“None of us know for sure what’s out there. That’s why we keep looking. Keep your faith. Travel hopefully. The universe’ll surprise you – constantly!”
One of Chris Chibnall’s stated intentions as incoming showrunner was to abandon the previous two incumbents’ approach of each season having an overall plot arc which would build to a climax at the end of the season. It was often frustratingly done –witness the nonsensically shoehorned references to Torchwood in David Tennant’s first season. But when done well – and probably RTD’s Bad Wolf arc in the 2005 series is still the benchmark – it produces a real feeling of anticipation for the last episode.
Chibnall hasn’t entirely abandoned the idea of continuing plot threads – The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos is, after all, a sequel to the season’s first two episodes. Without a continuing narrative though, the return of the Stenza came as a bit of a bolt out of the blue.
That could have been great. But only if the Stenza were in any way memorable. One of Chibnall’s other intentions for the year was to have an entirely new roster of ‘monsters’– no returning baddies at all. He’s held true to that one, but the result has been a fairly bland parade of newly invented creatures, none very interesting. Even in the better episodes, which were the historical ones, the monsters were forgettable compared to the actual characters. Imagine if Russell T Davies’first season had the Slitheen in every episode.
The Stenza, in the form of their would-be leader Tzim-Sha (aka ‘Tim Shaw’) failed to impress very much in the first ep of the season. Basically they were given little depth beyond being a sort of Predator ripoff. I’d have forgotten completely about them after that, if they hadn’t been referenced as baddies in absentia for The Ghost Monument.
Here, exiled to psychotropic ‘Planet of the Bad Trips’ Ranskoor Av Kolos, Tim Shaw had at least developed, into a bitter, revenge-obsessed character. Trouble was, despite an undeniably good performance form Samuel Oatley, he was still very much a stock sci fi baddie, with little in the way of depth, cliched dialogue, and not exacly hard to defeat. Plus, his Evil Plan just presented one of the more clichéd genre threats to the good guys – a great big weapon in Death Star style.
It was at least a little imaginative that, rather than blowing up planets, it miniaturised them to use as energy sources (though the show already did that, in 1978’s The Pirate Planet). And there were smatterings of imaginative ideas throughout. The idea of a planet that basically drives you mad isn’t new, but it was nicely visualised in the Doctor and Yaz’s confusion after giving up their neural balancers. And the idea of the Ux – a near-omnipotent, near-immortal race of whom there are only ever two at atime – was an original one.
Trouble was, the Ux’s godlike powers meant there was very little in the way of threat or jeopardy. They’d proved that they weren’t malevolent in their own right, so it was clear that the stakes of the story would be who could harness their powers– Tzim-Sha for evil, or the Doctor for good. And as the outcome was never really in doubt, there wasn’t much in the way of suspense.
Their plot did lead to an interesting discourse on the nature of faith and religion, something the show doesn’t often deal with, which was well-written. That said, I never had any clear idea precisely how Tzim-Sha had managed to convince them he was their ‘creator’. Unless there was an expository line I missed (and I’ve watched it twice now), no explanation was given, which struck me as bad writing. Still, nice to see the evergreen PhyllisLogan as Andinio, and Percelle Ascott, formerly of Wizards vs Aliens, hasgrown into a very attractive young man 🙂 Nice too to see Mark Addy, now forever to be known as Robert Baratheon – but a shame his role was so underwritten that it was only his performance which rescued it.
The origin of Tzim-Sha’s deification wasn’t the only bit of unclear writing, either. The story’s resolution, steeped in technobabble, was pretty hard to follow unless you justgave up and treated it as “a wizard did it”. It felt like a rerun of some of Russell T Davies’ worse deus ex machina endings, and like them hinged on the TARDIS having hitherto unmentioned superpowers of plot resolution. To make matters worse, the Doctor explicitly referred to at least one of those. If you’re going to use RTD as a role model, Mr Chibnall, there are better aspects of his writing you could be influenced by.
It wasn’t all bad, though. If there’s been any kind of ongoing arc this year, it’s been about the characters; and here, Chibnall has excelled. And here at least, we got the sense of a resolution, particularly for Graham and Ryan. I’ve liked the way the season has dealt with the repercussions of Grace’s death in that very first episode, exploring grief in a way it’s rarely done before.
Here, we saw Graham’s feelings come to a head, as he was confronted by Grace’s killer, who he’d vowed to kill. Bradley Walsh has been consistently excellent throughout, but perhaps never more so than here. His conversation with the disapproving Doctor was a useful restatement of the show’s core principles – killing is never the answer to killing. And while it could have seemed cheesy, Graham’s ultimate embrace of that philosophy, as written and played here, was actually heartwarming. Especially in Walsh’s oh-so-British understatement over it.
Ryan too got a resolution, as symbolised by that inevitable return of Graham’s fist bump. Yes, that’s been predictable for weeks, but it was played nicely, especially in a plot-aware aftermath – “what happens now?” That is actually a fair point – if building their relationship has been this year’s main plot, it’s done now. They’re still on the TARDIS though – so what next for them?
Yaz, on the other hand, still had little to do in this ep, as has frequently been the case throughout the season. I’m glad there’ve been episodes that rounded out her character and gave her things to do from time to time, but she hasn’t had the kind of narrative arc that Graham and Ryan have. So, while the TARDIS crew may definitely be the Doctor’s “fam” now, I’m sticking to my guns that it’s a fam which is rather too big.
The Doctor at least continues to develop well in Jodie Whittaker’s performance. Here, she got to balance the zany humour with some very ‘Doctorish’ moments of seriousness and disapproval. I loved her determination to find a peaceable resolution, even when faced with the business end of Andinio’s gun.
The script made much of Tzim-Sha’s assertion that all the events were the Doctor’s own fault. Previous Doctors, under previous showrunners, might have angsted about this for the next year. Jodie’s Doctor has certainly been shown to be fallible this year, but I thought it was great that she dismissed this as nonsense. After all, it wasn’t her decision to con some gullible aliens and get them to build a planet-killing superweapon. Actions do have consequences – but we choose our own actions.
Steven Moffat’s episodes were often criticised – fairly – for prioritising concept over character. Chris Chibnall has gone rather the other way. His characterisation –and the development of the characters – has been exemplary. His concepts, on the other hand, have been rather pedestrian, which is why the sci fi episodes have been, on the whole, less satisfying than the historicals. It’s notable that my favourite of the sci fi eps, last week’s It Takes You Away, was written by someone else.
There’s something to be said for returning to a more episodic format, as the show mostly was in its original run. And there’ve been some outstanding standalone eps this year. But the problem with that approach is that you don’t get a ‘season finale’ in the sense of a climax to a story. You merely get what used to be more honestly described as “the last in the present series”. For a season finale to succeed in this format, it needs to be something really amazing. And, sad to say, this wasn’t. Oh well, there’s a New Year special to come – maybe that will be better…