It seems weird to say that we’ve officially reached the end of this season of Doctor Who. Whereas past years have built up an underlying threat with the promise of maybe one or two cast changes, here under Chibnall’s reign we’re not even given much of a returning threat. Nothing about this episode feels ‘finale’-y enough. We’re told there’s a heightened element of risk and there’s a couple of nice profound character moments but more often than not it feels like the same simple-yet-convoluted story we’ve been told for the past ten weeks.
3000 years in the past we’re introduced to an ancient monk-like race called the ‘Ux’. Beings who can conjure up any material in the universe (including life itself) and who only exist in the form of two physical beings at a time. As part of their ceremony worshipping their unseen God on the planet Ranskoor Av Kolos (‘disintegrator of the soul’ in its native tongue) they are interrupted by a seemingly omnipresent disturbance – a call from their saviour, perhaps? Of course not, it appears that after ‘The Woman who Fell to Earth’ The Doctor accidentally busted Tim Shaw’s teleporter and he ended up on Kolos being worshipped by some of the most powerful beings in the universe. And of course he decides to use their power on extremely laborious and nonsensical revenge.
You guys remember Tim Shaw right? He’s the Stenza bounty hunter from the season premiere, the one with teeth implanted over his face. Admittedly the combination of Samuel Oatley’s performance and his character design works wonders to create a truly frightful and imposing menace whenever he’s onscreen but the episode’s script leaves him with not only nothing to do and makes him into his own biggest liability. But then, I’m getting ahead of myself as Tzim-Sha’s reveal is built up despite his previous appearance being merely trivial at best.
The Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) and her…ahem, “fam” respond to several distress signals from Kolos – a planet whose atmosphere scrambles your brain and makes you forget who you are. With the help of some trusty Time Lord neurobalancers the team find amnesiac space captain Paltraki (Mark Addy – The Full Monty) and help him to remember his mission: to find and bring back his crew of elite soldiers left on the planet after a lengthy and brutal war. A nice setup for the plot, and one that could have worked as a standalone idea along with Addy’s welcome screen presence. But instead, we’re soon bombarded with the same robotic soldiers and planet aesthetic as ‘The Ghost Monument’s planet Desolation. The second episode in the season also featured a reference to the Stenza, implying that years ago they toxified the planet and created mutated monsters in the form of living cloth. Many people, myself included, believed this episode to maybe tell the backstory of Desolation’s destruction, as all the clues seemed to be there. Yet instead, there’s no real explanation for the similarity of the circumstances. Perhaps the Stenza will come back once again? Perhaps we’re never meant to know. I just feel as though it’s a bit of a missed opportunity.
After confronting one of the Ux Andinio (Phyllis Logan – Downton Abbey), they find out that Shaw is behind it all. Graham (Bradley Walsh – still the best written character on the show) is still vengeful after his wife Grace’s death, and warns The Doctor that if he so much as sees Shaw, he’ll waste no time in killing him. Walsh bustles with a vengeful energy throughout the episode, contrasting his usually empathetic behaviour and we completely understand his intentions. One of the few things the season has nailed is Graham’s emotional state after Grace’s death and it makes complete sense that he’s cold and emotionless for the majority of the episode. He has one thing on his mind, and it’s problematic for The Doctor, whose strict ‘no-killing’ rule leads to another brief moment of clarity for her. We’re still yet to truly know Whittaker’s Doctor, but there are snippets where she’s more than just a rambling Welsh woman and I welcome those moments more than anything. In the past The Doctor’s always treated intentional death as a last resort and, in particular David Tennant’s tenure, chastises himself for any such action, yet Chibnall’s understanding seems to feel a little underthought for the most part. She’s endlessly against the use of guns yet allows hundreds of giant spiders to starve to death in a hotel basement? I know which one I’d rather go with. There’s a key difference between quick and painless and slow and painful and her warning to Graham that he can’t travel with her any longer if he murders Shaw is one that doesn’t feel quite earned. It only pushes Graham’s characterisation further in reality.
Andinio leads The Doctor to Shaw – in full Sith Lord getup, and the two debate his plan. The last thing Paltraki can remember before his memory was erased is retrieving a pulsing, vibrating orb inside of a crystal – and when the rest of the team find several more as well as Paltraki’s crew inside larger crystals it appears the Stenza has some explaining to do. I understand the intention and need for the occasional exposition dump. Especially in science fiction, where concepts can sometimes be so expansive they require additional reading, but in this season of Doctor Who the show has taken a simpler turn, yet with somehow more exposition than ever before. I swear half the dialogue this entire run has either been explaining what’s going on or reiterating something that has been shown on screen. Chibnall’s scripts in particular suffer from making a simple idea confusing by adding in pointless plot elements. We don’t need to know that a war’s gone on here on Kolos, it has no real bearing on the episode. It doesn’t matter how many plates you can spin, it’s about how long you can spin them for.
We’re told that after being worshiped by the Ux, Shaw used his Stenza knowledge to turn the warship into a weapon and has spent the last 3000 years capturing planets inside the crystal shells as a form of revenge on The Doctor – and upon her arrival begins to capture Earth with the use of the other Ux Delph (The Innocents’ – Percelle Ascott). This raises a whole bunch of new questions instead of answering any. If Shaw wanted revenge on The Doctor, why didn’t he just go for Earth first? He didn’t know she was going to come to Kolos, surely. It all just begs you to move along for the sake of clarity and thankfully the episode is paced rather nicely so we’re soon met with the TARDIS being utilised by the freed Ux to put the planets back in their rightful place.
Meanwhile Ryan (Tosin Cole – in a cool new hat) helps Paltraki’s men to their ship whilst Graham confronts Shaw with an alien blaster. It’s a lovely sequence, and for a brief moment I actually did wonder whether or not Graham would actually go through with his revenge. But of course, Ryan’s growing affection for his grandfather sways him the other way, and Shaw – the apparent ‘big bad’ of the season is defeated by being shot in the foot by Graham. A nice comical moment at the sake of any actual threat. Another shame really.
If I haven’t mentioned Mandip Gill’s Yaz yet it’s because she’s once again sidelined throughout the entire episode. As the Ux struggle to move the planets The Doctor and Yaz give up their neurobalancers to the monks in order to clear their minds – an interesting concept that could potentially have some intense ramifications for both characters if their memories become clouded…but instead, The Doctor merely complains about her head hurting for ten seconds and everything is forgotten. Another plate smashed on the ground there.
The Ux manage to return all of the planets from Shaw’s scheme stolen from Russell T. Davies’ ‘The Stolen Earth’ episode and the TARDIS team go back to the ship, not really having learnt much. There’s still no sense of finality for anyone at all, except maybe Ryan and Graham whose relationship has cheerfully flourished over the season. It all feels so inconsequential, and whilst the New Years Day special does look interesting, the promise of another year-long wait for season 12 is just another blow to a show that needs to be firing on all cylinders to keep up with the competition. Something needs to change over the next year…