Shirt watch: blue.
Well, here we are: the season finale, the capstone to the 13th Doctor’s first set of adventures. Time to find out what ‘the timeless child’ was all about, time to see all those dangling plot threads (racist from the future, Jack Robertson) come together, time to find out if the blue shirt/ red shirt thing is significant – right? Ehh, not so much.
Brought to the gratingly named planet of Ranskoor Av Kolos by nine separate distress calls, The Doctor, Yaz, Ryan and Graham set out to help those in trouble. But when they arrive, they find a psychically hostile world, a spaceship graveyard and a lone, shell-shocked survivor Paltraki (Mark Addy). But as they try to piece together the mystery of the survivor and the curious item he is guarding, an old foe waits in the shadows for a final reckoning with The Doctor.
The episode starts in a solid, traditional Whovian location: a quarry as we’re introduced to the Ux, a race of master builders who use rocks because they haven’t thought to invent Lego yet. Their practice session is interrupted by the sudden and unexpected arrival of a stranger, whom they immediately assume to be ‘The Creator’, the object of their worship. Before we can get a good look at who it is, we flash forward to 3,407 years later (relatively speaking, because we time jump to the TARDIS which could easily be the week before the events we saw rather than millennia later and may yet be).
There’s a lot of portentous foreboding in the early part of Chibnall’s return to the writer’s chair – and enough sci-fi tropes are thrown into the pot to suggest the episode was written in the midst of a “Star Trek: Voyager” binge. The neuro-balancers the Doctor provides to counteract the planet’s hostile psychic field are pure Trek, and the core idea of the episode: an alien being posing as a deity and warping the natural evolution and development of the indigenous (albeit small) population is ripped straight from the Roddenberry playbook.
Despite the lavish look of the location filming, the hi-def cameras are savagely unforgiving of the props on show here. The main MacGuffin – which we’ll get to later – looks like a poor cosplay attempt at building the Key To Time and the ‘grenades’ the Doctor hands out (thanks to her newly flexible approach to ‘thou shalt not kill’) look so cheap and plastic they would’ve been rejected by the “Blake’s 7” prop master, as would the obvious executive desk toy which makes up the centre of the control console of Paltraki’s ship. It follows, then, that the dim and dingy lighting of the interior scenes is more a budgetarily-enforced fig leaf to cover the production values than any attempt at cinematic atmosphere.
At least it does lend some atmosphere and sense of drama to Chibnall’s usual grab bag of arbitrary characterisation and leadenly expository dialogue. It’s definitely cheaper to tell rather than show, and Chibnall excels at that kind of writing. A contemporary detective drama can thrive on that approach, sci-fi/ fantasy decidedly less so.
All the dots are here for an exciting and impactful season finale but Chibnall seems incapable of joining them together in the right order to make for a satisfying story. Tzim-Sha’s plan boils down to a milquetoast rehash of Davros’ scheme from “The Stolen Earth” and while the Ux are a fascinating race, they’re barely explored in an episode that seems desperate to push Tzim-Sha as a major threat despite the fact he hasn’t got the gravitas to pull it off. Ideas are introduced but never pay off, such as the terrifyingly dangerous psychic field which can warp your sense of reality. Held at bay by the neuro-stabilisers, the only thing that happens when they take them off is they get ‘a bit headachey’. The Stenza remain resolutely unfrightening, more the Acme Corporation of the Doctor Who universe than potential challengers to the Daleks or Cybermen.
Tzim-Sha has assembled an army of sniper bots, who immediately reveal themselves to be the dumbest robot army this side of a Trade Federation blockade. Plugged into his life support, and lumbering and wheezy out of it he evokes memories of the disappointing movie version of Apocalypse and is every bit as underwhelming.
The raking up of the tensions between Graham and Ryan feels clumsy and retrograde given the closing scenes of last week’s episode, even if the provocation of Graham’s completely out of character lust for vengeance gives a partial explanation for it. At least Graham and Ryan have something to do – a side quest to rescue dozens of anonymous hostages – which is more than can be said for poor Yaz who hasn’t had much in the way of anything since spiders took over Sheffield.
It’s all a little bit careless and lacking in scale thanks to the dull writing. Even when Earth itself is threatened and captured by the red shrinking beam we don’t get to see any of the resultant chaos on Earth (something “The Stolen Earth” excelled at) meaning the jeopardy never really feels real. There’s no threat, ever, and it’s all resolved with a wave of the sonic screwdriver and a bit of help from the TARDIS (which the Doctor bafflingly believes will be beyond the comprehension of the Ux. You know, the race who can practice dimensional engineering with the power of their minds). Mind you, they were credulous enough to believe the first alien to appear was their Messiah, when he was just a very naughty boy, so she might have a point.
Jodie Whitakker must, by this point, be exhausted infusing the Doctor’s tedious dialogue with as much energy and excitement as she does but she’s fighting a losing battle trying to drive some momentum into this lifeless space opera. Despite five planets’ populations being involved, nobody dies and nobody in the audience cares because nothing has a cost. Tzim-Sha is left in suspended animation after a lukewarm confrontation with Graham, so he’ll be back whether we want him or not. Tzim-Sha, that is, not Graham although he deserves to be deep-freezed for ‘Yippee-ki-yay, robots!’, one of the all-time worst lines of dialogue in “Doctor Who” or, for that matter, anything else.
“The Battle Of Ranskoor Av Kolos” deliver neither a battle nor anybody’s soul being disintegrated. It doesn’t provide payoffs to the villains who simply wandered out of their stories but does bring back one of the few bad guys the Doctor actually did vanquish. It looks like the red shirt/ blue shirt thing was just wardrobe realism and most disappointingly, the ‘Timeless Child’ looks like just another of the showrunner’s throwaway ideas that end up going nowhere. Chibnalls’ underwhelming and indulgently self-referential story closes a curious season of “Doctor Who”, one which broke new ground and some old habits with mixed results. The new writers brought new energy and perspectives to the series and it was the season’s only veteran writer who proved to be a real disappointment. It’ll be interesting to see what retooling and tinkering happens during the series’ now announced fallow year but let’s hope that when it returns in 2020, Chibnall’s vision is better served by his writing which, at this point, is the biggest threat to the Doctor since Michael Grade in 1986.