Contains spoilers for the episode
Normally when a new Doctor (and production team) takes over, you have to wait for the second episode for things to settle down in order to get a clear picture of where the show is truly headed under its new management. But this time it seems we’ll have to wait a little longer, until episode 3 at least, because “The Ghost Monument” gives us little in the way of pointers to the long-term future.
That’s possibly because the story picks up to the split second where “The Woman Who Fell to Earth” left off, and as such feels like a direct continuation. There’s still a sense of everything being on the throes of post-regenerative trauma, with all the various bits still fizzing through the air and looking feverishly for their correct place in the order of things.
Direct continuation or no, this week’s alien world setting could hardly be more different to urban Sheffield. The thing you will undoubtedly hear in every review of this episode is how stunning it looks, and that’s entirely true. It’s thanks to superb direction by Mark Tonderai, who squeezes every bit of televisual beauty from the jaw-dropping vistas available to him from the extensive location shooting in South Africa. Tonderai is equally effective in the studio-bound interior scenes, using a hand-held camera to shoot over the shoulder right into the face of his actors, bestowing scenes with a visceral urgency and brutality.
That’s especially the case in the opening moments of “The Ghost Monument” which see the Doctor and her friends pitched into a crashlanding spaceship. Considering the show is supposed to be making itself something more mainstream and family-friendly, this is quite a full-on hard Sci-Fi way to start things off. There’s little let-off thereafter, with things continuing to be fast and furious for the rest of the episode.
However it’s still very different to the way that Chris Chibnall’s predecessor used to do things. Steven Moffat’s scripts were so densely written that you feared that missing a single line could leave you scrabbling in the dark and hopelessly out of the loop for the rest of the episode. By contrast, in “The Ghost Monument” it really doesn’t matter if you’re not catching every word that’s spoken; it will probably still make just as much sense even if you pop out for five minutes for a cup of tea. In fact it’s probably better if you don’t pay too close attention as things aren’t as water-tight as they were in Moffat-world. Instead, Chibnall’s strength as a writer is in ensuring that you’re enjoying what’s happening too much that you don’t mind any gaps and wouldn’t dream of missing even a second. The overall feeling is that the new Doctor Who is more straightforward fun than it was before, when all too often it felt like a homework assignment on which there would be exam questions afterwards.
This week Chibnall accomplishes his objective by having a very simple basic story – the Doctor and friends have dropped in on the final round of an interstellar Paris-Dakar Rally, and they have to get from an arbitrary point A to another point B as fast as possible without getting killed. Cue much running around and frequent threats such as flesh-eating microbes in the water, a toxic atmosphere, armed robot sentries and rag-life Remnant wraiths.
All of these various elements come and go at high speed – they’re discovered, discussed and dispatched in little more than five minutes, inadvertently bestowing something of a light-weight insubstantial sense to the story. It’s really all an excuse to put the new Doctor front and centre in a way that she wasn’t in the first episode, showcasing her ability to take charge of a situation and improvise a way out of things while always demonstrating that in all such situations brains are invariably better than brawn or bullets.
Jodie Whittaker is already nailing the core characteristics of the Time Lord, proving herself quick-witted, super-smart and just a bit silly when necessary, conveying the quirky alien personality within while never losing sight of the intensely human aspects at heart(s). She also stamps her own personality on the role so that the 13th Doctor is inimitably, unmistakably her own person, such as a late scene when all appears lost and she apologises to her friends for letting them down and landing them in a certain-death situation. Shorn of the need of any macho trappings, this Doctor is able to make this honest, open display of self-doubt into a moment of transcendent strength rather than an admission of weakness.
Among her new team, Ryan (Tosin Cole) continues to get the most screen time and successful moments of personal development. Graham (Bradley Walsh) is settling into the role of Greek Chorus, commenting on what’s happening on behalf of the audience at home and in the process providing one liners brimming with character and comedy. However, Yas (Mandip Gill) is once again ill-served by a script that barely notices she’s there, despite the fact that she shows herself to be the most capable and pro-active member of the team in a crisis. Hopefully she’ll get more to do in future episode, but being benched for two stories in a row suggests that the show might already be struggling to balance the needs of such a large recurring cast. (The shadow of Adric looms long…)
The episode does find time to sufficiently round out its small supporting cast, which consists mainly of Shaun Dooley and Susan Lynch as Epso and Angstrom, the two finalists in the aforementioned great space race. Lynch in particular is fantastic, and virtually unrecognisable from her recent (equally terrific) guest turn in Killing Eve. The only other named role in the episode is Ilin, the controller of the race who sets (and freely changes) the rules of the game; however the part is paper thin and it’s only the effortless charisma of guest star Art Malik that brings the hologram to life and makes Ilin more interesting than he has any right to be based on script alone.
Unfortunately toward the end of the episode all three abruptly disappear in the blink of an eye without any warning. It’s a frustrating finish that fails to deliver any sense of resolution or fulfilment to their story. Having said that, it may very well be the intent. It drives home the point that while we’ve been fellow travellers for the past 45 minutes, their story has always been very different from that of the Doctor and her friends. Now they’ve parted company, and Epso and Angstrom have moved on to their next adventure, which doesn’t involve us. The pair manage to evoke something of the Golden Era of Doctor Who when Robert Holmes would create brilliant double acts to enliven many a classic serial, such as “The Talons of Weng Chiang’s” Jago and Litefoot who were so wonderfully, vitally alive that they went on to star in their own long running series of audio adventures for Big Finish. I’m not saying that Epso and Angstrom achieve that sort of level, but you can see what Chibnall was aiming for when he was writing for them.
Their sudden exit does add to the feeling that none of the background story in “The Ghost Monument” is really very important, which is a shame. Instead, it’s the moments of greater continuity that seem to carry real weight. Despite advance publicity material promising that this season of Doctor Who would eschew long-running storylines and focus on standalone adventures, in fact there’s a lot of callbacks in this episode to the events of “The Woman Who Fell To Earth” – including the invocation of that episode’s alien menace the Stenza who look like they could be emerging as this year’s ‘big bad’. It seems that I may have been premature with my complaint in last week’s review that the Doctor appeared indifferent to the fates of the Stenza’s prior victims.
There’s also a notable scene in “The Ghost Monument” in which the Doctor is psychically probed and we become aware of a hidden terror in her mind related to “the Timeless Child”. This has the feel of being one of those season-long McGuffins in the fashion of Big Wolf, The Impossible Girl, Missy and The Hybrid of years past, and I confess to mixed feelings about this development as I’d hoped the days of such things were behind us, or if not gone then taking a long nap.
Either way, it’s certainly a surprise to see Chibnall teasing with going down a road much-travelled by his predecessors as showrunner. But then increasingly the new series is looking less like a comprehensive reinvention than it does a glossy new desktop theme dressing up the surface while underneath lies the same familiar show that we’ve known and loved for over five decades. It’s certainly not above giving a little gratuitous fan service, such as the mention (and demonstration) of Venusian Akido which will doubtless have had my fellow Pertwee fans squealing with delight much as Alpha Centuri’s cameo in “Empress of Mars” did last year.
Further evidence of this is the main title sequence which we see properly for the first time this week. As we surmised from a brief glimpse at the end of episode 1, it seems to have been inspired by the surreal and abstract vapour trails (actually video feedback interference) used by the show in the 60s and early 70s. This time round it’s been achieved and enhanced by the use of cutting edge technology which adds color, intricacy and a sense of three-dimensionality to the end result while still remaining hauntingly familiar to long-time viewers.
Going further, even the underlying structure of the season is starting to look familiar: the first episode in a contemporary UK setting, followed by a Sci-Fi story on an alien world, and then next week back to Earth for a historical story featuring a real-life figure. That’s the template laid down by Russell T Davies when the show was rebooted in 2005, and either by coincidence or design it appears that Chibnall agrees that this is still the best way to go about things in 2018.
Everything old is new again. Talking of which – and about desktop themes – we come to the real purpose of the episode, which is to bring the Tardis back into the Doctor’s life. It’s been missing since the end of the Christmas special and I’d rather feared that season 11 would be structured as a prolonged “Search for the Tardis” quest, so I’m delighted to see that’s not the case. Naturally the decorators have been in (cue a famous recurring piece of dialogue along those lines for fans to singalong to, albeit with an easy-to-see-coming twist) but once again the new look we get is heavily influenced by the past. The new interior has the same sort of organic, ‘grown’ look as the coral console room from the Christopher Eccleston/David Tennant years, even to the point of having arches sweeping high over the central console. The difference here is that it’s a much smaller, almost cramped set with lots of lights and symbols making it feel more like a magic grotto than a cathedral space. It does rather lack the visual ‘take in at a glance’ simplicity of the Eccleston/Tennant set – or even Matt Smith’s exquisitely intricate jewellery box first control room, let alone the more solidly industrial gunmetal grey version he subsequently handed on to Peter Capaldi – but I’m sure we’ll get to know and like it the more we see of it. If you cant wait it, this week’s Radio Times has a photo tour of the new set that I intend to pick up and pour over.
Whatever form the interior might take, the return of the police box exterior feels like the final piece in the season 11 jigsaw puzzle has been slotted into place. At last, the gang is all here and we’re finally ready to get going properly – whatever that means, and wherever and whenever it takes us.
Doctor Who continues on BBC One on Sunday evenings at 6.55pm, and is afterwards available on BBC iPlayer for viewers in the UK. A home media release on DVD and Blu-ray is expected early in 2019.