13 December 2021: not really a review of Flux added.
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THE BATTLE OF RANSKOOR AV KOLOS
We're Doctor Who fans. So we like to like Doctor Who.
Sometimes that's easier than others. This year, most of the time it's been a struggle. Nevertheless, when we watched The Battle Of Ranskoor Av Kolos, we were unanimous that this felt more like proper Doctor Who than most of the rest of the season squished together into a ball. And it was more of an entertaining watch than most of it as well. This season? That's almost a miracle.
So they do some things right. Yay! What, exactly?
Well, it's a terrific opening, for starters. Some new and intriguing aliens, some whiz-bang special effects with the stones piling up, and a quarry. Especially the quarry. Fast forward a few millennia, and we're on a spaceship, and Robert Baratheon's got amnesia, and we still don't know what's going on. Awesome, right? We want to be intrigued, not to see from the first scene how the entire plot's gonna unroll.
It is, very much by design, a nice story for Graham. Chibnall Who isn't meant to be arcy, but after the opening episode you'd have had to be seriously challenged in the smarts department not to have expected toothy old Tim Shaw to come back at the end of the season, trailing the whole revengey thing behind him. Graham's development in this story, moving from bloodthirsty to better man, could have been seen coming from Alpha Centauri, but it's how he does it that matters. Just as you'd expect, it sells like plunger grease at a Dalek convention. It adds a gravitas that this season has been far too light on.
And as it's about Grace, it's also a good story for Ryan too, at least with regard to his relationship with Graham. The two of them corner the funny dialogue, and they really run with it. We love those little moments.
In some ways, the episode's a step up for the Doctor, too. She's got more authority than she's had previously: Graham might ignore her initially when she tells him he's better than killing Tim, but it's that which pretty clearly flips the switch for him when it counts. And when she tells Graham he can't come with her, he accepts it without challenging her. It's nice to see the Doctor being a bit more serious for once, too.
And weirdly, we quite like Tim Shaw. Not the character himself, he's a bog-standard villain, but Sam Oatley manages to imbue him with a nice bit of personality. With that many teeth on your face that's no easy task.
All right, then. Some good things. And because we're Doctor Who fans, and we want it to be good, we want to say those good things make a great episode. But that's not right. Any further down that track and we're going to be giving them ten out of ten if the Doctor manages to get her braces on straight. This is Doctor Who we're talking about here, and it matters.
So what about the three-body problem? Here we are at the end of the season, and it ends as it begins: Graham is awesome, Ryan is awesome when he's with Graham and occasionally otherwise. But poor Yaz! There she is, bright-eyed, bouncing on her toes dying to act her socks off, and gets bupkis. Nada. Zilch. She's either a piece of scenery or is treating us to a penetrating glimpse of the obvious. We and everybody else thought three companions was at least one too many, and Chibnall has done nothing to convince us otherwise. It's not as if we don't like Yaz - we do. A lot. But she's disappeared into the wallpaper even in her own story. Mandip Gill has not even a molecule's worth of blame attached to her for this. It's all in the writing.
What's more, the safety barriers around Chibnall's Who mean the companions' characters never get a chance to expand. Sure, they talk about all the things they've experienced and learned. But talk is cheap (particularly in Chibnall Who where they gab instead of actually doing anything). Aside from Graham and Ryan's thunderingly obvious arcs in respect of Grace and each other, nothing else much happens to them: sure, they participate in things, but we're hardly ever scared for their safety. (In this episode, for example, the dramatic bro-on-bro showdown barely starts and boom, it's over without our heroes needing as much as a Band-Aid.) As a result, all this alien stuff and unless it's to do with The Grief Thing they're neither shaken nor stirred. It's as if they're as much spectators as we are.
And the plot? Engage even a single brain cell, and the whole thing falls apart. It is, essentially, a shambles, and it collapses with even the most gentle prodding.
So, these Ux. Massively powerful. Also highly gullible. And with a faith that makes them obey anyone who can trick them to do you name it, including shrink-wrapping entire planets. And the Doctor's response? She gushes all over them, tells them how marvellous they are, and releases this terrifying pair into the wild. Okay, then.
But worse than that is the big fluffy bundle of loose ends. Stuff is tossed in there that either doesn't make sense, peters out into nothing, or both. Why bother with the communicators? They either ignore them (a vast army of lethal robots might have been a point of interest, but radio silence), or when the crew use them to try and tell the Doctor something, she says she's busy. And they make a giant brouhaha out of the terrible, terrible effects the planet has on you if you don’t wear a neural balancer, Yaz bravely volunteers to give hers up for the sake of saving the Earth, we're on the edge of our seats, and…and…zero. Zero! The Doctor gets a little bit of a headache, and Yaz doesn't seem to be affected at all. Well, that's one way of freshening up the Chekhovian gun on the wall trope, although revealing it's actually a water pistol is a pretty disappointing variation.
What about Paltraki and his merry band of spacefarers? It's a great start with the amnesia and all, but it all adds up to…you guessed it, nothing. Other than to give the TARDIS crew something to do in this by letting them out, why would Tim Shaw want to keep the crews in giant vats? Is he pickling them? And letting them out has no emotional resonance at all: they're just hastily and anonymously shuffled offstage. If we were feeling highly charitable, we'd conclude that this material is an opportunity to show off one of the Doctor's most important characteristics, of being determined to save the many and the few. Maybe that's why it's there. Maaaaybeeee. And maybe it's just badly written. We know which way we're betting.
It's not even as if the plot's original. We saw itsy-bitsy planets in one of our favourite stories, The Pirate Planet. That's not an homage. That's desperation.
This is supposed to be SF, but we suspect Chris Chibnall either doesn't like SF or doesn't understand it. One of the hallmarks of SF, for example, is its ability to reflect real life in an allegorical way, ending up, hopefully, with a fresh and thought-provoking angle on a real issue. But Chibnall doesn't do this: he prefers to spell out issues in so many words. What's more, everything's so very very simple. Doctor Who is very far from having a perfect run over its history, but think of some of the mind-blowing concepts that have come out of it. That's SF at its best. What so far in the Chibnall era has been mind-blowing? Remarkable? Even memorable? We can't think of a single thing. It's all simple plots and simple ideas, spelled out in capital letters and delivered at the pace of a narcoleptic snail in case you can't keep up. Yes, we know things got too complicated for a lot of viewers under Moffat, but the pendulum has swung back so far it's flown off and landed in a quarry somewhere. That's not to say, however, that there isn't a lot of stuff in here. Never mind the quality, feel the width: Chibnall chucks in a jumble of concepts and seems to be crossing his fingers that some of it will make an impact. That, however, is a very long way from complexity.
Worse than any of that, though, is the Doctor. Yes, we know we said it's a good story for her in some respects. It's the other respects we're worried about. This isn't a problem just with this story, it's been there the whole season, but why is the Doctor's character so…flat? There she is, in scene after scene, grimacing, hunching, flapping her arms, gasping for breath between sentences. With very few exceptions, she's relentlessly positive, relentlessly reassuring, relentlessly cheery. More than anything else, she smacks of a children's TV presenter. Where's the light and shade? Where's the feeling that behind the persona is more than a thousand years of experience, wisdom and the knowledge that the universe is filled with bad as well as good? We don't know who to blame here, as we don't know how much is coming from Jodie Whittaker and how much from the direction. But we've seen Jodie in other things and she's a lot better than this. Please, please give her something darker to do. This isn't Blue Peter.
And about that wisdom thing. In episode after episode, this one being no exception, she spends most of her time hunting desperately for a clue as to what's happening, knows very little and leans heavily on the sonic screwdriver rather than her own brain. It's as if the post-regeneration trauma never wore off. Her standard MO is standing around, talking a lot and guessing. What's more, for someone who tells us repeatedly in this she's clever, she's remarkably slow on the uptake. When the light finally dawns in this and Yaz and the Doctor chorus "The neural balancers!" one frustrated team member yelled with deep feeling "At last!".
All the Doctors are different, obviously, but they still share some essential qualities. Or at least they should. Quoting from yourself is the height of wankdom, but never mind, we're going to do it anyway. This is what we said about the Doctor in our review of Human Nature/The Family Of Blood: "Seeing the well-meaning John Smith going about his well-meaning life reminds us forcibly of how special a creation the Doctor is. Talk about lacking that certain je ne sais quoi – although in fact we do know quoi. It’s the Doctor’s brilliance, his charisma, his alienness and the breadth of his grasp. When he returns it’s like someone opened a blind and the sun streamed in". Yeah. This Doctor? Not so much. Not any of it.
What's more, she seems, frankly, pretty bloody useless in a lot of situations. People brush her aside and she lets them. She's discriminated against because of her gender and she just stands around helplessly and takes it. Maybe this is meant to be ever-so-subtle political commentary. Maybe, again, it's bad writing. Maybe it's even sexist writing. What we do know is that it's entirely unnecessary. We've met a number of female Time Lords (yes, we know "Time Lady" is a canon phrase, but we hate it. Sue us): both Romanas, the Rani and Missy, amongst others. Without a doubt, all of those girls got shit done. From every angle, and whatever the reason for it, pairing the first female Doctor with the first useless Doctor is a seriously retrograde move.
We've seen a lot worse episodes than this one. And even the season as a whole isn't a total writeoff. There are some redeeming features; there are plenty of potential redeeming features. But we don't want to have to overlook vast tracts of it in order to conclude that it's good Doctor Who. Call us ungrateful, but we want more.
SWINGS AND ROUNDABOUTS
The planet affects your mood? Sorry, but hurriedly tacking on "extreme" to this doesn't exactly have us quaking in our stilettos.
So those teensy planets must have massive density, right, as the Doctor remarks. So why does she happily attach a couple of grenades to them? With that kind of density, the shockwave emanating from the grenades would just bounce off.
And while we're on the subject of the grenades, is the Doctor actually prepared to use them? She has no idea what's in the crystal thing and doesn't seem to care either. This hardly jibes happily with her moralising about guns.
THE NAUGHTY STEP
We're apparently supposed to think that Graham shooting Tim in the foot and imprisoning him in a particularly nasty form of solitary for the rest of his natural is the humane and merciful response. We know he's evil and all, so we're not shedding too many tears for him, but really? That's the nice thing to do?