WARNING – SPOILERS AHEAD
Review by Paul Mount
First UK Broadcast: Sunday 14th October 2018
Writer: Chris Chibnall
Director: Mark Tonderai
Guest Starring: Susan Lynch, Shaun Dooley and Art Malik
Still reeling from their first encounter, can the Doctor and her new friends stay alive long enough in a hostile alien environment to solve the mystery of Desolation? And just who are Angstrom and Epzo?
The Ghost Monument (or, perhaps, Doctor Who and the Ribbons of Fear) delivers a lively, adrenalized space opera yarn for Jodie Whittaker’s all-new, all-breezy turn as the Doctor, a story which is likely to find more favour with new or casual viewers than with long-time hardcore fans who might prefer something a little less vanilla-flavoured on their Time Lord menu.
Picking up from the cliffhanger ending of last week’s series opener The Woman Who Fell to Earth which saw the Doctor and her new gang of chums suspended in space, our heroes are miraculously rescued – the visuals here are a little dramatically-unconvincing – when they’re scooped up by two spaceships participating in an intergalactic race. Doctor Who has never been at its best dealing with hard science, so we’ll draw over a discreet veil over the realities of the Doctor and co hanging in the vacuum of space even for an instant (after all, writer Chris Chibnall chose largely to ignore it too); the quartet are split up (all too briefly) and find themselves aboard spaceships piloted by Angstrom (Susan Lynch) and Epzo (Shaun Dooley), the last two competitors in the race and bound for the dead planet Desolation.
There, they must make their way across the planet’s hostile surface to claim the prize which awaits at “The Ghost Monument”, a curious artefact which, we’re told by race organiser/plot device Ilin (Art Malik) has a tendency to phase in and out of existence.
It doesn’t take a genius to work out that this is the TARDIS and Chibnall wrong-foots us slightly by revealing this fact early in the narrative rather than leave it as a “well, that was a bit obvious” ‘twist’ at the end of the episode.
Sadly, this is just about the only part of the story where Chibnall manages to wrong-foot us. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with The Ghost Monument, but by the same token there’s nothing particularly surprising about it either. Chibnall goes through the motions as the Doctor and her crew and the ferociously-competitive Engstrom and Epzo struggle across Desolation’s “cruel” terrain in search of the finishing line. A lot happens on their journey, but none of it really amounts to very much. They cross the sea on a boat (with no particular consequences), the Doctor discovers that the water is full of flesh-eating microbes (which might lead us to believe that someone is going to be microbe-fodder but nothing ever comes of it), they get shot at by bland sniper-bots which are as generic a bunch as it would be possible to imagine a designer dashing off in the ninety seconds before he went off on his lunch-break.
Finally, in an almost surreal climax – they get attacked by deadly fear-eating bits of old cloth.
These bits of old cloth/ ribbons/ whatever-you-want-to-call them almost serve as an unfortunate modern representation of all those old “Doctor Who monsters are cheap rubbish” accusations which have bedevilled the series since the dawn of William Hartnell. Their appearance here, two episodes into a bold, inventive new era, is a bit unfortunate to say the least, regardless of any service they might play to the plot itself.
The Ghost Monument also serves to remind us that Doctor Who now occupies some strange middle-ground between the beautifully-characterised, wittily-written adventure stories of the Russell T Davies era and the maddening, gag-filled puzzleboxes of the Steven Moffat years. It’s now neither one thing nor the other. Chibnall strives for the believable grounded characters Davies created so effortlessly but he can’t quite manage it.
The Doctor’s new friends – Ryan, Yaz, Graham – often stand around like extras (I’m uncomfortably reminded of scenes where Fifth Doctor Peter Davison’s companions Adric, Tegan and Nyssa would stand stiffly in the background waiting for their cue to step forward or speak) or else are left with nothing to do but ask the Doctor “What’s that? What’s this? What’s going on? How come we can talk to aliens?”
The Woman Who Fell to Earth subtly introduced the new supporting characters and they genuinely felt real and relatable and interesting. Episode two already suggests they might be reduced to check-box character ticks; Ryan (Tosin Cole) has dyspraxia and doesn’t like climbing ladders, there’s friction between him and his “Grandad” Graham (Bradley Walsh) and Yaz (Mandeep Gill)…well, let’s just say she’s a work-in-progress blank page at the moment.
No-one’s cause is helped by bland and lifeless dialogue (which leads, this week, to some bland and lifeless performances); I really don’t expect Doctor Who in 2018 to deliver scenes in which one character says “I thought you were dead” and receives “I thought you were dead” as a response. There’s a worrying whiff of “that’ll do” about too much of the dialogue here and even a viewer with only a passing understanding of the mechanics of TV screenwriting should be able to see how so much of this stodgy, by-the-numbers stuff could so easily be perked up by another turn round the script.
But it’s not all average. Dooley and Lynch are good value as the guest cast (Art Malik is pretty much wasted, though) and the scene where Engstrom explains how his mother taught him to never trust strangers is nicely-judged and performed. The story itself, and the imperative of the race and its eventual winner, fizzles out alarmingly with a very literal click of the fingers from Ilin which appears to leave the Doctor and co as stranded as they were at the beginning of the episode.
However, Jodie Whittaker continues to impress as the Doctor, driving the story through its longeurs and fizzing with vitality (even if she’s already brandishing the new sonic screwdriver with the tedious abandon so beloved of her new series predecessors). But she’s yet to develop a real sense of her own identity as the Doctor; she seems to have forged a direct genetic link with David Tennant which is no bad thing but which can only undermine her in the long term.
The Ghost Monument maintains the new cinematic look for the series established last week and lavish widescreen location filming in South Africa conjures up a believable alien planet far better than some grey quarry on the dark side of Caerphilly; it’s just a shame the story couldn’t have done a little bit more with so much visual potential left untapped.
This episode isn’t a clunker by any means but it’s very much Doctor Who-by-numbers, a run-of-the-mill runaround designed to introduce its huge new audience to the scope and scale of the show without frightening the horses too much.
There are hints of what’s to come; despite Chibnall’s assertion that there are no story arcs this year, there are signs that last week’s Predator-lite aliens the Stenza might not just be forgettable monster-of-the-week stuff and the deadly ribbons’ reference to the Doctor as “the timeless child” not only alarms the Doctor but suggests mysteries to come – which is fine and dandy, as long as they make sense and aren’t as random as similar enigmas thrown up by Moffat during his time as showrunner.
The story ends with the Doctor reunited with her rebooted, redecorated TARDIS, its slightly-murky interior now returning to the steamy, organic look of the Eccleston/ Tennant era control room with a control console dominated by a ‘time crystal’ and studded with taps, levers and dials (and a custard cream dispenser).
The pieces are in place now as the series follows the template forged by Davies back in 2005 and the Doctor and co take their first trip back in Time. Take your seats, then, as the Doctor meets up with Rosa Parks…
• There are more images of the new look TARDIS here on SyFy.com courtesy BBC America
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All images copyright BBC/ BBC Studios