Crack open the Custard Creams for a full, and very spoilery, review of the second episode of series eleven – ‘The Ghost Monument’.
It’s been a long wait, but we finally get to see what new title sequence will go alongside the new theme arranged by Segun Akinola. Honestly, it’s not what I was expecting, but it definitely fits. Given how bright and colourful all the promotion for the new series has been, I thought the titles would follow suit. Instead, the sequence is much darker, and the colours are muted. Lacking the Doctor’s face, a classic element that was reintroduced towards the end of Matt Smith’s era is a shame but not something I think anyone’s going to really miss.
Nevertheless, it has the sense of modernising the original titles rather than a continuation of the recent ones. The new theme music ties everything together nicely into a wonderfully unsettling assault of shapes, colours and sounds that are bound to grab the notice of channel hoppers.
It’s not often you can say an episode has a thin plot and not seem like criticism. Granted, the story suffers from a lack of drama and a slightly easy resolution but compensates in other areas. Despite ostensibly being a race, it’s paced like a base-under-siege story. The group run across gorgeously shot South African landscapes and/or underground tunnels only for obstacles to immediately kill the urgency. This marks the Chibnall era in stark contrast to the breakneck, relentless pace that people enjoyed from the previous regime. But instead, we’re given a more methodical take on the format with a Doctor who more obviously takes time to think her way out of jams.
But still, no episode framed as a race should end with a dissolve fade to the characters strolling over the finish line. While Epzo and Angstrom were given a lot of development in motivation and personality, the end of their arc comes a little too quickly. The team don’t seem to be suffering from much fatigue. Even the “toxic atmosphere” and “killer water” of the planet Desolation doesn’t come up in any noticeable way. While the robot guards were threatening enough, I’m not sure that flying rags are going to be the stuff of nightmares for many kids.
What the story lacks in plot it more than makes up for in characterisation. The entire cast has risen to a surprisingly challenging script. Tosin Cole deserves no end of praise for his performance in this episode as the script gives Ryan a lot to deal with. Everything from the comic relief “Call of Duty” moment to his hindered heart-to-heart with Graham to climbing the ladder. This is all fabulous stuff to develop Ryan as a character and Cole performs every facet with care and authenticity. Turning each story obstacle into a chance to explore the bonds Ryan has with Graham and the Doctor is why I don’t mind the slower story.
Unfortunately, the others two companions are noticeably left out. Bradley Walsh gets a handful of great scenes with Ryan but fades into the background towards the second half. But this isn’t so much of a problem since he got a decent amount of focus last week. But where this problem is the most glaring comes in the severe underuse of Mandip Gill as Yaz. While we get some cursory references to Yaz’s home life, it’s still not enough to gain any sense of her character. I hope that this will be corrected as the series goes on as Gill has proven herself more than capable.
The Thirteenth Doctor
Personally, the second episode is when I think you get the best sense of a new Doctor. The post-regeneration mania, the predecessor’s tattered clothes, the identity crisis; all these things get in the way of how an actor and showrunner want to portray The Doctor. Episode two is when all that baggage has been dropped, and a clearer idea of their Doctor shines through. Whittaker’s Doctor has retained the energy that she had in her debut, but the philosophy has been stripped back somewhat.
While the previous Doctor agonised over his morals in an uncaring Universe, this one is confident in her ideals. That may come off as a step backwards for character development, but I think that comes with the territory of a new incarnation. Besides, how she chooses to demonstrate her philosophy makes it seems more a matter of experience than dogma. I adore how much of this goes into the mentor role she’s becoming to Ryan.
Epzo and Angstrom complete the cast as two desperate renegades competing for the Ghost Monument. Both characters contrast nicely with very different outlooks despite being in the same situation. Both Shaun Dooley and Susan Lynch get a small monologue each to explore the motivations of Epzo and Angstrom respectively. While small and contained, told in the midst of race whose only stakes are personal, each scene proves to be a masterpiece of melding script and performer. The pair share a rich character arc together that reflects nicely on the Doctor and her new best friends. It’s rare that any one-off character, let alone two, leave as much of an impression as this pair undoubtedly will.
Art Malik is an incredibly watchable actor even when he’s just sitting down and expositing. So though he gets very little to do in this story, his presence is still felt. That said, I was expecting him to deliver a last-minute rug pull for the team. So that overcoming it would make their victory feel a bit more earned.
Three weeks of filming took place with South Africa doubling for the surface of Desolation. As a rare chance for Doctor Who to film abroad, director Mark Tonderai doesn’t let a single frame go to waste. Every shot is a carefully crafted tableau. It’s not hard to see why the three human characters are so in awe of the vista. Even when it goes to the more familiar territory – underground tunnels and the TARDIS – there’s strong consistency in the cinematography. It lends it the same grandeur as the location filming, rather than letting the attention to detail slip just because we’re on a familiar set.
I was expecting they’d draw out the reunion of the Doctor and the TARDIS for a few more episodes. Nothing that we’ve learnt about Graham, Yaz or Ryan so far has marked them down as eager travellers. To keep them in the series, I thought the Doctor would need a few more attempts to get them home. As with the race that Epzo and Angstrom were on, the resolution felt a little too easy. That the Ghost Monument is the TARDIS was so obvious that I appreciated they didn’t try to drag out the reveal. In doing so, the stakes become all the more personal for the audience. We’re just as keen as the Doctor to see the TARDIS!
While they didn’t showcase the ship’s new interior as much as I’d have liked, the Doctor’s now-trademark enthusiastic smile made it hard not to feel giddy. Even if you’re not entirely sold on the new design, you can’t deny that moment had a real sense of triumph to it.
‘The Ghost Monument’ isn’t going to stick in people’s minds for the monsters or the threats. But it’s undoubtedly going to be a reference point for the motivations of several characters over the series. I just wish this had been more evenly applied across the cast. Whittaker is perfect as the fun, clever side of the Doctor. I just hope that she gets some variety to work into the role soon. A thin plot is made up for with strong characterisation and some utterly stunning performances. Episode two bodes well to establish the new series as a character-driven set of high adventure stories. Now let’s see what’s out there!