Standing Alone And Other Thoughts On The Doctor Who Season 11 Finale
by Erik Amaya
Breaking with the New Series convention, the finale of Doctor Who‘s 11th season was just another episode of Doctor Who.
This is how things worked for most of the Classic Series. Short of seasons which ended with a regeneration and the 1963 season in which every story ended on a cliffhanger, the format really didn’t led itself to teasing coming events or resolving an ongoing plot. The final story of seasons 16 and 23 did resolve ongoing plot threads, but both seasons were experiments with year-long story arcs the producers deemed unsuccessful and dropped after both instances.
It is only with the New Series that the notion of a season-long arc and season finale cliffhangers really took hold. Television audiences weened on Buffy, ER and primetime dramas were more accepting of the idea and executive producer Russell T. Davies sold his new concept for the show on the basis that it would be modernized in terms of production and storytelling. In that first year, the phrase “Bad Wolf” chased The Doctor (Christopher Eccleston) and Rose Tyler (Billie Piper) throughout space and time. Rose turned out to be the Bad Wolf thanks to a close encounter with the time vortex. To save her, The Doctor sacrificed his tenth incarnation (as it turned out) and regenerated at the end of the season finale, “The Parting of the Ways.” It set the standard for season finales in the New Series as they always led to the subsequent Christmas Specials (or the 50th Anniversary Special in one notable case). They would also resolve a phrase or image hounding the Doctor and his companions throughout the season. Torchwood, Harold Saxon, Rose Tyler, the four knocks, the crack in time, the Doctor’s death, the Impossible Girl and Missy (Michelle Gomez) all chased The Doctor demanding resolution.
Seasons 9 and 10 bucked the trend, but nonetheless ended their season on big emotional plot points — companions dying — and the way The Doctor dealt with those events. Okay, Season 10 had Missy return as a runner, but Gomez’s performance made it more compelling than a mere phrase following the TARDIS.
Which brings us to “The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos,” the thinnest New Series finale in terms of big emotional moments and or wrapping up season-long arcs. Consequently, the episode feels smaller than it should. Part of that is the way the audience is trained to receive season finales, but the script by new showrunner Chris Chibnall does it no favors.
The Doctor (Jodie Whittaker), Ryan (Tosin Cole), Yaz (Mandip Gill) and Graham (Bradley Walsh) respond to distress calls emanating from Ranskoor Av Kolos. The planet’s atmosphere gives humanoids vivid hallucinations, but The Doctor cannot let people in distress go unheard. There they find a male humanoid overcome by the atmosphere (Mary Addy) and old adversary Tzim-Sha (Samuel Oatley), the Stenza who killed Grace (Sharon D. Clarke) back in the first episode of the season. The Doctor also encounters two member of the Ux species and attempts to halt Graham’s thirst for vengeance.
Indeed, vengeance is the theme as Tzim-Sha hopes to make The Doctor watch the death of planet Earth, but the whole thing feels soggy. Since the Stenza were never referenced again after the second episode, they became just another thing Team TARDIS encountered on their travels. Perhaps a fourth encounter with the aliens or their technology earlier in the season would’ve made Tzim-Sha’s return feel like more of an event. Then there’s Tzim-Sha himself. His defeat in “The Woman Who Fell To Earth” was so complete that he fails to create any sort of menace nine episodes later. That could be an interesting idea if the story was about The Doctor confronting what happens when she completely defeats an adversary, but leaves them in pathetic state. Does she help that former enemy or leave it to rot? “The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos” never asks that question as it transfers all of the bad blood to Graham; whose ultimate choice in regards to his revenge is not so much telegraph as beamed on a jumbotron before he and Ryan even talk about it.
And that’s the key issue with this finale: it doesn’t resolve any of the companion’s issues and therefore falls flat. For all the times Ryan’s father was brought up, one would think he would appear at the end of the season and try to disrupt the new family Ryan found with Team TARDIS. Instead, it fell back on Tzim-Sha; believing him to be more memorable than he was.
“The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos” tried to have it both ways. It wanted to be a standalone adventure and embrace the trappings of previous season finales. Maybe that is why it ultimately stumbled where the previous nine episodes succeeded. Even the lesser stories this year had a sense of completeness to them. And since this episode lacked both a season-long arc to resolve and a solid story of its own, it ends up being strangely hollow.
Then again, this isn’t really the end of the season with the New Year’s Day special, “Resolution” airing in a few weeks. Considering the teaser’s reference to the deadliest creature in the universe, it is possible we’ll see Whittaker’s Doctor face a Dalek; a plot the show definitely earned by discarding running plots. Perhaps that will feel more like the conclusion Season 11 deserved.
Doctor Who returns January 1st, 2019 on BBC America.