Written by Chris Chibnall. Directed by Jamie Childs. Reviewed by Matthew Kilburn.
“How Can He Know You? How Can You Know Him?”
Dialogue uttered at the middle of an episode might be an odd place to start a review. Andinio’s line ‘How can you know him?’ addressed to the Doctor almost half-way through The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos as a first concession of doubt in her own faith, made me wish I had a better recall of Bible verses and hymns. It also tempted me to ask whether it is the cornerstone of Chris Chibnall’s approach to Doctor Who. For a believer in a deity or deities, a question about knowledge of a god is an appropriate question to ask of a Doctor who is not only less Olympian but also less visibly troubled by her own moral consistency than some of her previous selves. The exchange about weapons with Ryan reveals an ambiguity which suggests more than an element of expediency in the messages the Doctor sends to her friends and also to the audience. While she finds the killing of someone she’s met, by someone close to her, repugnant, unknown threats (particularly mechanical ones) seem to be fair game. Improvisation wins over a rigid moral code. Perhaps the Doctor’s not so far from the Ux’s mythical Creator, contending that the universe is there to be experienced rather than understood. So much, perhaps, for meaning-hunting reviewers.
Not only has this Doctor fallen from heaven, the heights which she has returned to are not those she left. The shades of good and evil have changed between Series Ten and Series Eleven, perhaps from forces which battle to control our perceptions from within, to the consequences of choices made in the outer world within practical limits of knowledge and resources. (It’s probably relevant that in The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos the destabilising effect the planet has on people's perceptions and psychology is never depicted visually; the viewer only understands it from what they are told by Petraki, or from observing the Doctor and [especially] Yaz as they begin to succumb after they give their neural balancers to the Ux.) As an exile from the godlike civilization of the Time Lords, the Doctor has something of Milton’s Lucifer about them (so my secondhand knowledge suggests) and we saw in The Woman Who Fell to Earth how she delighted in manipulating flame to create a tool which is effectively her weapon, focusing her knowledge outwards onto objects as it sends information back to her. However, unlike a long list of Doctor Who villains including Omega, the Master and now Tzim-Sha, she doesn’t seek to subject reality to her own will, is not yet a credible ally of the dominion-hungry (unlike the Fourth and the Twelfth Doctors) and shows no sign that she will become obsessed by her quasi-godhood in the manner of the Tenth Doctor. In contrast to examples given in an article by Edward Simon in The Atlantic in 2017 comparing Milton’s Lucifer to American fictional protagonists, the Thirteenth Doctor doesn’t think she is owed anything. She’ll flippantly ask for favours from the universe, but doesn’t have the assurance Tzim-Sha displays in his belief that the universe provides for the deserving – in that case, himself. The Doctor’s statement of faith is instead that ‘No-one’s unstoppable,’ said with the desperation of someone who knows this applies to her as much as it does her adversaries. It’s a long way from the Time Lord Victorious of nine years ago.
On the other hand, Andinio’s earlier – and more certain – question is ‘How can he know you?’ The Doctor’s position, in Ux theology, becomes that of a companion to the Creator of whom they did not know. For Tzim-Sha, the enjoyable irony is that the Doctor’s intervention on Earth ensured his godhood and his achievement of the perfect destruction of civilization as the apogee of revenge. For Andinio and Delph, understanding of the Doctor’s identity provides the context which crystallizes their own uncertainty about Tzim-Sha into rejection. They are of the Doctor’s party after all. If Milton feared the tendency of humanity, the created, to disorder and corruption, then the Doctor believes and demonstrates that the acquisition of knowledge engaged with in hope and love will overcome the bad. She represents the victory of good and of learning over a fatalism which is perhaps peculiarly masculine. Simon’s article identified Tony Soprano and Walter White as television Lucifers of the 2000s, the audience thrilling to their debased exercise of power as they ruined and ended lives by accident or design. In The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos Tzim-Sha’s bitter exercise of stolen power is echoed in Graham’s own intention to kill Tzim-Sha to avenge Grace. Perhaps Graham works out his wish for vengeance on the sniper-bots so that when he faces Tzim-Sha all that’s left is the brutal reality of ending a life. No sense of justification comes from it; instead, it’s letting Tzim-Sha live which is the more rewarding course. ‘You brought us all together. You ain’t going to tear us apart. You ain’t worth killing.’ Graham and Ryan say ‘Grace’ as one, which isn’t subtle; giving Tzim-Sha the opportunity to contemplate his crimes and the death of one particular person is presented as an exercise of grace, a punishment laced with pity.
The Battle of Ranskoor av Kolos is one of the most successful episodes this series in establishing a mood from set and location design and complementary picture grading. The exteriors suggest dawn or twilight, transitional states of the day when minds might be more susceptible to being subverted by the planet’s powers; perhaps it’s always around sunrise or sunset on Ranskoor av Kolos. The interiors of the Ux shrine and Paltraki’s spaceship are both dark and threatening places, my only criticism being that one is perhaps not sufficiently distinguished from the other.
There are problems, of course. The powers of the Ux were underexplored, but this perhaps leaves room for a future visit to them. The mind-bending properties of the planet were underdramatized too, having little significance to the plot beyond their providing reasons for Paltraki to forget details he could later remember at convenient moments. Had they particular attractions to the Ux, perhaps? Tzim-Sha’s attack on Earth almost relied as much on verbal description as had its ancestor, the Captain’s intention to materialise Zanak around Earth in The Pirate Planet. However, this is part of a deliberate tonal shift which appears to be succeeding with audiences, this series retaining a higher number of viewers than the last two. Even apocalyptic threats have to be made small and personal, psychologically profound rather than shown through large numbers of people being killed, taken over or generally oppressed by invaders alien or earthly. Again, the Doctor’s scope is limited; she can inspire on mortal terms but she can’t always save planets and societies. Returning planets to their place in the universe and rescuing Tzim-Sha’s prisoners was a reach for this Doctor, perhaps the most one who can only travel hopefully can expect.
Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor seems less knowable than her immediate predecessors, but I’ve sometimes felt this year that Series Eleven feels like the introductory section of a two-series plan which in its second half will continue to bring her – and, I hope, Yaz – to the fore after the gradual exploration of Graham and Ryan’s relationship this year. Series Eleven has been uneven, with its fair share of work which as realised suggests intentions might not always have worked through. There’s still a lot to intrigue, though Chris Chibnall’s showrunning is less aggressively provocative than those of Davies and Moffat.