[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers for “Doctor Who” Season 11, including the season finale, “The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos.”]
The season finale of “Doctor Who” began the way many episodes of the long-running British series do — the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) and her faithful companions stepped onto an alien vista after receiving an alert that something strange was afoot. It ended the way many episodes do, as well — the Doctor and her friends returning to the TARDIS, ready for another adventure.
And that’s perhaps the biggest disappointment of “The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos,” one that represents the flaws of the season as a whole. Billed as a grand conclusion and featuring a heroic moment for the Doctor as she and her friends stop a giant planet-killing beam from destroying the Earth, the episode tied up exactly one loose plot thread — and offered little other catharsis.
This isn’t really the last episode of the season, as the Doctor will return for a special on New Year’s Day (taking the place of the show’s annual Christmas special). However, these holiday specials often function as bottle episodes, and this year it almost certainly will: After a season comprised almost entirely of standalone adventures, no one’s waiting to find out what happens next.
That is because new showrunner Chris Chibnall chose the standalone route, which represented a striking deviation for the series. When original showrunner Russell T. Davies revived “Doctor Who” for a modern audience in 2005, one of the best decisions he made was finding a balance between standalone stories, which lent themselves to exotic adventures across space and time, and a serialized mystery narrative that would result in an epic finale by the season’s end.
Davies planted clues across the season as to the overarching conflicts: While the Doctor and Rose fought ghosts that haunted Charles Dickens, they met a psychic housemaid who provided them with a massive hint as to the darkness that would descend later in the season. While the Doctor and Martha fought a giant monster in the heart of London, one of the Doctor’s greatest foes accumulated the power needed to become Prime Minister of England. The execution wasn’t always flawless, but rarely did any episode of the season seem truly skippable.
Subsequent showrunner Steven Moffat, who took over the show in 2010, arguably leaned too heavily into increasingly convoluted puzzle-box narratives; they became almost impossible to track, especially toward the end of Peter Capaldi’s run as the Doctor. So Chibnall’s focus on standalone episodes could be seen as a course correction; for some fans, it might be a source of relief.
The show did make some very interesting choices over the course of this season, specifically in the time periods. Two specific instances spurred the show to a deeper take on social issues, especially race. In “Rosa,” a trip to visit Rosa Parks came with some harsh realities about life in the Deep South that might have been news to British viewers. Meanwhile, American viewers unfamiliar with the partitioning of India in 1947 got a history lesson with a tragic twist in “Demons of the Punjab.”
However, that didn’t address the show’s absence of narrative thrust and, more importantly, strong character arcs. Whittaker seized upon the role of the Doctor with vigor, and her character was well written from moment to moment, but she never had the opportunity to evolve.
BBC Studios 2018
The closest thing to a developing character storyline was the awkward relationship between Graham (Bradley Walsh) and his step-grandson, Ryan (Tosin Cole), who began the season under a cloud of grief: Ryan’s grandmother/Graham’s wife Grace (Sharon Clark) died in the first episode. Thanks to a few key moments across installments — especially the pleasant acid trip that was Episode 9, “It Takes You Away” — Ryan and Graham slowly developed a loving bond, one that was tested and then cemented by the finale.
Ryan and Graham’s closure came courtesy of “Tim Shaw,” AKA Stenzan warrior T’zim-Sha, who was indirectly responsible for Grace’s death in the premiere and returned in the finale as the villain behind the planet-killing death ray. This effectively bookended their arc, but that’s not saying much for an entire season of “Doctor Who” — especially because it didn’t actually involve the Doctor at all.
That’s frustrating, and counterintuitive: The show isn’t called “The People Who Travel With A Time-Traveling Alien in a Police Box.” (Also, poor Yazmin: Over the course of the season, Mandip Gill’s character received even less attention.)
At the end of “The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos,” the Doctor has a sweet moment with the aliens she’s now encouraging to explore the universe. “Keep your faith. Travel hopefully,” she says. “The universe will surprise ya. Constantly.” It’s a great encapsulation of the season as a whole: Lovely intentions, but upon deeper inspection, saying little.