This Story in a Nutshell: Tim Shaw returns and Graham has murder in mind…
Oh Brilliant: What a learning curve Whittaker has been on this year, taking on a role that nobody in a million years would have expected to (even her probably), bravely turning a bind eye to the critics and throwing herself into the part and doing it her own way. Despite the venomous backlash from a certain section of Doctor Who fandom (you know those who think that if it isn’t done their way, it’s not Doctor Who), Whittaker has shined and here at the end of the season she saunters out on a high; confident, charismatic and completely in control of the series. There is still the occasional attempt for Chibnall to make her whacky which feels forced, but overall she acquits herself beautifully here, often lifting some pretty standard material. She’s become adept at tackling technobabble (check out her first scene) and handles herself brilliantly when she steps from the TARDIS and is presented with a gun pointed at her. This is the only story where the Doctor gets to lift an entire planet up. She admits that her rules change all the time, that she has a flawed sense of morality. The last time the Doctor walked into danger with a bomb strapped to his/her back was Revenge of the Cybermen. Whittaker pulls it off as well as Tom Baker because she seems like she genuinely doesn’t care if it goes off if she doesn’t get the answers she wants. She’s sneery in the face of Tim Shaw and his plans for Godhood, just as the Doctor should be with anyone who gets ideas above their station. When the Doctor barks at Tim Shaw that he breaking every law in the universe, it’s Whittaker who is making the climax count for something. Her intensity suggests that something very serious is happening. The Doctor’s love of the TARDIS shines through at the conclusion. I’m not sure about its nickname as the Ghost Monument though.
Graham: Graham gets one of the most powerful moments of the year when he openly admits to the Doctor that if he gets the chance he will kill Tim Shaw. I love his complete lack of ambiguity. This is how it is and I won’t change my mind. And I believed him too. It’s a charged moment between him and the Doctor because he truly stands up to her at this point, and she is as clear with him that if he goes ahead with this then she will be taking him home. I could do with more moments like this between the TARDIS crew because it really made me sit up and pay attention. Ultimately, he isn’t a warrior and he only blasts Tim Shaw in the foot, which is right for the character (especially since I want him to stick around). And ultimately Grace wouldn’t have wanted her death to turn him into a murderer.
Ryan: It’s a shame that they are interrupted by Sniperbots because the conversation between Ryan and Graham about the finer points of revenge and whether it is worth was very nicely written. It feels like it is difficult to give all three companions enough character threads and allow an episode to breathe and so each week somebody takes a backseat (often Yaz). Because of their shared connection, Ryan and Graham enjoy a number of scenes where they discuss Grace. I’d like to feel a deeper connection between them than I do at the moment, an episode where one of the other genuinely feels like they are going to lose the other wouldn’t come amiss. Ryan saying that he loves Graham, but not being able to look him in the eye doesn’t really cut it.
Yaz: Was she there?
Sparkling Dialogue: ‘The more we learn, the less we realise we know…’ I’m starting to feel that way myself as I head towards my 40s.
‘Universe, provide for me. I’m working really hard to keep you together right now.’
‘None of know for sure what’s out there. That’s why we keep looking. Keep your faith, Travel hopefully. The universe’ll surprise you…constantly.’
Dreadful Dialogue: ‘I still remember how to take down robots, luckily for you!’ This is part of Chibnall’s problem. He writes the sort of dialogue that other people write when they are spoofing back science fiction, but for real. This kind of macho bollocks belongs in an Eric Saward script.
The Good: Am I the only who still gets a twinge when the TARDIS lands in an atmospheric location such as a crashed spaceship? The promise of danger and excitement when they step out of the doors. Mark Addy is a character actor I have admired for many years and I’ve seen him handle drama (Game of Thrones) and comedy (The Thin Blue Line, Trollied) with equal skill. How lovely to see him finally turn up in Doctor Who. It’s not the most memorable role in the world but he acquits himself beautifully. At first he feels genuine threat but very quickly he feels part of the gang. The early scenes on the spaceship have a dark, oppressive feel to them which is mostly down to the lighting, stunning sets and direction. I’m torn about the return of Tim Shaw. Was he a villain who deserved a return visit? Probably not given that beyond his design he didn’t really stand out from the other despots that the Doctor has encountered. And yet his return feels like the series is generating a little continuity (something I confess I would like to see happening a little more), he’s treated as a serious threat with a big bold ridiculous plan (in true Doctor Who style) and his appearance prompts one of the best scenes of the season (Graham confessing that he will kill him when he sees him). The last time the crew took on this character they lost somebody important with ramifications that have bled through the season. By bringing him back it feels there is a chance that not everybody will make it out of this alive, a feeling I haven’t had since the RTD era. The edifice looming through the mist is a powerful image. It’s not just the fact that entire worlds are being held in stasis as tiny globes that brings back fond memories of The Pirate Planet, but that the Earth is the target of danger at the eleventh hour. At least this episode has a solid reason for it being the Earth rather than simply capitulating to the fact that that is one of the tropes of the show. Whilst the technobabble flew straight over my head, the pyrotechnics at the climax were very impressive. Flashing eyes, planets bursting into life, an exploding TARDIS, slow motion running. Even if I can’t be sure that something ground-breaking is going on, it at least looks as if something is. I’m not endorsing that approach to storytelling at all but you can’t blame a director for trying. Just a thought – those stasis crystals really look like the Key to Time segments.
The Bad: When the opening scenes are reminiscent of Planet of Fire (two quasi-religious figures on a journey across a rocky plain spouting mumbo jumbo) I begin to worry. It’s exactly the approach to Doctor Who that RTD tried to avoid, characters from planet Zog gathering on a planet that nobody can get their tongue around talking about things that don’t mean anything to the audience at large. It’s science fiction of the Star Trek and Stargate variety, not at all the sort of thing that Doctor Who usually touches. Or if it does it usually does it with much more of a sense of humour to make it palatable and with the sort of stereotypes you can warm to. This is science fiction that is pitched at 15-year-old nerds, so deadly serious and without irony. The Sniperbots shooting each other down as Graham and Ryan duck is beyond hackneyed, but to be fair to Chibnall it is exactly what Moffat did with the Daleks is Day of the Doctor and that seemed to get by without comment. How nice of Tim Shaw to keep talking even after the Doctor has run away to stop his plans. It’s always helpful when a villain stands in an empty room and reveals plot points. Much like The Pirate Planet, I have absolutely no clue what happens at the climax. Unlike The Pirate Planet, it isn’t delivered to me in a way that makes me think something inexplicably clever has happened. Essentially it’s Aux + TARDIS + Stenza tech = everything is fine. What it needs is a sacrifice, to make the drama hurt. Instead everybody walks away scot free (even Tim Shaw) and so it all feels a little too tidy.
Result: With the epic New Years Day special on the horizon and no series for another year, can this really be treated as the season finale? As a finale it is a bit of a flop, even though it does pick up elements from the season and try and do something dramatic with them. Despite the fact the fate of several worlds hang in the balance, the stakes don’t feel high enough, the situation isn’t desperate enough and ultimately the episode doesn’t lead to any startling revelations or great drama. However, as a regular episode of Doctor Who it is perfectly serviceable. With its head definitely in science fiction and jettisoning a lot of things that usually make the series palatable (humour in particular), The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos (who the fuck thought that title passed muster?) presents an intriguing mystery, some fine visuals, lovely character beats and an explosive conclusion. Had this been placed where Tsuranga was I think it would have been greeted much more favourably. However, we have become accustomed to massive revelations in our finales such as the Doctor’s regeneration, Rose’s alternative universe prison, Donna’s ‘death’, the reveal of the War Doctor and as such a perfectly functional episode of Doctor Who simply fails to cut the mustard. Those who declare this as the worst finale ever must have erased Hell Bent from their memories. I really enjoyed the doomy feeling that infused the episode. In a superbly made season this is an episode that leans heavily on atmosphere and everybody that is involved in making this piece as despairing as possible deserves a round of applause. Tim Shaw is brought back with some fanfare and his scheme is certainly audacious but how he is defeated is a little hard to swallow. Let’s just shoot all supervillains in the foot from now one and shove them in stasis. It’s Whittaker that impressed me the most; passionate, commanding and leading the way all the way through. Her little diatribe at the climax is lovely, very Hartnell-esque (‘our destiny is in the stars’). Chibnall is the weakest writer of his debut year, there’s no doubt about that. He also hasn’t really dropped the ball or produced anything truly spectacular. This is the superior end of his middling efforts, just edging towards being really rather good. With a little more focus on personal drama and a little less focus on pious science fiction and this might have been spectacular. As it is it serves as a reasonable but never truly outstanding climax to a year of Doctor Who that completely restructured the feel of the show. Whether you have enjoyed it or not is entirely down to personal taste. Ratings wise it seems to have gone down rather well, amongst fans there is a vocal majority who seem to get a sexual thrill out of tearing it down. For me? I’ve watched the run from Punjab to It Takes You Away five times since it has been aired, something I very rarely did with any of the Moffat seasons. Series 11 has problems, but it’s also doing far more things right than some people care to admit. I’m calling it a moderate success that needs to be fine tweaked and built on, with a curious but lacklustre finale: 6/10