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Doctor Who: The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos (Review)

The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos ends the eleventh season on something of a damp squib.

To be fair, there were a lot of hurdles facing The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos from the outset. Most obviously, the expectations of a season finale. Unlike when Doctor Who was first broadcast, season finales are a big deal. They are part of the structure and rhythm of a season of television in a highly competitive market place. Indeed, one of the big innovations of the Davies era was understanding this, with Russell T. Davies building all of his season to bombastic blockbuster season finales.

Hunting their quarry.

There are a lot of expectations heading into a season finale. The episode has to at once exist in the context of what came before and gesture towards the future, satisfy the audience who watched every episode leading into it and offer a compelling reason to stick with the show through a long hiatus. That reason to stick around does not have to be a hook or a plot point, it can simply be, “this show does stuff that nothing else on television is doing.”

However, The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos faces a number of problems in this regard. Most obviously, it is only a single episode long, which means it is formally indistinct from the nine episodes before it. More than that, it has to cram a host of plot and character work into that space, which needs to be “bigger” (or even just “more”) than the rest of the season. The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos has to be a blockbuster episode despite being indistinguishable from Kerblam! or The Witchfinders or It Takes You Away.

Actually, more like Paltraking down their quarry…

There is a reason that Moffat’s two single-episode season finales are among his most divisive, and those were consciously designed to defy the formal expectations of the season finale. Although The Wedding of River Song did not quite work, it was structured more as a fun run-around season opener than an epic season finale, most of its questions long answered. The Name of the Doctor was less of a season finale and more a springboard to The Day of the Doctor and The Time of the Doctor. Even then, Moffat returned to two-part finales in the Capaldi era.

To be fair, The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos might be able to get away with this if the show had been seeding momentum leading into the finale in earlier episodes so that story begins with a sense of stakes. Think about the way that The Long Game set up Bad Wolf and The Parting of the Ways, or the way that Tooth and Claw or Rise of the Cybermen and Age of Steel built to Army of Ghosts and Doomsday. More applicable to The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos, consider the repeated references to missing planets in the lead-in to The Stolen Earth and Journey’s End.

“Orange-a glad it isn’t the stinkin’ Daleks?”

There are undoubtedly aspects of The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos that were seeded earlier in the season. Tim Shaw from The Woman Who Fell to Earth, the Stenza weapons testing in The Ghost Monument, the lost world in The Demons of the Punjab. However, none of these were developed with any sense of urgency, nor maintained across the length the season. None of them make any lasting impression. It is a minor miracle that any of the characters remember Tim Shaw, as he was never a compelling villain in the first place.

The result is a season finale that aspires towards a sense of scale that never feels earned, that never pays off, that never engages. It is a good thing that Resolutions will arrive in a little over three weeks, as it’s very hard to imagine The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos sustaining audience interest until the series returns in 2020.

“Battlefield: Ranskoor Av Kolos.”

The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos approximates competent contemporary television. Chibnall is a writer who knows how to structure a script. In particular, Chibnall is a writer whose strength tends to be propulsive forward moment. One of the most striking aspects of The Woman Who Fell to Earth was the frantic pacing of the edit, the constant jumping between characters and locations. It was an ambitious gambit from Chibnall, one designed to disguise his weakness as a dialogue writer following directly on from Davies and Moffat.

The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos moves very swiftly from one idea to the next. It bounces from one high concept to another, hoping that these ideas can flow quickly enough to hold the audience’s attention. There is no context provided for the TARDIS responding to the nine distress signals on the planet. The Doctor jumps right into charged exposition about the “violent, psychotropic waves” that the planet is broadcasting, leading to the encounter with Paltraki, which leads to the message from Tim Shaw, which leads to the rescue mission.

This is all narrative sleight of hand, a trick that relies on the speed of the artist as compared to the attention of the audience. Davies and (particularly) Moffat were very fond of this approach, understanding that the right bit of banter at the right time could cover up for a lot of convenient narrative decisions or convoluted leaps in plot logic. The climax of so many Doctor Who episodes comes down to watching an actor ramble on a set, talking quickly and smartly enough that the audience leaps over any hurdles.

The big issue with The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos is perhaps something that has haunted the eleventh season since the opening moments of The Woman Who Fell to Earth. Chibnall is not as good with words as his two predecessors, and so he tries other tricks. Instead of using dialogue to move the story along and to keep it in motion, he uses plot. The Woman Who Fell to Earth and The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos are both paced frantically, moving sharply from one beat to the next.

A rocky road.

The big difference between The Woman Who Fell to Earth and The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos is that The Woman Who Fell to Earth knew exactly where it was heading. It was an episode with a clear purpose and arc, long before Chibnall decided to worry about anything like plot or narrative. The Woman Who Fell to Earth had to introduce the Thirteenth Doctor, reintroduce the show, bring the companions together, and launch the series. In contrast, it is never clear where The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos is going.

Chibnall repeatedly and consciously seeds the story with mysteries and hooks, hoping that the audience will ask questions along with the Doctor, engaging with the unfolding narrative. This is a technique that Chibnall has employed repeatedly during his tenure, most notably in The Woman Who Fell to Earth and The Ghost Monument. Think about how many beats within The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos hinge on unanswered (and unanswerable) questions. Paltraki himself is a walking self-solving mystery, one answering questions as the story unfolds.

So The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos has characters repeatedly asking questions that set up later revelations. When the Doctor wonder what is in the container, Peltraki is literally unable to answer her until later in the episode. When the Doctor encounters Andinio, a lone Ux, she ask, “Where is the other one?” Andino shrewdly delays giving the answer by insisting, “I don’t have to answer all these questions.” At one point, Tim Shaw orders the Doctor, “Ready him. There will be a new target.” The Doctor replies, “Ready who? For what?”

The issue with this approach is obvious. These questions only really matter to an audience if the answers are interesting. In most cases, this means paying off earlier set-up. The decision to avoid reusing classic monsters in the eleventh season was a good one, but returning monsters are a very effective illustrative example. In Army of Ghosts, the plot is driven by two questions: “what are the ghosts?” and “what’s in the sphere?” Davies understood that the answers needed to have weight, so they are “the Cybermen” and “the Daleks.”

Monitoring the situation closely.

It is possible to pull of this trick without a recurring monster. Moffat spent a lot of time teasing the audience with details of River Song. It is quickly revealed that she is in prison, so the question becomes “what is she guilty of?” and the answer is “murder.” This becomes a springboard to the question “who did she murder?” and the answer is “the Doctor.” Of course, it’s a cliché to have all of the answers tie back into the show’s mythology, but it illustrates that the answers to these questions are is important as the questions.

In contrast, The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos awkwardly and repeatedly withholds plot information on the premise that the information is best delivered as a question followed by an answer ten minutes later. This has two central problems. Most obviously, it puts undue pressure on the answers; making the audience wait for the answers implies that they should be “worth” it in narrative terms. Most of the answers in The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos are not. Secondarily, it is a very cynical and transparent ploy to extend the plot of the episode.

The container is a good example of this. It is revealed early in the episode that there is something important in the container. Paltraki stole it, Tim Shaw wants it back, and the sonic screwdriver cannot recognise it. It is eventually revealed to be a shrunken planet, but why hold that information back? It makes the early scenes involving the container seem unnecessarily abstract – the show essentially yelling “trust us! this is important!” – and makes the later revelation seem particularly left-field. The Stolen Earth started with stolen planets. We’ve done this. Big deal.

To be fair, it is entirely possible to build to the revelation of a shrunken planet being used for fuel. That is the basic plot of The Pirate Planet, after all. However, this needs to be set up as a mystery that the audience can solve or at least engage with. There is enough foreshadowing in The Pirate Planet that the actual plot of the episode feels like a logical development. In contrast, The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos effectively treats the plot point as “we’ll explain it later!” and then “we’re explaining it!” without any sense of satisfaction or pay-off.

Can we fix it? Yaz we can!

Again, this is something of a feature of Chibnall’s tenure on Doctor Who, a recurring sense that exposition has material value of itself. The answers to the questions in The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos are both insanely detailed and completely irrelevant. Why does it matter is Paltraki was sent by “the Congress of the Nine Systems”, if the audience has no idea what that means? Similarly, why does the audience care if the engine runs on shrunken planets, if that has never been framed as something either likely or possible?

This is very similar to the plotting that Chibnall has carried over from the earliest episodes of Doctor Who, the weird Terry Nation scripting that informed so much of The Ghost Monument and The Tsuranga Conundrum, which made sure to pepper the plot and dialogue with completely extraneous details for no reason other than to demonstrate that the world had been fleshed out. To a certain extent, this tendency carried over to The Witchfinders and It Takes You Away, two stories that feel like hyper-compressed old-fashioned serials rather than individual episodes.

This sort of extraneous detail is very obvious within The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos. The most obvious involves the exposition when the TARDIS lands on the surface. The Doctor reports that the name of the planet “loosely translates as disintegrator of the soul.” She elaborates, “The TARDIS is reporting that planet is transmitting violent, psychotropic waves throughout its atmosphere. The type of waves that mess with your brain. Distort reality. Change moods. To the extreme.”

Now that is an episode hook. It could very easily be The War Games for the twenty-first century, with added contemporary relevance in terms of social media manipulation and heightened polarisation. A planet that literally warps a person’s mood? Insanity that is infectious and contagious? That sounds like a great idea for a story. Unfortunately, The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos doesn’t actually do anything with it. It is just a narrative device to conveniently prevent Paltraki from revealing the plot too early, because he could answer most of those questions.

Battle plans.

The same is true of the Ux. When the Doctor first encounters Andinio, she provides a handy exposition dump about the species. However, the real clincher comes during the confrontation between the Doctor and Tim Shaw. “They can affect the shape of the universe by thought.” Imagine what a Moffat era episode could do with a monster like that, given the weaponised ideas like the Snowmen in The Snowmen or the idea that whatever holds the image of an angel becomes an angel in Time of the Angels and Flesh and Stone.

Instead, The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos uses the Ux to fire a gigantic red laser into the sky and provide an inevitable (but also too late in the game) threat against Earth. There is a startling lack of imagination in The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos. In fact, the battle itself is somewhat underwhelming. The episode is supposed to be a big dramatic action sequence, but it looks a lot less unsettling than trips to Zaruthstra in A Good Man Goes to War or the heart of the Dalek fleet in The Pilot. This is all very dull and drab, particularly given the potential of throwaway ideas like these.

It is somewhat disappointing that the big idea at the heart of The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos is essentially a less creative retread of the starting premise of Stolen Earth and Journey’s End. In fact, the Doctor seems to acknowledge as much when Yaz wonders about using the TARDIS to restore the planets that Tim Shaw has stolen. “I once towed your planet half way across the universe in this thing,” the Doctor explains. It is a shame that there is nothing as audacious or ridiculous as that image to be found in The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos.

Instead, the ideas that actually drive The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos are pedestrian and underwhelming. The most obvious is the return of Tim Shaw, who materialises on the surface of Ranskoor Av Kolos immediately following his defeat at the hands of the Doctor in The Woman Who Fell to Earth. Tim Shaw was one of the least compelling parts of The Woman Who Fell to Earth, and so it was always going to be a gambit to bring him back for the finale to fill the kind of role occupied by creatures like the Daleks or Cybermen or actors like John Simm or Richard E. Grant.

It doesn’t Addy up.

To be fair, the visuals are quite impressive. Tim Shaw certainly looks more imposing while wired into the machine. The pumps behind him are very unsettling, looking like giant mechanical lungs for his slumped-over form. Tim Shaw seems truly alien in those shots, a monstrous creation, something that has transformed itself into something truly inhuman. Unfortunately, the concept does not match the visuals.

The revelation that Tim Shaw has turned the entire planet into his weapon is treated as a big deal in the script. The Doctor deduces that his all-powerful weapon must be “somewhere in this building.” Shaw corrects her, “Not in this building. This shrine is the weapon.” It is meant to be a big and ambitious reveal, a game-changing moment. Instead, it feels fairly routine. Of course his weapon has to be large. He is planning to destroy entire worlds with it. This cannot be a shock to an audience that has seen the Death Star from Star Wars.

Gotta have faith…

However, there is also a sense in which Chibnall is making a very shallow and very superficial critique of the Doctor. Both Graham and Tim Shaw repeatedly make the point that this whole crisis is a result of the Doctor’s actions in The Woman Who Fell to Earth. Graham explains, “We did not get rid of that thing properly, and look where we are now.” Tim Shaw goads the Doctor, “You gave me my destiny.” Later on, the Doctor chides him, “Every action has consequences.” Shaw replies, “These are yours, Doctor.” The Doctor sighs, “I didn’t mean like this.”

This is all fairly rote twenty-first century Doctor Who plotting. It is similar to the way in which Bad Wolf called out the Doctor for just walking away from the wreckage of civilisations that he turned upside down and hoping that they all worked out. It is similar to River chewing out the Doctor in A Good Man Goes to War about the way in which he makes his enemies afraid of him. “You created your own monster” is stock genre fiction plotting, to the point that Batman and the Joker kid about it at the climax of Batman.

Of course, there are issues with this. Most notably, it completely allows the Ux off the hook. The Doctor sternly lectures Graham that if he were to kill Tim Shaw than he would become just as bad as the genocidal monster. It is a well-intentioned sentiment, even if the logic is not exactly watertight. However, the Ux were complicit in the genocide of five whole planets in service of Tim Shaw, and the Doctor never bats an eye. Indeed, she seems positively thrilled to meet the Ux. It is strange that Graham cannot kill one genocidal monster, but the Ux can participate in the deaths of presumably billions.

This is par for the course with the eleventh season, which has been somewhat muddled in its approach to the Doctor’s pacifism. In Arachnids in the U.K., for example, she seemed to believe that letting the spiders starve or suffocate was preferable to killing them quickly or even taking them to another planet. Although Jack Robertson certainly wasn’t motivated by any deep-seated compassion or humanism, his decision to execute the giant spider by gun shot seems much more humane than allowing it to slowly suffocate while standing by and watching.


Even in The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos, none of this feels developed in any meaningful sense, perhaps because so much narrative space if given over to unnecessary details. After all, what was the Doctor supposed to do in The Woman Who Fell to Earth? Just stand by while Tim Shaw murdered Carl? Hope that Tim Shaw would return home and serve as a benevolent leader to the Stenza? That doesn’t seem like a particularly appealing alternative.

Again, this is strangely in keeping with the recurring theme of the eleventh season as a whole. The Thirteenth Doctor has largely been defined by inaction and passivity. She made her companions complicit in systemic racism in Rosa. She declined to topple a monstrous capitalist corporation in Kerblam! She couldn’t even scupper the election plans of low-rent Donald Trump knock-off in Arachnids in the U.K. Repeatedly, the eleventh season of Doctor Who has witnessed injustice and horror, and responded with an apathetic shrug.

In that context, it seems entirely in keeping with this bleak moral philosophy that The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos would condemn the Doctor for saving Carl’s life in The Woman Who Fell to Earth. It’s a very unsettling idea, particularly for the season arc as a whole. Bad Wolf argued that the Doctor was wrong to walk away from toppled dictatorships, not that he was wrong to topple them in the first place. The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos plays into the recurring suggestion in the eleventh season of Doctor Who that even trying to do the right thing is pointless.

Indeed, watching The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos, it seems like Graham actually has the right idea. If the Doctor was wrong to let Tim Shaw escape and if the Doctor would have been wrong to let Carl die, then the only alternative would be to stop Tim Shaw by murdering him. Based on the evidence presented, Graham is entirely correct that the issue with The Woman Who Fell to Earth was lack of follow-through, rather than an unwillingness to take action in the first place.

Desolation, eh?

Of course, Graham’s arc in The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos is completely muddled. The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos finds Graham possessed of bloodlust when confronted with Tim Shaw, ready to murder the Stenza at the drop of the hat. This seems rather out of character for Graham. Graham has been defined by his grief over the loss of Grace, most notably in It Takes You Away. However, that grief is defined largely by his love for Ryan rather than by murderous intent.

Bradley Walsh has been one of the pleasures of the eleventh season, but he is not exactly an actor who screams “unstoppable single-minded killing machine.” Walsh does his best with the material, but he cannot sell lines like, “If that is the creature from Sheffield, I will kill it if I can.” The entire emotional arc of the episode is off-balance. Ryan urges his grandfather, “Don’t wreck what we’ve got because you’re still angry.” However, Graham has never seemed angry; sad, lonely, melancholy, but not angry.

It might have made more sense to use Ryan in that role, particularly given the ease with which he used the gun in The Ghost Monument and the casual manner in which he dispatched Krazlo in Rosa. Then again, it would be very problematic to have the young black companion be portrayed as the most angry or violent of the group. It is to Chibnall’s credit that he avoided that potential pitfall, but perhaps he should have avoided the plot altogether.

Even ignoring how incongruous this feels for Graham as a character, it seems delightfully muddled in terms of messaging. The Doctor gets very self-righteous about the prospect of killing Tim Shaw, in a very absolute sense.  “You are better than this,” the Doctor tells Graham. “You have to be.” However, there is a sense that the Doctor is being something of a hypocrite here. Not just in terms of the character’s past actions in early incarnations, but in terms of The Woman Who Fell to Earth.

Paltraki needs to screen his calls better.

Tim Shaw recounts how he arrived on Ranskoor Av Kolos “on the verge of death, racked by the DNA bomb.” This seems to suggest that the Doctor’s clever backfiring trick with the DNA bombs was potential fatal to Tim Shaw. This makes her behaviour towards the other people trying to combat Tim Shaw seem particularly hypocritical. It is okay for the Doctor to try to murder Tim Shaw, but not for Carl to do it in The Woman Who Fell to Earth or for Graham to do it in The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos.

More than that, the ending is decidedly messy on these terms. Graham and Ryan lock Tim Shaw away in stasis, and the episode treats this as better than killing him. The internal logic is fuzzy at best. If he is conscious, then this must be agony. If he is unconscious, then there is minimal difference unless somebody rescues him at a later point. Indeed, Tim Shaw is sitting in a pod on top of a gigantic weapon. That seems like a very risky place to leave him, giving that blowing him up and randomising his “recall device” led to him becoming a god.

None of this works on a narrative or thematic level. Even in a broader sense, what is The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos actually about? What story is it telling? As with a lot of the eleventh season, The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos is studiously ambiguous on the point of politically commentary, which is disappointing in the modern era. It might be possible to extend the already stretched analogy from The Woman Who Fell to Earth that presented Tim Shaw as a stand-in for Trump, a leader who cheated his way to the top through the illegal harvesting of information.

Perhaps the alliance between Tim Shaw and the Ux is a metaphor for the awkward alliance struck between evangelical Christians and Donald Trump, the willingness with which people who hold themselves to a higher faith and morality fell in line with a selfish and vindictive monster. Indeed, Tim Shaw’s desire to position himself as a god (“the creator”) perhaps reflects the manner in which Donald Trump has radically warped the structures of the Republican Party around himself and his clear desire to do the same to the United States government. However, all of this is a stretch.

“Insert your own jokes about the effectiveness of Nine Congresses right here.”

The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos doesn’t work in any bigger picture sense. However, it also struggles on a scene-by-scene basis. Repeatedly, things happen because they have to, because the plot demands that this thing happen at this point. There are any number of examples; the speed with which Paltraki reaches Graham and Ryan, the strange decision of Tim Shaw to get up and have a walk around his space ship as the Doctor sabotages his control room, and the choice to go to confront Graham rather than the Doctor.

This is most obvious at the climax of the episode, which hinges on the Doctor having precisely five neural blockers. It might make sense if the Doctor had four, one for each member of the original party. However, she also has an additional one for Paltraki. This is good planning, particularly given the character’s tendency not to avoid thinking too far ahead. That said, it raises questions about why the Doctor only has a single spare. It seems a little convenient. Why not bring two or three or even another four? Given the conditions on Ranskoor Av Kolos, it seems unlikely that anybody would want to get stuck without a blocker.

The reason that the Doctor brings five rather than four or six is purely plot convenience. She cannot bring four, because she has to have one that she can offer to Paltraki. She cannot bring six, because the climax hinges on the Doctor and Yaz not being able to just slap the transmitters on the Ux as they enact their plan against mankind. It is extremely lazy and contrived writing, and is incredibly transparent. It speaks to the slapdash nature of the episode as a whole, which is a recurring feature of Chibnall’s tenure.

Even the sequence in which Yaz and the Doctor have to take off their transmitters and put them on the Ux feels clumsy and ill-judged. However awkward the set-up might be, there is still the potential for drama here. The Doctor and Yaz have to remove their own blockers to save Earth. Doing so will expose them to the planet’s atmosphere. The consequences are theoretically horrific. Paltraki has talked about his confusion and his disorientation. The erosion of identity is a truly horrifying concept, and so there is a very real risk what Yaz and the Doctor are doing.

Battling his inner demons.

Unfortunately, The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos cannot be bothered to even sell this concept. The Doctor and Yaz never undergo any serious discomfort. There is no cost to their action. There is no sense of danger. There are no stakes. This is a very strange dramatic choice for a sequence in which the Earth is slowly being destroyed. There is no desperation. There is no pain. There is no suggestion of the “disintegrator of the soul.” The sequence simply does not work in the nuts-and-bolts way that dramatic television needs to work.

The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos is a mess. It is a spectacular misfire. It is horribly ill-judged, but in ways that are entirely fitting with the season around it. It is a disappointment, particularly coming at the end of the series’ last full season in over a year.

You might be interested in our other reviews from Jodie Whittaker’s first season of Doctor Who:

2 Responses

  1. I think a round of applause is in order. Ed Azad was right in that comment he left on your Voyager Season 6 review-these reviews of yours are just getting better and better as time goes on.

    That being said, I disagree with one statement you make in this review-that the finale was a disappointment. I was expecting a dull, meandering hour of television flooded with exposition and with a weak villain. Which is exactly what we got. I can’t believe “Hell Bent” gets people upset.

    • Ha! Fair. I kinda hoped that Chibnall’s nostalgic Davies-era impulses might kick in and it would be a (less effective) example of the blockbuster style that Davies pulled off. (Part of the reason I’m very curious what a Chibnall Dalek story would look like after Moffat spending six seasons reworking and reinventing them.) Unfortunately, this is just… there.

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