Reviewed: The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos

“I really like the show and I rather not see it being cancelled just because of someone like Chibnall’s idea of entertainment.”

This was the rather hilarious conclusion to a reddit post about Series 11 of Doctor Who, titled ‘an honest opinion’. Now I respect people’s opinions (apart from dishonest ones, so thanks for clarifying), and the writer includes a lot of well-reasoned arguments about some of the weaknesses of this series. But to conclude that, because you don’t like the latest series of Doctor Who, it is going to be cancelled is clearly insane.

The series has been a total success. Yes, it has. It is likely to be either the top or second-highest rated drama series on British television this year. It has maintained an average of about 8m viewers throughout the run, and appreciation figures in the early 80s (meaning ‘very interesting and/or enjoyable’).

So why, when I can be bothered to stare into the abyss, do I see so many online Doctor Who fans so down in the dumps? Imagine a group of football fans moaning that, although their team is top of the division, they don’t like the way they play and fear the manager will be sacked… Is that a thing? I don’t know anything about football, but it seems to me their fans usually sing when they are winning. For Doctor Who fans, it’s a lament.

And it has been forever this way. Kudos to Gordon Ridout on twitter (@GordonRidout) who recently shared on Twitter the hilarious review from the Huddersfield Daily Examiner (dated 7 December 1963) which announced that our beloved show ‘has quickly lost its way’. This was the newspaper reviewer’s assessment of Doctor Who episode two.

So here’s my ‘honest opinion’ of Series 11 episode 10, The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos. It’s about what I like and don’t like. And that’s about all that can be said. It’s a few little musings to divert you for a while. It will not make-or-break anything. There will be a Series 12 with Jodie and Chibnall, and I hope it continues to be a success and that it gets better and better. I’m a Doctor Who fan; what else would you expect?

As this season concludes, it is worth noting a few niggles that I believe could be ironed out, before I get so some of what I believe to be the strengths. Firstly, the new TARDIS set. Doesn’t really work, does it? You can tell that by the way they have shied away from showing it. Unlike the Smith/Capaldi set’s commanding presence. It’s too dark and industrial. There are four people living in it. They must have bedrooms or something. But all the ‘fam’ seem to do is stand about looking at the Doctor as she operates the controls. It needs to feel more like a home, not a cave.

And the relationship between the humans and their lives back in Sheffield is unclear. Are they old skool Who companions whisked off with the Doctor with no thought of home? Or nu Who types who live secret double lives and periodically pop back to maintain their earthly existence? Has PC Yasmin handed in her notice, or does she get the Doc to set the TARDIS for her next shift at the station?

Yaz, despite the Doctor’s great fondness for her, seems a little adrift as a character. She’s likeable but a bit bland. Can you imagine what a scene would involve if they wrote her out, or killed her off? Could the Doctor deliver an emotional eulogy for Yaz, as Graham did for Grace? Needs some work, does that.

But there is much to like in this series and the greatest gift is accessibility. I love the Moffat era but let us not forget how much it worked its way into a continuity-heavy corner. As an idea, it’s hilarious… but last year’s Christmas special started with: ‘Previously on Doctor Who… 709 Episodes Ago.’ Then launched into an excerpt from a serial only shown once more than 50 years previously. As a Who fan, I am astonished that a continuation of The Tenth Planet was shown on TV on Christmas day five decades later. But as a woman serving in a charity shop once wisely said to me as I bought old Doctor Who toys for my son, ‘I used to watch Doctor Who with David Tennant. But now I’ve no idea what’s going on.’

For all his brilliance, Moffat ended up playing to the Comic-Con and Who-obsessive audience. People kept watching because it was still the best drama on TV, but I imagine it was hard work. So, for the millions of existing fans, joined by hundreds of thousands more, Series 11 has echoed Jodie’s relaxed enthusiasm. You don’t need to know a complicated backstory or wonder why the Zygons coming back is a BIG DEAL – you can just love the adventure. There’s this crazy but loveable alien traveller who whisks humans off for fantastic adventures in the past, present. and future. Sometimes on Earth, sometimes far beyond…

And good on Chibnall for choosing not to bring back old monsters for this season. I’m sure he will again in due course, but as a creative challenge, it’s great. Doctor Who was born out of innovation and surprise. There was a first time for every monster, even the Daleks. Give writers a blank sheet and let their imaginations fly…

And, of course, this episode gave us a returning enemy: Stenza warrior, Tzim-Sha, last seen vanquished by the Doctor in the opening episode of the series. There were enough pointers in the first two stories to make this not much of a shock. And while Tim and his race are unlikely to make it into the pantheon of great Who villains, there was a good emotional/story reason for a return match.

And that hinged around the fact that Graham (a superbly understated performance by Bradly Walsh throughout this series) had unfinished business with the alien that was responsible for the death of his wife, Grace. What seemed inconsistent to me was why Graham was so affected by the reappearance of Tzim, and Ryan wasn’t. This was the being who robbed him of his beloved ‘Nan’ who was clearly the central (perhaps only) parent figure in his life, ‘the greatest woman I ever met’. To play it that Graham sought revenge and – the younger, more impetuous and trigger-happy – Ryan didn’t is an odd choice.

What the episode did do was to draw closure on the season’s main theme: the unresolved relationship between Graham and Ryan. They both deeply loved the same person but not each other. Their adventures have brought them together as a family in a way that never happened when Grace was alive. And apart from Graham’s small moral wobble over whether to kill the killer of his lover, it all worked out rather well. Kind of too well in story terms. As in, where do you go now with these characters? They’re now fist-bumping, grandson and granddad besties. Unless Graham’s cancer returns and the Doctor is inexplicably unable to treat it…

As a season finale goes, it felt more like just an episode at the end of the run. Since the Russell T Davies refresh, we’ve expected a few more explosions to end a series. Moffat has taken a slightly different approach at times, but he always ramped up the portends at the end. Maybe the proximity of the New Year Special meant that Chibnall has held over more shocks to the system for then… I hope so. There has been a distinct lack of edge-of-the-seat moments this series.

Yes, there’s been some important emotional beats and the bus scene in Rosa almost had me in tears at my desk at work the next day… But we know from Broadchurch that Chibnall has it in him. The first series in particular was appointment viewing and the writer had his millions of viewers on tenterhooks as the killer was revealed.

Give us some of that, Chris; it’s getting to feel a little safe. Given the bold choice of leading actor and other (successful) changes such as the switch to Sunday nights, it’s a shame the series has ended up a little episodic. Sure, we might not want a repeat of the Impossible Girl conundrum or the (not-properly-resolved) question of the Hybrid from Series 9, but give us some spice along with the comfort food, Chibs.

So, while noting the huge success of this series in terms of viewers, profile, and appreciation, I really want a bit more challenge next run. You’ve given us real characters, so put them in real jeopardy. We don’t have to endure the return of the bickering TARDIS team like in the early Davisons, but set some of the companions against each other, and maybe question the Doctor’s motivation from time-to-time rather than just being in awe of her.

What I’ve found most amusing about this season is how traditional the Doctor is. When the Eighth Doctor and subsequent incarnations started to show interest in the opposite sex, fans took to message boards to scream that the Doctor is ‘asexual’. Then when the decision was taken that the part will be played by a woman, similar sections of fandom trumpeted that the part has to be played by a man. What we have ended up with is a very classic Who approach to the Doctor. The Thirteenth Doctor has shown absolutely no interest at all in the opposite (or same) sex. We are basically back to 1989 on a sexuality level, give or take a few anatomical changes.

But what can’t be relied on next season is a bunch of people tuning in to see what a female Doctor would be like. (Don’t tell them all they needed to do was watch The Sarah Jane Adventures.) So next series has to be bold and brilliant from the start with a boost in the middle and a reason to watch it live at the end. All the pieces are in place and I really want Series 12 to be the very best ever. Unless it’s cancelled, of course…