This series of Doctor Who starts with a woman falling from the sky, and ends with a man doing the same thing. A false prophet, a false god, abusing the faith of its flock – but is that the man or the woman we’re talking about …?
“The Battle of Ranskoor av Kolos”, which does not really contain a battle, isn’t exactly what you’d call a success in storytelling. In fact, it’s pretty straightforwardly a failure – let’s get that out of the table right now. Its character throughlines are feeble, its politics problematic, its plot a collection of science-fiction gibberish awkwardly cobbled together. But it has a strange way of going about being a failure, if that makes any sense. It’s not just that the story has essentially a suicide brief, trying to follow the classic narrative mode of the Who finale despite being the conclusion to a series that has done none of the require groundwork to make that work. After all, first off Chibnall didn’t have to force himself into that corner; and secondly, you can still make a brief like that work – Chibnall did it before, with “End of Days” at the end of the first series of Torchwood, which, beyond being wonderfully insane, is also a very smart and fitting way to retcon some bad plotting into a satisfying knot of character threads. No, what’s interesting is that the failure at telling this story is, basically, acknowledged within the story itself. If “The Battle of Ranskoor av Kolos” is about anything, it’s about failing at telling a Who story.
The scene where the Doctor confesses that her policies regarding using weapons and violence are essentially arbitrary rules she’s free to make up and discard on the spot, in that regard, is the keystone of the whole thing. It’s not a new idea – that the Doctor’s authority is derived more from their role within the text and narrative than any sort of moral high ground: in fact, it was a pretty consistent thing in the Capaldi era, most notably with Peter Harness’ “Kill the Moon”, which very explicitly asked that same question. But in “Kill the Moon”, and the rest of the Moffat tenure, that kind of deconstruction was then used to uphold a positive, feminist and progressive agenda. For Chibnall, the truth of the Doctor’s fallibility seems to elicit more dread and horror than happiness. His Who at large, and this episode in specific, read more like Who which went, as Lovecraft would put it, “mad from the revelation”. If the Moffat era was the time of deconstruction, well, he’s now charged with reconstruction – with reconnecting the new, metatextual and experimental trappings with the mainstream popular appeal, with that big spotlight and these toy stores shelves full of David Tennant figures. In that context, it’s not hard to see how the ideological attacks on the Doctor carried through the Capaldi era could feel like a wound – although the fact it is still a problem after series 10, which didactically distilled the essence of Moffat into mainstream storytelling and created a concrete praxis out of the metatext, is slightly baffling.
It’s not that the Chibnall era is reactionary. Or if it, it is by inaction. It does not actively walk back on these ideas; but it does not restate them, much less develop them. There is this desire, in his writing, of having the Doctor as a symbol, an icon of hope – the final speech Jodie Whittaker delivers before leaving the planet, about keeping faith and heading for the starts, is a prime example of that. But he cannot link this uplifting ideal with the complex morality of 2018, a year where the absolutely good father (or mother) figure appears more like an authoritarian dream than anything else.
So where are we? In an in-between. In a void. If the Whittaker era took one lesson from Clara Oswald, it’s that a female-led version of Who is possible … as long as said lead is frozen in time, between one heartbeat and the next. The absence that lurks within the diegesis of the show is, really, and that’s the twist in our little narrative, just a reflection of the ones that are gnawing at the show. It’s not that this lack of purpose, this freefalling, has only negatives to it – it has allowed new creative voices to get themselves heard, taking place in spaces left vacant and spearheading difficult conversations about race and politics; and the exploration the show has made of vacuity and the aesthetics of it was, at the very least, very interesting. But it’s not healthy, and it certainly isn’t sustainable.
Because what we essentially get is a landscape of echoes. A Doctor Who story wishing it was someplace else; a Doctor Who story wishing it was another story. We get explicit references to “Boom Town” and “The Stolen Earth”, positioning “The Battle of Ranskoor av Kolos” as an heir to a tradition of epic crowd-pleasing Davies storytelling: but the story doesn’t rely on continuity to build up the stakes, or even really convey any sense of scope on its own (everyone seems really quite unfazed by the prospect of the Earth’s potential destruction). There’s some Classic Who, with a plot directly echoing “The Pirate Planet”, and some Moffat too – the Ux are lifted straight off his playbook, except with the literary agency replace by religious faith: they still are people who are able to change the narrative essentially by just wishing really hard and channelling their identity as a marginalised group (you certainly could make parallels between a wandering tribe of aliens defined by their religion and actual Jewish people, which is a tiny bit iffy after the accidental antisemitism of “The Witchfinders”; but the fact they channel their faith as a weapon in a way that’s not incomparable to the myth of the Golem, and that one of them is literally crucified because of his beliefs …). But once again – Moffat made that action upon the narrative one of creation, of regeneration: a way to heal trauma and create new, better stories. In the hands of Chibnall, manipulation of reality through belief ends up being destructive, a sterile action of capitalist accumulation, reducing planets to objects of consummation being displayed in an empty temple. It could be smart commentary on the changing times – there is after all, a frightening potential to the idea that belief is all it takes to topple civilisations in a time marked by the rise of the far-right – but it instead just feels awkward. It is, like many things in series 11, both a continuation and a rejection of Moffat: and while I personally believe in Moffat’s vision, and find value in it, I’m not necessarily opposed to the show eventually rejecting parts of it and coming back on some aspects of the narrative. That’s a natural process. What’s not natural is this state of stasis, of incompleteness. Tim Shaw’s fate says it all, ready – he’s a slightly silly Who creation, a mix of cheap grotesque and recuperated genre elements (grabbed from Predator in the opening, and from Darth Vader in this finale), and he ends up frozen, trapped, imprisoned. A museum piece.
Which is concerning, given how much paralleling takes place between him and the Doctor. Both messiahs, in their own ways. One has a shrine, the other a Ghost Monument. They both have companions, and to an extent, in this episode, both of them manipulate them – Thirteen’s threats to Graham aren’t exactly on the same level as telling your worshippers to commit genocide, but it’s a pretty gross abuse of hierarchical power nonetheless. So, to an extent, some of Tim Shaw’s status as a false prophet passes onto the Doctor. The show itself doesn’t quite believe in her: when it embraces its own artificiality, it is not as a blessed, joyful and political act, carrying with it the spectre of improvised theatre, of Claudel and Brecht; it is a condemnation. It’s showing the artifice, the vacuity of what is just, after all, a show, smoke and mirror, and sighing loudly at it. We are asked to believe, yes, but what we are told to believe in is a name, a shape, not an ideal. Which of course, does rather lead to read the Stenza leader, and his fall from grace (or is that Grace?), as also a stand-in for Chibnall himself, elevated to godhood and not knowing what to do with it, all-powerful but trapped on a desolate planet.
But it’s not like that was a fatality. There is potential in this story – beauty, even: in Ryan and Graham finishing to reconstitute a family unit; in the TARDIS’ materialising to save the day; in Akinola’s music and Jaime Childs’ direction. The show didn’t have to burden itself with a plotline it seems to actively despise. An anthology format really could have fit the series’ better – indeed, considering the rather thin characterisation of some of the leads, it almost seems like it was intended in parts: what is bad for a linear arc development could take a whole different meaning if characters were intended as blank canvas various writers could reshape and work on. But it didn’t – it kept on doing its thing, because that’s just what Who does. And now, much like “It Takes You Away” depicted, we are trapped between two worlds, in some obscure place – Who is floating in the Antizone, looking for a way out.
I am still fairly confident it will eventually do so. Because the gaps in the narrative, the frustrations and hurt some might have felt over this series – and, because that does deserve acknowledgement, the joy and happiness some others did feel – are not just unchangeable facts of the present; they are seeds of the future. Who is going through an identity crisis, and it’s going to drag its fandom alongside it, but that need not be a bad thing. Crisis is a time for radicalism – in thoughts, and in actions. And creative sparks shine all the brighter in a night sky scarred by the occasional lightning bold, than under the heavy sun of an all-knowing author. The readings I have, myself, made of the series could, I suppose, be accused of sugar-coating the flaws of the series, finding excuses and hiding flaws – but that never was the intention: criticism is an act of creation, and if I can get out something valuable, through personal processes, out of that series of television, I feel justified in attempting to go and try it. The Whittaker Doctor can still be a symbol of hope and positivity: if the show isn’t able to do it, busy licking its (partly self-inflicted) wounds, then … Maybe the responsibility falls onto us. Maybe we all need to grab the praxis Moffat, Davies and their elders passed down to us, and get to work. In the words of Marius Aurelius, outstanding bass player …
“Waste no more time debating what a good man is – be one.”