With so much hype surrounding the arrival of the Thirteenth Doctor, that was mostly what we were watching for last week when Doctor Who returned to our screens for its season 11 premiere. Now, with Jodie Whittaker’s full debut out of the way – and she was fantastic, obviously – it’s up to episode 2 to leave us with an impression of the overall relaunch of the sci-fi institution, which is now headed by showrunner Chris Chibnall.
As it is, “The Ghost Monument” shares much the same positives (and a few negatives) as last Sunday’s “The Woman Who Fell To Earth.” The easy-to-follow narrative picks right up where things were left off, with the Doctor and her “new best friends” Ryan, Yaz and Graham floating in space. Before long, though, they’re swept up in an intergalactic race for a spaceship-full of cash and are forced to survive a deadly planet known as Desolation. The finish line’s the mysterious “ghost monument.” In reality, it’s a blue box that the Doctor recognizes as her missing TARDIS.
Again scripted by Chibnall, the sci-fi element of the plot plays second fiddle to a straight forward “characters in danger” situation. That’s fine in many ways and the idea of a perilous space race is quite a fresh one in the history of Doctor Who. However, the simple quest narrative is a little too similar to last week’s episode. Much like how the alien Tim Shaw landed in Sheffield to locate a human Macguffin, here the gang have to go on the search for a TARDIS-shaped one. A few weeks’ apart, these similarities wouldn’t be of any note, but it ends up feeling a little same-y when they’re placed back to back.
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The stripped-back narrative also means there’s a serious lack of threat in “The Ghost Monument.” The wire creatures from last week were acceptable because we had the creepy, teeth-faced Tim Shaw as well. Here, the weird hissing rag monsters are the main foe, with some non-descript sniper robots for back-up. That said, the reference to the Stenza – Tim Shaw’s race – was a neat bit of connective tissue and it’ll be interesting to see whether the alien nasties will continually be referenced this year. Possibly building up to a return appearance?
Likewise, I know we shouldn’t expect this seeing as Chibnall has assured us season 11’s made up of standalone adventures, but there was another curious moment in this episode that sounded like it was a plant for something coming later down the line. The rags – officially credited as “Remnants” – were apparently psychic and appeared to reach into the Doctor’s mind and uncover something she didn’t know was there. Something about “a timeless child” – an “outcast, abandoned and unknown.”
The last thing we expected of Chibnall’s Who was some more exploration of the Doctor’s mysterious past – that was very much the purview of his predecessor Steven Moffat – but it sounds like that’s what the writer’s setting up here. But what’s being hinted at? Something about the Doctor’s own life she’s hidden away, or are the rags referring to someone else? By the sounds of things, Chibs might have been misleading us and there’s a greater mystery at play this season.
Speaking of the Doctor, Whittaker’s again great to watch in this episode. As is normal for a new incarnation of the Time Lord, she’s calmed down somewhat from her post-regenerative eccentricity of last week and we get to see some more of her doing what the Doc does best: using her brains to get her friends out of trouble. There was also an intriguing layer of vulnerability to her as well, as she was genuinely afraid and lacking in the confidence that she actually could save the day at a few points. It’s quite refreshing to see after the big ego of the last few Doctors.
Whittaker’s co-stars likewise continued to make good impressions this week. Tosin Cole’s Ryan is still very much the audience identification figure and for the second week running, the episode opens from his point of view. However, the one who made the biggest impression this time around was Bradley Walsh as Graham. Though it was slightly perplexing that his reluctance for adventure appeared to have evaporated, his cockney asides and moments of pathos with Ryan gave the episode its heart. Worryingly, Yaz remains easily the least fleshed-out of the crew. As I said in my last review, though, there’s still plenty of time to fix that in coming installments.
For hardcore Whovians, the biggest draw of this episode was saved for last. Once the somewhat perfunctory conclusion was over – obviously Epzo and Angstrom were going to win the prize together – the grand reveal of the revamped TARDIS was in order. First of all, the staging of this moment was nicely-played, following the Doctor’s astonished POV instead of the newcomer companions’ was an original touch. As it is, the new TARDIS interior is somewhat reminiscent of the Ninth Doctor’s gloomy, organic version, only with the coral theme replaced with a sort of beehive motif. You gotta love the quirky touches, too, like the spinning, glowing glass and the snack dispenser.
Upon reflection, “The Ghost Monument” was another entertaining ride for this new Doctor Who – perhaps slightly more gently enjoyable than explosively so, but entertaining nonetheless. Even when the writing didn’t crackle, the visuals certainly did – the trip to South Africa certainly lent this episode a truly epic feel – and the cast have already gelled well. In the end, the Doctor herself best sums up my reaction to this outing when she enters her new TARDIS and says: “I really like it!”
Featuring a simple, though pleasantly entertaining, sci-fi plot, "The Ghost Monument" mostly continues the quality of the Doctor Who season 11 opener and ends on a show-stopping reveal of the new TARDIS.