Contains spoilers for the episode
And so we reach the end – all too soon. A ten-episode season simply doesn’t feel long enough for Doctor Who, even if we still have one more feature length special to come on New Years Day. But it’s quality over quantity as the saying goes, so how does the 2018 season finale “The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos” written by showrunner Chris Chibnall fare on the former attribute? As ever, the answer to that is mixed and not altogether straightforward.
We start with the kind of opening scene that used to be standard in the 1970s series but which has been little used in recent years: with no Doctor in sight, we have two entirely new characters talking cryptically and portentously to each other about a pressing situation in terms that we don’t know nearly enough about to understand. What we can tell is that Andinio (Downton Abbey’ Phyllis Logan) and Delph (Wizards vs. Aliens’s Percelle Ascott) are members of the ultra-rare Ux religious order who possess incredible powers to manipulate reality. Oh, and they’ve got a guest dropping in for tea.
A mere few thousand years later, the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) and her friends Graham (Bradley Walsh), Ryan (Tosin Cole) and Yas (Mandip Gill) finally show up in response to a flurry of distress calls from the same planet. They find the aftermath of a ferocious space battle and a single survivor, Captain Paltraki (played by Game of Thrones star Mark Addy). Unfortunately he can’t remember a thing about what’s going on, meaning that the Doctor has to piece together what it’s all about. Paltraki’s memory does start to kick in again as the episode progresses, meaning that he can drip-feed bits of exposition when they’re required to move the story along; it’s to Addy’s credit as a performer that this doesn’t come across as quite the thuddingly crude script contrivance that in truth it is.
In fact as a whole it’s an effective, atmospheric first half of the show as the team go hiking through the barren wilderness – charmingly represented by a quarry the likes of which used to be used as filming locations all through the classic era of Who, not to mention its younger sibling Blakes 7. This time it’s dressed a lot better, and eerily filmed by director Jamie Childs to great effect. In fact after a couple of weeks of looking like the production team had been having to cut costs, this episode was visually back up to full strength.
At the end of their trek the team finds the Ux shrine. And anyone who doesn’t immediately think “that visual is straight out of Arrival!” clearly hasn’t seen 2016’s greatest science fiction film, one of my all time favourites. It’s actually impressively executed by the Who FX team, and it looks rather beautiful the way that it hangs in the air in exactly the way that bricks don’t. Inside, the ‘shrine’ looks rather like a contemporary industrial complex than a place of worship, which is a strange design or location decision. However it’s not too terribly distracting, and is well photographed as a ‘haunted house’ as our heroes split up to search for Paltraki’s crew. While Ryan and Graham set about releasing the captives, the Doctor and Yas confront the one behind it all. And it turns out we know him.
In a rebooted season of Doctor Who that made a fetish about not using established classic enemies like Daleks or Cybermen, or have big overarching plot lines like Bad Wolf or even two-part episodes wherever possible, the only way that the season finale could have sufficient ‘heft’ to pull off the heavy lifting of bringing this run of episodes to a satisfyingly rousing climax was to fall back on one of its own recent creations. Everyone had pretty much guessed that this would mean the return of everyone’s favourite Stenza, the toothy T’zim-Sha (Samuel Oatley) first encountered in “The Woman Who Fell To Earth”, and this was quickly confirmed to be the case. He was looking a little under the weather after his teleport home went awry and left him battered and bruised on Ranskoor Av Kolos, where he suckered the resident Ux into serving him as their god made incarnate.
You can see Chibnall’s mind as a writer at work here, as he finds a way of giving a coherent narrative structure to his first season as showrunner. There was always something of a ‘loose end’ to the way that the season premier dispatched T’zim-Sha, including the way it never occurred to the Doctor to lift a finger to save the Stenza’s former prey who were being held in stasis back home. Technically speaking the captives here are not the ones referred to in that first story, but their rescue at least suggests that the Doctor is attending to some long overdue business. Similarly, odd-at-the-time hints about Stenza technology in “The Ghost Monument” are picked up and given context, with the sentry robots even showing up to provide a little Call of Duty action to liven up the second half of proceedings. However there’s no mention of “the Timeless Child” which was name-checked in the same episode and never referred to again, so I guess that’s something for season 12 to address.
The return of T’zim-Sha isn’t just the standard return of an old adversary: it’s also the entire reason for the emotional aspect of this episode, because he was responsible for Grace’s death at the start of the season. In this episode’s best and genuinely startling scene, Graham tells the Doctor what he will kill T’zim-Sha the first chance he gets; and the Doctor, equally forthright, says that cold blooded murder is a red line as far as she is concerned, and that if he does this he can never travel in the Tardis with them again. When Graham replies “I’m fine with that” you believe him, and it feels like this could be the end of the current line-up.
Naturally Graham is talked out of it, with Ryan asking “What would Grace want you to do?” One of the most remarkable aspects of season 11 is how the character of Grace – that everyone agreed deserved to be a full-time companion – has ended up being one of the most important, vibrant and substantial presences in the whole run, despite the handicap of being killed off in the first episode. By contrast Yas remains strangely detached and something of a cypher; despite having had two episodes revolving around her family set-up, Yas herself has held back and been an observer, denied much in the way of significant emotional development. It seems that her defining trait really is to stand loyally and bravely beside the Doctor at all times, but maybe that’s more than we give it credit for: sometimes character is conveyed through actions rather than words. Yas gets to be the practical sidekick while Graham and Ryan have the opportunity to explore their feelings. For this season at least, that appears to be sufficient.
The previous episode had ended with Graham and Ryan finally developing and accepting a true familial bond. I’d thought that was the end of that particular subplot, but it turns out to have been a stepping stone for a much better and deeper resolution in which Ryan confesses that he loves the old man; but being British blokes they do this in a way that is never, under any circumstances, to be repeated or referred to ever again. Yet it has been said, the truth established and accepted, and the fist bump that follows is more eloquent than lines of dialogue could ever convey. And Graham gets to stay in the Tardis after all, as long as the Doctor doesn’t ask about why T’zim-Sha has that limp now…
It’s just as well the Doctor’s resolve to ban him from the team wasn’t tested, as this incarnation has been established one of the more self-righteous and sanctimonious of the Time Lord’s myriad personalities. To be honest it’s an irritating trait, given that the character in the past has used guns and killed people when the circumstances warranted it. It’s only been in recent years that the show has adopted more pacifist ideals, and while commendable it’s also problematic in what is after all supposed to be an action-adventure science fiction series. It’s rather satisfying then that Chibnall adds a scene of meta-awareness where the Doctor – handing out grenades and bombs to her team – is called out on her double standards. And while she tries to justify it (saying its okay to blow up things that can be repaired or replaced, rather than people) you can feel the air going out of her argument as her friends press the point – and about time, too.
With Ryan and Graham taking care of the captives and confronting T’zim-Sha, it’s left to the Doctor and Yas to undo the Stenza’s nefarious plan in a spasm of pyrotechnics the likes of which we haven’t seen in the show since Peter Capaldi’s Tardis bit the dust last Christmas. It’s what passes for a big all-action finale for season 11: if in previous years this would have been a merely average mid-season action sequence, then it’s transformed into a much bigger deal here purely by virtue of its context, coming as it does at the end of a consciously quieter, more subdued and introspective run. Whether this late burst of explosions will be enough to satisfy fans who desperately want more frantic running around and things blowing up, I’m not sure.
The noise and spectacle also serve to distract from a side of the plot which is barely hanging in there and which ultimately descends into a cascade of technobabble to save the day. Chibnall needs to keep things moving fast so that we don’t ask any questions or notice any glaring holes – he likes writing complex scripts but he’s not the detail-obsessive that his predecessor Steven Moffat was, and so prefers a story that ‘feels right’ rather than nails down every last point.
For example: the chief concern in the last act is the fate of T’zim-Sha’s trophy cabinet of worlds from around the universe upon which he’s taken his revenge by compressing them down to baseball size and then storing them in a form of hi-tech amber. I never really understood why Paltraki and his crew were so determined to steal one of these, or why T’zim-Sha should put such great store in retrieving it, or why the captive planets suddenly chose that moment to become so unstable that they threaten to break out and destroy Ranskoor Av Kolos itself. Also unclear to me was whether the inhabitants of the shrink-wrapped worlds in question had really all been wiped out in a fit of planetary genocide or whether they could be restored by being returned to their original time, place and size in the universe. Otherwise, was such a full restoration really worth the bother?
Of course, this being a Doctor Who season finale, things wouldn’t be complete without a direct threat to Earth, and so our own world is next on T’zim-Sha’s to-do list with the help of his subservient Ux. But it turns out to be a strangely detached threat, with the Earth seen placidly only from high orbit. If this had been a Russell T Davies story then he would have brought home the human aspect of the danger by showing the situation on the ground through the eyes of characters we already knew – Yas’ family, for example – but here they are completely absent. The Earth is just an abstract CGI icon and we have no idea whether that’s supposed to be modern day Earth or one from thousands of years in the future, or whether there’s even anyone on it at all. It’s a symbolic but sterile danger, one that we can’t identify with because it’s just a pretty bit of CGI at the end of the day.
Other areas where Chibnall’s plotting looks threadbare include the neural inhibitors which we’re told early in the episode must be worn by the Tardis crew at all times to stop them from psychic energy causing them to see hallucinations and going mad. Inevitably there comes a moment when Yas and the Doctor have to take theirs off, and the upshot is … Well, nothing at first; and by the time they start to get a headache they can just pop them back on and everything’s just fine. The devices are actually needed as a useful technobabble point to get the Ux to reconnect with reality, but it feels like a waste of an idea, a broken promise and a contravention of the concept of Chekhov’s Gun in drama.
Still, as I mentioned already, Chibnall is about the overall sweeping impression and not the detail. As long as it all provides just enough believable substance to be satisfying then we’re not supposed to get too hung up about such things. And if you can move past these quibbles then I think you really will enjoy “The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos” in the way that the writer intends, and be able to regard it as a fitting and effective way to finish off the first season of Chibnall and Whittaker’s residency. The episode even ends with a short speech from the Doctor as she’s about to step back into the Tardis where she talks about the reason why she and her friends go looking for adventures in time and space: and it’s as nice, simple and beautiful a statement of the show’s ethos as you could hope for. I suspect it will be the moment that features in Whittaker’s defining showreel as the Thirteenth Doctor for many years to come.
While it’s the end of season 11, the moment has been prepared for – even though there’s no Doctor Who Christmas special this year for the first time since 2005, which I have rather mixed feelings about. It does feel emblematic of the show’s slow slide from the centre stage, but on the other hand I had been finding Doctor Who an increasingly poor, inconvenient fit for Christmas Day which is all about family, friends, games, food and drink and not really paying serious attention to drama on the TV. Maybe New Year’s Day will turn out to be a better place for it.
The special – fittingly titled “Resolution” – also needs to provide an even more effective end to the current run, since the show won’t be back on air ‘until early 2020’ according to the latest press release from the BBC. That seems rather disappointing: the whole point of the shorter season was to enable the production team to come up with a full series every year instead of slipping around the schedules in the irregular stop-start staccato manner of recent runs. Instead it seems that even the shorter runs are now too much work, with rumours circulating that Chibnall is already feeling the strain and considering moving on sooner rather than later. Whittaker herself has been quoted as saying “I’m not quite ready to hand it over yet” which hardly feels like she’s planning on a long stay either.
I hope that’s not the case, and that this is just the start of an extended journey with Chibnall, Whittaker, Walsh, Cole and Gill. After just ten episodes it feels like we’ve barely got to know them. Having gone through this season of change and upheaval in the show’s format, we deserve to reap the rewards of our forbearance by getting to enjoy seeing what should now blossom over a long spring and summer for a rejuvenated – indeed, regenerated – Doctor Who.
Doctor Who continues on BBC One on New Years Day, and will afterwards be available on BBC iPlayer for viewers in the UK. A home media release on DVD and Blu-ray is expected early in 2019.