Doctor Who recap: An old foe returns in a solid but underwhelming season finale
'Travel hopefully. The universe will surprise you… constantly.'
This season’s finale, “The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos,” checks a lot of boxes. The culmination of Jodie Whittaker’s first season as the Doctor has a lot of the elements you want from a Doctor Who finale: Creepy alien battlefields! Extraterrestrial creatures with an elaborate mythology! High stakes where the entire fate of the universe is at risk! On that front, “Ranskoor Av Kolos” delivers. But the return of a disappointingly boring villain undercuts the episode’s effectiveness, resulting in a finale that’s strong but lacking a little magic.
A series of mysterious distress calls lead the Doctor and friends to a planet called “Ranskoor Av Kolos,” a name that translates to “disintegrator of the soul.” (Which is metal as hell.) Every mystery the team encounters on Ranskoor Av Kolos makes less and less sense: The planet has psychotropic waves that distort a person’s sense of reality, and the first person they meet (played by Mark Addy, a.k.a. Robert Baratheon from Game of Thrones) doesn’t know why he’s there, or even what his own name is. Eventually, the truth trickles out: His name is Paltraki, and he landed on Ranskoor to retrieve a mysterious item. His crew is being tortured and held by an unseen figure who wants that item back — and before long, the Doctor discovers that it’s all being orchestrated by Tzim-Sha/Tim Shaw.
That’s right: Everyone’s least favorite interstellar dentist is back. The Doctor banished the Stenza warrior way back in “The Woman Who Fell to Earth,” but he wound up on Ranskoor Av Kolos, where he’s been manipulating the native Ux into treating him as a god. The Ux are a strange, spiritual race with psychic abilities, and there are only two of them at any one point. Andinio (Phyllis Logan) and Delph (Percelle Ascott) heralded Tzim-Sha’s arrival as the arrival of a messiah, and he’s used the combination of their abilities and his own tech to wreak havoc across the galaxy, shrinking entire planets into tiny, crystalline form. And surprise, surprise, his next target is Earth.
Tzim-Sha wasn’t particularly memorable the first time around, which dulls the impact of his return. Ultimately, he’s just another psychopathic alien hellbent on power and destruction, and he’s not exactly going to enter the pantheon of memorable Who villains. The best Doctor Who baddies have a clear philosophy that’s diametrically opposed to the Doctor’s own: The Cybermen are all about enhancing the human race at any cost necessary, while the Daleks are all about racial cleansing. That’s their thing. It’s unclear exactly what Tzim-Sha’s thing is… The premiere set him up as a sort of entitled trophy hunter, zipping around the universe, bragging about his conquests, and collecting his victim’s teeth like a Sharp Objects guest star. Here, his goals are even murkier, and for all the talk about Stenza technology and Stenza ideals, we never really get a sense of what makes the Stenza interesting. He’s determined to seek revenge on the Doctor, but he also seems surprised by her arrival on Ranskoor Av Kolos. He fancies himself a powerful manipulator, but you don’t get the sense that he set up Ranskoor Av Kolos as an elaborate trap to draw her in.
I do love the idea of the Doctor’s mercy being her own downfall. (You can’t have a TV show that runs for more than 50 years without letting a few villains go so they can pop up again later.) The Doctor’s refusal to kill her enemies is a key tenet of her character, so it’s interesting to explore what happens when that mercy actively backfires, making a villain grow more dangerous and more obsessive. Tzim-Sha has been stewing for more than 3,000 years, stranded at the Doctor’s hand. In that time, he’s amassed unspeakable power and caused countless deaths.
But although the episode raises the idea that the Doctor’s decision to let villains go can have catastrophic consequences, it doesn’t ultimately challenge or engage with that idea. And for a season finale, I can’t help but wish there was a little more growth from the Doctor. The Doctor we met in “The Woman Who Fell to Earth” is largely the same as the Doctor who steps into the TARDIS at the end of “The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos.” Graham, Yaz, and Ryan have all grown and had their beliefs challenged, but this season the Doctor has been proven right, time and time again. That’s fine, but it’d be nice to have something a little more epic for the season finale. From the moment Whittaker crash-landed through that train back in the season premiere, she fell instantly into the role, crafting a Doctor who felt familiar while still putting her own stamp on the character. She’s one of the most talented actors ever to take control of the TARDIS, and I hope that next season allows her to stretch her legs a little bit more. I’m not saying I want the Doctor to be put through the emotional wringer, but I’d love to see what Whittaker could do with the Doctor’s rage and underlying sense of grief.
The finale’s far more interesting arc belongs to Graham and Ryan: Once Graham realizes that the villain they’re facing is the same who killed his wife, his face hardens and he quietly informs the Doctor that if he gets the chance, he’ll take his revenge on Tzim-Sha. It’s a nice bit of acting from Bradley Walsh, and it’s a stark departure from the bubbly, wise-cracking Graham we’ve seen before. Still, it does a feel a bit strange coming so soon after last week’s episode. “It Takes You Away,” was so centered on Graham making peace with Grace’s loss. This week’s emphasis on revenge feels like tonal whiplash, but to be fair, grief is messy. Graham is allowed to accept his wife’s death while still longing for justice.
Graham gets his chance near the end of the episode when he and Ryan come face to face with Tzim-Sha. And ultimately, he decides not to pull the trigger, influenced by the Doctor’s nonviolence and Ryan’s reminders of what Grace would’ve done. Graham and Ryan’s bonding in the wake of Grace’s death has been this season’s most moving throughline, and although that final fist bump is a little cheesy, it still made me tear up. Nothing like a trip through time and space to help strengthen the bond between family members.
And ultimately, the Doctor and her family triumph over Tzim-Sha, undoing his machinations with a bit of TARDIS tech and help from the Ux. (Between the neural blockers and Tzim-Sha’s superweapon, there’s a looooot of technobabble this episode, some of it more ridiculous than others.) Yaz, Graham, and Ryan begrudgingly accept the Doctor’s repeated attempts to call them “fam.” And as the Doctor swaggers off back to her TARDIS, she leaves Paltraki and Ux with some truly lovely final words. “None of us know for sure what’s out there,” she says. “That’s why we keep looking. Keep your faith. Travel hopefully. The universe will surprise you… constantly.”
And for all its strengths and weaknesses, this season of Doctor Who has delivered some delightful surprises. Here’s to many more.
Odds and ends
- There was a nice little nod to the Ninth and Tenth Doctors this week when Yaz asked the Doctor whether she thought her plan would work, and the Doctor replied, “No idea. I once towed your planet halfway across the universe with this TARDIS and turned a Slitheen back into an egg. So let’s give it a go!” I think that’s the second mention of the Slitheen this season? Who knew Chibnall was such a fan of farting aliens.
- The landscape of Ranskoor Av Kolos reminded me a lot of images from Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival. Shots of the Ux edifice rising out of the mist felt fairly similar to Arrival’s shots of the vertical alien ship.
- For all my grumbling about this season’s lackluster villains, the teaser trailer for the New Year’s special — titled “Resolution” — teases a run-in between the Doctor and “the most dangerous creature in the universe.” Graham asks, “Does it have a name?” and the Doctor’s pointed silence afterward suggests that we probably already know the answer to that question. Chibnall has said not to expect the return of any familiar villains this season, but technically, the New Year’s special could be fair game. And if the “most dangerous creature in the universe” turns out to be something other than the Daleks, something tells me that everyone’s favorite pepperpots will be quite insulted. They thought they and the Doctor had something special!
- And after the New Year’s special? The good news is the BBC has confirmed that all the regular cast will be returning for the next season: Jodie Whittaker, Bradley Walsh, Mandip Gill, and Tosin Cole aren’t going anywhere. The bad news is that season 12 won’t air until early 2020. Insert joke about wishing we had a time machine here.