The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos
As with the rest of this series, The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos was a fairly low-key affair. Under Russell T Davies or Steven Moffat, an episode with this title would doubtless have been an epic with vast CGI battlefleets and cameo appearances of half a dozen old monsters. What we got instead felt like it belonged to the days before CGI, with a number of similarities to The Pirate Planet (telepaths, shrunken planets and a ranting megalomaniac… The ‘only ever two’ Ux felt like a steal from Star Wars‘ Sith too). The Earth was threatened, but we didn’t really see any sign of damage. Under Davies or Moffat we’d have had at least a couple of shots of people running screaming through the streets and damage to famous monuments. Fan expectations were disappointed, judging from the criticism from the Fan Twitterati (as JNT would doubtless be calling them, were he still alive). There hasn’t been a season finale this low-key since… Dragonfire? The Horns of Nimon? The Wheel in Space? But the original series didn’t generally do epic season finales (with a few exceptions). But that’s the thing, really: The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos isn’t failing to be an epic, it’s not really trying to be one in the first place. (Some reviewers have suggested that the new year’s special is the real season finale, which may be the case.)
Trying to work out what it is trying to do is harder, though. There’s some mystery, but the Doctor is soon back to solving things through having prior knowledge rather than deduction, in this case of both the Ux (privileging the her over the viewers) and Tim Shaw (rewarding viewers who have stuck with the whole season). The Doctor’s moral flexibility, particularly regarding firearms, is briefly brought to the fore, but soon ignored. The real focus is probably Graham’s desire to kill the villain, but, perhaps thankfully, this isn’t really dwelt on long enough. Thankfully because you would either have to make Graham more vengeful than a family series would be comfortable with or show him so conflicted as to make it obvious that he wouldn’t go through with it. That said, I was genuinely worried that he would either kill Tim Shaw or get killed himself, so on that level the innovations of the series so far have worked. This does still feel like a programme willing to take risks.
Overall, this was diverting, but nothing more. It lacked a proper emotional core, despite Graham’s subplot and was somehow lacking in ‘edge’ and menace. The continuity-lite finale was refreshing, inasmuch as previous seasons have binged on old monsters and artificial stake-raising exercises, but this needed more weight than Tim Shaw could give it and while Daleks or Cybermen would have been artificial, part of me thinks they might have done something to raise this to a more satisfying conclusion.
Series 11/Season 37/The 2018 Episodes
This year’s episodes have given us a new, vulnerable, less eccentric and above all female Doctor, three companions (two non-white), low-key stories and a focus on history. All these things are to my liking. As I’ve said before, Davies and Moffat grew up watching Doctor Who in the seventies, but Chibnall is of an age to have been impressed by the moral earnestness, experimentation and crowded TARDIS of seasons eighteen and nineteen and this is reflected in the stories, although this makes the lack of overt continuity more surprising.
This has been a year of bold experiments and often successful ones, but it is not clear yet how the audience has reacted. My uncle was complaining the other day about stories that are preachy “history lessons” rather than exciting science fiction stories and while I think this does a grave injustice to Rosa and Demons of the Punjab, I wonder if he is onto something. At the very least, I wonder how many other people agree with him.
The programme has taken some big risks this year, including several that paid off: a more diverse cast, obviously, but also historicals set outside of Europe (not really seen since the Hartnell era) as well as set in living memory and a low-key and continuity-lite style that often felt like a refreshing break from the twisted timelines and crowded stories of Moffat’s time.
However, far too many stories have felt like filler episodes, the type of budget-saving story that previous producers would schedule to balance some epics. I like small-scale, experimental stories, but even I think this went too far. There is a need in 2020 for larger, crazier stories. Only Arachnids in the UK, The Witchfinders and maybe Kerblam! really felt like the Doctor Who of recent years and while this was in many ways positive, I think it may have left too many people wondering whether they were actually watching Doctor Who.