Jodie Whittaker’s first season as the Doctor comes to a rousing finish. But has she won the war for viewers’ hearts?
In many ways, The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos has a major battle on its hands. Under both Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat, season finales were epic events. The near total destruction of the Earth became an annual event. And massive Dalek war fleets, millions of Cybermen, and alliances of Every! Monster! Ever! all took turns having a go at wiping out the planet or, if they were feeling particularly frisky, the universe. Davros even tried to destroy all universes once. But then he was always a bit extra. But the finales were also epic events in terms of being climaxes to major story and character arcs. More often than not, they didn’t just place the world at stake but, win or lose, would change the Doctor and their friends forever.
Up until now, Series 11 has been distinctly low key in both those areas. Blogtor Who was actually pleased to step back from the Legendary Doctor saving All of Reality every other week. The Woman Who Fell to Earth featured her instead exerting all her efforts to save one hapless, ordinary human. And they don’t come much more hapless and ordinary that Carl the crane operator. It was a wonderfully refreshing change of pace. By the time Kerblam! places ten thousand innocent shoppers in danger, and The Witchfinders threatens the whole of 17th century humanity, it feels earned.
The finale provides a thrilling bookend to The Woman Who Fell to Earth
This earlier restraint plays off in spades in the finale. Tim Shaw (who has not aged well) plans nothing less than to completely destroy the Earth. And, to add insult to genocide, reduce it to a mere husk and mount it in his trophy room. And the sudden gear change this week makes it feels like the stakes are pulse-racingly high. Yaz’s horror at the potential destruction of her, and our, home world and the Doctor’s grim determination to stop it wouldn’t have been nearly so powerful if they’d saved the Earth every Sunday for the past couple of months.
Indeed, the whole episode is masterfully directed by Jamie Childs to create a real sense of tension and dread. There’s a stark beauty on view here in every frame. This is probably the best looking Doctor Who this season. That direction merges with Chibnall’s script and the cast’s performances to create that greatest rarity in Doctor Who – a story where the possibility of failure feels all too real.
Likewise, previous seasons have shifted between two modes. We’ve had full on arc plots (such as the Vault and Missy’s redemption) and subtle clues like ‘Bad Wolf’. Save for the mention of the Stenza and the ‘Timeless Child’ in The Ghost Monument, Series 11 has been a series of totally stand alone adventures.
The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos gives us a rousing finale to an arc that never quite existed
So the questions on every fan’s lips about The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos whether it hits the epic highs of threat and emotion of previous finales. And whether we return full circle to the world of Tim Shaw. It provides us with a truly satisfying sequel to The Woman Who Fell to Earth and a worthy rematch with our bombastic, tooth-riddled super-villain. But it does feel slightly adrift from the episodes in between.
And, in fact, it wouldn’t have taken much to have turned this season into a cohesive arc. Both The Tsuranga Condundrum and Demons of the Punjab give us unseen, unnamed alien bogey men. After all, someone is on the other side of the ‘disputed territory’. And someone destroyed the Thijarian home planet. Name-checking the Stenza in those episodes would have helped create the impression of the season heading for a destination.
That said, the finale provides both a suitably emotional and conclusion to Tim Shaw’s villainy while also setting his species up as a potential major threat in the future. They possess truly epic technology almost beyond even the Doctor’s standards. And, it’s revealed here, each and everyone shares the same hive memory. Every Stenza is as lethal; all able to create such weaponry anew where ever they wind up.
The epic scale of the story is balanced by a deep emotional journey for our characters
There’s no question that the TARDIS fam themselves have had only limited character progression. They’re change a little over the course of the first few episodes but by the end of Arachnids in the UK their personalities seem pretty locked in place. As adorable as they are, and as fun characters as they are to spend an hour with every Sunday, it’s been one of the few disappointments this season that we haven’t seen that growth. And this is despite their characters actually giving them plenty of places to go. We know, for instance, that Graham is running away from his own grief, and that Ryan has a fractured relationship with his father. Yaz is fiercely ambitious, on paper, but the positives and negatives of that have yet to be deeply explored.
The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos dramatically rights that ship. The return of Tim Shaw seems to inspire a quantum leap in their development. The scenes between the Doctor and Graham as they discuss the latter’s determination to bring furious vengeance on the alien’s head are some of the most subtle and powerful between a Doctor and companion ever. Graham’s position is completely understandable and relatable. We can’t even say that the Doctor is right this time. And Graham’s automatic and unapologetic acceptance that no longer being allowed aboard the TARDIS is the price he’ll pay is quietly electrifying. If there was any doubt before, it’s clear that every award going should be thrown at Bradley Walsh once awards season starts.
Bradley Walsh again proves himself the beating heart of the TARDIS fam
We also see true, and deeply effecting emotion between Graham and Ryan. There’s again a real, unaffected honesty at work. One born from the knowledge they may well be about to die. Ryan acknowledges he used to think Graham wasn’t good enough for Grace. But he also admits he loves the older man as family now. And it’s a testament to that sense of belonging that his primary concern isn’t avenging his Nan, but getting his newly named ‘Granddad’ out alive and with his soul intact. But the script is also able to turn such high character drama to laugh out loud comedy in a heartbeat – “Don’t tell the Doc, she’ll be livid,” frets Graham when he shoot Tim Shaw’s toes off to save Ryan’s life.
Yaz doesn’t get such emotional stuff to work with. But the finale emphasizes her as the most traditional Doctor Who companion. Paired off with the Doctor as a duo for much of the episode, she truly shines. And with so much of Graham and Ryan’s ongoing relationship struggles now resolved, here’s hoping that the brilliant Mandip Gill gets more focus next season.
Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor continues to be both joyful and raw
Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor this season has been a very different incarnation than her recent predecessors. With the last angst of the Time War stripped away, she’s been the most direct, honest, and passionate Doctor we’ve had, arguably, since the seventies and eighties.
That’s on display here again. And not only in her honest and frank faces offs with Graham, either. Has there ever been a Doctor able to admit their own hypocrisy (or ‘flexibility’ as she calls it here out loud). Yes, she establishes a strict ‘no guns’ rule early on to set a baseline for new companions. Yes, she happily blows up “anything that can be rebuilt”… mostly. And she’s positively cheerful when admitting that she has no idea where she’s going next.
Whittaker also gets to show her steel in her staring down of Tim Shaw and his almost cold resolution to stop him. Like many of her predecessors, she’s proven herself equally capable of both silly eccentricity and towering righteousness. Sometimes this season, that balance has felt slightly off in the scripts, which is a shame when the actor herself blends them so well. We can hope, however, that more of this gloriously steely Doctor will be on show in Series 12.
Series 11 has marked the start of a bold new era in Doctor Who – one that’s only just beginning.
There can be no doubt that Series 11 has proven to be, in many ways, Doctor Who 3.0. It’s effectively been a revamp of the show’s format and storytelling style so complete that you could probably jump from 1989’s Survival to this year’s episodes as easily as from last year’s Twice Upon a Time. As such it’s had to perform the difficult task of establishing the ‘new normal’ for the show, keep aboard those who had become used to the old style, and begin to develop and twist its own new formula. As a finale, The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos had to more much more than round out the series with one last episode. It also had to point the way to where the Chibnall/Whittaker era goes from here.
To that end, it establishes the TARDIS Fam (“I thought we weren’t doing ‘fam'”) as more solid a unit than ever before. It reestablishes their love of wandering and discovery for wandering and discovery’s own sake. The Tenth Doctor once described his name, occupation and mission as “Doctor, Doctor, Fun.” It feels, though, like that may never have been more true that with the voyages of the Thirteenth and her fam. Long may they continue.
Doctor Who Will Return…
Doctor Who returns to BBC One on New Year’s Day. Broadcast time to be confirmed. The Doctor Who New Year’s Special stars Jodie Whittaker (The Doctor), Mandip Gill (Yasmin Khan), Bradley Walsh (Graham O’Brien) and Tosin Cole (Ryan Sinclair).
As the New Year begins, a terrifying evil is stirring from across the centuries of Earth’s history. As the Doctor, Ryan, Graham and Yaz return home, will they be able to overcome the threat to planet Earth?