How do you follow up from an excellent season premiere of Doctor Who? With a dangerous romp across an alien planet and an excellent mystery, of course! Picking up pretty much where the previous episode ended, The Ghost Monument takes the 13th Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) and her new friends, Graham (Bradley Walsh), Ryan (Tosin Cole), and Yaz (Mandip Gill) to their first alien world together. Stranded without the TARDIS, will the team be able to survive their first foray on an alien planet? (THERE WILL BE SPOILERS IN THIS REVIEW)
1102: The Ghost Monument (written by Chris Chibnall and directed by Mark Tonderai)
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 (Susan Lynch) and Epzo (Shaun Dooley)?
The Doctor and her new friends have barely had a chance to recover from their first adventure together before they are plunged into another – which will take Graham, Ryan and Yasmin on their first journey to an alien planet. The unlikely travelling companions are faced with a struggle for survival as they try to solve the mystery at the heart of this strange, dangerous new world.
To be totally honest, I didn’t like this episode as much as I liked the previous one. That’s not to say that The Ghost Monument is a bad episode or anything; it’s just weaker than The Woman Who Fell to Earth. The main reason for that is that the antagonist of the episode isn’t really all that developed, or even on screen that much. The episode starts with our first look at the new title sequence; it’s rather awesome. It’s very reminiscent of the 1970s title sequence, only much more modern. It’s the first title sequence in a long time to not feature the TARDIS in it, and it honestly just looks great. From there, the episode picks up where the previous one left off: the Doctor, Graham, Ryan, and Yaz are floating in the middle of space. Pretty quickly, they’re rescued by two pilots – Angstrom and Epzo – who are competing in the final Rally of the Twelve Galaxies, a race being overseen by the mysterious Ilin (Art Malik). The two ships crash land on the planet Desolation and the group find a holographic projection of Ilin who explains the rules of this last leg of the race: no sabotage/killing, don’t touch the water, and don’t travel at night. Whoever reaches the mysterious Ghost Monument first is the winner. The Doctor asks Ilin to show her just what the Ghost Monument is and she soon learns that it’s her TARDIS materializing and dematerializing every 1,000 cycles.
The group quickly set off to complete the race, soon ending up inside the ruins of some scientific facility guarded by robotic snipers. While inside, the Doctor discovers just what happened to Desolation: the planet was invaded by the Stenza race (Tzim-Sha, the alien from episode 1, was a member of the Stenza) and its scientists were forced to do all kinds of experiments on new weaponry that the Stenza could use to conquer more people. These experiments ended up destroying all life on the planet and are all that remains of the previous population. Angstrom reveals to the Doctor that the Stenza have also invaded her planet and she’s only competing in the Rally of the 12 Galaxies in order to win enough money so she can rescue her family from the Stenza. This reveal seems to be setting up the Stenza as the villains of the series. I’m totally fine with that. After last week’s episode, I thought it would be a great idea for the show to revisit the Stenza race at some point, so if this series is building up to a finale that features another showdown between the Stenza race and the Doctor, I’m totally onboard.
From here, the Doctor, Graham, Ryan, Yaz, Epzo, and Angstrom are attacked by the Remnants, ribbon-like creatures that were – presumably – created by the scientists. These monsters are able to see into a person’s mind and discern their deepest fears before killing them. They focus on the Doctor due to the immense amount of fear she has (more than 12 lifetimes’ worth) and start telling her secrets about herself, including one she doesn’t even know. They mention something regarding “The Timeless Child”, seeming to imply that the Doctor either is this person or knows them, but before they can give any further details (aside from the fact that this child was – seemingly – abandoned and unknown by someone), the Doctor snaps her fingers and sets them ablaze (with the help of Epzo’s cigar and the planet’s natural, flammable gas) and the remnants are no more. This mention of “The Timeless Child” is our first glimpse at some new mythology created by Chris Chibnall. I have no idea who the Timeless Child is – if it’s referring to the Doctor or someone she knows (maybe another Gallifreyan/Time Lord?) – but I’m sure as hell interested in finding out more about it. I hope that both the Timeless Child and the whole thing with the Stenza end up being this season’s overarching plot and gets resolved in some way in the finale. Fingers crossed!
Eventually, the group makes it to the finish line, only the TARDIS doesn’t seem to be there. Angstrom and Epzo end up fighting over who’s ultimately gonna be the winner of the Rally of the 12 Galaxies, but the Doctor ultimately convinced them to share the victory. The group confronts Ilim, who isn’t particularly fond of allowing two people to share the victory, but after some persuasion from Epzo and Angstrom, ultimately relents and crowns them both as the winner and quickly teleports them off of Desolation, leaving the Doctor, Graham, Ryan, and Yaz stranded on the planet. The Doctor has a rare moment of doubt where she feels she’s let her new companions down by not being able to get them off the planet and return them to their homes. Ryan, Yaz, and Graham reassure the Doctor that they’re not disappointed in her and that the four of them will be able to survive the planet until the TARDIS arrives.
Naturally, the TARDIS chooses that moment to materialize. The Doctor wastes no time entering the TARDIS and reveling in its new interior. Her companions, too, are suitably impressed as she explains that the ship is not only a spaceship but also a time ship. The episode ends with the three of them set off on a trip back to Earth so the Doctor can return her new friends back to their homes (of course, the “Next Time” trailer reveals that they don’t quite end up where they set out to go!). The new TARDIS interior is definitely a departure from the previous one. It’s a lot more organic, similar in design to the 9th and 10th Doctor’s TARDIS. There are huge crystalline structures that seem to be holding up the center console (also made of crystal) and it all just reminds me a lot of the coral motif that was present in that earlier TARDIS. The walls have this interesting design that’s a mixture of what looks like enlarged cogs and these glass-like hexagonal shapes. The new design is honestly gonna take me a bit of time to get used to, but I do like it a lot. The lighting design within it is what ultimately makes the design work. It’s a little cluttered and feels a bit smaller than past console rooms, but it also looks pragmatic and seems to reflect this Doctor’s personality. I wanna see it in action some more before I make any kind of a final verdict on its design, but so far, so good.
Where the episode fails is in how it develops, or doesn’t develop, its antagonists. The antagonists of the episode are basically Ilim, the Robot Snipers, and the Remnants. The problem is that none of them have more than five minutes of screen time. The Robot Snipers seem to have no autonomy and their existence is explained away by the whole “the Stenza made the scientists of Desolation create superweapons” thing and the Remnants are basically explained away by the same thing, only the Remnants seem to have some kind of consciousness behind them. But they’re introduced and then disposed of all in the same five minutes, so they end up not feeling particularly threatening. The same can also be said for Ilim, who appears briefly at the beginning and end of the episode. It’s mentioned that he won an earlier Rally of the 12 Galaxies and wants to put in an end to it, but aside from that, his motivations are never expanded on. We’re left unclear as to why he wants to end it or why he puts people through these trials. I really feel like Chibnall missed a good opportunity to explore the morals of someone who would subject people to a race like this, and he also missed a good opportunity to really elaborate the dangers of designing weapons that can be used to destroy the people who designed them. All the antagonists in this episode just sorta feel like throw-away filler and it’s disappointing.
That being said, the episode is saved by some stellar performances from the entire cast, some more great developing of our four main characters (and also some good development of the two main guest characters), the introduction of two elements that would seem to be the season arc for this season, and some great directing/music/cinematography. Chibnall continues to excel with his character work (although Yasmin still feels a bit under-serviced, but I suspect that will change as different companions get focused on in future episodes) while struggling a bit with the actual plotline of the episode and its monster-of-the-week. It’s not that his plots are bad, but they’re just sorta serviceable. Nothing spectacular but nothing truly awful. Just fine. They’re made better by the previously mentioned character development as well as the truly great performances from the cast. Jodie continues to shine as the 13th Doctor. She’s still a bit scatterbrained and all over the place, but she seems to be coming into her own as the Doctor and finding some confidence in the role. Tosin Cole, Mandip Gill, and Bradley Walsh continue to be great as Ryan, Yaz, and Graham, respectively. Bradley Walsh probably gets to do the most in this episode as Graham continues to try and connect with Ryan. Mark Tonderai’s directing is excellent; he very much plays in the same ballpark that Jamie Childs created with his direction episode 1, but he’s able to bring out some of the best elements of this episode’s filming location (South Africa) while still focusing on our main characters and using them to ground the story. While this episode isn’t as good as the previous, it’s still a very enjoyable episode of Doctor Who. This episode’s antagonists are weak, which does let its plot down a bit, but the character work and the reveal of the new TARDIS make up for it. I’m still very excited for the rest of this season and I can’t wait to see what comes next!
3 out of 5 wands