Doctor Who 11x02 “The Ghost Monument” Review
Welcome to another week of Doctor Who! This episode picks up right as the last was ending: the Doctor and her three new companions floating in space, the Doctor’s attempt to teleport only herself to the location of her lost TARDIS not quite hitting the mark. First, though, let’s talk about the new opening sequence.
Absent from the premiere episode along with the new TARDIS, Chris Chibnall managed to split up these reveals to keep the momentum of a new Doctor and a new era going. It didn’t disappoint, either: the new visuals are reminiscent of the original 1963 lava lamp-esque theme and more abstract than anything we’ve seen out of the new reiteration of Doctor Who. The intro music also received a makeover courtesy of Segun Akinola, another pleasant change to the series that takes it back to its roots. It’s clear that this new showrunner is deliberately referencing some Doctor Who nostalgia, and I couldn’t be happier. I wasn’t exactly a fan of the intro that went along with Capaldi’s Doctor; it had little to nothing to do with the essence of the show (and it was pretty boring at that).
Now, back to the episode itself. Lucky for the Time Team, they’ve been dropped right in the path of the last two competitors in an intergalactic, Hunger Games type race. The last step is to find the site of the illusive “ghost monument,” which involves a trek across the desert like atmosphere of a planet aptly named “Desolation.” The two competitors, Epzo and Angstrom (played by Shaun Dooley and Susan Lynch respectively), have obviously developed a healthy rivalry throughout the competition. We learn pretty early on that this “ghost monument” is actually the TARDIS (too early on, if you ask me), and that the race started with an exorbitant number of competitors with the incentive being a cash prize large enough to buy the safety and survival of a whole population. This is Angstrom’s goal, anyway, while Epzo seemingly just wants to smoke his extremely expensive cigar and live a life of luxury. Angstrom is pretty quiet as to the reason her entire planet needs rescuing, but we learn later on that her planet is being ethnically cleansed by the Stenza, the alien race we met last episode.
As someone who thought the Stenza would stay put as a “monster of the week,” I’m actually pretty intrigued at the prospect of this new storyline. It’s also interesting that the Stenza are ethnically cleansing planets. This is something that Doctor Who has always done well: it tells us our own stories through the lense of science fiction. Angstrom’s home planet, Albar, is being systematically cleansed, and she’s putting her life on the line to save them. Replace her fictional home for a real one, and this story sounds like something you’d watch on the news.
While on their trek through — you guessed it — desolation, the group comes across a set of ruins amongst the sand. I love a good set of ruins shrouded in mystery, and apparently so does the Doctor. She seems to be the only one out of the group that’s wondering about who exactly used to live on this planet, and what happened to them. Trying to find answers, they come across a small army of armed robots, ready to take them all out. They find themselves in an old shooting range and immediately start arguing about how to defend themselves — there are guns all around them, why not shoot their way out? The Doctor is adamant that they not use the guns, especially after Ryan tries his hand (he sites Call of Duty as his source of knowledge) only to find that the robots are only stunned by bullets and bounce back in a matter of seconds. This is when the Doctor does what she does best, declaring “brains beat bullets,” and wipes the robots out with a electromagnetic shock.
This episode is a goldmine for Doctor catchphrases: “let’s get a stitch on,” “brains beat bullets,” and “guns, never use ‘em” are all bound to be classics.
One major element of the Doctor, and therefore the show itself, has always been the fact that the Doctor is an unapologetic pacifist. She detests guns, condemns violence, and has a knack for defending her enemies as well as her friends. In the sixth episode of the first season of the revised Doctor Who, we see one of the most iconic examples of this when the Ninth Doctor faces off against a Dalek. The Doctor, once and for all, has a chance to wipe out the alien race responsible for the Time War and the genocide of the Time Lords. The Dalek asks “What are you? Coward or killer?” to which the Doctor replies,
“Coward. Any day.”
This is the Doctor that’s been missing from the last few seasons. We did see echoes of this in other versions of the Doctor, but during Steven Moffat’s run we’ve seen this pacifism mostly abandoned in favor of a more dark and angsty narrative. Like I mentioned in my last review, the last few seasons have featured what seemed like a dozen of “the Doctor’s darkest moments,” and how do you execute this effectively? Give the Doctor a gun, or another weapon, or make him responsible for more death. In doing this, the Doctor as a pacifist was lost. That’s why I am SO happy that Chris Chibnall chose to add some pacifism back into the Doctor and the show.
Moving on, we discover that our old friends the Stenza used Planet Desolation to imprison scientists that they captured, forcing them to create weapons of war and destruction. At the mention of the Stenza, Graham says “My wife died because of them,” to which Angstrom tearfully replies, “Me too.” Find me sobbing, thank you.
Eventually our heroes (minus Epzo, sorry not sorry) make it to the site of the ghost monument, Epzo and Angstrom crossing the finish line together in order to split first place. Then they… vanish? Neither the Time Team nor the audience get to properly say goodbye to these two characters, which seems like a lazy ending, to be honest. I do think there is the possibility of Angstrom making an appearance, since she is closely tied to the Stenza and I’m sure we’ll be hearing about them again.
We also get to see more of Ryan this episode — still reeling from the death of his Nan, he refuses to talk to Graham about how he is feeling or attempt to cope with his loss. By way of Ryan, Graham did seem more interesting this episode than the last. It remains to be seen if he can hold his own, but I think that his and Ryan’s relationship will be very interesting to play out. With Ryan’s refusal to show emotions (and his affinity for Call of Duty), there is also the possibility that Doctor Who will touch on the concept of toxic masculinity.
This is where I would talk about Yaz, but unfortunately Mandip Gill wasn’t given anything to work with this episode. Her role was pretty entry level companion here, so let’s hope future episodes will balance the three companion roles a little more equally moving forward.
We meet the new TARDIS along with Ryan, Yaz and Graham; I am a little disappointed that no one uttered “it’s bigger on the inside,” but I can’t have everything. As for the inside of the TARDIS, my first impression is… it’s so dark? It’s certainly not the TARDIS I was expecting, especially with the current Doctor; she’s wearing yellow suspenders for god’s sake. I DO like the crystal looking center console, so maybe I’ll learn to love it.
I’ve seen some complaints floating around about the plot itself. Sure, the events of the episode were pretty predictable. However, this allowed for a superb character driven episode, and it certainly delivered on that front. It’s also worth mentioning that the real villains of the episode — the Stenza — managed to be a dark presence over the episode without actually being present.
It was a pleasure to see Jodie Whittaker fully immerse herself into the Doctor in her first post-regeneration episode, exhibiting eccentric physicality only slightly less than Matt Smith. We also see the Doctor’s strong sense of injustice and almost childlike vulnerability return. All in all, another solid and enjoyable episode, and I can’t wait for the next one.