“The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos,” an episode title that takes even longer to memorize than it does to say, has been touted as the Doctor Who season 11 finale, but one more episode drops in just over three weeks, so is it really? Compound that with the fact that for the first time in all of new Who, the season didn’t have a major story arc guiding us from beginning to end, making this “finale” feel not all that final. This isn’t a complaint — at least not about its lack of finality. After years of tracking arcs that sometimes delivered and sometimes landed with thuds, it was refreshing to get back to a more classic Who model of a season comprised of a bunch of disconnected stories. Of course, that isn’t quite the case here, but we’ll get there.
After four straight weeks of stories written by people other than Chris Chibnall, he returns, as the showrunner often does, to conclude the season with his own ideas. (He’s written the upcoming New Year’s special, too.) I like Chibnall. He has an understated yet bold vision for this series, and if there’s one word I would use to describe him, it would be brave. Although necessary, it was still brave to cast a woman as the Doctor. It was brave to crowd the TARDIS with three friends. It was brave to fashion an inaugural season entirely out of new ideas, monsters, and characters. It was brave to step back from how the series has been presented for the last ten seasons, and re-envision it as something that feels so new and so different. Any or all of these things could have backfired, yet none of them really did, and there’s no greater testament to his abilities as a showrunner.
All of that said, Chibnall isn’t the strongest writer on his own show, which on its own is a marked difference from the past six seasons, in which Steven Moffat nearly always delivered the very best episodes from his own keyboard. The most engaging and creative stories of this season had other names on them: “Rosa,” “Demons of the Punjab,” “The Witchfinders,” and yes, even “It Takes You Away,” for reasons I’m still processing a week later. I did give a full five stars to “Arachnids in the U.K.,” so it’s not like he doesn’t have it in him. Hopefully in his second season (now officially debuting “in early 2020”) he’ll dig deep and find some ideas that really matter to him, because I think what’s been lacking in his scripts is a personal, heartfelt touch. The standout stories mentioned above all felt terribly personal, as though each of the writers had one shot at scripting the world’s greatest sci-fantasy series, and each of them told the story that mattered most to them.
“The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos” seemingly has plenty going for it, most of which doesn’t land. We’ve been trained over the last ten seasons to expect a certain kind of season finale, so it’s jarring to discover something more akin to a coda rather than a big finish. Between Chibnall’s first two scripts of the season it felt as though Tzim-Sha/Tim Shaw (Samuel Oatley), the banished Stenza warrior, was likely to return at some point. I wasn’t overly wild about him in that first outing, but he sort of won me over this week, having seethed as he did for 3,407 years, and devising a plan so outlandishly intricate I’m not entirely sure of the point of it all. It’s difficult to call his return the conclusion of an arc as much as a plot point that perhaps warranted some punctuation.
The opening sequence, set 3,407 years in the past and featuring the Ux, is loaded with promise, not to mention some serious Jedi flourish, and soon enough we’re in the TARDIS and the crew is whisked away to answer nine distress calls emanating from a mouthful of a planet, Ranskoor Av Kolos. It doesn’t take long for guest star Mark Addy to appear, and he’s a wise casting choice, bringing instant gravitas to the table. Addy has never really gotten the adulation (or, arguably, the roles) he deserves, yet you can’t take your eyes off the guy. It’s entirely probable that he’s the best thing about this episode, and once he appears, you want to be invested in the goings-on. Problem is, it’s a difficult scenario to remain invested in, because there are so many rushed elements banging up against one another. (My notes consisted of a list of items and trivia, but few real moments of brilliance or inspiration.) This is an episode that quite simply lacks focus, exacerbated by the goal of trying to find something important for everyone to do, even though few of the tasks amount to much of anything engaging.
Early this season I declared that one of the hallmarks of Chibnall’s run would be an emphasis on character. When pointing the spotlight on his characters, his version of Doctor Who shines. Here we are at the end of the season and I stand by that declaration — with an asterisk. The Doctor remains the least explored character in Chibnall’s Doctor Who, to the point that the show’s title is re-earning its original meaning. After ten seasons of the show being very much about the Doctor, surely this was a calculated decision, and it was potentially a smart one. For its first 26 seasons, Doctor Who was rarely about the Doctor, and then the new series came along and explored him like he’d never been explored before.
This finale, however, needed to be about the Doctor and her relationship to Tim Shaw/villainy, or her friends, or the universe, or something. Everyone else should have taken a back seat. This episode needed to impart a richness of character to its central figure that it utterly lacked. She needed to come to a new understanding of some kind, or figure out something important, or fail or succeed by accident. I don’t know exactly what the right move would have been — I just know the episode was sorely lacking in anything that would have cemented Whittaker’s central character in such a way that viewers simply won’t be able to wait to see more of her in 2020. Perhaps this will happen on New Year’s, but I won’t make any bets, because I thought for sure it would happen here, but Chibnall didn’t even seem to have to aimed and missed the target.
Perhaps even more egregious is the treatment of Bradley Walsh’s Graham, who is so adored by everyone that even the haters still love him — that’s how awesome Graham is. But after everything he went through last week, and all of the wisdom he’s espoused time and again throughout the season, this felt like a real devolution of his character. It was difficult, if not impossible, to buy into a bloodthirsty, vengeful Graham. Even with him drawn that way for much of the episode, did anyone ever for a second believe that he would kill Tim Shaw? Of course not. So when he finally decides not to it’s a real “and … !?!” moment. It all feels like such a wrong turn, like so much of this episode does, and after an otherwise reasonably strong season it was a truly disappointing conclusion.
When I sat down to write this recap, I had muddled feelings that I thought would work themselves out as I dissected the episode. But the more I tried to dissect, the less impressed I was with how densely convoluted the whole thing was. Above all else, “The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos” commits the cardinal sins of being boring and bloated, just like its title. I always try to find the best in Doctor Who, so it pains me to trash this episode so harshly. Let’s hope the New Year’s outing, aptly titled “Resolution,” is a considerable improvement, and will feel like the real season finale.