WARNING – SPOILERS AHEAD
Reviewed by Tim Robins
First UK Broadcast: Sunday 9th December 2018
Writer: Chris Chibnall
Director: Jamie Childs
Guest Starring: Phyllis Logan (Andinio), Mark Addy (Paltraki), Percelle Ascott (Delph), Jan Lee (Umsang), Samuel Oatley (Tim Shaw)
On the planet of Ranskoor Av Kolos, a battlefield, a conflict-scarred survivor, and a deadly reckoning await the Doctor, Ryan, Yaz and Graham…
The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos wasn’t so much a season finale as merely the last episode of the season. There had been no hint of the villain during most of the preceding season and as soon as I heard that some episodes had been shifted around, I realised that many of the teasers dropped in individual stories would be returned to in Season Two, rather than tied up in 50 minutes.
If Chris Chibnall wants Doctor Who to be on a similar footing to shows such as those set in the Arrow Verse or, even more ambitiously, Game of Thrones, WestWorld or, even The Expanse, then there is a lot more learning to be done about how the production team structure their seasons to reach a spectacular climax in the last but one episode – and how they intertwine the characters’ personal relationships and personal traumas with a wider, grander story arc.
This season send-off did address Graham and Ryan’s grief over the death of the beloved, but, episode on episode, that thread has never been terribly convincing. So when Graham appears to turn into an avenging, action film hero complete with borrowed catchphrase from Arnold Schwarzenegger, I was un-convinced to say the least.
If Graham was that hard core, surely he would have taken over the TARDIS and compelled The Doctor to take him back to prevent his wife’s death? So the debate about whether or not Graham would be the better man and not kill his adversary was moot, also because I seriously didn’t see how Ryan and he were powerful enough to defeat him – so none of that worked for me.
That said, The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos was the first story this season that I felt no urge to analyse or explain, even to myself. It’s amazing how the action and adventure can be ramped up when there aren’t too many layers of subtext or a whole lot of didacticism going on. I felt sorry for the other writers in the season who struggled at times with the need for The Doctor to deliver an educational message, for the situation to dramatise a socially important situation, to explore the personal relationships and to dream up an alien race that must not interfere with anything that has already happened while seeming to be really consequential. Once those criteria have left the writers’ room, it is possible to get on with telling a story.
Not that all the season’s various foci were out of sight. I don’t know if the role of spiritual experience in the universe was chosen to justify Doctor Who’s new place on the Sunday schedules, but my attention was drawn to it by a review of the start of the season in a paper lying around a local Salvation Army centre. I perused the paper while waiting to go to the chiropodist next door to engage in my monthly un-Godly struggle with a fungal infection in my toe nails (unlike in Doctor Who, not even lasers will help).
This week’s take was a message about not bowing down to false idols, although The Doctor’s exhortation to the Ux that they were the true creators seemed to fall on deaf ears. Instead, the Ux hurried off to do the bidding of a ‘True Creator’ and that didn’t sound like themselves.
Frankly, the you are your own God shtick wasn’t where I would have taken the story, which would have been more towards to debunking false prophets such as the late “OSHO”, whose vacuous memes can all too easily fill up your Facebook page as conflict filled his The Rajneeshes Cult In Oregon.
This week, the story opened with a mystic and her acolyte levitating rocks. This pair turned out to be the incredibly long lived Ux, who lived in the service of a shadowy Creator.
The opening scene contained dialogue of such banality that it can only have been lifted from The Big Book of Science Fiction Clichés. There was lots of urging for the acolyte to “be all you can be! Don’t hold back! Feel your power!” or words to that effect. The rest of the episode didn’t rise to anything much better, although The Doctor still gives good back chat.
The Creator did not turn out to be Davros, thank goodness. I honestly haven’t missed Doctor Who’s back catalogue of monsters. There’s not a single story that would have been improved by their prescience and a lot of harm that might have been done to their credibility.
As evidence of this, see, for instance, Moffat’s take on the Daleks and Sontarans – although I loved Strax in the Platonic sense of the word!
The plot did include echoes of the past, notably a plot twist already used in Douglas Adams’s Pirate Planet. For a moment, I wondered if the geometrically shaped containers were the Key to Time, but that was wildly over-reaching on my part.
(Incidentally, I have just completed watching the Key to Time season in which the Fourth Doctor, played by Tom Baker and Romanadvoratrelundar, played by Mary Tamm, ran about various episodes collecting bits of a key that could change all space and time. Believe me, if you are disappointed by “New Who”’s eleventh season, try watching The Armageddon Factor, which ended the season-long quest for The Key To Time with a bunch of people sitting down on chairs or running around corridors bumping into each other. Armageddon Factor was the last six-part story ever made (bar The Trial of A Time Lord, to be pedantic) and contained enough padding to reupholster the Albert Hall).
I have been trying not to dwell too much on Doctor Who’s past in my reviews of this season, because the new season so clearly wants to be its own thing. But, just to make life difficult, the Drama channel has been using Saturday evenings to re-run episodes from David Tennant’s first season. It’s heart breaking to see the chemistry between Rose and The Doctor and how deftly the various stories are handled.
The last one that I watched was the utterly brilliant Love and Monsters, featuring Peter Kay as The Abzorbaloff, a creature designed for the series by a young boy as part of a Blue Peter competition.
The story is told through the eyes of a vlogger named ‘Elton’, who recalls seeing The Doctor in his living room. We follow Elton as he joins a Doctor Who fan group, falls in love, haphazardly infiltrates the life of Jackie Tyler and confronts an alien which allegedly has exzeeema (sic), but actually has the power to absorb anyone it touches. At the climax, The Doctor turns up not to save Elton, but to allow Rose to yell at him for upsetting her Mum.
Now that was a story deftly moving from comedy (sometimes adult comedy) to action and adventure. The fact is that so-called “New Who” hasn’t been the same since Russell T Davies left and by “the same” I mean “as good”. And that’s right down to the nomenclature of the series. Davies’ aliens had wonderfully evocative names such as ‘The Moxx of Balhoon’, ‘The Slitheen’ and ‘The Jagrafess’, names that rolled around the mouth or hissed through one’s teeth as they confidently articulated a line between the serious and the humorous.
I am not sure how Chibnall’s writing room comes up with its names – throwing a load of magnetic Xs, Ys, Vs and Rs at metal board then trying to see where the see where the vowels might fit, perhaps?
However, The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos was exciting, and yes, the cinematography was excellent; yes, a director wised up and started using more close-ups, so we weren’t left watching an anamorphic vacuum bereft of actors, set details and interest; yes, it was visually stunning, a veritable Chris Foss painting brought to life and, yes, the Doctor’s “Fam” (really?) worked well together like a proper ‘Team Flash’.
But, even then, it did so but in ways that were a bit baffling. So when The Doctor sent them off to investigate any mysterious things about a crashed spaceship, I wondered how Team Doctor – a police woman, a bus driver and a social media nerd – could be expected to understand any part of it. Has The Doctor been training her acolyte’s up in her spare time?
The fact that, however, The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos was recognisable as old-school Doctor Who was bit of a kicker. You mean we’ve been watching playwrights fumble around with TV tropes when we could have had this instead? It’s amazing what an older, more TV savvy Show Writer can do when they set themselves fewer goals.
I could imagine Chibnall vwoorping off in to the sunset with a cry of “Eat my superior scripting, newbies!”
Chibnall has done much to bring back some of the iconography of Doctor Who: its theme music, title sequence and even shots of the TARDIS materialising and dematerialising. Jodie Whittaker has proved an endearing take on The Doctor and has been given a nice line in wise-cracking quips, come-backs and put downs. The gaggle of companions has grown on me too.
Some of the stories have left me so gobsmacked that I have just sat in front of the TV wondering what I have just watched, never mind if it was Doctor Who. But that could be a good thing and, surprisingly, I am looking forward to the New Year’s Special.
A freelance journalist and Doctor Who fanzine editor since 1978, Tim Robins has written on comics, films, books and TV programmes for a wide range of publications including Starburst, Interzone, Primetime and TV Guide. His brief flirtation with comics includes ghost inking a 2000AD strip and co-writing a Doctor Who strip. He reviewed comics and films in posts and podcasts for the Mindless Ones until he became a net diva and forgot to name check the rest of the team at a San Diego Comic Con panel. The Mindless Ones gave him the nickname ‘Tymbus’
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