Doctor Who’s 11th season has seen the series go through a bit of an existential crisis—is the show a character-driven scifi drama, or a big old whizzbang romp with explosive stakes? “The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos” distilled that debate within itself by trying to present a finale that tackled both of those things at once...except it only really excelled at half of the debate.
Like so much of this season, “The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos” can be divided into two separate arcs, reflecting the ambitions of what Doctor Who can be as a show at large. On the one hand you have the epic mystery of Ranskoor Av Kolos, a world home to battlefields strewn with echoes of the dead, that plays with your mind as a nefarious plan of galactic scale slowly unfurls at the hands of none other than T’zim-Sha (or Tim Shaw, as we know and love him), the seemingly throwaway villain of the very first episode of the season. On the other, you have a dramatic conflict for both the Doctor and Graham that’s been simmering in the background of the entire season and exposed by the surprise return of Tim Shaw—one about the Doctor’s approach to fighting the threats she faces, and Graham’s own need for vengeance against Tim Shaw for the death of Grace.
It’s the latter of these where “The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos” especially succeeds. The twist of making a seemingly inconsequential villain like Tim Shaw—I mean, we literally call him Tim, for christ’s sake (sorry to any Tims reading this)—return as an infinitely more powerful threat, one directly fueled by the flippancy with which the Doctor dealt with him the first time around, is a fascinating premise. It opens up an interesting train of thought going forward: If the Doctor doesn’t thoroughly deal with a foe the first time around, whether that’s imprisoning them, disabling them, or even destroying them outright, what happens if they do come back? It suddenly makes any villain the Doctor faces in the future potentially even more threatening, even if they don’t seem so at first, and it’s all down to how the Doctor reacts to them.
But on top of that, facing reckonings for careless actions has been a running theme for the thirteenth Doctor—from Grace’s death, to not realizing the threat Yaz and Ryan faced with traveling back to segregated Alabama, to breaking her own rules about exploring your own family’s past with Yaz, to even this episode when she realizes that her biggest bargaining chip against Tim Shaw was actually her threatening to blow up an entire innocent world. Time and time again, she’s followed an impulse that has put people around her (and herself) in more danger than they needed to be, with Tim Shaw’s return crystallizing that mistake in a way that will possibly have some very interesting ramifications for this otherwise relatively freewheeling incarnation of the Doctor.
While the Doctor’s arc with Tim Shaw is more esoteric, Graham’s is a deeply human one that drives the emotional spine of this episode in some compelling ways. Driven by being so close to the possibility of a reunion with Grace (well, a universe shaped like her and also a frog, but hey, just another week on Doctor Who, that), and being confronted with the catalyst that sparked her death in the first place, Graham’s arc from potential self-destruction to reconciliation over the episode is a grand culmination of a slow burn that pulls on beats from across the season. And by tying that growth into how his relationship with Ryan has evolved—that in the end, Graham chooses not to sacrifice his ideals and potentially his life to kill Tim Shaw, but incapacitate him before he can bring harm to his grandson—Graham completes one of the best-realized companion arcs on Doctor Who in recent memory. It’s not wrapped around enigmatic prophecy and ceaseless foreshadowing of importance, but instead is actually rooted deep in who he is a character.
Unfortunately, all this compelling character work brushes up roughly against the parts of “The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos” that try to be a more “traditional” modern Doctor Who finale. The ramped up scale granted by Tim Shaw’s return—brought about him saving the only two members of an omnipotent race called the Ux, giving him the power to marry Stenza technology with their ability to create anything, to steal away entire planets as trophies in his hunt—is certainly grandiose, but none of it ever feels impactful. The episode is so enamored with its character work (and it should be, given it was the strongest aspect of it) that every time we take a break from it to remind ourselves that there are Big, Finale-Shaped Stakes in play, it rings hollow. That, and said stakes are repeatedly brought up and then almost immediately quelled that it feels pointless they were even mentioned n the first place.
About five minutes after the Earth becomes Tim Shaw’s next planet-capturing target, the Doctor, Yaz, and the Ux (after a bit of convincing) work together and stop it from being captured. Ryan and Graham, tasked with rescuing Tim Shaw’s individual trophies from captivity, are repeatedly threatened by Tim’s army of sniper robots, only for the duo to conveniently dispatch them moments after. Hell, early on in the episode we’re told that Ranskoor Av Kolos’ atmosphere affects people’s brains, sending them into an amnesiac paranoia if they spend too much time in it, requiring the Doctor and her friends to wear neural balancers to compensate—but in a moment of crisis where the Doctor and Yaz have to take theirs off to help free the Ux, there are zero ramifications for them when they do, outside of the Doctor mentioning her head is a little fuzzy, once.
All these moments of crisis give “The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos” some staccato moments of tense grandeur (and an excuse to chuck in a few dramatic slo-mo shots of things exploding in the background while our heroes run around for a bit), but they are so staccato that their inclusion feels inorganic. It’s like Chris Chibnall had offered a small, personal, character-driven conclusion to the series and someone sent back a note to him that said “it’s the finale, can we endanger Earth and get some explosions in to celebrate?” It all feels like hollow box-checking for the sake of it. It feels empty, and stands out as even more so when compared the earnest heart of the character work where “The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos” really shines.
And that, honestly, is not just a statement about this finale, but Doctor Who season 11 at large. The season has been at its very best when the stakes are small and largely confined to the emotional impact they have on the Doctor and her companions. The times it has tried to be more traditionally Doctor Who-y, like in “Arachnids in the UK” and “The Tsuranga Conundrum,” it’s felt fine, but almost perfunctory. It’s like being forced to eat your vegetables before you got dessert as a kid, but the traditional roles are reversed; here, dessert is meaty, complex character drama rather than ooey-gooey explosions and aliens.
The fact that in “The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos” the character drama won out over the explosive high stakes might be an indicator that this is just the path this era of Doctor Who is going to continue to go down. But considering the growing murmurs about viewers that, as good as all that drama is, there’s a longing for the whizzbang delights of familiar monsters, more action, and more corridors to be run down, Doctor Who’s going to have to get a bit better at balancing these two at-times paradoxical selves. “The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos” had a decent crack at it, but going forward, there’s going to need to be a few more monster-y vegetables on Chris Chibnall’s plate before he gets to his dramatic dessert.
- One thing that keeps bugging me—Ryan and Graham were sent to rescue Paltraki’s two crew members from Tim Shaw’s trophy collection. Except they found way more than two, and had to try and rescue them all...and it’s never explained who they are or why they’re there? Another increased stake that rang hollow, I guess
- Paltraki mentioned a Congress of Worlds that tasked his crew with going to Ranskoor Av Kolos and taking the stolen worlds back from Tim Shaw. I wonder if they have anything to do with the Shadow Proclamation that investigated...well, when this happened the last time in “The Stolen Earth” and “Journey’s End”?
- Yaz makes a big, bold declarative statement to the Doctor in this episode about her following the Doctor anywhere...and the Doctor doesn’t really respond to it? It feels like the show’s trying to build up a bond between the two, but it’s not quite had the time yet. Hopefully now that Ryan and Graham’s arcs together have reached a natural conclusion for now, season 12 can be Yaz’s time to shine.
- Was it just me, or did the crystal caskets Tim Shaw kept the stolen worlds in kinda look like pieces of the Key to Time from the Tom Baker era?
- So as you probably know by now, Doctor Who won’t return for season 12 until early 2020, but at least we’ve got the New Year’s special to look forward to soon! There’s even rumors that the Daleks will be the big villain, so I guess that really will be a test of how this version of the show will tackle such an iconic returning foe, if it ends up being true.
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