★★★ It’s a title to trip off the tongue… Actually, I can think of no more awkward mouthful for a title in the history of Doctor Who. When I was a nipper, The Masque of Mandragora was as challenging as it got. For a moment, I wondered if “Ranskoor Av Kolos” might have some hidden import, perhaps be an anagram. I got as far as “anorak…” and knew it was time to stop.
Is this really a finale? Is it episode 10 of 10 or simply ep 10 of 11? For sure, this is the end of a block of ten, but the official BBC billings have numbered each instalment of this series out of 11, with the 11th being the New Year special. So a few weeks to wait then. That is the true end of this series.
The Battle of doodah (I’m not typing all that out again) certainly isn’t a thrilling high-stakes finale of the sort we’ve come to expect from Doctor Who since 2005. In the old days, by which I mean the olden days of 20th-century Who, each series mostly petered out, perhaps with a regeneration if we were lucky or a comical scene (a Unit sergeant emerging naked from a baby’s nappy; yes, that did happen, in 1972). A series can just come to a satisfying conclusion – and it always strikes me as odd when the last parts of conventional dramas such as Poldark or Line of Duty are trumpeted as “finales!”.
There is at least a sense of conclusion here, though. Chris Chibnall has brought back Blue-Tooth Man Tim Shaw – no surprise there! – the windbag menace who vanished at the end of episode one, for a bit of closure with the Doctor (“I know that voice”) and Graham (“If that is the creature from Sheffield, I will kill it if I can”).
The take-home message, however, is “Thou shalt not kill”. But it’s not a ram-home message. Chibnall ensures the moral dimension isn’t preachy and clunky. This is what the Doctor does. This is what being with the Doctor means. Loveable Graham learns a life lesson, and in a face-off with Tim Shaw simply immobilises the drear by shooting him in the foot – “Just the foot! Just to shut ’im up. Don’t tell the Doc. She’ll be livid.” It’s almost comical – in a series that’s been devoid of humour, save for Graham’s geezer asides (and Chris Noth’s masterclass).
Halfway into the episode’s transmission on BBC1, I had a text from a dear pal: “This is SO boring.” That made me chuckle. I wasn’t bored. I was bemused perhaps. I was reasonably engaged for its 50-minute duration, making notes diligently, willing it to be better than it was.
This sort of heavy-weather sci-fi with portentous dialogue and ancient powerful races (the Ux and the Stenza – we kept hearing about their unholy alliance) does usually leave me cold. But this is a triumph of style over substance. Chibnall’s narrative is clear and methodical, the pacing incredibly slow but as a whole is elevated by Jamie Childs’s terrific, sharp direction, allied to Segun Akinola’s doomy undercurrent of wall-to-wall music.
Of the Time Lord’s other sidekicks, Ryan gets a fair crack of the action, challenges and supports his grandad (“We’re family and I love you”), but alas poor Yaz; yet again she has next to nothing to do bar cleaving to the Doc and being her sounding board.
There’s a better-than-usual guest cast. Mark Addy gives a strong performance of tearful bewilderment as the marooned spaceship commander Paltraki, who becomes steadily more steadfast and heroic. Phyllis Logan takes a rare trip into fantasy-land as Andinio of the Ux, a duo of faith-driven dimensional engineers, and she carries off the cobblers with aplomb.
Reference-spotters should delight at the mash-up of other sci-fi, some of the less-important planet-plodding episodes of Blake’s 7, the spaceship graveyard from Alien, the edifice hovering in the sky like one from Arrival (the 2016 movie). And as every proper Doctor Who fan will have noted, the power derived from shrunken planets in stasis is a direct steal from The Pirate Planet, a 1978 serial by none other than Douglas Adams. Not that a medley of steals, borrowings and reinventions hasn’t stood Doctor Who in good stead down the ages.
Was this a catastrophe? Far from it. Was it a classic? Not on your nelly. But as a diverting piece of telly it just about made a wobble in the space-time continuum.
So, dear reader, that’s all from me for a few weeks. I wish you a merry Christmas and a happy New Year. Onwards to Resolution! If indeed that is the title, or complete title…
This article was originally published on 9 December 2018