Doctor Who wraps up Jodie Whittaker’s inaugural season with a finale that gives us everything we’ve loved about season 11, along with a few of the things we didn’t.
As a season finale, “The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos” represents the best of Doctor Who season 11, showing us a sparkling, determined Thirteenth Doctor, who asks everyone around her to choose hope no matter the odds, and giving us a satisfying resolution to several emotional arcs. Sadly, it also reminds us of the season’s worst failings, structuring its largely successful emotional beats around a messy “throw everything at the wall to see what sticks” sort of plot that somehow miraculously works in the end. (Also for what is roughly the eighth time this season, Yaz is criminally underwritten and generally surplus to needs. This is a problem season 12 really needs to address, show.)
All of that said, the season 11 finale is a solid conclusion to a year which saw Doctor Who experiment with what sort of show it wanted to be, and what kind of stories it wanted to tell. When compared with recent year-enders, which featured massive battles and or the culmination of season-long mysteries, “The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos” is certainly less epic in scope and feel. This is a natural result of season 11’s interest in telling smaller, more contained stories — there’s less of a feeling that this was all building to something in a traditional “grand finale” kind of way. And to be fair, that’s not a bad thing.
If you’re coming to this episode looking for a big, splashy story that screams SEASON FINALE in bright neon lights, you’re probably going to be disappointed. This isn’t that — Daleks don’t appear from the sky, River Song doesn’t pop up out of nowhere, a heretofore unknown regeneration of the Doctor isn’t introduced.
But as a culmination of a season-long journey with these people, this episode does bookend nicely with premiere installment “The Woman Who Fell to Earth,” bringing back Thirteen’s first nemesis and giving Graham and Ryan some much needed emotional closure.
The return of Stenza baddie Tim Shaw — T’zim Sha if we really want to be proper about it — was predicted by many, and he remains as terrible as ever here, seeking destruction for destruction’s sake and looking to punish the Doctor for her actions back in the season premiere. Why he’s stuck in a Darth Vader-esque bodysuit and now has an army of those murder robots from “The Ghost Monument” is unclear. But that’s hardly the worst thing this episode throws out there and doesn’t bother to explain. (Looking at you, neural blockers that sometimes are necessary to keep people sane or also… maybe keep them from getting headaches? IDK.)
Facing off against T’zim Sha offers the Doctor an opportunity to be at her declarative, hero speech-giving best and his reappearance provides a nice bookend for several of season 11’s ongoing themes. His return puts a nice bookend on the season in multiple ways. Not only do we get to see how far Thirteen has come from her first appearance — new coat and all — it provides a satisfying conclusion to Graham and Ryan’s season-long relationship arc.
Graham finally gets his fist bump and an “I love you” from his grandson — and our hearts grew three sizes all at once — but not until he has to face his own dark night of the soul first. The return of T’zim Sha provides Graham the chance to avenge Grace’s death, and an understandable debate about justice, revenge, and mercy. (Or even “grace”, if you will.)
It’s unlikely that anyone was shocked that Graham ultimately can’t help but be the better man his wife always knew him to be, in the end. (Did anyone think he’d actually pull that trigger when the moment came?) But the fate of T’zim Sha is still a conversation worth having and part of a larger debate that will likely shape the rest of Jodie Whittaker’s time in the TARDIS.
The Doctor is more pacifist in this particular regeneration than she has been in some time (possibly ever). But is it more of a punishment for T’zim Sha to live out the rest of his apparently now endless existence in a conscious stasis chamber rather than die for his crimes? Would death have been kinder in the end? And which fate is more appropriate anyway? He is responsible for something the Doctor herself described as “planetary genocide”, after all. Where’s the justice for those lives? Should he receive any kind of grace when those poor souls got none?
It’s likely that Graham could not have been able to live with himself — or even remain on the TARDIS — had he murdered someone in cold blood, no matter how monstrous that creature might have turned out to be. And at least the episode does ask us to confront the idea that the Doctor could be wrong about this. It ultimately decides that the Doctor’s path is the correct one, yes, but it also shows us her companions questioning why it’s okay for her to strap bombs to her backpack even as she tries to talk her way around using them.
The idea that the Doctor’s boundless compassion can come with unforeseen, even deadly, consequences is something Doctor Who has wrestled with previously, though it’s been a while since the show put quite so fine a point on it.
“Don’t pin this on me,” the Doctor shouts at T’zim Sha. But though she may have not intended what happened to occur, she is, in some way, complicit in the fact that it did. And it’s only by the grace of the universe — and a couple of high powered extremely cool aliens known as the Ux that deserved way more screen time than they got — that it wasn’t worse.
Perhaps that’s the word that we all need to keep on our minds as season 11 comes to a close: Grace. May we find it, may we seek it, may we offer it to others as we can, in the hopes that it will make a difference.
Doctor Who returns for a New Year’s special on Jan. 1, 2019 on BBC America.