In the run-up to the finale of Doctor Who season 11, fans were wondering if the last episode of this latest outing could achieve the same impact as past years, even though there hadn’t been the typical story arc building in the background. Sure, we were all pretty confident that the premiere’s villain was going to come back, but would that be enough to lift it to the heights of previous finales?
Sporting the cumbersome title of “The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos,” the episode saw the TARDIS team investigate some distress signals calling them to the titular mouthful of a planet where they encounter a familiar foe. Yes, to the surprise of literally no one in the audience, T’Zim-Sha of the Stenza returned to get his revenge on the Doctor. It involved something about shrinking planets and delusions of godhood. But not to worry, as it was soon solved with a whizz of the sonic screwdriver and a bit of help from the TARDIS.
Excuse my sarcasm, but “Battle” suffers from a serious lack of stakes and tension that would be an issue in any episode but is certainly a major flaw in a finale. The fact that we all guessed Tim Shaw would be back isn’t necessarily a problem – a great twist is satisfying even if you see it coming – but, without that big reveal, the story has no real shocks or developments that ramped up the drama. The intriguing concept that the planet messes with your mind is given a lot of set-up but is bizarrely never paid off. Likewise, the Ux – a duo of powerful aliens – could have been fascinating but are mostly ill-defined. At least there’s some nice positive stuff about faith and religion in there, though.
The resolution to the story, mentioned above, will likely draw fans’ ire as it resurrects an old pet peeve – the TARDIS being used as a deus ex machina to save the day in the finale. The show’s fallen out of this trope in recent years but showrunner Chris Chibnall decides to bring it back in full swing here. There’s an attempt to make light of the easy ending by referencing previous instances the time machine has been used this way, but the self-awareness doesn’t quite cover the fact that it feels a little cheap. Perhaps this could be forgiven if there was some emotional climax alongside it – even, say, the sacrifice of one of the Ux – but there’s not.
As for the villain, Tim Shaw was a perfectly solid antagonist when he debuted in the season opener. He didn’t have much to him, but the visual gimmick of his tooth-filled face was a neat one and the jokes about his unfortunately English-sounding name were fun. Unfortunately, though, he just doesn’t have the legs to carry a season finale. There’s an attempt to give him some depth by having him believe he’s a god, but it’s really hard to take him seriously as a dangerous threat when we saw him so mercilessly humiliated in his last battle with the Time Lord.
One thing that the episode did do right was leave the emotional heft of the story to Ryan and Graham. The pair’s step-granddad/grandson relationship has been by far the most well-developed and enjoyable friendship in the TARDIS this year. We’ve felt them grow closer after the death of Grace in the first episode and last week even saw the reluctant Ryan finally call Graham his “granddad.” The scene in which Ryan convinces Graham not to kill Shaw and admits that he loves him was the highlight of the episode. Kudos to Bradley Walsh and Tosin Cole for their touching performances here.
Unfortunately, though, Graham’s temptation to kill Tim Shaw didn’t quite land as it should have. It’s another heavily-worn trope, sure, but the emotional dilemma of a good man pondering taking his enemy’s life can be powerful when done well – Doctor Who itself has nailed it before, in fact – but Graham’s such a sweetheart that it’s hard to believe he’s ever going to go through with it. Perhaps an intriguing extra sting to the tale could have been added by having Ryan kill Shaw instead, thereby changing his character in a major way and giving him guilt to struggle with in the next season.
So, now that we’ve reached its end, what do we make of this latest run overall? Well, first off, it did a lot of things right. Casting a female Doctor, in general, was absolutely the best move and casting Jodie Whittaker, specifically, was a wonderful left-field decision that’s really paid off, as the legion of fans old and new who adore the Thirteenth Doctor attests to. Bradley Walsh may also go down as one of the show’s great companions, as he lifts every scene he’s in as Graham.
Unfortunately, however, the quality of the episodes has been somewhat unsteady and poor Yaz – despite Mandip Gill being a very likeable presence – has had so little to do all season. Plus, the commitment to keeping things fresh, while a smart move for being accessible to newcomers, has irritated some old school Whovians.
At least, that last point might be fixed in the upcoming New Year’s special. Ingeniously titled “Resolutions,” the promo teases that the most dangerous creature in the universe will be appearing. Rumors say it’s going to be a Dalek, so fingers crossed that’s true. Seeing as there won’t be any other Doctor Who next year – with season 12 confirmed to air in 2020 – we’ll certainly need a big treat to prepare us for the long drought. Especially as this finale didn’t reach the heights it should have.
"The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos" would have been a fair middle-of-the-run episode but, as it is, it makes for a disappointing Doctor Who season finale.
Doctor Who Season 11x10