Mild Spoiler Warning: Read ahead at your own risk
Dear reader, I recently had a thought that left me stunned and even brought a smile to my face.
I was looking forward to Doctor Who this week.
Not in the same way children look forward to Christmas, or the same way I’m anticipating the final instalments of Marvel’s Phase 3 or the final Star Wars movie in the new trilogy with actual baited breath, but I was actually looking forward to be sitting down and watching a new episode of Doctor Who. Maybe I’m just sounding extremely bitter about a beloved sci-fi franchise, but it has probably been at least four years since I’ve been well and truly excited for Doctor Who, and that was for the 50th Anniversary, and a long time before that since I stopped considering the series to be ‘good’.
So the fact that I’ve been as keen to watch Doctor Who as I have been the past week says so much on how well new head-writer Chris Chibnall started the series last week and, of course, amazing praise to the cast and crew who made the series opener as great as it was, especially our new leading lady, the amazing Jodie Whittaker.
However, the main thing I remember about the time period where I started to fall out of love with Doctor Who was that I still enjoyed a few individual episodes. Nightmare in Silver and Flatline were really good whilst Heaven Sent and World Enough and Time were incredible penultimate episodes for their series, even if the finale episodes ruined everything that made those episodes great. I should also be clear that I still enjoyed a lot of the fantastic acting from Smith, Capaldi and their various companions during their tenure. My main issue with the series was the writing and still to this day, the writing of Doctor Who is something I continue to be concerned about. Sure, Jodie Whittaker is sensational as the Doctor and her new cavalcade of companions are likeable, but Chris Chibnall has written flop episodes for Doctor Who before. One good episode, sadly, does not guarantee a good season, and this was a thought that was also on my mind when entering the second episode of Series 11, The Ghost Monument.
The Ghost Monument picks up on the amazing cliffhanger of The Woman who Fell to Earth and starts, as anyone probably guessed, with a spaceship picking up The Doctor and her new companions floating in space and pulling them on a new outer-space adventure. This time around, the Doctor finds herself stuck in the middle of an intergalactic rally, forced to follow the two competitors, Angstrom and Epzo, to the finish line of the Ghost Monument, a mysterious marker that appears on the planet in question every thousand years.
I am going to be completely honest here: I am overly critical of the series as a whole. I was a huge fan of the Russel T. Davies era of Doctor Who and perhaps those rose tinted halcyon days have led to my relationship with Doctor Who being how it is, holding it to a high standard that, in all honesty, it probably shouldn’t be accounted to. As such, I do sadly have a lot of issues with this episode.
To start off, my main problem with The Ghost Monument is the premise. The idea of the rally was a really cool idea and seemed actually quite original in context. However, the episode didn’t feel like a race and the side story conflict of Angstrom and Epzo really didn’t hold a lot of value for me. Guest actors Susan Lynch and Shaun Dooley do a great job with the material given but their characters aren’t all that original or compelling really. Angstrom at least has a reason for what she’s doing in the rally, whilst Ezpo is just a jerk with people issues. They feel hollow, which is also something Yazz suffers a little from this episode. She really doesn’t do too much this episode, sadly leaving Mandip Gill a little underutilised. Sad, too, because I loved Yazz’ introduction and heavy involvement in the last episode, but I suppose you can’t always have a character in the spotlight.
There’s also a few issues I have with the plot here. The ending of the race is anti-climactic, mainly because it NEVER feels like a race, the Stenza get featured again building to their role as a main villain faction but they lack the menace of the Daleks or Cybermen and are ultimately just another hunter/warrior race conquering the galaxy (THIS IS WHY WE NEED SONTARANS BACK!) and the episode is juggling a whole lot of elements but individually, each one feels a little flat. Chris Chibnall once said in an interview that he thinks that the Doctor is good doing a lot of things at once and it’s clear he’s taking to that notion but it’s not always applied well. Speaking of Chibnall’s writing, I’ve started to notice a lot of people just do what the Doctor tells them even when they have little reason. True, she is the smartest person in the room at any one time, but earlier series has shown the Doctor has had to assert himself as the head of the group a lot more, whilst the newest Doctor just has people follow her because the plot needs to be hurried along. It’s not a horrible mistake, by any account, but it is a little strange and also sad because I really want to see Whittaker’s Doctor put her foot down and be stern more.
However, despite all that negativity and all of my bitty little complaints, to be perfectly honest, I really enjoyed this episode. The Ghost Monument is fun. It feels like a perfect blend of Davies and Moffat style Who and has a lot of great moments scattered about. There’s fantastic action and great humour, balanced out by a slow pace with some nice scenes that just get a chance to breathe, such as Yazz’ talk with Angstrom. Bradley Walsh’s Graham continues to a delight and Tosin Cole’s Ryan has a few nice moments, including one where he actually refuses the Doctor’s pacifist agenda and tries to take on some robots alone. It doesn’t work, like at all, but props to Chibnall for keeping Ryan true to his character and not always following after the Doctor. Art Malik’s villainous Ilin (huh, wonder if that’s a coincidence) is also a highlight of the episode, coming off as pompous but still quite charming and absolute in his control.
Also, and this is something I love to pieces, Chibnall actually takes the time to explain things in his plot, making the world and characters more believable because of it. It seems like such a minor point but so many times during Moffat’s writing, I stopped caring because the plot whizzed along so fast with new complications and twists that were never properly explained. Chibnall keeps enough of the world a mystery whilst giving us a lot of key information that we need to understand the situation and the episode is all the better for it.
The best part of the episode by far, though, is the ending scene when the Doctor finally arrives at the Ghost Monument. After a moment of despair (which does feel mildly foamed in a bit), the Monument appears. It is of course the TARDIS and props to Chibnall for not keeping the TARDIS a big mystery for the whole episode. Dropping it early into the plot left an expectation that is brilliantly paid off when the Doctor finally enters her new TARDIS. The new design of the TARDIS is really cool, despite my dislike of the low lighting. It feels that the scenery department approached the new TARDIS the same way they approached the new opening sequence: classic but with a hint of newness that really pulls everything together.
Overall, The Ghost Monument is a little flawed. The plot feels paper thin and there’s a lack of any real interest around the rally side of thing. Honestly though, a lot of that really doesn’t matter here. I came to this episode wanting some fun back into Doctor Who, wanting some good character moments properly paced instead of being rushed and a feeling of adventure and that is exactly what I got. Together, The Woman That Fell to Earth and The Ghost Monument make a hell of an opener for the season and I’m really excited to see what new steps the story takes next, starting with next week’s historical episode: Rosa.
The Ghost Monument: 3.5/5