The Universe Will Surprise You: Doctor Who, “The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos”

The Thirteenth Doctor’s first season has come to an end with a final battle against a familiar face…

Summary

The Doctor detects nine distress calls coming from the same area of a planet called Ranskoor Av Kolos (translated to “Disintegrator of the Soul”), and decides to go investigate. She gives everyone special neuro-balancers because the planet throws off waves that interfere with a person’s mood and ability to focus. When they arrive on the planet they meet a man named Paltraki (Mark Addy) who has lost his crew but doesn’t know how. The Doctor gives him a neuro-balancer, and they are contacted by the person in charge of planet: Tzim-Sha. He wants something that Paltraki and his crew retrieved, and will kill them one by one if it’s not returned. It’s some kind of buzzing sphere contained in what looks like crystal, but the Doctor can’t figure out what it is. Graham tells the Doctor that when they see Tzim-Sha, he plans to kill him for Grace. The Doctor insists that he not do so, but he doesn’t seem to care.

The Doctor meets a woman named Andinio (Phyllis Logan), who is part of a very small and select people named the Ux. They have incredible abilities to bend matter and such, and serve a creator. Andinio believes that Tzim-Sha is that creator and she and her cohort Delph (Percelle Ascott) have been doing his bidding. The parcel that the Doctor is carrying is a captured and miniaturized planet, and they have shrunk many more for their “creator.” The Doctor meets Tzim-Sha again, and he admits that he’s been waiting to get back at her for what she did to him on Earth 3,407 years ago. He’s also strapped to machinery and barely alive anymore. Now he plans to take the Earth, but the Doctor is certain that the world cannot maintain stability with so many tiny planet on it. In the meantime, Ryan and Graham are helping to free a group of stasis-bound people who Tzim-Sha has been holding hostage, including Paltraki’s crew. He and Yaz try to stop Andinio and Delph from taking the Earth (Delph wants no part of this thing, but Andinio leaves him very little choice). The Doctor instructs Paltraki to help Ryan and Graham, and she and Yaz try to figure out how to stop the Ux. They end up fitting the duo with their neuro-balancers so that they can think clearly.

The Doctor calls the TARDIS to her with the sonic screwdriver, and together with Andinio and Delph, they put all the planets back where they belong. Graham gets the chance to kill Tzim-Sha, but makes the choice not to on Ryan’s plea, and they put Tzim-Sha in stasus instead. The Doctor tells Graham that he’s one of the strongest people she knows. They takes the survivors away from the planet and let Andinion and Delph go searching for a new place to serve their creator.

Commentary

Honestly, I enjoyed this episode overall, even with its multitude of weaknesses and plotholes. And if it’s not enough for some people because it’s supposed to be a season finale, then I count that as a good thing. For my money, Doctor Who shouldn’t attempt a big kapow season ender and then try for it again immediately after with the holiday special. It needs to be one or the other, and it seems like the big baboom is being saved for the New Year. As it stands, this was a fun, dramatic space episode set in the future with some good character work and a few neat conceptual ideas thrown into the mix. It was fun, and everyone was in top form. If you’re new to the show (which it seems as though a good portion of the audience is this season, given the high viewing numbers that Whittaker and Chibnall have drawn), then something that’s less bombastic is likely to work for you, too.

Doctor Who, season 11, The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos

The biggest mistake in this episode is that I kept hoping Grace would be in one of those stasis pods with the people Tzim-Sha was keeping alive. Somehow. I wish that they’d just made it abundantly clear from the start that there was no way for that to happen. I still wouldn’t have been happy for her to have missed out on this whole season of adventures, but I can’t stop being upset that she’s not going to be a companion.

We’ve reached our end goal with Ryan and Graham’s relationship solidifying, on the other hand. It’s pretty aggravating that Graham thinks murdering Tzim-Sha is going to somehow make up for Grace (revenge is a common plot scheme, but the commonality of it means that it rarely ever packs the punch you need it to, and instead makes the character seeking revenge seem out of touch), but Ryan is mostly responsible for snapping him out of it, calling him granddad once again and making it clear that he loves him. They even finally get their fistbump in, which is a lot to ask on Ryan’s part, so things between them are clearly golden.

Yaz, on the other hand, has delightfully assumed the role of the person closest to the Doctor in their little trio, the one who goes off with the people they meet in order to safeguard them and get intel, the person who agrees to the tough choices, the person who says to the Doctor “I’m not leaving you.” After worrying that Yaz might get sidelined as the one female companion with a female Doctor, the opposite has really been true. Yaz has come into her own, and clearly enjoys being Thirteen’s friend and confidant and partner in crime. Their relationship is closer than ever, which is pretty much everything that I could have wished for. The idea that a female version of the Doctor would have an even more seamless bond with the other women in her life really does ring true.

There’s a decidedly Star Wars/Darth Vader vibe going on with Tzim-Sha in this episode, and I kind of wish they’d leaned into it more? It works, but it could have been sharper and even more interesting if they’d just let it be more Vader-y. It also would have had the benefit of making Tzim-Sha a more interesting villain who had truly evolved in all the time since he’d seen the Doctor last. The whole reveal of him in that chamber attached to all those apparatuses was actually pretty cool, but it wasn’t used. And then he suddenly doesn’t seem to need it later? It’s just not that well conceived or pulled through the whole plot. On the other hand, really cool aspects of the plot, like Paltraki not having the use of his memory for most of the episode, was a really smart device that could have been used more.

There are some weird plot holes in this episode, or at least plot bits that weren’t thought all the way through. For example, if Tzim-Sha wanted to nab the Earth to get back at the Doctor, why didn’t he go after the Earth first? Sure, the other planets have relevance according to him, but if he really cares about what the Doctor did all that much, you’d figure he would start there. How do the powers of Andinio and Delph actually work, and why? Why does the planet throw off mess-with-your-head waves again? They seem to be a pretty interesting and advanced species who we don’t really learn much about (particularly in regard to the trappings of their actual religion). If Tzim-Sha had meant to get back at the Doctor all this time, why wasn’t he more actively seeking her out? Why does he need “trophy” people in stasis instead of the other trophy format that we know his people already do? At the end of the day, Chibnall is good at reverse engineering mysteries and murders (which you know if you’ve watched Broadchurch), but his SFF plotting could use some more meticulousness.

All in all, there could have been more care taken with the general premise and world-building, but I’m just as happy to not have the season finale be OH NO IT IS EVERY VILLAIN THE DOCTOR EVER FACED AND EIGHTEEN UNIVERSES ARE IN PERIL WHATEVER SHALL WE DO PROBABLY YELL AT THE STARS WHILE LOCATING A MACGUFFIN. Ultimately all the important hallmarks are there, including a crystallization of the Doctor’s personal M.O.—when Graham asks if it really needs to be them helping with the distress calls on Ranskoor Av Kolos, the Doctor replies, “No, not at all. But everyone else has passed them by. You think we should do the same?” If you need a better motto for living a good life, I think you’d be hard-pressed to find it.

Doctor Who, season 11, The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos

Also have to appreciate the Doctor finally admitting to Ryan that she sets very specific rules for new recruits, but that they do actually change all the time.

Yeah. I’ll take this. I’ll take the Doctor telling people to “travel hopefully” and reminding them of the wonder in the universe. And also I’m incredibly excited for the New Years Special.

Bits and asides this week:

  • The Doctor mentions having dragged a planet across the universe using the TARDIS (the Tenth Doctor and a bunch of friends had to do this with the Earth in “Journey’s End”) and using the TARDIS to rebirth a Slitheen egg (which the Ninth Doctor witnessed in “Boom Town”).
  • Graham says “Yippee ki-yay, robots” in perhaps the nerdiest reference to Die Hard ever made on television. And I say this with the knowledge that Brooklyn Nine-Nine is constantly making nerdy references to Die Hard.
  • Someone finally enjoys the Doctor’s decision to refer to her crew as “fam.” It’s only Yaz, though. Graham and Ryan are still less than impressed.
  • Coming out of this episode, I still feel really bad for Delph. Poor guy deserved better.
  • This is not the first time the Doctor has encountered someone who miniaturized planets. The Fourth Doctor and Romana encountered a planet named Zanak, which had hyperspace engines and was piloted by a half-robot that used it to plunder the resources of small planets in the serial “The Pirate Planet.”
  • Yaz says that there’s seven billion people on Earth perhaps not realizing how far they are in the future; Tzim-Sha says it’s been over 3400 years since he last saw the Doctor, so it’s a practical guarantee that the population is much larger. (Looks like it’s doing okay, though, since there’s a lot of greenery and blue oceans still left.)
  • Continuing to call the TARDIS a Ghost Monument is just really very excellent. Count me a fan, please always keep this up, it’s such a good name.
  • The Doctor makes mention that teachers used to limit her questions in school in order stop having to teach. Which is probably something that every student has faced in one class or another. And given the Doctor’s rough relationship with her people, it comes as even less of a surprise.
  • Hi Mark Addy, does anyone remember when you played younger Fred Flintstone in that weird live-action Flintstone prequel Viva Rock Vegas? (I know he’s done far better things than that, but it’s way too fun to remind everyone of that awkward, awful thing.)

Emily Asher-Perrin will continue to travel hopefully. You can bug him on Twitter, and read more of her work here and elsewhere.

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