Our Thirteenth Doctor retrospective continues with the TARDIS team’s first trip to another planet!
Now that’s more like it! Jodie Whittaker impresses right from her very first scene, a real turnaround from the shakier start she had in The Woman Who Fell To Earth. Where before the Thirteenth Doctor was oddly subdued, here her marvellous quirks are out in full force, which immediately makes her a more enjoyable character than she was in her debut. From her story about having once been a hologram for three weeks, to her name dropping Pythagoras and Audrey Hepburn, Chris Chibnall begins to include the lovable idiosyncrasies which make this Doctor unique, and as such the character finally begins to come into her own.
Her confrontation with Epzo in the opening scenes- and, indeed, their other confrontations throughout the story- showcase the kind of bravado the Thirteenth Doctor has been missing so far; and, oddly, are so much more effective than her bland showdown with Tim Shaw in the previous episode. Given both this script and its predecessor were written by Chris Chibnall, it’s hard not to jump to the conclusion that the change of directors between the two episodes has something to do with such a vast step-up in performance (you’ll remember I wasn’t sold on Jamie Childs‘ direction last time). More on that later.
Predictably, however, not everything about the Doctor in this episode is good. The Ghost Monument will turn four years old later this year, and in the time since it’s aired, there’s been a lot of talk about one particular scene… yes, the infamous “no guns” moment. This discussion has definitely been done to death by now, but low hanging fruit is still fruit, so we’re going to talk about it anyway.
I’ll start by saying that you can see what Chibnall was intending with this scene… it’s just the way he goes about it makes the Doctor look stupid and hypocritical. The Doctor has always advocated for intelligence over violence; that’s just who they are, no matter their incarnation (the Sixth Doctor throwing someone into a vat of acid notwithstanding)- that’s no problem at all. But the Doctor patronisingly chastising Ryan for shooting a bunch of robots with a gun… and then frazzling them with an EMP is just ridiculous.
Robots aren’t even alive (no, really?), so what’s the problem with shooting them? Surely disabling them with a laser bolt from a gun and disabling them with an EMP is literally the same thing? Sure, the gun is gun-shaped and the EMP is EMP-shaped, but the outcome is exactly the same! If the robots had been living creatures instead, then sure, do the whole no-guns debate. But as it stands, we come out of this scene thinking ‘using guns to destroy things is bad, but using literally anything else is okay’. It’s such an odd and muddled message, and the way it’s communicated to the audience makes both the Doctor and Ryan come off badly, when I think both of them are completely justified.
The other huge problem with the Doctor here is her sudden bout of defeatist depression when the TARDIS isn’t on the clifftop at the end of the episode like she’d hoped. First of all, the fact that she gives up instantly without even thinking of alternative situations is so deeply against the spirit of the Doctor as a character it’s baffling. Secondly, the whole episode revolves around the idea that the TARDIS has been fading in and out for generations… so it’s hardly surprising that the so-called GHOST monument isn’t there.* Why does the Doctor treat this like it’s brand new information, when Ilin literally tells her all about it in the first ten minutes of the episode?
*side point: the whole backstory about the TARDIS fading in and out and the people of Desolation calling it the Ghost Monument is such a cool idea… so why couldn’t this have been the plot for the episode, rather than a boring space race consisting of two contestants who spend a couple of hours on a boat, run from rubbish robots, walk through a tunnel and get threatened by floating rags? Ah well, there’s always Big Finish…
Team? Gang? Fam?
Last time, we met three new companions for the Doctor and… well, let’s just say it could have gone better. While there was nothing egregiously wrong with any of them, equally none of them were that well developed. Thanks to a strong performance from Bradley Walsh, Graham came off the best, with Tosin Cole‘s Ryan being (mostly) well-written if not always well-performed. Then we get Yaz… who basically did nothing all episode. So let’s start by seeing how she fared this time around.
Yep… I’ve got nothing. While Mandip Gill‘s performance is certainly likable, there’s once again very little to her character here. We get some nice backstory about her family, but it’s basically just dumped on us in the middle of a random scene. Apart from that, she just spouts random lines of exposition or questions whenever the plot calls for it. As in the previous episode, I think it would have been really interesting if Yaz clashed with the Doctor more in these early episodes, the two fighting for who has the authority in a given situation.
It would also have been interesting to see her weigh in on the guns/violence debate mentioned above; as a police officer, she must surely have some views on conflict resolution and weapons? Dealing with armed criminals is literally part of her job, so she must have some sort of strategy or tactics for sorting out this kind of problem! Missed opportunity upon missed opportunity…
What about Graham and Ryan? Do they fare any better? Well, at least they get something to do, fixing the broken boat, but again there’s really not much to them here. We get a mandatory mention or two of Grace, but nothing too major, almost like she’s only being talked about to remind the viewer of what happened last time. Ryan is again portrayed as a bit of a petulant kid with his “bow down to the wisdom of Graham” comment and refusing to talk about his feelings, while Graham is just one-dimensional. Sigh.
Like I said in my review of the last episode, we just don’t have any sense of how any of these three characters have formed any kind of relationship with the Doctor, or indeed with each other. Graham and Ryan interact a fair bit here, but its all superficial, and neither of them really talk to Yaz or the Doctor at all, at least not in any meaningful way.
For comparison, by the end of The End of the World, the Doctor had opened up to Rose about losing his whole race in the Time War; by the end of The Beast Below, Amy and the Doctor had had their first argument and challenged one another; and by the end of The Rings of Akhaten, Clara had saved a whole planet with the memories of her dead mother. Graham, Ryan and Yaz have done precisely nothing by the end of this one, except ask interchangeable questions and express their confusion (‘pretty confused’, ‘proper confused’, ‘way beyond confused’, all in a row- what fantastic dialogue!). Oh well…
And then we have the scene where the three of them enter the TARDIS for the first time. Oh dear oh dear oh dear. This is one of the most important scenes for a Doctor Who companion, and in some cases even defines their character. Here, each companion gets about two lines each, and they’re all in the vein of “wow”, “cool”, “how can it be bigger on the inside?” and “how can we all fit inside a police box”. Ryan’s “can I touch this?” line (a nice callback to him fiddling with the Stenza technology in the last episode) is the closest thing we get to any kind of non-generic reaction in the whole thing, and even then it’s pretty throwaway.
From bland, uninspiring main characters to… bland, uninspiring guest characters. Oh joy! This time around we’re introduced to Shaun Dooley as Epzo and Susan Lynch as Angstrom and, while they’re both well-performed and look amazing from a design perspective, they’re literally the blandest characters ever.
We meet Angstrom first, and throughout the episode learn that she’s a refugee from a world taken over by the Stenza (which is a great and unexpected twist, by the way, even if it doesn’t actually end up being setup for anything), seeking to win a space race in order to earn enough money to save her family. On paper, that’s a great character. In execution? Not so much.
Despite all of this at stake, she’s never portrayed as particularly active or determined, acting more pally with her competitor Epzo than combative. Her entire family is at stake here!!! So why don’t we care? And why doesn’t she? There’s a scene where Epzo falls asleep… and she just stands there. She could literally go on with the race and win while he has a doze!! Then, when he’s being choked to death by the Remnants, she doesn’t hesitate to save his life? She doesn’t even stop to think “if I left him to die, I could win”. I mean, that’s really nice of her, but not very interesting in terms of plot or character.
Now onto Epzo. Again, he’s a great character on paper: someone who’s been betrayed by everyone he’s ever met and who therefore has major trust issues. How does this backstory translate into the episode? Well, he’s a bit rude to people, but… otherwise agrees to travel across a dangerous planet with four strangers and his literal co competitor. Hmmm. What an untrustworthy fellow…
And then, to make it all worse, after we spend the whole episode being told (not shown, surprise surprise!) that Epzo doesn’t trust anyone, the Doctor manages to convince him (how, we have no idea, because it happens offscreen) that he and Angstrom should work together to convince Ilin to let them both win. This would have been a great scene to see on screen, both as a culmination of Epzo’s character arc (such as it is) and as a way of giving the Doctor a more active role in wrapping things up… but no, it’s all left to the imagination. Why would Epzo give up his win? Why would Angstrom, for that matter? Their relationship hasn’t changed at all throughout the episode, not even after Angstrom (stupidly) saved his life!
Rags and Riches
This story doesn’t really have such a clear-cut villain as The Woman Who Fell To Earth, so this section will probably be quite short, but it would be remiss of me not to talk about Ilin and the Remnants.
First up, Ilin. What’s there is fairly good. Art Malik does a good job with the material, the character has a great look and… well, that’s it. He’s in two short scenes, and doesn’t really contribute much at all. The episode could pretty much have worked without him being in it; Angstrom and Epzo could have delivered all his expository lines, while the information about the TARDIS could have been found out through the Stenza computer systems or something.
Faring somewhat better are the Remnants, which I think are mostly quite effective. Sure, the scenes of them lying around like toilet paper aren’t the most threatening, but the parts when they attack the gang are quite well done. The Timeless Child stuff is good setup too, getting some good material from Jodie Whittaker, and Ian Gelder is suitably sinister throughout the whole scene. Definitely not the most memorable villains, but not as bad, I think, as a lot of people make out.
This is our first foray off-world in the Chibnall/Whittaker era and what a first attempt! On a purely aesthetic level, The Ghost Monument is a total success, making use of its overseas location filming in South Africa to deliver one of the most visually stunning episodes in the entirety of Doctor Who. There’s no shoddy green screen or CGI here; literally everything set on Desolation’s surface is in-camera, and the episode looks all the better for it.
Particular highlights include the Sniper Bot-infested ruins, which I understand are the remains of a long-closed water park, and the rocky plateau where the TARDIS appears at the episode’s close. It’s easy to see why one of the main publicity images for this series (above) was taken there; it’s a truly gorgeous location that lends The Ghost Monument‘s final scenes a real sense of spectacle.
The Ghost Monument
And now onto the titular Ghost Monument… or as we know it better, the TARDIS. This is the debut for a whole new TARDIS interior and exterior: the final of the main elements of the show (Doctor, TARDIS, sonic screwdriver, theme music) to be reintroduced in this new era. At first, it looks like Chibnall is getting 4/4 on the returning elements checklist, with a lovely new police box exterior introduced with some gorgeous close-ups from director Mark Tonderai. But then we go inside, and things take a turn for the worse…
Unfortunately, however, the reveal of the interior leaves much to be desired. Now, this isn’t a slight on set designer Arwel Wyn Jones at all; as you can see from the promotional photo above (second picture), the set looks fantastic from certain angles. Unfortunately, Tonderai simply doesn’t do the new interior any justice at all, giving us close ups which barely show it off, before giving us one (one!) measly wide shot where half of the room is blocked by a pillar (first picture)! I mean, come on! Why did nobody pick up on this?!
Aside from the TARDIS mishap, Tonderai’s direction is, by and large, pretty good for the rest of the episode, at least compared to the directorial disaster that was The Woman Who Fell To Earth. Now, unlike that episode, the script for this one hasn’t been made available anywhere, so I can’t speak for how well Tonderai has followed Chibnall’s authorial vision, but mostly, the visual storytelling here is far defter than in the previous episode.
The first few scenes, for example, are excellently done. Starting the episode with the stars reflected in Ryan’s eye is a captivating open, and his disorientation is made palpable through all the quick cuts and disorienting close-ups when he wakes up on Angstrom’s spaceship. The impressive tracking shot that follows Yaz out of the medical pod and into the control room of Epzo’s ship is similarly effective; a dynamic way of illustrating the strange world Yaz has found herself in, and the chaos that ensues upon their turbulent descent to the planet below.
Similarly, scenes like Ryan, Graham and Angstrom running away from Epzo’s crashing ship, the timelapse sunset over Desolation, and the TARDIS’s dematerialisation are absolutely stunning, with visual effects on a level that we’ve quite literally never seen before on Doctor Who.
Despite all of those successes, there are still a couple of missteps. In a few scenes, characters mention something right in front of them… and we never see it, breaking the golden rule of show don’t tell. For example, when Epzo points out the planet through the windscreen of his spaceship, the camera stays on his face, never actually showing what he’s talking about. In fact, we don’t see Desolation from space at all during the whole episode, which is pretty odd.
Then, later on, when the Doctor makes a big deal about the “big locked door” in front of her, you might think the camera would show us the door in question… but it remains offscreen. The door is simply never seen! These things don’t ruin the episode by any means, but they certainly jar, especially when there have clearly been no expenses spared on showing other things which would have been harder to put on screen than a literal door.
Segun Akinola‘s music continues to impress here, from the slow, tentative version of Ryan’s theme in the opening moments, to the glorious, horn-like theme for Desolation as the team arrives on the planet. The highlights, though, have got to be his new theme for the TARDIS: triumphant and truly evoking the sense of going on a journey, and the version of the Thirteenth Doctor’s theme that plays when she confronts the Remnants. Excellent stuff.
Overall, The Ghost Monument is a completely average story elevated by stunning visuals. Mark Tonderai‘s direction, while ropey at times, is mostly successful, bringing the world of Chris Chibnall‘s script to life with flair, and showing off the budget boost that this new era of Doctor Who has clearly been given by the BBC.