Doctor Who: 11-10 “The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos” Review
Reviewed by Ryan Monty.
(This review continues spoilers. Read on if that doesn’t bother you!)
Almost two months to the day of the premiere, Sunday brought us to the finale of Doctor Who Series 11. After all the excitement and hope leading up to the series launch, our latest lodge with The Doctor and pals has passed in the blink of an eye once again, and brought us to that most polarizing of events- a Doctor Who series finale. Often grandiose, often decidedly less so, every modern series closer has plenty of us for whom a story holds a keen place in their hearts, equal to the amount that’d sooner see it thrown in a vault for all eternity, never to have eyes upon it forevermore. Regardless of how it turned out in any sense, our Series 11 final chapter- *deep breath*- The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos, had a daunting task ahead.
Dropped into the story after witnessing mythical beings the Ux as they are interrupted during a ritual by an ominous figure, we arrive in the TARDIS through a lovely opening shot to The Doctor, Yaz, Ryan and Graham receiving nine separate distress calls- all from the same area of one planet, Ranskoor Av Kolos (a name that will never be any less annoying to say/type) which cheerily translates as “disintegrator of the soul”. It’s typically gung-ho heroic stuff, as Team TARDIS resolve to answer the distress call that no-one else will against dire circumstances. Arriving on Silly Name Battle Planet, they soon meet Commander Paltraki (Robert Baratheon himself, Mark Addy) a man with no memory of himself or his crew. There’s a familiar face out there, and mysteries in the mist- which aren’t just how to pronounce the title of the story…
To the shock of nobody, the returning villain of The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos is Tzim-Sha, toothy ol’ Tim Shaw himself. Your mileage, as with every single strand of Doctor Who, will vary with Tim’s first appearance in series opener The Woman Who Fell to Earth and your thoughts on him as a villain. I enjoyed his back and forth ribbing with The Doctor, but he seemed a serviceable one-off. Still, there’s an attempt to make him more threatening this time, with an imposing air about him initially, as he murders Paltraki’s scared crew. Simon Oatley’s performance fully embraces the ridiculous look once more, Kylo Ren voice mask in full flow, and his smug aura is marvelous. His build-up through to his eventual disposal is a microcosm of the story’s problems though.
The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos has all the relevant elements either present or frustratingly close by to be a truly memorable story, with a nice build of intrigue. It doesn’t seem to know entirely what it wants to be, missing easily interesting links it could use- for instance, a link to Desolation, the planet from The Ghost Monument, seems so obvious it would’ve been a freebie. The initial moments on Paltraki’s ship as the crew explores are tense, with the unsettlingly abandoned and ramshackle ship, reminiscent of Alien, bathed in natural light streaming in from the window. As Segun Akinola’s (again, a corker) score builds dread as the terrified commander steps out of the shadows, I was sold.
The actual battlefield of said story’s Battle is a ruined locale, a lot like a bigger budget quarry, with fast moving skies and littered engine parts. “No one in their right minds is gonna go through there” exclaims Ryan, right before they do (how didn’t they notice all those downed ships, mind?) The Ux’s jagged shrine creation is a striking one, full of oranges and yellows within, along with the stark red of the power ray (even if the largely factory appearing location shooting doesn’t help to sell the idea of a creation of imagination). Despite the hit and miss visual storytelling at times, it’s admittedly fitting to have series director Jamie Childs return to bring things full circle, and the better visuals outweigh the poor.
The Ux themselves are an interesting mythical concept, for a story circling around faith and revenge as key themes. They appear to be almost transcendent beings, a cross between Force manipulation (even adhering to a “rule of two”) and Avatar-esque elemental powers. There’s certainly an argument to be made that the two Ux present, Phyllis Logan’s Andinio and Percelle Ascott’s Delph, are a bit, well, gullible, however I saw their story one worth investing in- Andinio being truly blinded by her faith, and her faith actively corrupted by a false God, leading to the corruption of herself and Delph. Delph even gets a funny little subversion of the “bigger on the inside” joke, to disappointingly no reaction- seemingly another gimme.
A good series finale should always try and wrap up (most) story threads, resolve any lingering key themes of the series and bring the arcs for that series of your main cast to a close. For Jodie Whittaker’s Thirteenth Doctor, it’s been a mixed bag depending on who you talk to- often either a Doctor still finding her feet, or a wonderful Doctor being underserved at times by the writing. Personally, it’s a mix of those, yet Jodie’s Doctor improves week on week and she blew me away last time. The Battle of Who Thought This Was a Good Name is an interesting story for her. Thirteen is quick to take the lead in the story’s opening, calming Paltraki down and asking the right questions, taking an active role. She’s wonderfully passionate throughout, strong-willed in her determination to win the day, such as when she bravely demands Andinio show Tim Shaw her face. Despite this, there feels like a missed opportunity for her characterization.
The Doctor’s often fluid rules are brought directly into question here, with her hypocrisy revolving around how she dealt with Ryan regarding the Sniperbots (who continue to be pathetically useless, almost endearingly so) in The Ghost Monument rightly being called out. To quickly move over that with her action justified as Ryan “being new” doesn’t feel satisfying, nor does the fact The Doctor doesn’t even interact with Tim Shaw in the final act of the story. So even with The Doc having a grin-inducing “Clever Doctor Plan” moment by journey’s end, it reeks of an inconsequential Doctor getting away with not facing the consequences of her actions despite the opportunity presented- in the series finale, no less. A story thread brought up, and then frustratingly not explored further. This happens throughout, including the “violent psychotropic waves” on the planet that messes with your mind- giving our cast mild headaches.
At least as always we can look to Graham. He’s in anguish instantly once our toothy returning friend is revealed, asking “who’s the girl?” to Paltraki rather than asking about Tim- the personal loss still cutting deep. Yes, we may have seen a beautiful resolution to the Grace drama last time out after seeing him grapple with his lingering emotions, but to Graham, this feels like the last thread- the final chapter to write, a final tribute of retribution to Grace. Bradley Walsh is so convincing in his sure-footed conviction that he will kill Tim, standing up straight as he tells The Doctor-still smiling the whole time- that you have that lingering thought that he may very well follow through.
Graham and Tim Shaw have a contrast of revenge- and living for it. The subtler moments, Graham pensively thinking about his coming destiny, work superbly, while the resolution of being “the better man”, feels earned. The coda of Tim getting a taste of his own medicine is cute, as is “grandad” being followed up on. From his action hero moment quoting Die Hard to his showdown with a shrouded-in-shadow Tim Shaw as he apologises to Ryan, Bradley Walsh is fantastic, and the buildup is really rather exciting.
Sadly though, this is a story of disappointment. Rushed conclusions have often been a hallmark of Chris Chibnall in his Who writing, including most pointedly in my personal favourite story of his, The Power of Three. Unfortunately that doesn’t seem like changing, and the glut of ideas he has just can’t seem to follow through into execution (could we have not seen a wider scope of the power of the Stenza?) What makes it worse, is that there is great drama to be found in the climax of Battle, as the score leads you into the emotional triumph with an ethereal voice building more intense into The Doctor and Yaz’s (who- again!- is largely in the background) clever duo success.
Yet you don’t feel the full intended effect, with the problem largely being perspective. As Tim Shaw’s genocidal plan is carried out, where are the shots down on Earth of a terrified populace? Yaz’s family, maybe? During his and Graham’s showdown, Tim Shaw is simply shot in the foot and shoved in a stasis chamber. The Doctor and Yaz take off their devices that keep the planet from messing with their minds and again, simply a minor headache affects them. It’s a bit maddening, for something with so much promise, and a real shame when small changes could’ve made a world of difference.
I suppose that means Battle follows a grand old tradition of Who finales often letting many down and not fulfilling potential. Russell T Davies in his finales focused on more bombastic stories with massive stakes to suit massive consequence, while Steven Moffat often subverted expectation of a bigger piece in favour of more muted character pieces. Both approaches pleased, delighted and annoyed fans to no end for better and worse, but both worked equally well in my eyes. A Journey’s End isn’t necessarily better than a The Doctor Falls, they’re only different. Battle eschews those methods though for something that feels like an awkward attempt at both, with world-threatening stakes and a character focus, yet stumbling when trying to merge them. While we finish on a beautiful little closing monologue from Thirteen delivered through Jodie’s winning grin, I can only help but imagine if all the cylinders were firing on this one; what could’ve been.
And with that, brings the end of Doctor Who Series 11, and our first of the Chris Chibnall years. What to make of this series, then? It’s a mixed bag, yet this series has shown enough promise, particularly through its guest writers, that the natural teething problems of the new era will be ironed out come Series 12. The new look, sound, and feel of the show, I love to pieces. Historicals like Rosa have shone, and vivid stories like It Takes You Away thrilled. Bradley Walsh has been exceptional- however, as for Tosin and Mandip (poor Mandip) I truly hope they’re served better. Jodie Whittaker’s Thirteen has been a compassionate Doctor, vibrant and hopeful. There’s growth for this Doctor, and this era, to do though. However Thirteen has, most importantly, made me smile, fulfilling the promise of the “sun coming up” feeling of her main theme. She’s a beacon of joy, personable, really trying to do her best and sometimes failing. The Doctor is a traveler, excited to see the universe again. And I’m equally as excited to see where she and her fam go next.
The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos (the last time I’m ever typing that in full…) is however still a disappointment, ultimately mishandling an often thrilling build up, some potentially riveting character threads and drama beats and leaving us with a story that only satisfies in select moments, where the real power and emotion of it shines through, such as Graham’s scenes. While, as with every story this series (hopeless Who apologist that I am) I enjoyed the watch, I couldn’t help but still desire for more by the close and failed to shake that feeling on re-watching. There’s a chance many gripes will be solved in New Year’s Resolution (ha) however as a Series 11 finale, Battle brings it to an unsatisfyingly average close. “Travel hopefully” Thirteen tells us- and I’ll be watching next series with the same hope. Come on Chibbers, Jodie, Bradley, Mandip, Tosin, Segun and all- you’ve got this!