Even at the end of a very imperfect series of Doctor Who, there's always a glimmer of hope once we reach the finale. If anything really cool is ever going to happen in a given year of Who–like the shock return of a familiar character, or some startling reveal that changes canon–the series finale is probably when it's going to happen.
However, this is Series 11. And now that I've seen all ten episodes set to air this year, I can say without reservation that 2018 is the worst year Doctor Who has had since the revival begin in 2005. Series 8, the Twelfth Doctor's first run of episodes, has always been the most flawed in my estimation up until now. But for all its mis-steps, Series 8 was still good overall.
Series 11 is not good. At best, it's mediocre.
That said, what about the quality of the finale episode on its own? It's not terrible, but like the series as a whole, it's just meh. It certainly doesn't leave me eager to come back for Series 12. Maybe the New Year's Special can do that…but at this point, I'm very doubtful.
The Quick and Spoiler-Free Review
This could be considered a spoiler, but I think it's best you know it now so you're not disappointed: the Series 11 finale contains no surprises whatsoever. It's a decent sci-fi story that evokes the Doctor Who of yesteryear a few times; that's all. This is not another “Journey's End,” “The Name of the Doctor,” or “The Doctor Falls.” Approach it with that knowledge, and you may still enjoy it to some extent.
Content and Themes
Nothing significant to mention here this week.
What I Didn't Like
The problem with trying to do something new on Doctor Who is that there are already people who have done it better before you came along. The way you handle that is by building upon their work–you've got the rights to it, after all, so why not? You want to tell a sci-fi story about racism? You use the Daleks. Want to terrify people? Break out the Weeping Angels. Need a warrior race? Have some Sontarans.
It's an established part of Doctor Who lore that that deadliest warrior race in the galaxy is the Sontarans. NOT the Stenza. If you want to create a new deadliest warrior race in the Whoniverse, then the Sontarans at least have to be addressed, and possibly defeated by your new contender.
I'm talking to Chris Chibnall here. I doubt he's listening.
I know I was very forgiving of the lack of imagination behind the Stenza when I reviewed “The Woman Who Lived.” I still feel that it wasn't a big deal, in context, since the focus needed to be more on the Thirteenth Doctor's origins than a complicated alien threat. However, as was the case with Prisoner Zero from “The Eleventh Hour” or the Half-Face Man from “Deep Breath,” I had absolutely no interest in seeing this standard, vanilla monster make a comeback. Not the race in general or Tim Shaw in particular. I'm fairly certain most people felt the same way.
So naturally, Tim Shaw turned out to be the Big Bad of Series 11, more or less. He shows up in one of the most underwhelming reveals I've ever seen on Doctor Who, and of course, he wants revenge on the Doctor for nearly turning him into a puddle of blue goo. Fortunately, he has been reading up on both Davros and Brainiac, and has combined their two strategies into a brilliant evil master-plan. He's going to steal the Earth like Davros did, but he's going to shrink it down like Brainiac would if he existed in the Whoniverse.
In all honesty, this isn't terrible writing, but it's not that great, either. On a different show, it might be considered fairly revolutionary, but not on Doctor Who. As I've had occasion to mention before, this is not supposed to be Legends of Tomorrow.
Helping Tim Shaw in his plan are the Ux, also known as “the duo species” because apparently, there are only ever two of them. How and why there are only ever two of them is never explained. They can create and manipulate stuff with their minds using the power of space religion, a trope which both Doctor Who and sci-fi in general have done to death already. For reasons which are never really made clear, they assume Tim Shaw is their god within two seconds of meeting him and proceed to help him take over the galaxy despite the fact that they abhor the very idea of conquest.
Then the Doctor fixes everything by having everybody hold hands and be friends, and Series 11 is over.
Okay, that's a very brief and harsh synopsis of how this episode played out, but it's not entirely incorrect. This just wasn't good enough for a Doctor Who finale. And on top of all the other issues, the mysterious “Timeless Child” teased in “The Ghost Monument” wasn't even mentioned once. It really boggles my mind that Chibnall would introduce that rather intriguing plot thread and then leave it dangling indefinitely. It was kind of shoved awkwardly into Episode 2 to begin with, like a very large and garish sign saying “THIS IS AN IMPORTANT CONTINUITY THING.” So what could possibly be the reason for not bringing it up again?
I really, really hope that neither Tim Shaw nor the Stenza make a return appearance at any point…but I've got a sinking feeling that they'll end up being the main villains of Series 12 all over again at this point. *sigh*
What I Liked
Yes, I did like stuff. Especially the character development for Graham and Ryan. I loved how this episode brought a graceful and beautiful end to the story which began in “The Woman Who Fell to Earth.” Graham has been described by some as the breakout companion of this series, and I definitely agree. He's a delightful character, and while I consider the current cast of companions to be too large, I would like to see him stay around a while longer. (And he will–he's going to be back for Series 12, apparently. Along with everyone else, so there sadly won't be any streamlining of the TARDIS crew.)
Jodie Whittaker was exceptionally good in this story. She finally seems more self-assured in her role, and she's found a balance between the quirky, child-like side of the Doctor and the stronger, authoritative aspect of the character. Yaz felt a little more unnecessary, as is generally the case, but she wasn't completely peripheral to the episode. In a sense, she's more like a traditional companion than Graham and Ryan, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. She tends to work more closely with the Doctor while Graham and Ryan split off into their own team. I could see her staying on in the TARDIS while the other two depart at some point. That could actually work out rather well.
Finally, while I've been rather harsh on the plotting of this episode, I will say that the various concepts introduced here could have worked well if they'd been handled better. Upon finishing the finale, my first thought was that its storyline should have been spread out across the whole series somehow instead of crammed into a single hour at the end. A more serialized format would have afforded the time to develop the Ux as an intriguing new alien and the Stenza as a genuine threat. Chris Chibnall is good at serial drama. He did it very well on Broadchurch. I don't know why he seems to have developed an allergy to series arcs this year.
“The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos” is an underwhelming finish to a disappointing series of Doctor Who. The glimmers of quality it possesses aren't enough to make up for its massive mistakes, which color the series as a whole. A story is only as good as its ending. This was not the finale that the Doctor Who fandom wanted or deserved. And that's not just because it didn't include some fan-pleasing moment like a return appearance by River Song or Rose Tyler. A twist like that wouldn't necessarily have made things any better. (Let's not forget that “The Stolen Earth/Journey's End,” which was so chock-full of Easter eggs that it felt like fanfiction at times, had some serious plot problems.) It's not about catering to the fans with little callbacks here and there. “Battle” does that to a certain degree–in an awkward, ineffective way. It's about telling a good story. If this whole season had been good, and still hadn't contained a single link to past seasons, it would have been well-received by fans. But it simply wasn't on par with any prior year of Who. Serious mistakes have been made, and a course correction is urgently needed for the show.
I'm taking a break from blogging over the next two days, but this weekend, once I've had a chance to gather all my thoughts, I'll be back with a review of Series 11 as a whole, and further thoughts on why it didn't work in the end. I'll also be starting up a series of Doctor Who audio reviews this month, and I'll be sure to give my views on the New Year's special as well.
“The most dangerous creature in the universe…” If that's not a Dalek, I will not be happy. But from my ranting in this review, you probably already guessed that.