Doctor Who Review: The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos

doctor who the battle of ranskoor av kolos review series 11 finale chris chibnall jamie childs jodie whittaker bradley walsh tosin cole mandip gill kevin eldon ux stenza mark addy

Ranskoor Av what?!

For about as long as I’ve been doing these reviews, I’ve entertained myself with the idea of eventually posting a piece that’s just a sentence or two, in contrast to the usual thousand plus. Maybe a sarcastic rhetorical question or an expletive or a very matter of fact description. “This is an episode that definitely happened. It was certainly fifty minutes long. It starred Jodie Whittaker as the Doctor, you can’t argue with that.”

I always hold back, though, mainly because it feels like the sort of trick you can only pull once, to really get the full impact. (Plus, I feel like it’d mess with the blog formatting a little, and I’m a little obsessive about that.) Actually, I nearly did it with Kerblam! a while ago, actually, but I held off, opting to break another one of the informal ‘rules’ of the blog at the end of the review instead.

The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos is, I think, very much an episode that would be deserving of this treatment. It is definitely an episode of Doctor Who. It was certainly fifty minutes long. It aired on the 9th December 2018, and it starred Jodie Whittaker, Bradley Walsh, and Tosin Cole, with a cameo appearance by Mandip Gill. These are all true facts about the episode. One might argue that they are probably about as much as can be said about the episode, too, given how largely empty it was, and devoid of any interesting ideas. A dry, factual summary is perhaps the best you can reasonably expect. (Not that that doesn’t tell you anything about the quality of the piece, though – “a Chris Chibnall script directed by Jamie Childs” is a factual detail that tells you more about the relative merits of The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos as an hour of television than any review, and far more succinctly too.)

Thing is, though, I’m still inclined to make a go of writing a review ‘properly’ – I’m not even going to give up and do a scattered collection of bullet points, something else I often consider, though if you’re interested I did recently do a lengthy twitter thread with moment by moment thoughts on each slightly rubbish aspect of the episode. It’s not because I think the episode deserves the attention, per se; to be honest, I already feel like I’ve devoted more thought and attention to it than anyone involved in the actual production.

No, like I said – I think a consciously, deliberately empty review is the sort of trick that you can only pull once. And, as bad as The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos actually is, I have a sneaking suspicion that it’s still not quite the worst the Chibnall era is going to have to offer.

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Morally, the episode was… well, to call it “confused” would be charitable, but it’s emblematic of a series that has struggled to stake out its moral positions since its very first episode. Attention is drawn to the Doctor’s inconsistencies and conflicting rules, but little is made of it – a shame, really, given that those internal contradictions could prove interesting to interrogate. Certainly, they have before.

Insofar as the episode had a main idea, though, it’s a moral debate about whether or not to kill Tim Shaw (as a quick aside: giving your villain a mocking nickname works when he’s the slightly rubbish antagonist in the series opener, less so when the dramatic weight of a series finale is resting upon him entirely), but the fact it’s grounded in such a superficial and ultimately unexamined moral stance means that the debate never really amounts to anything. Here the Doctor’s relationship with violence is shaky and ill-defined – indeed, this Doctor’s relationship with violence always has been – leaving the episode with nothing to do but fall back on old clichés and tired ideas.

All of which leaves the episode in a difficult place, because it never quite seems to have any conviction to its moral statements. Any equivalence drawn between Graham and Tim Shaw, whether they both want vengeance or not, is demonstrably a false one, and that’s surely going to be clear to any audience member – but because of a need to maintain the episode’s central drama, however contrived it is, Graham never gets to offer the obvious counterargument. The eventual choice to imprison Tim Shaw – with the same means of incarceration Graham had earlier used to justify killing him, incidentally – doesn’t come across as a moral victory or a better choice particularly, because… well, because the episode doesn’t have any real inclination to interrogate these moral choices, just to gesture at them. Which isn’t to say, of course, that the death penalty is more or less moral than eternal solitary confinement, more that The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos positions itself as having something to say, and then just sort of… doesn’t.

Arguably, though, it was never going to be anything else. Series 11 as a whole has had a confused morality, and never quite taken a firm stance. It’ll say one thing and do another; The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos is just the apotheosis of that, the endpoint of an approach that never really worked. Even if the specifics of the finale’s failings couldn’t quite be guessed, that these failings would manifest was inevitable – in short, there really is nothing you can do to prevent the catharsis of spurious morality.

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Really, though, it’s just… boring. It’s boring and flat and somehow manages to boast not only a paucity of ambition but a lack of skill to match even the little ambition it did display.

Graham’s character arc is something we’ve seen hundreds of times before; Ryan’s character arc, such that it is, was only really in service to Graham’s, and Yaz didn’t even get that. Mark Addy’s character has no narrative role beyond the occasional spot of exposition. The Ux are lifted out of Star Wars. The production design team either didn’t read the script, or have a very idiosyncratic and counterintuitive understanding of what a building might look like if it “felt alive”. Tim Shaw is a decidedly bland villain with a painfully generic plan. The story circles ideas about faith that could be interesting, but holds off on actually letting them be. There’s still a level of directorial incompetence leading to shots that shouldn’t have been allowed to see transmission. The mind-altering properties of the planet prove ultimately irrelevant. Ideas are introduced and forgotten about on a moment to moment basis. It’s drab and dull and, after watching it three times (!), I can’t help but feel I’ve given it more thought and attention than anyone involved actually cared to.

The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos is such an inessential shrug of a story that it’s difficult to give it a mark out of ten. Certainly, it’s difficult to care that Doctor Who won’t be on in 2019, outside of Resolution on New Year’s Day – an episode that, incidentally, for all it might be the true finale to series 11, looks like it’s going to continue to suffer a lot of the same flaws of the episodes that preceded it.

In the lead up to series 11, I was thinking about not doing these reviews. Confident though I was in Chibnall – or at least more confident than most people – I did consider the possibility that, actually, I wouldn’t like it very much. I didn’t want to be someone who was spending hours each week writing negatively about the first female Doctor; for all that I’ve always said that I love Doctor Who and that’s why I think it’s worthy of criticism and engagement, there’s a point at which it’s not always productive. And I think that, despite liking a lot of the series, the fact that these reviews have tended towards the negative more often than not does make me wonder if I should’ve stopped writing about the series some time ago.

We’ll see, I guess. I’ve come this far, so I’m not going to stop now; I’ll write about Resolution, and do a series 11 roundup after that. And I’ve got a couple of ideas for broader articles I want to write, to try and understand the series a little better. So, I don’t know. Equally, it’s long enough until Doctor Who is going to be on again regularly that I’m not going to have to think about it – or at least this version of it – for quite some time.

And maybe that’s for the best.

3/10

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Doctor Who Series 11 reviews

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Doctor Who Review: It Takes You Away

doctor who it takes you away review ed hime jamie childs chris chibnall jodie whittaker bradley walsh mandip gill tosin cole

There’s me thinking the day had no more surprises left.

It Takes You Away is very good. I liked it a lot. I am, however, somewhat of the mind that a big part of this is because of where it is in the series, and indeed the series it’s in – after a run of episodes that don’t quite live up to the standards I’d have liked them to, this one feels better than it actually is by contrast. I’m not entirely sure if the Series 10 version of such would’ve had quite the same level of impact (though actually, and I recognise it sounds counter-intuitive, I think this episode might well have been improved had the rest of the series been better – more on that shortly, though).

On paper, there’s a lot to like. Conceptually, It Takes You Away is throwing around a lot of genuinely great ideas – not just the frog, but actually particularly the spin on the haunted house offered at the beginning. I really liked that, personally – that sort of character driven, quieter approach felt like some of the more emotionally sophisticated storytelling we’ve seen all year. Erik faking the monster to keep Hanne inside while he’s in the other world with his dead wife? That’s a brilliant idea, it really is, and there’s a neat resonance too with Ryan’s own dad and his experience of abandonment. Quite possibly it could’ve sustained the episode on its own terms, or at least gone a long way towards it with a little bit of work.

But, of course, that wasn’t the case, and there were plenty more interesting ideas and concepts being thrown out across the course of It Takes You Away – I think it’s probably fair to say that, of the nine episodes we’ve seen so far, this one had the greatest density of new ideas and… not plot twists, per se, but plot stages, certainly. There’s a willingness to engage with and indulge in the strange in a relatively straightforward way that I quite appreciated – the frog is absolutely bizarre, but it’s also the best part of the episode, and one of those things that probably only Doctor Who could do. (And, a little more cuttingly, one of those things that has been absent from Doctor Who for a little too long.)

So, yes, It Takes You Away had lots of interesting ideas and concepts, and it was all very good and entertaining, and I mostly enjoyed it. All well and good.

On paper.

doctor who it takes you away review jodie whittaker solitract soletract frog grace thirteenth doctor mirror ed hime

In practice, I think, the episode struggled somewhat. A few reasons, none of which are especially interesting ones – I think largely my problem is the antizone section, which struggled to impress me.

It’s not that it was filler, exactly – argument could be made that it was, I suppose, but I’m not wholly convinced that was the problem with it. No, I think the problem was largely down to the direction. I’ve been less than impressed with Jamie Childs’ efforts on the series so far generally, but I think the antizone section from this episode is probably the weakest stretch he’s directed so far. (Not that the rest of the episode was brilliant, exactly, but here’s where it was most damaging to the overall story, I think.) Those caves should’ve felt strange and unfamiliar to the point of being dangerously disorientating – in actual fact they were just a bit generic. Granted it’s been a while since we’ve seen Doctor Who do caves (or, at least, I’m struggling to think of a recent example – arguably sections of The Eaters of Light, maybe?) but this wasn’t exactly a compelling argument to suggest they’re worth doing. Putting a bit of a red light on something isn’t enough to make it look interesting, particularly when the stuff that would’ve heightened the distinctness of the setting (flesh balloons!) were entirely undersold.

So, what we’ve got, then, is a mostly flat section of the episode that isn’t quite realised very well, and in turn feels like it’s being focused on at the expense of other, more interesting aspects of the episode. It’s difficult not to argue, to my mind, that It Takes You Away would’ve been better with greater focus on the world on the other side of the mirror (and greater focus on the frog!) – there’s not quite enough time spent there to convey the sense that this might genuinely be anything other than a trick, or indeed enough time there to suggest a genuine friendship between the Doctor and the frog.

That this section was a little weak didn’t, actually, bother me that much. On the first viewing it still worked, more or less, and on repeat viewings… well, while it feels clear to me that that section with Ribbons is basically superfluous, there’s just enough going on there that it didn’t especially overstay its welcome. So, much as I would’ve liked to see a little more attention devoted to the more interesting aspects of the story, this somewhat-less-engaging aspect wasn’t a particular obstacle to my enjoyment of the piece.

doctor who it takes you away review bradley walsh tosin cole graham grandad ryan sinclair

What has, admittedly, rankled somewhat is a realisation I had a few days later: it should’ve been Ryan who went with the Doctor and Yaz to the other universe and saw Grace, while Graham stayed behind with Hanne.

It struck me while I was thinking about that final “granddad” moment towards the end. It was more than a little unearned, of course, but that’s not really the fault of It Takes You Away – there’s simply a need for more character work to have been done outside this episode. (That’s what I meant about the episode functioning better had the series been better – a rising tide lifts all ships and all that.) While it functions nicely on its own terms, a moment about Ryan trying to extend Graham some kindness, I can’t help but wonder if it would’ve been more effective coming after Ryan had been forced to say goodbye to Grace again?

Certainly, it’s not difficult to imagine the shape of the episode had it been structured that way. The scene where Grace tells Graham to forget Ryan doesn’t, to my mind, entirely work – the ending more or less presents itself fait accompli at that point. But if Grace is telling Ryan to forget Graham – something he would actually, on some levels, once have quite liked to hear – it takes on a different tone, I think, a stronger emotional beat.

It’s not that the scene didn’t work as presented in It Takes You Away – it just feels like the specifics of Bradley Walsh’s contract are, once again, taking oxygen away from the other characters, in this instance taking what surely should’ve been one of Ryan’s key emotional beats for the series. (I would also posit that it’s more interesting for Graham not to see Grace again than it is for Ryan not to, but still.) So that was a little frustrating. But you know. Not the end of the world.

Ultimately, then… it was good. I liked this episode. I don’t think it was quite as creative or strange as people have suggested – between the generic antizone caves and the “tempted by a fake dead relative” thing that’s been done in science fiction hundreds of times before, from Star Trek to Class, of all things, It Takes You Away perhaps doesn’t have as much to offer as it might have initially seemed.

But then, you know, there was the frog. And it really was a pretty great frog.

8/10

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Doctor Who Review: The Witchfinders

doctor who review the witchfinders joy wilkinson chris chibnall alan cumming jodie whittaker

We’ve got to do something, Doctor.

I actually didn’t especially like the opening scene of this episode.

It put me in mind of Thin Ice a little – an episode I love – or indeed the start of The Beast Below. The insistence against interference becomes set up for a joke (“this requires tact and diplomacy”, before immediately punching Lord Sutcliffe) or a character moment (no interference, until you see a child cry) – or indeed both, actually, in each case. There’s never really any serious consideration of non-interference; the suggestion is raised and shot down more or less immediately, the point being to make it obvious just what sort of character the Doctor is.

That’s not quite what The Witchfinders does, though. For all that it’s worth celebrating the fact that the Doctor is finally being positioned as a more active character, it’s worth noting how much emphasis is placed on the indecision of the moment – the tension comes from the fact we’re supposed to believe that the Doctor genuinely would leave the woman to die in a witch trial because of it’s more important not to interfere. It’s a far, far cry from the way non-interference was treated across the Moffat era (or indeed the Davies era).

And I don’t like that especially. I don’t like a vision of the Doctor as a character where they look on at someone being attacked, and you can see the conflict play out on their face as to whether or not to do something. I’ve said already, I think, that one of the benchmarks for each new Doctor is how they – and it’s difficult to imagine this Doctor’s immediate predecessors prevaricating in the same way about saving someone.

What I can’t tell, of course, if is this has been part of a deliberate character arc. I’m a little unconvinced, to be honest; I’m still fairly sure I read that this episode was originally placed earlier in the series, which would mean that any apparent shift towards a more actively interventionist stance on the Doctor’s part since previous historical episodes is just a quirk of scheduling. Frankly, the relative lack of character arcs for the other main cast members doesn’t exactly make me think we’re seeing an international development here: instead, it’s simply the case that the Thirteenth Doctor is the sort of character who probably would leave a woman to die in a witch trial. It’s a far cry from “if there’s one thing I’m certain of, it’s when people need help, I never refuse”.

To coin a phrase, that’s just not my Doctor.

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That’s not to say I didn’t like The Witchfinders. I would say I mostly did? Going into it, certainly, I was feeling fairly disinterested about the whole thing – I think this is probably the most “whatever” I’ve felt about an episode of Doctor Who going into it, after the mess that was Kerblam!, coupled with the creeping suspicion that Doctor Who was about to go “well, actually, maybe the witch trials weren’t so bad after all”.

Thankfully, though, that was mostly avoided! And the episode was lots of fun! I enjoyed myself quite a bit, and I think this episode stood up quite well to a subsequent viewing. Probably, in fact, it stood up to this subsequent viewing better than previous ones have – certainly it did in comparison to something like The Ghost Monument, which just sort of fell apart the second time I watched it. There’s enough going on here that it’s perfectly and pleasantly diverting for a second time.

Again, though, there’s the sense that maybe none of these episodes are aiming for more than – or are going to hit more than – a generally competent level of “yes, that’s basically fine”. We’re looking at an entire run of episodes that are about as good as the average midseason episode – not a series of filler, exactly, because I’m not massively keen on the word and its implications, but certainly a set of ten essentially middle of the road stories. They’re defined by that, I think – much as Alan Cumming was wonderful, and is surely a strong contender for second best guest star of the season (I really did love Shane Zaza’s performance in Demons of the Punjab that much), the episode struggles to get its actual monsters up to task. I’ve watched it twice now, and I don’t think I could tell you very much about them – they’re deeply generic to the point of being anonymous, and it hurts the last third of the episode too. (Really, of course, there shouldn’t have been any monsters at all – the episode was doing so well with those ideas of repression and deflection, the way we externalise internal fears – introducing mud monsters to it all sees those interesting ideas just tumble down.)

But you know. Alan Cumming really is very good. And I suspect complaints about the quality of the series are almost missing the point, and remind me again why I am not massively fond of reviews as a format. It’s fine, you know. That’ll do. It basically pretty much works. It’s an entertaining enough way to spend my time on a Sunday evening. Whatever.

doctor who review the witchfinders joy wilkinson mud monster witch morax granny alan cumming

It is odd to think that we’re eight episodes into a ten episode series – after tonight’s episode, there’s just a week left. It doesn’t… feel that way. Which is perhaps a silly observation to make, but that doesn’t quite mean it’s any less true; there’s none of the sense of build up that accompanied previous years, none of the anticipation.

Back when Chibnall was first announced, there was a lot of talk about an intensely serialised version of the programme, each episode leading immediately into the next – not a million miles away from a Netflix show, or, the more obvious comparison under the circumstances, Broadchurch. It felt like, and probably would’ve been, a bad idea for a couple of reasons, but at the same time… there’s a part of me that sort of wishes that actually is what we got. The current “no arc” approach didn’t sound so bad on its own terms at first, but chiefly because it sounded like “there won’t be anything like Bad Wolf or Torchwood or the disappearing planets”, which, you know, is fine, it’s been a while since we’ve had that anyway, and it’s not like references to ‘the Hybrid’ weren’t deeply clunky most of the time anyway.

But, man, it seems to me that “no arc” in fact means “you could watch these episodes in literally any order, and it wouldn’t make a difference”. It feels like they’re being written with one eye on syndication, frankly, along the same lines as the average episode of Star Trek: Voyager. It’s not the plot arc I miss, it’s the character arcs, and it’s making all of these episodes feel like less than the sum of their parts – it’s difficult to appreciate a perfectly competent episode like The Witchfinders because it struggles under the weight of series-wide flaws.

So, you know. Okay, sure, fine, whatever.

6/10

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