In order for our son to understand the pun in the title of last night’s episode of SG-1, “Ex Deus Machina”, we talked about what a deus ex machina is, and how it might differ from Chekhov’s Gun in storytelling. Tonight provided us with a great example of one of those guns, although we stressed that it is not necessarily a gun or even a weapon, just something introduced early which will become important later on. Here, it’s some neural blockers, which you stick on your forehead and are necessary because the planet Ranskoor Av Kolos gives off waves of seriously negative vibes, making anybody visiting amnesiac and paranoid. They come in handy toward the end, because two psychic aliens have been working with Tim Shaw, the villain from the season opener, and these let the Doctor turn off their psychic powers without injuring them.
And that’s nice, but… the idea of a planet giving people hallucinations and stealing their memory is far more interesting than anything that happens in this episode. Honestly, the only thing that this planet’s power is good for is keeping a supporting character hazy and foggy and unable to remember what a strange artifact in his possession actually is. That way, it’s a big surprise when its true purpose is revealed later on. But it’s a surprise that would have a lot more weight if it was revealed early. This is a story that keeps the audience in the dark unnecessarily, when what we really needed was a reason to get emotionally involved in the events.
Instead, the story tries to pull us in with the most unlikely and phony attempt at emotional heft that Chibnall could deliver. Graham decides that he is going to kill Tim Shaw and get revenge for Grace’s death. No, he isn’t. At no point does anybody believe for a second he will. Bradley Walsh is a great actor, but even he can’t sell that idea, because we’ve spent nine stories seeing Graham as a congenial, practical, sweet, and sensitive man. He has expressed love and sadness, but never a lick of anger. If you wanted me to believe for a minute that Graham might actually kill Tim Shaw, then Chibnall had nine episodes to show me that he might, and he didn’t.
Although, I’ll give Chibnall credit here: this is the first time since 2005 that they didn’t spend the series building up to a big finale. It was overdue. Russell T. Davies seemed trapped in wanting to make the stakes higher and higher for each of his four runs. Steven Moffat sensibly didn’t – he blew up the universe in his first season finale and kept it smaller after that – and I’m glad that Chibnall didn’t retread their ideas. On the other hand, it makes the reappearance of Tim Shaw feel kind of strange because it wasn’t seeded anywhere previously. This one also brings back the Sniperbots from “The Ghost Monument,” but this doesn’t feel like an ongoing narrative thread. It feels, like the Robot Santas in “The Runaway Bride” and the Silurians in “The Pandorica Opens”, that they’re here because their costumes were in the closet.
But speaking of Silurians, yet another place where this story really aggravates me is these two psychic aliens. Back in series five, Chibnall wrote that two-parter that brought back those dudes, making their costumes handy for the big dozens-of-aliens reveal a couple of weeks later. Among its million flaws, there’s this bit where the Doctor decides that the scientist who’s been doing hideous experiments and vivisection of humans needs to have a nice big all-smiles hug because he’s clever and kept a character with a speaking part alive.
These two? They’re responsible for the deaths of billions of people. Misled by a false god or not, they were accomplices in Tim Shaw’s plan, they used their powers to destroy planets, and the quarries outside their shrine are littered with the wreckage of dozens of ships full of people who came to stop them and failed. And it’s all okay! They get to go live on a new planet and the Doctor reminds them that it’s important to have faith and hope. We know that the Doctor doesn’t want to kill – unless the plot really demands it – but this wasn’t the answer. They need to do some kind of penance for their crimes, but everybody forgives them. Nobody even mentions their role in the genocides.
It’s almost like the writer just doesn’t think these things through.