Doctor Who (Modern): S11E02 “The Ghost Monument”

Series 11
Directed by Mark Tonderai
Written by Chris Chibnall

After a thankfully solid first episode last week, we return to the second episode of the Thirteenth Doctor’s run.  We last left off with The Doctor and her presumably three new companions Ryan, Yasmin, and Graham floating in space after an improvised transporter mishap.  They are hardly the first characters to wind up accidentally transported away with The Doctor.  Ben and Polly both suffered the same fate in “The War Machines” before he had any control over the TARDIS to return them.  It’s generally been a choice to travel with The Doctor since, (a long cry from when he was kidnapping people to keep them quiet about his identity) and it will be interesting to see how the writers (and characters) will handle that decision now that The Doctor has recovered the TARDIS even with The Doctor promising to return them all (a wish they for now seem fully on board with)

Thankfully for the sake of the continuation for the show, the four are saved from their near certain doom floating in space.  Ryan and Graham wake up on the spaceship of Angstrom (played by Susan Lynch of Waking Ned Devine and 16 Years of Alcohol), an Albarian who scooped them up while Yas and The Doctor have been scooped up by Epzo, a Muxteran.  The ship that the former group are on lands on a desert planet, while the latter crash on the same one thanks to The Doctor’s flying.  To be fair, it was already crashing out of the sky and out of fuel, but The Doctor is a notoriously terrible pilot.  Angstrom and Epzo are currently on the last leg of a huge, multistage, highly competitive and dangerous space race.  The final leg requires them to make it across the planet Desolation to the Ghost Monument with the winner getting to leave the planet and the loser getting left behind.   The Ghost Monument is something however that everyone in the cast can strive for as it is revealed that it is The Doctor’s beloved TARDIS.

The show increases the stakes throughout by revealing the air to be highly toxic (but not in any appreciable way and it winds up only helping the travelers) and by having the water filled with flesh eating microbes (which they easily traverse), but all it does is inform us that no one can survive here long term.  It also gives the two competitors backstories by revealing that Angstrom’s race is the subject on systematic cleansing by the Stenza while Epzo’s mom didn’t love him very much.  It’s a bit of a lopsided characterization and it’s not helped by the guy (played by Shaun Dooley) is a right arse who acts selfishly at every turn.  The Stenza are also responsible for destroying this world and while I enjoyed their appearance well enough last week, I didn’t find Tzim-Sha/Tim Shaw interesting enough to want a season devoted to his kind being the Big Baddies.  At least this episodic structure indicates that they aren’t going to move away from serialized storytelling since it has been such an intrinsic part of the show since it began.

Ryan and Graham are still mourning the loss of Grace, Ryan’s grandmother and Graham’s wife who died during the climactic fight last time.  Death has always been a major component of Doctor Who, but it was a big snap back from an otherwise fun introduction to the soft rebooted show and it remains the part of the story I’m most anxious over how they will handle.  I’m not at all anxious about The Doctor as Jodie Whittaker’s debut was strong feeling at once both recognizably the character we’ve come to know and starting to show some new attributes (an increased physicality and more technical and mechanical knowhow) that separate her from the rest.  In this episode, it remains mostly subtext since Graham’s attempt to bring it up ends with Ryan uninterested in discussing it or in calling him his grandfather.  I love Graham’s Audrey Hepburn sunglasses and so far, he is the best of the companions.  I’d probably like Yas more if she didn’t feel like such an afterthought.

We get to see more of the Doctor’s technical abilities as she fashions an EMP to take out a bunch of robot guards and we even get to see her disable someone with a martial arts technique which is technically pacifist (the best kind of pacifism) even if that technique has been used before on NuWho.  Whittaker is also pulling off the ability of the NuWho Doctors to snap when pushed and become intimidating (here when called the timeless child, the outcast child).  While I’m dreading more of the teasing about the secret nature of The Doctor which overflowed the Steven Moffat era, they did leave a bunch on the table in regard to her childhood after “Listen”.

The episode is a step down from last week and sadly we got both less of seeing The Doctor and her companions work together and less development of them.  Granted, the biggest thing holding the episode back was the dud of a main story but shifting the focus to Angstrom and Epzo felt misguided.  Whittaker is still wonderful however and I’m hopeful that next time out, the rest of the show can live up to her.

Grade: C+

Stray Observations

– We finally get a new theme this week!  And it is decidedly shorter and more purple as well halting as distorted.  There’s something about it that feels more reminiscent to the classic era, but I do wish it was a bit longer.
– The Remnants, the cloth like creatures who move about and sense fear, feel like a missed opportunity in that the show blew through them in the span of minutes.  They had a compelling visual design and were effective at getting to The Doctor which is perhaps the biggest problem.  Making an early season threat too great or revealing too much about The Doctor is just not a feasible plan and so they had to be taken out in one goofy CGI explosion.
– Watching The Doctor’s reunion with the TARDIS was just so joyous as she sweet talks it both inside it and out.  It’s quite the radical redesign on the interior and I like it.  It feels truly alien.
– This Week in Cliffhangers: The Doctor and her companions take off in the newly redesigned 2018 TARDIS, hopefully for home, but that’s unlikely.

Next Up: Doctor Who Classic coverage will return on 10/15 with “The Invasion” at 9:45 AM while the next episode with the Thirteenth Doctor will return next Sunday, 10/21, with “Rosa”.