Well, I found that quite enjoyable. It was an unchallenging, pacy episode which had some interesting elements. What it wasn't was a season finale. Given that the series has been altogether quieter and less bombastic than previous runs, a relatively low-key final episode isn't a huge problem. Nonetheless, it's hard to argue that there wasn't a better way to end the thirteenth Doctor's debut series than with an episode like this. RTD went all out with his finales - hordes of Daleks, armies of Cybermen, the imminent destruction of the universe. While Moffat gave us introspective season finales, they were also major event episodes - the collapse of history, the Doctor's last stand against storming aliens, the raising of the dead as Cybermen. This episode does present us with a threat to the planet Earth, but at such a remove that the threat never really hits home.
Not that there isn't plenty going on in this episode. More ideas are thrown at the screen than we've seen before this season (with the arguable exception of the universe-frog episode that precedes it). The Ux are an intriguing new addition to the series' mythos; a race of beings that only ever exist as a pair, seemingly Sith-like, as master and apprentice. Blessed with enormous powers, they provide some much needed sci-fi spectacle, although their nature is in dire need of further exploration and explanation. How can a species only exist two at a time? How did they even develop a culture, and most bizarrely, how can they exist on only three planets of the universe? Even if they stood on one planet each, they'd still not manage that. Not to mention that, even with a religion that supposedly values doubt, they immediately believe the first alien who lands on their doorstep is god and proceed to do what he says for three thousand years. Intriguing beings, but utterly stupid.
The shrunken planets, held in tenuous equilibrium as part of a gigantic engine of destruction, is a fantastic idea, although it was an even better idea when Douglas Adams first did it in The Pirate Planet
in 1978. Still, if you're going to steal, steal from the best, and the visual presented here is provocative. The concept of a planet that messes with your memories and perceptions is a brilliant one, and while Mark Addy's character Paltraki sells some of the horror of losing your sense of self, the concept simply isn't explored far enough to make it worthy of inclusion. Illustratively, the characters have to wear neural inhibitors to stop them losing their minds, but when the Doctor and Yaz give theirs up to help free the Ux, there's no sense of jeopardy at all. This could have upped the ante of the episode significantly, providing powerful imagery and raised stakes for two main characters, but in the event, they just get headaches and then put the things back on again after a few minutes.
Bringing back Tim Shaw as the villain is an unsurprising move, but not a foregone one. I feel he works much better here than in the first episode, as a vengeful, twisted manipulator than a rampaging killer. Having spent 3407 years sitting and stewing (I'm assuming he didn't get chucked back in time, making it the year 5423 now), he's got nothing more on his mind than accruing power to get back at the various planets he thinks have wronged him. Aside from the usual outlandish coincidences that just need to be accepted in Doctor Who
(Tim Shaw lands right by the only two individuals on the entire planet; the Doctor picks up the distress signals left by the soldiers of his victim races), this is a solid plot for a finale, but tooth-face just isn't a strong enough villain to hold a climactic adventure. He's a strong villain as presented here, but strictly middle-episode fare. He wouldn't last twenty minutes against the Daleks of the Master, even with the Ux on his side.
A finale doesn't need to hinge on apocalyptic events, however. Emotional stakes can be just as earth-shattering. It's Graham who carries the emotional weight of this episode, shouldering and eventually finally coming to terms with Grace's death. Fortunately, Bradley Walsh is capable of taking the emotional burden for the whole cast. The grieving man's revenge plot might be a hoary old cliche, but it has emotional punch and, while predicated on violence as a response to violence, it entirely understandable. There's also a good argument to be made that Graham is right to hunt down the alien. While it's absolutely right that he finally decides to be "the better man" and spare Tim Shaw's life, we're talking about an individual who has dedicated his life to hunting, killing and abducting innocent people across the universe. I love how Graham refers to Tim as a creature, and "it," refusing to even speak of him in human terms. It's a perfectly understandable response to the alien and his philosophy of violence.
It's the Doctor who comes off worst in this episode, in a way that provides real potential for future exploration. The thirteenth Doctor has been rigidly pacifistic in her words, but has slipped from that ideal more than once in action. She remains hypocritical, pledging the wrongs of violence when confronted with a being she set up to die by liquefying his DNA. The script at least takes her to task when she orders everyone to put down their guns, but saddles up with grenades, and notably she doesn't have a good answer. All the Doctors have been hypocrites when it comes to their use of violence, but none have been so vehemently pacifist in philosophy while failing to back it up with any alternative. It could be very interesting to see what happens when this Doctor comes up against a foe that truly can't be reasoned with or talked down. (If the New Year's special really is Resolution of the Daleks
, we might see that very soon.)
It's hard to credit that Graham and Ryan could outmanoeuvre killer robots and the Stenza when waves of soldiers were captured (and immediately ran away once freed), but this is par for the course in Doctor Who
, which sees teenaged girls outwit Autons and Silurians. It's still great to see them trap him in his own stasis prison, although again, the moral philosophy deserves exploration. Is this really more humane than killing the guy? And doesn't it just mean that, one day, he's going to get out again, ready for revenge once more? The Doctor singularly failed to deal with Tim Shaw when she zapped him away from Earth with a malfunctioning teleporter, and again, the threat has been subdued but not ended. Even so, I can't imagine many people will be clamouring to see the third part of the Tim Shaw trilogy.
Neither Yaz nor Ryan seem very well used here. At least Ryan gets to work on his relationship with his grandfather while they fight for their lives, but Yaz is mostly there to parrot the Doctor's words back. She's suffered a lot from that this year, but this episode was the most blatant, and it's a pity, because Madip Gill is clearly capable of handling strong material when she's given it. Mark Addy is a welcome face, but he's wasted with his part here, just as so many brilliant guest actors have been wasted on undeveloped minor roles on this programme in the past. Phyllis Logan, as the Ux elder Andinio, manages to bring some real gravitas to a fairly ludicrous part, while he co-Ux Percelle Ascott commands much sympathy as the more downtrodden, more self-aware of the two.
So, a flawed episode but fun, one that has the promise of something better with a polish and more room to breathe. Hasn't that been the case for most of this season? With both Chibnall and Whittaker back next season, but not until 2020, there's some considerable work to be done to tighten up the scripts so that this iteration of the series can reach its potential. The series has clearly been a hit with the general viewership, and there's something to be said for more straightforward, more accessible adventures. But there's been a lack of punch to most of the episodes, with even the best of them ("Rosa" and "Demons of the Punjab," for my money) showing clear room for improvement. Given the drop in interest that will doubtless come from making audiences wait for over a year (and with no Christmas specials), they really need to make the most of the series' best elements for maximum impact on its return.
"The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos" is surely the most blandly sci-fi title the series has ever had. It's hardly a memorable planet name either (I'll memorise it, of course, but that's my brain problem).
The Timeless Child:
What was that all about then? Was that put in "The Ghost Monument" just to give us something to latch onto as an arc phrase, because it's not been mentioned since.
"Tim Shaw, how long's it been?"
"Three thousand, four hundred and seven years."
"I bet the seven really dragged."
Season eleven rankings:
- Demons of the Punjab
- The Witchfinders
- The Tsuranga Conundrum
- The Woman Who Fell to Earth
- It Takes You Away
- The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos
- The Ghost Monument
- Arachnids in the UK