Much of Steven Moffat’s era of Doctor Who was dedicated to solving the mystery of the Doctor – why the name, where’s Gallifrey – and putting answers to that central conceit of who the Doctor is, and what they stand for. Jodie Whittaker’s first trip to an alien world gave us some of that mystery back, for the show and for the Doctor.
“The Ghost Monument” is an episode of Doctor Who where not a lot actually happens. Our new Doctor and her new friends, rescued from their impending death-in-space cliffhanger from last week’s premiere, find themselves dragged along in an intergalactic space race with two grim racers, Angstrom and Epzo. They learn that the final destination of the race, the titular monument, is none other than the Doctor’s wayward timeship, phasing an entire world in and out of existence. Along the way, we learn that Angstrom’s people are being purged by an invading alien race, that Epzo is an arsehole who slowly has to learn that the entire universe isn’t out to get him, and that Call of Duty, try as it might, will never prepare you for self-repairing sniper robots.
I’d skip that copy of Black Ops 4 this Christmas, Ryan.
This is perfectly fine, even if slightly basic. Angstrom and Epzo in particular only really serve as catalysts to remind us that the Doctor will always strive to find a way where everyone wins, to mitigate conflict and discord with peace and unison – we learn enough about them for us to care, (or in Epzo’s case, enough to make us think he’s a jerk), but not really enough beyond that to really make them feel important to the drive of the episode. And outside of a few more scenes focusing on Ryan and Graham’s still deeply-fractured relationship in the wake of Grace’s death, we don’t really spend that much more time with our new companions either, as they deal with trying to trust this wild new woman who’s charged into their lives.
That leaves much of “The Ghost Monument” to rely on two things that, thankfully, it happens to do incredibly well. The first is atmosphere and tone – from the gorgeous vistas of Desolation to the darkly-lit tunnels burrowing underground the hostile surface, this episode oozes atmosphere in spades, and it’s all brilliantly shot, giving everything an air of scale contrasted with the relative intimacy of the actual story. And at the same time, that atmosphere is driven by the fact that our heroes aren’t here to save the day, but instead solve a simple mystery over a slow burn: Why is this cruel and inhospitable planet the way it is?
Ilin reveals the true identity of the Ghost Monument.
It’s deeply refreshing to get a Doctor Who episode like that every once in awhile, one where not everything is on fire and not just a planet, but a whole galaxy, or the whole universe, or the incomprehensible entirety of all and time and space is facing imminent destruction. When the stakes are so high, so constantly, they lose some of their inherent impact – but more crucially, a mystery is where we get to see the other thing “The Ghost Monument” relies on shine bright: the new Doctor herself.
With the post-regenerative pangs well and truly out of the way, this episode is where we truly get to start seeing Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor in her element. Like Doctors before her, she’s quick talking, quick thinking, dancing around the screen at a million miles a minute in a way that is both effortlessly compelling and invigorating to what could otherwise have been a very slow-trudging story. But what becomes clear here is what seems to drive this Doctor, more so than her previous incarnations, is a deep inquisitiveness and curiosity that compels her every action.
The Doctor slowly begins to uncover a dark secret in the deeps of Desolation.
A desire to understand and learn isn’t new to the Doctor – after all, they left Gallifrey for just that purpose – but over the past few years of the show we’ve gotten a little used to the charm of the Doctor swaggering into a scenario and immediately knowing everything that’s going on (while letting everyone else in said scenario know that fact, loudly and repeatedly). The Doctor has been someone who always has a plan, a trick up their sleeve, an intimate knowledge either gleaned from uncanny perception or the fact that, over a thousand-plus years of phone box travel in time and space, they’ve gotten around. So to have a Doctor who is very much not like that, and wears her desire to ask questions so openly, emotionally speaking – her righteous indignation at race co-ordinator Ilin is a heady mix of simmering anger at the unfairness of it all and the fact that he simply won’t answer her questions – is likewise refreshing for the show. It re-centres the Doctor as less of a time-travelling know-it-all superhero, and more of a wanderlust-driven explorer, chasing the next great mystery on the horizon.
And it seems like she’ll be getting a few intriguing mysteries to chase. The final answers to the mysteries of “The Ghost Monument” are less final than they seem at first, when team TARDIS’ trek into the bowels of Desolation reveal that the world, once populated by colonists, was strong-armed by the Stenza (the tooth-faced warrior race Tim Shaw was from) into being a testing ground for horrifying weapons research. If the Stenza do become important to the arc of this season, it makes what easily felt like a forgettable, one-off villain last week suddenly much more intriguing – and, it bears repeating, it’s refreshing that an entirely new alien species is given that narrative importance, instead of wheeling out one of Doctor Who’s many familiar baddies.
But the Stenza’s weapon research, in the form of choking, sentient, psychic rags that prey on fear (named in the credits as the Remnant, fact fans), also gives the Doctor another big mystery to tackle, one more intimately related to herself: “The Timeless Child,” a fear of which is so deep and powerful that the Doctor’s new incarnation has been denied knowledge of it by herself, by the regeneration process. Time will tell how this particular thread plays out, but it seems very fitting for a Doctor seemingly so driven by her earnest desire to learn to be given a struggle in finding knowledge her past had hidden from her. A goal to understand both the world around her with those fresh new eyes, and the legacy within.
Maybe it will turn out to be some big, universe-threatening reveal. But for now, it’s a simple mystery to solve, a quest for knowledge – it’s pure Doctor Who, at its core. If that’s the sort of thing this new era of the show wants to chase, by all means: hop in that shiny new TARDIS and chase away. I’m more than happy to be on that kind of ride.
Onwards, to adventures new.
- I don’t think I’m going to get used to Doctor Who looking, well, for want of a better word cinematic, for quite a while yet. The new aspect ratio, the cinematography, the lighting, the location filming...is this what having something reasonably close to what’s called a “budget” is really like!? It’ll fall apart at the seams with a dodgy looking monster at some point, but for now, I’m happy to be blinded by science (and some glitz and glamour).
- It’s clear “The Timeless Child” is going to be a big mystery for the 13th Doctor – but I’m kind of hoping the mystery is more about why this information has been hidden from her post-regeneration, rather than who or what the Fancily Named MacGuffin is. When recent Doctor Who seasons have made a Doctor-related mystery the core of their arc, they’ve fared better when it’s more of a personal, intimate thing (see: the 12th Doctor learning to embrace his ideals) instead of whatever the plot device to handwave away some drama (see: Clara existing as a thing rather than an actual person for her debut season).
- I’m very excited for next week’s Rosa Parks historical episode, if only because the next time trailer makes it seems like this will let Yaz step into the spotlight a bit more. Ryan and Graham, and their familial connection, have played a big part so far this season, but Yaz still feels unexplored and more of a third wheel to the group.
- So, new titles and the theme tune in their proper place, at last! It was very weird to only sort-of get them with last week’s premiere, but they’re here, and pretty bloody good. That bassline is sound-system-shaking levels of intensity.
- I love the new TARDIS’ less slick, more organic console room, but it’s very darkly lit – almost like the 9th Doctor era console room before it took regeneration to learn how to put some lights on. I know the Doctor’s never been particularly health-and-safety conscious, but she’s asking to have someone trip over something they shouldn’t. Maybe sonic those crystals and ask them to glow a bit brighter.
- I do love the Custard Cream (Jodie Whittaker’s favourite, apparently!) dispenser though, and desperately hope it’s a recurring feature. More spaceships should dispense snacks in times of crisis.