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The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos
by James Wylder
So, here we are, the end of one road, the start of another. The Chibnall era of Doctor Who has seen it’s first season finale, and we’ve reached the culmination of everything we’ve been building to. This year of Doctor Who was very different in that there wasn’t a story arc, there weren’t narrative elements that built from episode to episode, but instead we got arcs of themes. The repetition of themes over the course of these blogs got to the point where I basically skimmed them, but they were the point, they were what we were building towards in this finale. Interestingly, not all of these themes paid off the way I was expecting, but were still paid off. Of course, this also means this season of Doctor who was a strange one in that what it communicated to the audience from episode to episode was more subtle than we’re used to. There was no “Bad Wolf” or “Hybrid”, but there were things that came up again and again, and they came together in this episode.
I won’t give myself total credit though, I missed a few things repeated throughout the series that were built out to here. But let’s start with the biggest thing that returns from the past: Tim Shaw.
One of the most surprising things in this episode is the way that Tim Shaw is paralleled with the Doctor. In fact, we’re given a cracked mirror of the “The Woman who fell to Earth” over this whole episode. But Tim is the biggest parallel. Just like in “Woman”, we open without the Doctor, with an older person trying to help a younger person learn a skill. These are the Ux, and the Ux are our dark mirrors of Graham and Ryan. In the middle of their magic, the Ux are interrupted by a powerful magical being coming down to Earth, (er, coming down to Ranskoor Av Kolos?)--Tim Shaw, injured and without his transport off world. Just like the Doctor arrived, crashing down to Earth injurred and without her TARDIS.
Tim Shaw then builds a strange parody of the Doctor’s world: he lives in a magical structure that floats and does wonders, but its at it’s heart a weapon. He sits on a dias, upraised like the 13th Doctor’s TARDIS console. Indeed, the first shot we see of him, he’s framed in the center like the TARDIS’ central column in shot, a pair of panels behind him framing him as visual pairs to the crystal columns of the TARDIS. Tim has adopted a long cloak, visually mirroring him with 13 more as well. Tim has companions, the Ux, only instead of being his friends he’s made them into his cultish worshipers. Where 13 tries to make her companions not hurt people, Tim makes his hurt each other, and the universe.
We also have anther parallel: Tim Shaw and the Doctor are both styled within the episode as being something like gods, or perhaps wizards. Tim becomes a tinkerer, living in a workshop, building robots and war machines and machines to fix his breaking body. Tim lays claim to scientific ingenuity and knowledge as the means to his power, mirroring the “make it yourself attitude” the 13th Doctor has. Throughout the season we’ve seen the Doctor’s sonic called a wand, seen her travel into a magic mirror through fairy land, and Frog princess turn out to not be a real girl after all. Here, she encounters the dark wizard in his laboratory, doing arcane blood rituals to defy the laws of creation.
Ironically, though, Tim Shaw’s parallels to the Doctor aren’t entirely kind ones, and the juxtaposition is so pointed as it must be a feature, not a bug. We learn early on in the episode that the Doctor breaks her own rules, and admits she held Ryan to standards earlier in the season about using weapons she had no intention of keeping herself. We’re back to the old adage here: the Doctor lies. 13 is nice, and sweet, but she’s still manipulative. She still wants her companions to behave the way she wants, and deems correct. The way Tim Shaw lies to the Ux isn’t different in practice, only in content. And obviously the content matters, but the point is the episode is paralleling them, and putting the comparison in our head, not that it’s seriously asking a question of who is better. I mean, one of them committed genocide. We know.
` But this is what’s interesting about Tim Shaw as a villain: he isn’t creative, only imitative. He’s not the Master, in that he really is the Doctor reflected. He’s like the Doctor reflected because he is trying so so hard to be. Because he’s a Stenza.
We learn early on that the Stenza take a tooth from their victims, and put it into their skin. For them, victory isn’t just winning, it’s assimilating your victims into yourself. It’s not a long reach to imagine that this attitude in his culture would make Tim Shaw wish to mimic the Doctor’s power however he could making this pale and strange imitation.
Even so, in his imitation, he like the Doctor has become an exile from his own people, a renegade.
The desolation of the battle on Ranskoor Av Kolos bring an old episode to mind: Twice Upon a Time. There we were shown Rusty the Dalek, who learned the wrong lessons from the Doctor and wound up killing other Daleks for eternity, holed up in a fortress. With how much “Woman” followed TUAT, that this episode mirrors that isn’t too far a stretch, though it could be a neat co-incidence.
Outside of Tim Shaw though, we have other mirrors to the premiere: an amnesiac general who can only remember tasks as he begins doing them, ala the Doctor’s amnesia. We have a person out for revenge on Tim Shaw, before the brother of the last target of the Stenza leader hunt, this time Graham the husband of Grace who died during the fight against Tim Shaw on Earth. We have a mysterious object the characters don’t know the purpose of, which turns out to be a container. We have pieces of technology attached to the protagonists, which are turned against the antagonists in the finale.
We have so many mirrors, it’s some sort of sick funhouse.
But this has been a season of mirrors, nothing has been singular. While going through the repeated themes and elements this season, it got almost silly at times how the elements cropped up in each episode. Here they pay off.
The biggest theme, bodily autonomy paid off in a big way. In my opening essay this year, I compared Tim Shaw to a sexual predator in the way he violated the bodies of his victims, and here his abusive streak continues, only tied into another theme that I should have picked up on stronger, but big missed note in these episodes: the recurring religious elements. From a prayer at the end of Tsuranga, to the religious zealotry of the Witchfinders, to the religious division on Demons of the Punjab, we’ve seen it all over the place. Of course it was coming back. Only, I uh, didn’t note it.
Here, Tim’s abuse of other’s bodies is linked into his abuse of religion. One of the Ux is literally having his body violated on a crucifix under Tim’s orders. The Ux’s religion is corrupted by Tim to enable his abuse, his violence, and his lust for power. You can draw your own parallels to our own world if you want, but I’ll just leave the implications there on the table. Regardless, the older Ux looks on as Tim commits atrocities, because of her faith. She helps him, even. Becomes complicit.
This violation of the Ux becomes Tim’s ultimate weapon, through these smaller violations, comes the destruction of worlds. Through allowing these small atrocities, the bigger ones are birthed.
But this raises a question: how complicit is the Doctor in allowing these villains to escape? We reach the consequences, the Doctor being forced to confront this, and we’re not given an easy answer. Indeed, to the frustration of many, it looks like this will be one of the defining questions of this era of the show: how far is the correct amount to go for justice? Throughout this season, villains have escaped, and here the consequences were genocidal. The Doctor’s companions have trusted her to make the right calls, after all they are in awe of her, like the Ux are to Tim. She’s a wizard, a god, a wonder. There has been push-back before, but never a revolt. Till Graham.
In what is sort of a surprise, Graham got the biggest character arc this season. He got a huge development from his beginning in episode 1, not quite respecting Ryan and blaming his disability as just an excuse for his personal failings, to the last two episodes, where he was forced to choose between his own happiness last week, and his own pride and wrath this week, and Ryan. Graham defies the Doctor, and goes to kill Tim Shaw. Graham thankfully choses against revenge, and he and Ryan decide to imprison Tim in one of his own prisons. This solution, not quite the Doctor’s, and not the bloody solution Graham planned, finds its own path. Tim Shaw gets no glorious death, instead suffering the fate he put so many others through.
The false god is imprisoned, and in a show all about change, he becomes stagnation. Really, it’s all he was anyway.
The Doctor is also challenged by Tim, to kill the Ux or let planets die. The Doctor finds a solution here, using the tech they placed on their bodies as a solution. But the question hangs in the air.
I suspect this won’t be the last challenge. We’re only at the start of an era.
We know the questions now, and now there is only future.
End of the first act. We’ll see where the play goes from here on New Years eve.
What surprises will wait in store? What is that in the trailer? What mysterious creature is that?
...Its a dalek, but look, that’s still exciting.
See you on New Years eve!
Oh, and check back here on Christmas. There will be a big surprise for you who fans...but not an essay :).
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