❉ Whittaker’s first season finale was directed with all the urgency of a Sunday afternoon ramble…
“I know that voice.” – The Doctor
In 2005’s series finale The Parting of the Ways, the Doctor stood alone on the Game Station, powering up a Delta Wave. It was set to destroy millions of humans and Daleks, as an army of the Skaro monsters systematically exterminated their way through the doomed human defenders… In 2018, Graham proved himself “a better man” by not shooting the murderer of his wife.
In The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos, we finally had confirmation that pacifism is an important part of the 13th Doctor’s character. Faced with the return of the Stenza warlord Tzim-Sha (“Tim Shaw” from The Woman Who Fell to Earth, the first episode of the year), together with Graham’s understandable reaction, she stated point blank that if he crossed the line and became a killer, their travels together were over.
In terms of the development of the Doctor’s character, this is a major turning point. In Journey’s End (2009), Davros explicitly stated that the Time Lord, unintentionally or not, moulded his friends into weapons, something the Doctor acknowledged but was clearly uncomfortable with. Nine years on, and – significantly? – in the Doctor’s first female regeneration, she makes it clear that’s no longer an option for her friends and – the implication is – herself, the former War Doctor.
Then again, the Doctor is still evading responsibility and modifying her morality when it suits her. Her statement that the situation on Ranskoor Av Kolos was nothing to do with her rang a bit hollow, and Ryan calling her out on her do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do use of explosives was an interesting observation. It’ll be intriguing to see whether anything is made of this promising character trait in future stories.
Tzim-Sha planning to destroy the Earth by harnessing the paranormal skills of the Ux, a race who worshipped him as a god (presumably in homage to that other great planet crusher the Captain, in Douglas Adams’ 1978’s story The Pirate Planet), sounds ‘high stakes’ and entirely worthy of Jodie Whittaker’s first season finale. Disappointingly, it was directed with all the urgency of a Sunday afternoon ramble, in which, once again, the Doctor and co. weren’t in any real danger.
The crucial, dramatic plot beats – Graham’s confrontation with Tim Shaw and the removal of the Doctor and Yaz’s protective neural balancers, putting them at at the mercy of a psychic bombardment – were so underplayed they fell totally flat, just as the Stenza robots did in that juvenile drop-to-the-floor-and-the-baddies-will-shoot-each-other moment. That was probably why, when the TARDIS dematerialised at the end, I was left with an unsatisfying feeling of “Is that it?” That’s never happened at the end of a season before.
There was, however, much that was enjoyable and striking. Given more screen time, Samuel Oatley’s performance as Tzim-Sha blossomed into an arrogant, deluded, vengeful egomaniac who, crucially for a Doctor Who baddie, also had a deeply sinister voice; that’s how to do a big performance without becoming ridiculous. Equally, Mark Addy (Peltraki) and Phyllis Logan (Andinio) are mature enough actors to give their largely what’s-going-on dialogue some depth and nuance. The Ux’s rocky, floating shrine was memorably surreal from the outside, even if its interior was so similar to the inside of Peltraki’s ship it undermined the story’s visual variety. Following the logic of the shrine’s construction, shouldn’t it have been a honeycomb of tunnels and caverns? Building a conventional spaceship interior inside it didn’t seem to, er, fit.
There was some comment in the script on the well worn sci-fi tropes of mistaking aliens for gods, as well as great power not necessarily going hand in hand with great wisdom, but they were so down in the mix they had no real importance within the story. Notably, Juno Dawson’s recent BBC novel The Good Doctor is a much more fully realised, and much more witty, exploration of religion-as-a-mistake. When the spin-off media is doing a better job than the actual programme something’s up, particularly when the god-like villain in the season finale is defeated by being shot in the foot.
We’re at the end of the 2018 run of Doctor Who, Tzim-Sha has been locked up, nearly everybody lived and the Doctor and her friends are a happy fam. In The Doctor Falls, the final story of 2017, Bill Potts faced a living death as a machine creature, the Master killed him/herself and a dying Doctor stood alone against hordes of invading Cybermen, taking most of them with him.
I know which morality, and which story, I prefer.
❉ ‘Doctor Who’ airs on BBC One, and is made by BBC Studios in Wales. Series link: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006q2x0
❉ Robert Fairclough is a film and TV journalist and blogger and a regular contributor to We Are Cult, ‘Doctor Who Magazine’, ‘Infinity’ and ‘SFX’. He is the author of The Prisoner: The Official Companion to the Classic TV Series, and co-author (with Mike Kenwood) of definitive guides to the classic TV dramas ‘The Sweeney’ and ‘Callan’.