Doctor Who’s season finale is a bit of a letdown

If there’s an action that defines both the Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat eras of Doctor Who, it’s running. Both of their first Doctors had iconic introductory moments featuring the word “run” and both of their eras were full of images of the Doctor and his companions dashing through corridors and running down streets. There’s some running in “The Battle Of Ranskoor Av Kolos,” the finale of Chris Chibnall’s first season as showrunner, but on the whole Chibnall’s debut season has operated at more of a walk than a run. That change of pace isn’t inherently a bad thing. At its best, this season’s slower stride has led to thoughtful character work, complex thematic material, and some appreciable weirdness. This finale, however, showcases the downside of Chibnall’s deliberate pacing: A slow set-up is doubly frustrating when it comes with very little payoff.

“The Battle Of Ranskoor Av Kolos” isn’t a disaster of an episode, but it’s one I found fairly frustrating to watch—partially because of the raised expectations of this being a season finale, but more so because this episode introduces some incredibly fascinating ideas and then drops the ball on actually exploring them. The opening sequence, in which two “faith-driven dimensional engineers” start to assemble a floating shine, is one of my favorite scenes of the entire season. In fact, the whole idea of the all-powerful, two-person Ux race is so inherently intriguing that it kept drawing me back into this episode, even in its weaker moments. That only made it more disappointing when the episode didn’t really do anything with them.

After the Ux prologue, “The Battle Of Ranskoor Av Kolos” jumps 3,407 years into the future where the Doctor and her companions follow the signals of nine different distress calls to the planet Ranskoor Av Kolos (a.k.a. “Disintegrator of the Soul”). The planet has a mind-distorting quality, which is mostly just a convenient plot device so that crashed Commander Paltraki (Game Of Thrones’ Mark Addy) can’t just immediately tell them what’s going on. The first half of this episode involves an awful lot of walking; walking through plot beats, walking across the planet to the mysterious shrine where Paltraki’s crew is being held hostage, walking through various hallways in the shrine while repeating plot points we already know. Even after the episode offers the big reveal that Tim Shaw (or, rather, Tzim Sha)— the baddie from the season premiere—is the one behind all the mayhem, the episode never really seems to change its pace, even as the Doctor herself does.

“The Battle Of Ranskoor Av Kolos” feels like the messy first draft of a really compelling episode, which is how I would characterize pretty much every Chris Chibnall-penned episode of the season (the first five and this one, with “Rosa” having been co-written by Malorie Blackman). That’s not to dismiss Chibnall’s abilities as a showrunner, which is a whole separate skillset that’s harder to quantify as a viewer. But it’s become fairly obvious that the episodes with which Chibnall was more directly involved are weaker than the rest of the season. And it’s especially jarring to return to Chibnall’s more lackluster style after a solid run of episodes penned by other writers.

Still, there is stuff to like here. The episode’s best scene comes early when Graham pulls the Doctor aside and calmly informs her that if given the chance, he’s going to murder Tim Shaw for killing Grace. Graham knows full well this will get him banished from the TARDIS, but he’s made up his mind anyway. The tension between Graham and the Doctor is fantastic, and Graham’s quest for revenge at least gives one of our main characters a strong emotional hook, as does Ryan’s mission to save his grandad’s soul. Yet it can’t help but feel like the episode pulls its punches in having Graham fairly easily decide to be the “better man” and not kill Tim Shaw, even if Ryan’s unexpected “I love you” added some nice emotional heft to their storyline. Of course, the question of whether or not placing someone in permanent stasis forever is functionally the same thing as killing them is one the episode doesn’t come anywhere close to touching.

Elsewhere, “The Battle Of Ranskoor Av Kolos” struggles to weave pathos into its exposition-heavy story. The Doctor’s hatred of Tim Shaw always feels pretty generic, and Yaz is completely underutilized. Chibnall clearly thinks there’s something really clever about the Doctor combining the resources of every alien race around her into a “super group” to save the day. In practice, however, it just feels like a bunch of made-up words thrown together. One of the biggest problems with “The Battle Of Ranskoor Av Kolos” is that it spends way too much time unraveling the mystery of Tim Shaw’s plan (something about trapping planets in crystals in order to power a weapon that can rewrite the laws of the universe) and not nearly enough time exploring the emotional reality of the Ux, who should theoretically serve as the episode’s emotional fulcrum.

The question of what it would be like for people of faith to actually live though a major religious prophecy is hugely compelling, and the way Tim Shaw manipulates their faith ties into the exploration of religion and cruelty in “The Witchfinders.” But for some reason the episode keeps turning away from the Ux to return to the less interesting Tim Shaw instead. Downton Abbey’s Phyllis Logan manages to imbue an impressive amount of depth into her underwritten role. Yet neither she nor Percelle Ascott can really do anything about the fact that the episode’s resolution all but ignores the fact that the Ux just spent 3,000+ years helping a false god commit multiple planet-wide genocides. (I’m assuming that putting the planets back in place doesn’t bring their residents back to life, but who even knows.) A stronger episode would’ve also dug into the fact that it was the Doctor’s decision to save Tim Shaw’s life in the premiere that lead to this unimaginable level of intergalactic suffering down the line. Here it’s just handwaved away—another place in which the episode feels like a first draft rather than a finished product.

If I’m being honest, “The Battle Of Ranskoor Av Kolos” is an episode I’ve talked myself into liking significantly less over the course of writing this review. How much you enjoy this episode will likely come down to how much you value an engaging story to watch in the moment vs. an engaging story to contemplate afterwards. (Obviously, an ideal episode would have both, but this is far from an ideal episode.) As with “The Ghost Monument” and “Arachnids In The UK,” the mystery in “The Battle Of Ranskoor Av Kolos” is interesting enough to keep you hooked while the story unfolds, but it almost immediately falls apart as soon as you think about it.

Since it feels like a shame to end this good-but-not-great season of Doctor Who on such a sour note, I’ll instead end by highlighting one of my favorite little moments from this episode; one that captures the best of Chibnall’s more low-key writing style. “It has to be us, does it? Answering these signals from this planet?” Graham asks at the beginning of the episode. “No,” the Doctor replies honestly. “Not at all. But everyone else has passed them by, you think we should do the same?” This Doctor doesn’t help people because of convoluted, timey-wimey reasons nor because she wants to be hailed as a hero. She helps people because it’s the right thing to do, and she’s surrounded herself with three friends who feel the same way. That’s a promising concept around which to build a new era of Doctor Who, and I have plenty of hope that future seasons can do an even better job exploring it.

Stray observations

  • I’d been hoping to rewatch the whole season before this finale, but, alas, time got away from me. Thankfully, the New Year’s Day special (in place of the traditional Christmas one) is just a couple of weeks away and will likely put even more of a bow on the season than this finale did. I’ll try to fit in some rewatching before then and report back on if my thoughts on the season/any of its individual episodes have changed.
  • The smash cut from the Ux prologue to the “3,407 years later” title card was absolutely brilliant.
  • For as much as the episode keeps explaining it, I actually have very little understanding of Tim Shaw’s plan. Why did it take him 3,000+ years to achieve it? And was he trying to actively lure the Doctor to him or was her arrival just a total coincidence?
  • This episode had a lot of callbacks to “The Ghost Monument” (the weakest episode of the season), including the return of the sniper bots, who were first seen guarding the abandoned Stenza weapons lab in that episode. They’re just as bad at shooting as ever.
  • If you’re looking for more Doctor Who analysis if your life, your former Doctor Who reviewer Alasdair Wilkins and current A.V. Clubber Allison Shoemaker have been tackling this season on their Debating Doctor Who podcast. (Full disclosure: I used to co-host this podcast and still appear as a guest sometimes, so take this recommendation as enthusiastic but admittedly biased!)
  • And if you’d like to discuss the season more with me, I’m always happy to chat about Doctor Who on Twitter. Otherwise, I’ll see you back here on New Year’s Day!
  • “Yippee-ki-yay robots!”

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