Monday, 10 December 2018

The Tooth Fury

Doctor Who
The Battle Of Ranskoor Av Kolos
Series Eleven, Episode Ten

That’s a wrap on Series 11.  Did they save the best for last?  Guess.

There have been some odd production choices this year – and you have to hope they are choices, rather than concessions.  (Though that just makes them odder.)  We’ve maintained near-radio silence on what the episodes are about; cut down Next Time trailers appear after each one telling you practically nowt; we’ve lost two episodes a series; shifted it to Sunday nights; given up the Christmas slot; and oh, look at that, there’s no series at all next year.  Wizard!  Perhaps their next brilliant innovation will be to turn the show invisible.

Besides which, there’s no arc.  This is nice for people who fear tuning in mid-run, though they must be in the minority in an era of streaming and binge-watching, in which Doctor Who presumably wants to survive.  It doesn’t exactly stoke the folks who are already watching it each week; shouldn’t you try to keep them hooked?  What happens when you get to the finale, and there’s nothing to wrap up?

"We're gonna have to carry this one, aren't we?"
"Like a couple of removal men, cockle."
Er, this happens.  The same expectations apply and you have to finale regardless, and because you have to wrap something up it just becomes a question of what you’ve got to work with.  Because of another “helpful” production choice – no returning monsters, stuff your Dalek Radio Times covers – Chris Chibnall has Tim Shaw, tooth-faced alien git from the pilot episode, who teleported away to fates unknown.  (There was also Krasko the space racist, but they’re presumably saving him for Series 12.)  Tim wasn’t very enrapturing the first time, but them’s the brakes – problem though.  How can an ease-you-in-gently first episode baddie be retooled into a finale threat?  (Spoiler: dunno.)

Keen to find out, the TARDIS team follow a series of distress calls to Ranskoor Av Kolos.  (“Ranskoor Av what?” says Yaz, like “Kolos” is the weird bit.  But she’s right that it’s a stupid name.)  I was hoping this would separate them so they could investigate on their own, but no, they all troop over together to a crashed spaceship.  There they meet a troubled amnesiac played by Mark Addy; his crew has been kidnapped by Tim Shaw, who is keen to recover a mysterious object from the ship.  Team TARDIS must rescue the crew, so they bring the object along with them (do you think that’s wise?), and along the way Graham tells the Doctor he’s going to kill Tim if he gets a chance.  The Doctor tells him “if you kill him, you become the same as him.”  (Hmmm.)  All the while, the planet is emitting psychic waves that rob you of your memory and cause (among other things) mood swings.  (Literally, she lists three things and “change moods” is the third one.  Oh no, not mood swings!)  Luckily the Doctor has a bunch of neural balancers that cancel it out, but she urges them to keep them on at all times.  Remember that, everyone, it’ll be important later!

Despite the lack of build-up earlier in the series, there are interesting points here.  I’ve not even mentioned the opening: two people, the Ux, are on a (quarry!) barren alien world practicing some kind of mind-powers on the rocks (it’s a quarry!) when a strange alien arrives (in a quarry!).  Then we cut to 3,407 years later – a Moffaty trope so old, it’ll blow dust right into your eyes, though its sort of novel now.  Aliens with weird mind-powers, a planet that attacks your moods, crashed spaceships, audacious time cuts, and later on some plot elements right out of Douglas Adams.  Yeah, you could do something with this.

Who’s the episode by, again?

Your first little warning sign is how long it takes everybody to get to the action.  But that’s Series 11 all over: when in doubt, plod, plod, plod until something takes pity on you and happens.  It’s all written with Chibnall’s usual sci-fi panache, e.g. “I think I’ve found the on button!”, or “These panels must do something!”, or this shining intellectual moment for Yaz: “I think that’s the rest of them.”  “So there’s four in total!”  She’ll be counting in her head, next.

Still, the best bits are in the plodding.  Bradley Walsh plays a typical blinder again, being coldly determined when he talks to the Doctor, then eye-rolling with self-justification when Ryan tries to nag him out of killing Tim Shaw, then reassuringly human when he can’t do it after all.  An obvious arc, certainly, but well sold.  His and Ryan’s scenes are where the funny lines have been hiding out: “You see anything?  “Of course I can’t see anything, I’m looking at the same things as you.”  And their scenes escalate cleverly, with Ryan pointing out that he played the “Granddad” card last week.  (And Graham moaning that it took too long!)  Ryan’s “I love you” is so embarrassed and awkward that it’s utterly genuine, and really funny.  Graham on his own is brilliant; Ryan on his own is mostly pointless, but paired with Graham, it works.  If I had to recommend The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos for one reason, it’s this.

"But... how can he know you?"
Why is that such a sticking point?  He's basically god to them.
Isn't it weirder that she knows him?
Which isn’t to knock the rest of the cast, but let’s face it, “amnesiac” doesn’t give Mark Addy much to work with.  (He tries to make a meal out of “I still remember how to take down robots,” but it turns out all that involves is Shoot Them With A Gun.  Uh, well done?)  Then you have the Ux, stars of the pleasantly weird opening scene.  The two aliens that enable Tim Shaw’s current scheme, it’s hard to sympathise with or care about them.  In 3,000 years it never occurred to them that their pet psycho isn’t the one their prophecies spoke of?  How did he convince them?  (And if they can build anything with their minds, why are they so amazed by teleporters?)  Tim is his usual charming self every time we see him; does he put on a terribly convincing God act when we’re not looking?  It only takes the Doctor a couple of conversations to convince them of the truth.  “You are a couple of awesome Ux,” says the Doctor going for maximum cringe.  A couple of highly dangerous and award-winning morons, more like.  See also: when Tim is defeated and the Doctor leaves Mark and the Ux to get along and explore the universe, aren’t we forgetting all the broken spaceships and dead people?  The Ux helped that happen.  You’re just going to ignore that then, despite earlier telling Graham he’s as bad as Tim Shaw if he kills him?  Righty ho, then!

Because oh right, the plot.  Weirdly, it has elements that feel like they belong in a finale, even if the episode doesn’t feel like it is one.  Tim is using the Ux to collect and shrink planets that have wronged him – you could do something with that in earlier episodes, and while that would have felt like a Stolen Earth rip, what we get here is definitely a Pirate Planet rip.  (Imagine if The Pirate Planet was really, really, reeeeeeally not written by Douglas Adams.)  Sure enough the next planet is Earth, and the Doctor must stop the Ux (who are totally awesome and not a danger to everyone in the universe, nuh uh!) from helping him.  Her only option, which she thinks of only after much clomping around (and only once Yaz has thought of it too, and probably Timmy Thicko in the back row as well) is to put the neural balancers on the Ux!  But wait, you say – what will that do to the Doctor and Yaz?!  I’ve been waiting for this since they set it up at the start!  Aaaaand, it does nothing at all.  It totally works, the Doctor gets a slight headache afterwards and then asks for her neural balancer back.  You couldn’t make it up.  Achievement Unlocked: Ineptitude.

But there are other perils here, surely?  Well sure, there’s those planets – but by all accounts, they’re all restored to normality at the end.  No harm, no foul?  There’s certainly no reaction from anyone on Earth when the whole planet changes colour for some reason.  Hang on, though – SniperBots!  Yes, it’s a bit pathetic that that is the level of “Remember me?” monster we’re getting this year, and it’s just weird that Tim has coincidentally made a bunch of the same robots we saw in Episode 2; it’s also puzzling why he didn’t just send the damn robots to retrieve his planet-rock from the harmless amnesiac dude at any time.  But still, SniperBots!  Who, at one point, come up on Ryan and Graham and then blast each other to bits because Ryan and Graham ducked.  Worth it.

Oh, but come on.  There’s Tim!  Who among us wasn’t counting the days?  Setting aside the curious notion of anyone wanting to see him again, Tim isn’t any scarier because of his Big Bad Scheme, he just does a lot of his usual standing around and snarling – and maybe or maybe not dying when he’s without his mask, it’s not really clear.  In the end, Graham easily subdues him with a gunshot to the foot, then locks him up forever.  So he was just a daft monster-of-the-week… except in 3,000 years, no one managed anything similar?  What kind of horrendous luck were all those guys having?  (Oh right, the wonderful Ux kept killing them.  Yay Ux.)  The best thing about Tim’s return is him blaming the Doctor for sending him here in the first place, and therefore causing all this, but need you ask, they do bollocks all with that.

"Hi, Creator?  It's me, the Ux.  Just... just wondering about the teeth, really."
The stakes aren’t exactly high, are they?  This is the finale, but it feels like a wet Sunday afternoon.  But that’s the playing field with this Doctor.  No, Chris, endlessly repeating that she’s “clever” does not make it so; we all know a gee-I-hope-this-works magic-wand-point when we see one.  Yet again, the Doctor doesn’t seem to know anything.  She’s forever badgering people for answers or flapping about until they independently come to her.  She even tries to torture the I-know-nothing bit into a sign of great intelligence.  “I don’t have to answer all these questions.”  “That’s what my teachers used to say, just before they quit teaching.  I’ve got so many questions.”  (Asking questions is a sign of an enquiring mind, but it would be nice if it helped her ever come prepared.)  At one point she even says “We’re really clever,” meaning her and Yaz!  Yaz, who bumbles around looking utterly bewildered by basic conversation.  Is Chibnall incapable of writing an intelligent character, or is he deliberately talking down to his audience, or both?  Because dude, people won’t run screaming if the ancient genius in the title role knows something they don’t.

Screw it, ten weeks is enough to know, isn’t it?  Worst.  New Who.  Doctor.  At this rate, she might be at the bottom of the fifty-year pile.  The quest to make her as relatable as possible has meant a supposed genius who mustn’t outsmart the audience.  Everything sounds like a guess, and each one comes as easily as a mammal laying eggs.  No wonder she’s crashed back to relying on the sonic.  We still get some of the random eccentricities that New Who uses for “alien” shorthand, but there’s nothing to back it up.  Case in point, the bit where she mutters to herself about wellies (and having half invented them) just sounds like an actor riffing in desperation.  Whittaker plays every script dead straight, throwing out fewer variations than “Press 1 for brooding, 2 for angry” Tennant.  At least he gave it some welly.

The Doctor is the linchpin of the show.  He or she is the bit you can rely on, even if the script stinks.  Look at Peter Capaldi and Matt Smith rescuing terrible material on the regular.  It’s part of the job!  And to be fair to Jodie, they didn’t just have workmanlike dross to work with.  They had Eleventh Hours and Heaven Sents, too.  But god, what is she doing to lift any of this up?  The same hand gestures, the same restless wobbling back and forth, the same weird lip curl, the same generic excitement that could come from anyone at CBBC.  It’s truly not her fault that the scripts are less interesting than an instruction manual, but you’d hope for something unique in her performance to set it apart.  Maybe for the first time, it’s not happening.  Out of the four main characters, I’d rather spend a scene with Graham.  I’m glad there haven’t been any Daleks, as they’d just burst into uncharacteristic laughter and blast her before she even figured out what she was looking at.  The Doctor is out.

Oy, it’s been a rough series.  Remember that this is Chibnall’s first, and what it was like when Russell and Moffat started – a starburst of ideas each, with hits and misses to be sure, but hits.  They each set out a vision for the show, one an irreverent fast-paced sci-fi drama with a lot of heart, the other a clever fairytale in space.  Few of these episodes are truly ghastly, as admittedly some of Chibs’ predecessors’ were, but the bar is so low now.  The plots sit patiently and wait for you to catch up, even if you’re there already.  The characters spout dialogue in turn, but they don’t often grow or relate to each other, unless they’re Graham, or a combination of people that involves Graham.  They certainly havent made the Three Companions thing actually work, although they have made it significantly harder to have a big guest cast.  There are good episodes to be found here, but the good bits tend to belong to characters who don’t travel in the TARDIS.  For all the Doctor’s random speechifying at the end, about how amazing the universe is and how it can surprise you, there don’t seem to be many surprises in Doctor Who as it stands.  Perhaps they needed the year off to figure out why they’re doing this in the first place, and why it seems like such hard work for so little.


  1. And, sadly, this quote from Chibnall (which sounds so robotic) makes me think S12 will just be more of the same. Albeit delayed.

    "We’re off again! Well we never actually stopped - as Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor and friends have been winning the hearts of families across the nation this autumn, we’ve been busy with a whole new set of action packed adventures for the Thirteenth Doctor. We adore making this show and have been blown away by the response from audiences, so we can’t wait to bring more scares, more monsters and more Bradley Walsh, Mandip Gill and Tosin Cole to BBC One. Brilliant!"

    1. He must have some busy PR folks filtering out the negative comments. Obviously some people do like it, but come on. And what does he mean, more scares? When did we get any of those?

      Still, he wrote that statement. Any wonder it’s robotic.

      And hooray, we’re carrying on with three companions, having learned nothing.

  2. Yessss! *applause* Superb. You nailed it. We have no quibble with any of it.

    Re the not coming back next year thing: we're a bit surprised that people seem to be exercised about this. Maybe it's just because we'd rather they didn't show it in our late spring/early summer when we have better things to do, but we were seeing it as just coming back slightly later. We've had longer gaps in the new series, after all. And although it's bad for the show, we greatly prefer to see a New Year's episode after New Year than a Christmas episode after Christmas (which is torture).

    Re the special - Daleks or no Daleks? We're hoping not, because you can bet Chibnall will mangle them horrifically. But we're betting he can't resist. Blech.

    1. With a little bit of creative maths, it *is* just coming back a little later. But I think it’s a visibility issue. 2019 is a gap year, and they only just started. It’s honestly like they don’t want it to be a big deal any more.

      Even with a cut down episode count and nothing to build up to, he still can’t bloody make it on the regular. Absolutely fucking useless. (See also, “I can’t think of a Christmas story.” What, not one? Nothing? Gosh, who’s excited for year two, or three, when his creativity is this anemic?)

      I think it really needs a recognisable monster just to give the sorry thing a shot in the arm, but I doubt it’d be as good as, say, Victory Of The Daleks.

    2. Also if I’m really honest, NYD might be better for me - I won’t have to hear it over nieces and nephews. But oh, the prestige of Chrimbo! Holby City has the slot now I think.

  3. Seeing it with civilians, especially tiny noisy civilians, must be...taxing. But there's no doubt it's a loss nevertheless, and that makes us sad. We take his "I can't think of a Christmas story" and all his boosterism about Sunday nights with massive truckloads of salt. Someone a lot higher up the chain will be telling him how many and when and we doubt he has any say in it whatsoever.

    However, on a happier note, we've seen some suggestion that he and Jodie are only in it for one more season. Who knows if it's true, given that the rumour mill is always grinding away with Who, but given the ratings it could well be. Imagine, only one more season instead of the barren desolate future stretching out into infinity we were imagining! It's perked us up no end.

    1. Ooooh. I’d love Chib to be the Eccleston of showrunners.

      Considering we’ve cycled out all the usual suspects - Whithouse, Gatiss - that might lead to a shot in the dark like RTD. Might work out?

  4. Tempting fate, but we're inclined to conclude that they couldn't make a worse mess of it than the current situation.