Season 11, Episode 2 “The Ghost Monument”
Directed by Mark Tonderai
Written by Chris Chibnall
Starring Jodie Whittaker, Brady Walsh, Tosin Cole, Mandip Gill, Susan Lynch, Shaun Epzo
Air date: October 14, 2018
And now, it continues. The Season 11 premiere of Doctor Who left the Doctor and her new companions floating in empty space. It was both a great visual and a cliffhanger with huge jeopardy. It was so huge in fact, that writers have to resort to some pretty significant gesticulation to hand wave it away. As Douglas Adams wrote in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the chances of being picked up in space by a passing spaceship in the 30 seconds that you can hold a lungful of air are 2^2079460347:1 against. Adams rationalized those odds to some comedic effect using a spaceship with Infinite Improbability Drive. So how does writer Chris Chibnall dig himself out of that hole? We find out in the follow-up episode, 11.2 “The Ghost Monument.”
Though it’s probably too early to pick out real trends, what does “The Ghost Monument” tell us about Chibnall the writer and showrunner? So far, we’ve seen some great visuals setups (like Jodie Whittaker falling to Earth and crashing through the roof of a train) that don’t have some especially realistic or detailed explanations (oh, it’s just Time Lord regeneration, where anything is possible). This is not necessarily a bad thing, as David Tennant lost a hand in “The Christmas Invasion” and it immediately grew back. That firmly puts Doctor Who in the adventure serial genre, something it’s always been. The original purpose of Doctor Who was also to impart a few facts about science and history, but has it really done that recently? The answer is not really, which is fine. Some ground rules would be nice, however. There can be no real drama about a companion’s death, for example, if you can just improbably bring her back to life three weeks later.
Episode 11.2 also brings us another small cast. When you have a TARDIS crew with a backstory of their own, it turns out that servicing the backstory needs screen time. This takes away time from other characters who are solely part of the current episode. This is a good thing, but it has consequences. Is this a version of Doctor Who where the world shows up for the TARDIS crew and the drama becomes how the characters react and their character arcs develop? That feels more like a hospital show or police drama. That’s something the show has never really been before, though it’s tried it a couple times (without great result, especially in the early ’80s).
Perhaps this is merely the new cast and production crew trying to find their sea legs. Mandep Gill‘s Yasmin has a nice sequence where she teases out the back story from Susan Lynch‘s Angstrom. Likewise, a sequence between Brady Walsh and Tosin Cole starts out as a bit of story arc from the last episode, but deftly moves to Tosin’s Ryan unraveling part of the puzzle blocking them in the episode’s second act.
The episode also does an excellent job manipulating the stakes: the TARDIS crew arrive on an alien planet with only a sonic screwdriver and the clothes on their backs. They end up being paired with Angstrom and Shaun Dooley‘s Epzo, for whom the stakes are clearly defined early on. The Doctor and crew, Angstrom, and Epzo quickly become three competing factions with distinct but complementary goals, but with equivalent jeopardy.
My one complaint about this episode (and it’s a small one) is a short passage where we get a small helping of ominous-sounding Doctor backstory. I wish we could just put all that on hold, for a while anyway. The show is reveling in its basic beats — the Doctor, new companions who are not exactly willingly along for the ride, a cantankerous TARDIS, and some spooky monsters. That’s the formula established in 1963, pure and simple. The Doctor was more of a question than an answer in those days where the less the audience knew about him, the more powerful he became. Telling the Doctor’s backstory is something of a trap; when mystery is power, explanation is tempting, but only makes the Doctor weaker.
This episode is another genre piece that mostly revels in recycling obvious motifs without really commenting on them. The purpose, as with the season premiere, is to let the audience get to know a new Doctor and new companions. It has writing that’s strong and occasionally sparkles, monsters that are a bit unlike anything the show has seen recently, and effects that are original and effective. The most dazzling thing about the episode has to be the scenery: it was shot in South Africa, and it looks nothing like anything Doctor Who has done before. The episode gels into something greater than the sum of the parts, putting another enjoyable, watchable installment in the bag for Chris Chibnall.