Doctor Who: 11-02 “The Ghost Monument” Review
Reviewed by Ryan Monty.
(This review continues spoilers. Read on if that doesn’t bother you!)
With the volcano of anticipation surrounding Series 11 erupted, week two brings us to a time that can be a tricky one to get right for a new Doctor in the revived series. While some debut episodes can often be favourites (both The Christmas Invasion and The Eleventh Hour are relatively well beloved) the following stories are rarely so favoured- The End of the World, New Earth, The Beast Below and Into the Dalek don’t often pop up on the typical lists. For Jodie Whittaker’s second outing, The Ghost Monument, the feeling is altogether fitting of Classic Doctor Who, but with plenty of what is beginning to be carved out for this era present.
No less so is this evident than in the brand new opening title sequence, that isn’t really that new at all, with the spooky, vague and abstract shapes heavily reminiscent of the original 1960s and 1970s title sequences. We’re a far cry from the time tunnels and vortices we’ve had since 2005, although I *am* quite disappointed that we haven’t been treated to Jodie’s face in there- for now. The titles are bolstered by Segun Akinola’s reworking of the theme proudly blaring over the top. That too is a true throwback, with samples of Delia Derbyshire’s original involved in full glory where it belongs, and not just either teased or in the closing titles like last week. It’s perfect- the exact combination of fresh and vintage to feel unique for this new start, and gives off the unsettling vibe the Doctor Who theme should in spades.
The entirety of The Ghost Monument in general plays a lot closer to Classic Who than I was expecting- a more casual, character focused outing, which for a more recent example reminded me of Series 10’s Smile– Doctor and companion(s) still figuring each other out, alien world, big mystery to solve. That’s not to say proceedings are slow, however, as we’re brought crashing back into the story after last week’s cliffhanger with a frantic opening, aboard two rusted and battered ships. Those who thought last week’s affair was slightly pedestrian will be very pleased here.
As last week, we’re back into the story through Ryan’s POV, as he wakes up aboard the ship of the lively Angstrom (Susan Lynch), one of the last two contestants in the very last “Rally of the Five Galaxies” a space race across different planets and terrains to capture a hefty prize. While Graham tries to understand what’s going on, on the ship of the other final contestant are The Doctor and Yaz, saved by the bull-headed and unpleasant Epzo (Shaun Dooley). Soon both ships have arrived on the appropriately named planet Desolation, which is populated by flesh eating microbes infesting the water, abandoned guard robots with laser guns (plus Stormtrooper aim) and creepy flying bandage to top it off. Fun.
It’s all very typically Doctor Who, with the appropriate amount of adventure, mystery and menace in abundance throughout, and more laughs than the rather dark tone of last time out, with Bradley Walsh’s Graham providing the right amount of bemusement you’d expect from a former bus driver on an alien world. He and Tosin Cole’s Ryan are the pick of the non-Doctor characters once again, with their relationship being built on and featuring in a standout scene, as Graham tries to coax Ryan’s feelings out, trying to support him. Graham may have flaws, yet he is very clearly protective, as we’re smartly shown him being the one to wake Ryan both times he is asleep. Both characters are vulnerable, and it’s effective to see their opposing stances of how they’re dealing with former wife and Nan Grace’s death. It keeps the outlandishness elsewhere grounded. Yaz is rather sidelined again, and I thoroughly hope she gets the right material to match Mandip Gill’s performance, which is begging to fulfill its potential.
The actual story of The Ghost Monument is rather straightforward as with the opener- get through this dangerous planet and find the TARDIS- but that works more to its benefit than detriment, allowing the set pieces to benefit the characters like Ryan’s Call of Duty aping moment as he shows off his gaming skills. Ryan seems to be a bit of a wild, more childish friend of the Doctor, but I enjoyed seeing him taking a more proactive role to counterbalance his dyspraxia struggles which continue here also. While The Doctor then chastises him for the use of guns (some things don’t change), it gives Ryan a nice bit of growth, and I’m excited to see him come out of his shell. The guest cast too adds a nice layer, and despite Epzo and Angstrom being fairly paint by numbers character archetypes, there’s enough in them to be entertaining and, in Angstrom’s case, sympathetic. They also help to bolster the otherworldliness of the story, with appropriate jargon thrown about- the chat about alien exchange rates in front of a bewildered Doctor a particular highlight. Art Malik’s haughty, aloof race founder Ilin has less to do, but his dry humour adds enough to proceedings to not feel like a complete waste.
The Ghost Monument and next week’s Rosa are the two episodes of Series 11 filmed in South Africa, and this may be some of the best location filming in the show’s history. The unique, ruined but luscious backdrops of desert and ruins (which used to be an old waterpark in real life) makes the story that extra bit special, even if we’re back inside corridors after long. But hey- that’s Doctor Who! When we’re treated to such grin-inducing visuals as a time-lapse of an alien sunrise and The Doctor and friends staring out over an alien sunset, it’s worth it. The slight extension of the runtime (standard for the rest of the series) allows us to really soak in the world of Desolation, though that does lead to sacrificing some tension in favour of character development, given I was waiting for the flesh eating microbes to be involved somehow. That said, the quieter moments on the boat still work, and allows the contrasting ideologies of Epzo and Angstrom to gain more life. It rarely feels like a race throughout however, even if I did enjoy their bickering. Maybe an audience or some other factor could’ve added weight to the race?
As for Jodie Whittaker’s Thirteen, she consolidates just why she is The Doctor throughout, right from the opening argument with Epzo, proceeding to showcase her ingenuity in saving their lives. Thirteen continues to be the beacon of reassuring joy that she was last time out, and she shines as much in the scenes telling Ryan how great he is and in thanking her friends for being patient with her as she does in the moment where she dives in headstrong to disarm Epzo with a bit of Venusian aikido (what a throwback!) She’s energetic and questioning of everything around her. There’s certainly still a sense of more to come though, given that we haven’t seen her yet play out her darker side fully, and in a climactic scene with the deadly rags the hints of mystery are sewn, of a Timeless Child. Chris Chibnall seems to be lying about a number of things, given the Stenza’s presence is felt throughout also, so it seems to be full steam ahead on a series arc…of some sort.
Regardless of whether The Ghost Monument should maybe have prioritized fleshing out the plot more or not, by the time the story arrives at the monument of the title, which is- surprise! – The TARDIS, it’s what everything has been building towards anyway. I can’t give anything but thumbs up towards Chris Chibnall for spreading the TARDIS reveal out a bit, because the scene when Thirteen is finally reunited with Sexy is pure Who magic, even sans “it’s bigger on the inside!” More than anything in the prior two episodes, you get the sense of a mission statement- The Doctor is back in her ship. The new TARDIS look is naturally down to your preference, however I’m a fan of how it seems to blend the wackier Matt Smith style (a biscuit dispenser! A silly crystal mini TARDIS!) With the look of David Tennant’s (a bit coral! Well, crystal.) Time will tell how they’ll use it to full potential, given that it seems a little cramped, but those imposing crystals and moody ambient lighting work for me.
The Ghost Monument checks all the boxes for a first new alien world story for the Doctor and her new friends, even if we haven’t yet reached the first killer episode for Thirteen. I don’t think that particularly matters though, given we’re still discovering all about her and friends, and it’s nice to see the relationships grow at a natural pace, even if the stories aren’t the most memorable in themselves. And for an ensemble cast, it feels a necessary step, even if Yaz is waiting for her big moment. Still, there’s more than enough here in the stunning visuals and lively guest cast to enjoy this as a more traditional alien planet story to contrast with the darker steel of Sheffield last week (sorry). And the pay-off to rediscovering the TARDIS is more than worthy of any downsides, for the sheer delight on Jodie’s face as Doctor and TARDIS are reunited that I’m sure you all had too. Next week, Montgomery, Alabama, 1955…