wife. Graham’s packing a really BIG gun, too…
… but the combined words of the Doctor and his grandson eventually Ryan sink in, and he doesn’t kill Tim Shaw. Instead, Graham shoots Tim in the foot (nice and non-lethal) and he and Ryan set Tim up in one of the stasis cells that formerly housed Paltraki’s people. Ryan and Graham also have a nice moment as Ryan finally recognizes his grandmother’s new husband as his legitimate grandpop. It’s the completion of a mini-arc as Ryan’s ‘shields’ finally lower a bit.
Earth is saved, the other planets are returned, Tim Shaw is in stasis, and Paltraki is reunited with his people. Paltraki invites the somewhat agoraphobic Ux to join them, and they accept.
Team TARDIS takes off…
Summing up “The Battle…” and this season.
Lacking the overall emotional punch, clarity or confidence of previous season finales under former showrunners Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat, writer (and current showrunner) Chris Chibnall’s “The Battle Of Ranskoor Av Kolos” is a patchwork of interesting and not-so-interesting ideas, thrown together against a less-than-enthralling foe. I liked the idea of planets stored in little clear containers, and I’m glad Ryan and his grandad patched things up,, but beyond that? It’s a bit ‘meh’ for a season finale.
The Earth in peril never quite felt ‘real.’ We never once feel the stakes. While we see a few shots of the beam enveloping the Earth, we don’t see a single reaction shot from the ground...not even one member of Yaz’ family looking out of a window. Nothing. It’s emotionally sterile, especially when compared to the stakes seen previously in “Parting of the Ways”, “Journey’s End” or “The End of Time.”
Tzim Sha/Tim Shaw was a somewhat perfunctory villain at the start of the season, basically playing a tooth-faced version of “The Predator.” To have him return as this season’s ‘big bad’? Well, let’s just say I’m pining for the days of the Master/Missy, the Cybermen and the Daleks…. a lot. I give Chibnall credit for creating new races/creatures, and resisting the temptation to give into DW lore/nostalgia, but maybe this was an occasion where nostalgia might’ve given the finale a bit more oomph.
I like Whittaker’s Doctor as well, but she’s spent the 10-episode run of this year in frantic, post-regeneration mode, never really giving us the emotional depth and insight we’ve seen in other Doctors (even the similarly frantic Matt Smith began showing his deeper acting chops by this point in his run). Whittaker plays what’s on the page as well as possible, but the character is all-surface these days. I am confident that Whittaker could do much more if given the chance.
This year’s crop of companions, who went from Team TARDIS to a ‘fam’, are a nice bunch. The many attempts to give each of them focus and bits of business are appreciated. I’ve not had any serious issues with the actors or characters. Mandip Gill’s Yaz and Bradley Walsh’s Graham are both as charming as can be. If I had a companion gripe, it’s the occasional underuse of Tosin Cole’s Ryan, who is sometimes reduced to a near monosyllabic sidekick. We see a lot of Graham’s grief dealing with the death of his late wife Grace, but we see little of that reflected in Ryan, who also lost his beloved ‘gran.’
Having just heard the news today that Doctor Who is taking a year off and won’t return till 2020, I’m thinking this could ultimately be a good thing for the longterm health of the series. Maybe that year off will give Chibnall a chance to rethink the current direction of his talented, but sometimes misused company.