Well, it had mostly been a good ride, hadn’t it? Like the equally drearily-titled The Tsuranga Conundrum, The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos has elements that make for interesting drama, and, like that episode, wastes pretty much all of them. The result is an inexcusably drab fifty minutes, and the most disappointing note for a series of Doctor Who to end on so far this century – a shame after a series full of so many brilliant moments.
Chris Chibnall was clear there would be a less pronounced arc to this season, which is no inherently bad thing – as long as there’s some progression for the characters along the way. It’s what we rightly demand of Doctor Who now. For pretty much the first time this year, characters arrive at cross-purposes, yet it doesn’t pay off. Graham openly resolves to kill Tim Shaw (Samuel Oatley), Ryan and the Doctor implore him not to, and then he finds he can’t bring himself to do it. It feels incredibly by the numbers, no twists or turns to complicate proceedings or motivations, and nothing happening under the surface. Graham full-on states his intention – there’s nothing for the Doctor or anyone else to detect. Where’s the drama in any of this?
All the story does is bring Ryan and Graham closer together, finding them some closure for the loss of Grace (something that had been examined more interestingly last week). What’s here for the other characters? What is the group’s relationship at the end of this series? Each individual has some relationship with the Doctor, and Graham and Ryan have their own bond. But how do Yaz and Graham relate to one another? What makes hers and Ryan’s relationship interesting? And how do they all feel about the Doctor as a phenomenon separate from themselves? Each week, a character has had their time in the spotlight, but as the series ends, this group’s dynamic as whole remains ill-defined.
Another trick a finale can pull is to bring back a previous villain – sure enough, Tim Shaw returns. And it’s a good performance from Samuel Oatley, but the characterisation feels inconsistent. After references to the Stenza’s legacy in The Ghost Monument, we might have expected to see Tim Shaw in the context of his society, even as an outcast – perhaps also to have seen the Stenza at the height of their powers. A terrifying army. Instead, we see Tim Shaw changed quite arbitrarily to a false god, a shouting megalomaniac with a super weapon. After seeing him as a lone, privileged hunter in episode one, denied the glory within his grasp, we could see him twisted by greed and entitlement here. But this could be any identikit sci-fi villain – and it isn’t interesting. Most frustratingly, it could be.
We see an attempt to question the Doctor’s culpability for Tim Shaw’s crimes, the price of her mercy when dispatching him at the start of the series – but it isn’t built upon. Compare to Journey’s End (2008), when Davros asks the Doctor how many have died in his name. We have seen those deaths, we see them again, we can feel their weight. We could feel the weight of the genocides that have been committed here too. But they are wrapped up in a cold, high-concept sci-fi mystery. The Ux, aliens that can create and destroy worlds, make practically anything happen, at the will of a god of their choosing, are a fascinating concept. But the way Andinio (Phyllis Logan) and Delph (Percelle Ascott) are written, they simply don’t feel like people.
Too long we’re kept asking what ‘object’ Paltraki’s (Mark Addy) crew have stolen, what the true nature of the Ux’s power is. And when the revelation comes that these objects are shrunken planets, whole worlds wiped out in the name of the Ux’s false religion, it should feel like an enormous moment – but it doesn’t. There’s no moment of guilt for the Ux as they realise their gullibility has killed billions. No misplaced guilt for the Doctor, whose mercy let this situation arise. If the parties concerned are given no moment to feel the drama of their story, why should we? In what could be such a huge story, why do the stakes feel so bizarrely low, the drama so distant?
In what seems a telling metaphor for this all, the titular battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos has already happened. A grand title like that might, dare I say it, suggest that we would see the drama of a battle. In fact, it has been and gone, and we can feel very little of the aftermath when we only meet one character to have experienced it – and he has conveniently lost his memory of select information. Mark Addy, in that respect, is terribly wasted as Paltraki. Aside from a patchy memory and a basic assumption of competence, I could tell you nothing of the character he’s playing. A function of plot is not a person.
Doctor Who is unquestionably made by a team of immensely talented, hard-working and devoted people, and it feels churlish to attack the fruits of their labours, especially when it means ending this run of write-ups on such a sour note. The programme has had plenty of failures throughout its history, after all, including in recent years, and this finale only feels worse than those for being an uninteresting failure. So instead, I’ll finish by looking at all the things I’ve enjoyed so much about this series, which on balance has been fantastic.
Firstly, Jodie Whittaker and the other three leads have been excellent. Their relationships with each other aren’t all equally engrossing, and that has a chance to improve in 2020, but as individuals, their performances are engaging, sympathetic, and, not a given in Doctor Who, utterly loveable. Look at the wealth of new talent brought onto the writing team too, and the benefit their new perspectives have given the programme, especially with this year’s trips into the past. Those gave us real, human drama about challenging subjects from history, showing how relevant they can still prove today. For my money, the three stand-out episodes of the series.
I hope all the guest writers return, and, alongside Chris Chibnall, continue to build our characters. I want to see them come into opposition more. I want to see them feel real jeopardy more. I want to see their families more. I want to see Sheffield more too. As a location, it’s lent a fresh sense of reality to proceedings after the fanciful tendencies of the last few years, and was a big part of this series’ sheer confidence early on.
The same is true for Segun Akinola’s music, the programme’s secret weapon throughout this series, and another breath of fresh air – to say nothing of how enthralling the cinematography has been. To see in such big changes for such a successful franchise, and do it with such a winning sense of boldness, is no mean feat. And for that, in spite of a couple of weak scripts, this first series under Chris Chibnall’s leadership is to be celebrated. It’s not to be underestimated how tough it is to get people excited about something that’s been on for 13 years, and the phenomenal ratings Doctor Who achieved this year is testament to its new team’s success.
And so, for one day only, on to 2019!