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DOCTOR WHO Comes Full Circle With Season 11 Finale

The following recap contains spoilers for the Doctor Who episode, “The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos.”

And so we’ve come to end of Jodie Whittaker’s first regular season of Doctor Who, with only the New Year’s Day special to hold us over until 2020. While the season has delivered on Chris Chibnall’s promise of being mostly a series of standalone episodes, it concludes with its first sincere bit of meta-plot: a resolution to the story where it all began, “The Woman Who Fell to Earth.”

The Doctor and her friends find themselves responding to a series of distress calls from a desolate world, where they discover that the source of their fears is none other than their very first mutual foe, the teeth-collecting Stenza warrior known as Tim Shaw. (Okay, it’s actually Tzim-Sha, but he’ll forever be Tim Shaw in our hearts.) Sent to the titular planet after his initial encounter with the Doctor, Tzim-Sha (Samuel Oatley) has corrupted a powerful pair of religious aliens, the Ux (Phyllis Logan and Percelle Ascott) into believing he’s their mythical creator god. With the return of the Doctor to his gaze, Tzim-Sha is ready to claim vengeance against her for his previous defeat.

That’s the literal plot resolution of the season’s threads, but we also get the wrap-up of a handful of thematic arcs as well. Most notably, and given the focus of the narrative, is the character arc of Graham (Bradley Walsh). A man who began his travels following the death of his wife Grace, Graham makes an initial confession of a desire to kill Tzim-Sha out of revenge, and this puts him at odds with the Doctor and Ryan (Tosin Cole). The Doctor’s objections are no surprise to fans of the show, but Ryan also implores Graham to be the better man. Though he’s been relatively quiet about his grandmother’s death throughout the season, he now insists this is what she’d have wanted, and the payoff for Graham ultimately listening to him is the fist bump that his step-grandad has been seeking all season. A small, yet vastly significant gesture, delivered with the perfect amount of warmth and comedic timing to prevent it from feeling too schmaltzy.

If Graham and Ryan’s developing bond is the driving emotional arc of the season, the major conflict arc of the stories is the way evil can be wrought through the corruption of systems. Tzim-Sha’s literal abuse of the faith of the mystical Ux race is indicative of his own manipulation of the hunt that sent him to Earth in the first place, cheating with data coils to find his target. Episodes like “Rosa,” “Demons of the Punjab,” and even “The Witchfinders” highlighted the way governments have used the law to destroy the lives of the marginalized. “Kerblam!” involved a villain hijacking the computer systems of an intergalactic retailer to commit a mass murder, and it, along with “Arachnids in the UK,” showed examples of how prioritizing profit over ethics can have monstrous results. “It Takes You Away” was a story about how grief gets inside us and pulls us out of our own lives. Even “The Tsuranga Conundrum” was about a little creature that devours ships from the inside out.

The Doctor’s role in all of this has been interestingly re-positioned this time around. While Jodie Whittaker has been a solid actor almost from jump, her Doctor seems to have been stripped of much of the gravitas that was steeped upon her immediate predecessors. Gone are terms like “Oncoming Storm,” or moments where the mere mention of the character’s history would send enemy armies running for cover. This Doctor identified herself early on in the season as “just a traveler,” and that’s how the show treats her. She shows up, she helps, and she moves on. In many ways, this feels like a return to form of pre-2005 revival episodes of the series, yet without eschewing the more modern emotional weight of stories from the contemporary era.

While this week’s episode is mostly satisfying and a worthy conclusion to the season, it does fall into one of the most frustrating faults of the batch. Namely, the jettisoning of story stakes due to pacing issues, not unlike the frustrating cut-away resolution to the spider plot in “Arachnids in the UK.” In “Battle,” the Doctor and her friends wear neural balancers on the planet of Ranskoor Av Kolos, because there’s the repeated statement that the planet itself attacks the minds of those who visit. However, this plot point seems to only live in the backstory of a downed ship captain, Paltraki (Mark Addy). He and his crew are said to have suffered the effects of this mental attack, but we don’t really see those in action, aside from a sense of confusion when we first meet him. 

As the story builds to a climax, the Doctor and Yaz volunteer to give up their balancers to save the world and the Ux, yet all this amounts to for them is a bit of a headache before they politely ask for the balancers back a few minutes later. This felt like a Chekhov’s Gun that was taken down from the mantle during the third act, checked for bullets, given a decent cleaning, and then placed back on its hooks. 

Now that we’ve reached the end, it’s good to look back on season 11 as what it was: a soft-reboot of a long-running show. It’s what fans of sports would call “a rebuilding year.” A new creative team and a new cast came in to tell a familiar story using their talents. While longtime fans might have felt less ownership of the show than we have in years’ past, it definitely breathed new life into it and brought in new interest. Here’s hoping that with this new foundation established, Chibnall and his team will move forward now and build on what they’ve made. 

Images: BBC

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