Doctor Who, “The Battle of Ranskoor av Kolos”

It’s better the second time, if only because all hope that it’ll be vibrant and exciting is safely dead. We’ve had plenty of finales that were dumb, but they were fun and dumb, all spectacle and universe-destroying and guest-cast-returning, and that never used to seem like enough (particularly after Moffat started making them smart, culminating in the finest heartbreaker “World Enough and Time” / “The Doctor Falls”), but after struggling through this, boy, I’ll take fun and dumb any day.

And pretty: it would be nice to have pretty. We move from the surface of Ranskoor Av Kolos, all beige rocks and dust, to the TARDIS interior, all orange and amber and shadowy, to a shadowy ship interior, back to the beige R.A.K., and finally into the Ux skyscraper, all orange and amber and shadowy. This is apparently Chibnall’s signature aesthetic for Who: dim and drab. It’s the opposite of what I want, I don’t know about you.

What about the plot? Well, even though the Doctor blurts “that’s impossible” when faced with the idea of shrunken planets preserved in crystal, in fact this is exactly what happens in “The Pirate Planet.” Maybe she just thinks it’s impossible for “Tim Shaw” and the Wondertwins to do it, even though all it took last time was a blustery cybernetic captain with a robot parrot and a secret boss. Or maybe she thinks it’s impossible that Chibnall would rip off classic Who so brazenly! But since the Ux are just the less interesting version of the Logopolitans, she’d be wrong about that.

Even Jodie can’t save this one. Part of the problem is that Chibnall has written all her charm out of this episode and left…a scold. She doesn’t even try to sympathize with Graham when the two of them set up the most obvious moral conflict ever in a scene entirely devoid of nuance or subtext. The scene where she unnecessarily defends her willingness to use explosives, spelling out a moral code with bizarre hair-splitting and promptly declaring it provisional, is even more awkward. The quips about how annoying Tim Shaw is don’t land, and we’re left with “I’ve got a new coat” as the only joke that works at all. She’s not bad. She’s never bad. But she’s got nothing to work with, and she doesn’t make it work.

This may be the director’s fault, considering some of the other strange choices. Consider how weirdly stressed-out the Ux are. We’re expecting peaceful, ancient mystics and we get fairly ordinary bickering insecure dupes who seem no older or wiser than they look. Is their Creator not all-knowing? If so, why is it faith-rattling in the least that he recognizes the Doctor? After a highly improbable 3000 years (they only got 5 planets in all that time? and how come Tim Shaw’s face-teeth haven’t fallen out? no, don’t tell me: “Ux energy plus Stenza tech”) of worshiping their Creator and blithely doing his vicious bidding, you’d think they’d need something a bit more convincing than a breezy chat from the Doc.

And then there’s the other supposed crux of the episode: Graham choosing life, specifically life imprisonment for Tim Shaw. The first time through, I didn’t realize that the “love you, Granddad” chat he has with Ryan would be the turning point for his revenge quest — I expected more, just as with the Ux, and I guess Chibnall was just too subtle for me. I wasn’t convinced. I half-expected Graham to accept being kicked out of the TARDIS in exchange for getting to kill Tim Shaw, which would have been a bummer but would have felt like an actual character moment rather than an adventure story cliché.

I could go on, maybe about how superfluous Paltraki and his crew are, or how dumb that moment is where Ryan and Graham duck and the deadly SniperBots (which my subtitles kept calling “CyberBots”) shoot each other like Keystone Cops, or how the psionic planet that attacks your mind only manages to give the Doctor and Yaz a headache, or indeed how Yaz is once again entirely wasted because Chibnall has cast four leads and can’t keep them all busy, but why? This finale sucked.

And sadly, it’s left a bad taste in my mouth about the whole season. There have been high points, but they’ve been all the episodes where Chibnall doesn’t get sole credit for the stories. He’s hiring promising writers, but he needs to either get all of his own scripts up to the level of “The Woman Who Fell to Earth” (his best Who to date, probably?) or step back and focus on shaping other people’s work into a more consistent season. I mean, 6/10 hits isn’t bad for Doctor Who, but when all the misses belong to the showrunner, the only thing you can be sure of is more misses. And with no Who past the first day of 2019, all we’ll have is “Resolution” to give us a reason to look forward to Series 12.

Before I sign off, two wishes for Series 12:

  1. Show us that someone or something is “beautiful” or “irritating,” rather than just having the Doctor tell us .
  2. Just once, just for one episode, instead of answering a distress call or getting swerved off course into danger, let the TARDIS take them somewhere for fun. It can still turn out to be dangerous! It usually does.