The Battle of Ranskoor av Kolos, by James F. McGrath

This was the closing story of Jodie Whittaker’s first season as the Doctor. On first watching, I’m afraid that I was unforgiving.

The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos: (See also Matt Hills at DWRMatthew Kilburn at STT)
It’s not unusual for Doctor Who to muff the final story of the year, both in Old Who (The Time Monster in 1972, The Armageddon Factor in 1979) and New Who (Last of the Time Lords in 2007, Dark Water/Death in Heaven in 2014; not to mention End of Days, the appalling last episode of the first season of Torchwood, also in 2007). It’s still disappointing when it happens, though, and I felt that the final episode had a particularly complex setup (the Ux requiring considerable suspension of disbelief) which then failed to pay off emotionally or even dramatically – it seemed rather bathetic to lock the villain in a box from which the next space tourist will surely release him. Bradley Walsh’s Graham did get a bit of closure, but at the end of it all I didn’t really feel I understood the point of the whole journey. Maybe things will become clearer on New Year’s Day.

I rewatched it again for this post, and felt even less engaged, taking it on its own rather than as the last in a sequence of ten episodes. I could not really get into the plot; and to take a small but important point, the lighting of the whole story was dim and dull, as if we weren’t really expected to pay much attention.

When Twitter user @Heraldofcreatio ran a poll to rank all 296 Doctor Who episodes to that date, The Battle of Ranskoor av Kolos ranked dead last, behind even The Twin Dilemma. I think that is a little unfair – there are several stories that I like less from both Old and New Who. But I rank it pretty low.

James F. McGrath is a theologian, and has chosen to take this Black archive as an opportunity to grind some personal axes against the yielding structure of a not very good Doctor Who episode. The result, as sometimes (but rarely) happens, is a book constructed to defend a not terribly good story by linking it to the writer’s personal interests. McGrath argues that The Battle of Ranskoor av Kolos is making some terribly important theological points; I would feel more kindly towards the book if he admitted that it does not make them terribly well. (You’ll have deduced that this is not my favourite Black Archive.)

A longer than usual introduction places The Battle of Ranskoor av Kolos as the final story in the Thirteenth Doctor’s first season.

The first substantial chapter, “What’s in a Name?”, asks whether it’s “the planet Ranskoor av Kolos” or “the planet of Ranskoor av Kolos”, and wonders how the Ux actually relate to it.

The second chapter, “The Ux’s (Misplaced) Faith”, tries to disentangle what the Ux understand by a Creator and how that relates to Tzim-Sha.

The third chapter, “Tzim-Sha’s (Delusions of) Godhood”, looks at whether or not Tzim-Sha is a god. Its second paragraph is:

By the time Tzim-Sha and the Doctor meet again after a period of thousands of years, Tzim-Sha has had ample opportunity to develop a plan for revenge and to become powerful. He tells the Doctor, ‘You have made me a god’, in a manner that may be intended to taunt, but also seems to reflect a genuine belief. Previously, we considered the basis for the Doctor’s insistence that Tzim-Sha is a false god. Here we can approach the matter from the other side and explore what framework would allow a particular being to think of themself, and be thought of by others, as a ‘god’. The category of ‘god’ has traditionally encompassed entities that are similar to what Doctor Who depicts as powerful alien entities. It is a lack of familiarity with humanity’s many polytheistic traditions that probably accounts for the facile dismissal of the notion that ‘god’ could be an accurate label for such entities. Divinity has historically been defined in terms of power in many cultures, and that attribute is to the fore here2, as evinced in Tzim-Sha’s words:

‘It has taken thousands of years. Every fragment of scientific understanding the Stenza ever possessed, allied to the impossible power of the Ux. You will see, Doctor. I must be a god. I have the powers of one… This shrine is the weapon. The Ux worked so hard to keep me alive. And they’re right to worship me. I am unstoppable…’

2 On power and divinity see Smuts, Aaron, ‘The Little People’; Litwa, M David, Iesus Deus, pp58, 80.

The fourth chapter, “The Doctor’s (Flexible) Creeds”, looks at the Doctor’s own ethical framework when challenged by a Creator figure.

The fifth chapter, “Graham’s Devotion (to Grace)”, looks further at the Doctor’s ethical framework for dealing out judgement (to Tzim-Sha, the Daleks, the Family of Blood, etc).

The brief conclusion, “Travel Hopefully”, is succinct enough and true enough to the rest of the book to be worth quoting in full:

The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos provides wonderful food for thought. The Doctor’s experience as a student and as an educator has sometimes briefly come to the fore in the plot of previous episodes. Here, however, we actually see the Doctor’s core convictions and pedagogical strategies articulated, exposed, and tested in a far more explicit and sustained manner than is typical. The episode thus provides a wonderful starting point either for wrestling with contemporary issues in the real world using Doctor Who as a base, or for exploring faith and morals in this fictional universe, which may or may not be in some sense ‘divine’ in the perception of at least some of those who inhabit it. To end with some sort of definitive summary or answer would be at odds with the ending of the episode. Indeed, it would clash with it in an extremely jarring manner. This study of major themes in the episode – such as faith, godhood, family, ethics, and power – does not grasp everything the episode has to offer for careful viewers. It points to important questions and invites you on a journey.

Keep looking. Travel hopefully. Doctor Who will surprise you… constantly.

Completists will want this, and perhaps those who want to find links between Doctor Who and theology as well, but I felt that it stretched its analysis rather further than the material warranted.

The Black Archives
1st Doctor: Marco Polo (18) | The Dalek Invasion of Earth (30) | The Romans (32) | The Massacre (2)
2nd Doctor: The Underwater Menace (40) | The Evil of the Daleks (11) | The Mind Robber (7)
3rd Doctor: Doctor Who and the Silurians (39) | The Ambassadors of Death (3) | The Dæmons (26) | Carnival of Monsters (16) | The Time Warrior (24) | Invasion of the Dinosaurs (55)
4th Doctor: Pyramids of Mars (12) | The Hand of Fear (53) | The Deadly Assassin (45) | The Face of Evil (27) | The Robots of Death (43) | Horror of Fang Rock (33) | Image of the Fendahl (5) | The Stones of Blood (47) | Full Circle (15) | Warriors’ Gate (31)
5th Doctor: Black Orchid (8) | Earthshock (51) | The Awakening (46)
6th Doctor: Vengeance on Varos (41) | Timelash (35) | The Ultimate Foe (14)
7th Doctor: Battlefield (34) | The Curse of Fenric (23) | Ghost Light (6)
8th Doctor: The Movie (25) | The Night of the Doctor (49)
Other Doctor: Scream of the Shalka (10)
9th Doctor: Rose (1) | Dalek (54)
10th Doctor: The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit (17) | Love & Monsters (28) | Human Nature / The Family of Blood (13) | The Sound of Drums / Last of the Time Lords (38)
11th Doctor: The Eleventh Hour (19) | The Pandorica Opens / The Big Bang (44)| The Impossible Astronaut / Day of the Moon (29) | The God Complex (9) | The Rings of Akhaten (42) | Day of the Doctor (50)
12th Doctor: Listen (36) | Dark Water / Death in Heaven (4) | Face the Raven (20) | Heaven Sent (21) | Hell Bent (22)
13th Doctor: Arachnids in the UK (48) | Kerblam! (37) | The Battle of Ranskoor av Kolos (52)