By Mark Laherty
And so, this season of Who has reached its consonant-happy end. When nine distress calls lead the TARDIS Team to the ruins of an old battlefield, they must face off against an old foe. Those who have been following the show will probably be able to guess who that old foe is, so very few points for the surprise factor.
That’s only one of many gripes that the public and fandom have had with this lacklustre finale. While it has a few defenders, the consensus seems to be that this is the absolute pits. I wouldn’t go that far. This review will try to be something of a redemptive reading, at least to a degree.
Let’s start with the positives. At the centre of this mess is Sadly Walsh himself, Graham. He’s decided that he’s going to go and try to get revenge for the death of his wife, Grace. This drives a divide between several of our heroes. Would Graham be right to kill in these circumstances? It sees Graham butting heads with both the Doctor and Ryan. This series has sorely needed some in-team conflict, and while it could have done with it sooner, holding off until now lends a suitably grim tone to the finale. Plus, questions of violence and pacifism in the face of tyrants are relevant in 2018.
I’ve seen some say that this episode doesn’t feel like it’s about anything; that’s not a fair charge. Certainly, you might not be terribly interested in what it’s about, but there’s something on its mind: is it ever morally acceptable to kill? There’s also a metatextual angle to this, a refutation of grimdark genre stories where grief-ridden masculine heroes rain violent retribution down upon their foes. Doctor Who correctly recognises that it ought not be that kind of revenge fantasy.
But, unfortunately, it doesn’t stick the landing. Why would Graham ever do this? He’s Bradley Walsh off the fucking Chase. When he turns to the Doctor and says that he’s going to turn to murder, the effect is incoherent to the point that it feels like a shitpost. There’s a tension between what the story wants to be about and what the characters would believably do – and that should never be the case. The former should appear to arise naturally out of the latter. After the disproportionate amount of time given to Graham over the other characters, this isn’t acceptable. Before the episode aired, I joked that my review would be to the effect of “It’s no ‘Hell Bent,’ but it’s alright.” ‘Hell Bent’ did indeed offer an infinitely more interesting deconstruction of toxic masculinity and revenge fantasies only two seasons ago.
It’s through this well-intentioned theme that the smarmy, sermonising politics of Series 11 come to a head – and no, I’m not talking about Rosa Parks. The Doctor tells Graham that if he kills, he’s no better than his enemy. But, this doesn’t really make sense. The show correctly identifies that killing only for the sake of revenge is indefensible but totally fails to pose a serious alternative, either practically or morally. There’s an interesting story to be told here, one that compares pacifism to strategic violence to self-indulgent violence. But, it ends up in the insufferably patronising realm of “But Antifa!”
There are other balls in the air during this episode but they’re all a mess. If any other critic can look at this postmodern hodgepodge of cultural signifiers and sketch together some theory of a coherent thematic construct, then they deserve a medal. Members of a misguided religion are taken advantage of by their false god, who straps them into an energy-sapping device that is literally in the form of a stained-glass crucifix. That imagery is far too loaded and the ideas being touched on far too huge for a simple subplot to say anything interesting about. So, it doesn’t say anything interesting.
It can hardly be ignored that this story borrows a great deal from previous Who stories. A hint of ‘The Ark in Space’ here, a great big dollop of ‘The Pirate Planet’ there. Again, this is understandable as an attempt at homage: a finale made up in part from the best parts of the Classic run. But, it rings hollow. This era of the show has some semblance of a vision (its political lens on historical stories) but not enough to hold its own weight. So, given the task of tying itself up, it collapses inward. It exposes its own weakness and reveals much of what has come before to be, by the most generous of assessments, a bit flimsy.
Maybe this is what you wanted. According to the great mainstream narrative of how Doctor Who works, this season was good because it was not written by a Scotsman named Steven. I don’t mean to completely condemn Series 11; most of the guest writers were spot-on and the step up in production value is appreciated. In fact, if you flick back to my early reviews, you’ll see that I started out much more upbeat and positive. But, whatever your relationship to the show’s previous era, you surely can’t unambiguously sing the praises of a season so simple in its drama and structure, so alarming in its politics, and so reluctant to try to do anything new – a show that insists its fragmented nature is a strength, that feels like it could build to something interesting or make you feel some strong emotion, but it never does.
It was important that the first season with a female Doctor not completely flop. Clearly, the appeal of a female Doctor and the departure of Capaldi (and Moffat?) have done a lot for the ratings, so it’s not a complete bust. But, I am disappointed. I’m disappointed in a show that I have an essentially endless amount of love and respect for, a show that I haven’t shut up about for years, a show that now seems to think that what 2018 really needs is to insert women into the same old power structures. After all, the system isn’t the problem.
Maybe next year, eh? Keep trying, Chibnall. You’ll do it, mate.