Finale time! After years of Russell T. Davis’ overblown “how many Daleks/companions/heart wrenching moments can we fit into one episode” followed by Moffat’s attempts at making quieter, more reflective and yet also bigger and more universe-shattering finales, what was Chibnall going to produce?
What we got was something that in many respects did precisely what was needed:
• It took concluded the ongoing character arc of the series.
• It created a sense of unity or return to the storylines.
• It did something bigger, with higher stakes.
• It ended the series on a high.
Looking at this in more detail, Chibnall set out from the start that there was no season-long story arc, AKA Bad Wolf, the death of the Doctor, etc. Instead, this was a series that focused on characters and their emotional journeys. Grace and her death formed the starting point of the series, and we were given a clear character arc as Graham and Ryan are forced to come to terms with her death and discover what kind of relationship the two of them could have going forward.
If last week’s episode seemed to bring that arc to a resolution, this week’s immediately introduced us to the crisis in that relationship and demonstrated the ways in Graham’s journey was not yet at an end. Essentially, Graham is willing to sacrifice everything; his new life and his newfound understanding with his grandson, for a chance to avenge Grace’s death. Great stuff! It was well acted and almost managed to avoid being too overblown. Although, ultimately, if Moffat was occasionally, and possibly justifiably, accused of being style over substance, the final showdown between Graham and Tim Shaw was just as guilty. The villain walks in with Graham’s back turned, had every opportunity to kill him, and yet was inexplicably willing to stand there and taunt Graham for his cowardice. At this point, I didn’t really feel this was in character for Tim Shaw: this was a scene that has made perfect sense in the past between the Doctor and various arch-enemies, but Tim Shaw was at his moment of triumph and I don’t really see him dicing with death against an unknown element after 3 millennia of preparation. Still, pragmatics aside, the aesthetics were beautiful and contriving it so that Ryan and Graham were able to battle together without either doing the unforgivable satisfyingly done.
If that was the main plot of the series resolved, the main plot of finale was taking place simultaneously and was very, very classic Doctor Who. Anyone who was afraid the show had lost this should be reassured. We had the Earth in danger of destruction, a race against time, the Doctor fighting with all her technical knowledge and ability to improvise to develop an incredibly risky but ultimately successful solution. This was a story that would happily sit in the Tom Baker era. And, speaking of which, I know I am not the only one to notice quite how much the story borrowed from The Pirate Planet. I have to say, Tim Shaw’s character and menace really would have benefited a robot parrot companion. In fact, it would have explained why he was so willing to let Graham grapple with his conscience for so long if, all along, the parrot had been lurking in the shadows waiting to shoot the gun from his grasp. Alas…
One of the strengths of this season has been the quality of the guest stars. Much like the plots, the production crew have been working on a ‘less is more’ when it comes to the cast. Captain Paltraki is a wonderfully played soldier – uncomplicated, driven in desperation, capable and competent. His character forms the backbone of many of the scenes and gives the viewer a focal point for the ‘rescue mission’ part of the narrative. It was also nice to see an example of a soldier who’s training is useful without being miraculous.
The Ux were perhaps a little more problematic, falling as they do under the ‘mystic semi-omnipotent alien’ umbrella. Historically, the Doctor’s reaction to such races tends to veer between irreverent dismissal and benevolent patronising. Here we had Whittaker at her most Tennant as she adopted the later to refer to this couple of mystically rare beings. That grated somewhat. Then again, the Ux themselves, beyond the brief introductory scene, were given very little decent time to be fleshed out and I’m not certain I quite bought the idea that these were extremely naive near-immortals that had been exploited for 3407 years. Nothing really to fault with the two actor’s performances, but they didn’t have much to work with.
The biggest weaknesses I saw from this episode were the ones that had been true of the series as a whole. The decision to make the Grace/Graham/Grandfather plot the main theme of the series had the combined effect of making both Grace and Ryan devices to aid Graham’s character arc rather than true characters in their own right, and sidelining Yaz far too much. Yaz is an absolutely fantastic character and deserves to do far more. But the decision was made early on that Graham’s journey was the thing, and everything else had to fit around that. I know a lot of people are of the opinion that three companions is too many, but that is really only the case because so much focus was made of Graham. The classic series was never that brilliant at its characterisation, but at its best you could rely on each week or story being more heavily focused on one character or another and there seems no particular reason they couldn’t have done that in this series (particular given there were two stories that should have been designed to be Yaz focused).
Beyond that minor gripe, though, I thought that was a thoroughly enjoyable finale. Sure, it wasn’t as dramatic and powerful as the finales of the past. But, as much as I’ve enjoyed many of them, it has to admitted that they had got too much before the end of Tennant’s era, and Moffat’s attempts to rewrite the finale, subverting expectations whilst still satisfying the demand for pathos met with mixed success that really wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Ultimately, both the previous show runners kept trying to turn up the dial, and the show needed to stop that. From the start, Chibnall has set out to reign that all in and this far quieter, yet still narratively satisfying story shows his attempts to be sincere.
So, there we have it. 10 episodes of a new Doctor, new show runner and a brand new style. And it’s been delightful to see a show and a TARDIS crew going forth with such conviction. There are unresolved threads (who was the child referred to in episode 2?) and worrying trends that didn’t quite get addressed in the way I had hoped (were we really supposed to be happy with the success of the privileged elite like James I, Robertson and the corporate elite of Kerblam!, is that a theme we’ll return to another year, or was this evidence of the conservatism/“realism” of Chibnall’s vision designed to balance out the liberal “realism” in its apparent “PC” agenda?
Time will tell…. it always does.
So. Season 11 done. It’s the end….
…. but the moment has been prepared for.