'The Ghost Monument' recap: The most cinematic 'Doctor Who' story yet

Paul Kirkley
Contributor
Jodie Whittaker in Doctor Who: The Ghost Monument (BBC)

The second episode of Doctor Who S11 has landed. Here’s everything you need to know about ‘The Ghost Monument’:

What’s it about? The Doctor, Graham, Ryan and Yaz race across a post-apocalyptic planet in pursuit of the greatest prize in the universe: a mythical blue police box…

Verdict: It’s become the standard model to launch each new Doctor Who with an earthbound adventure, before flinging them off into the farthest reaches of the showrunner’s imagination. Which, as a way of demonstrating the twin poles of the series’ patented fantastic/domestic mix, makes a lot of sense.

In ‘The Ghost Monument’, Chris Chibnall maroons our heroes in a corner of the universe so far from Sheffield, the locals have never even heard of “moomin beans”. That said, it’s not so outré as to send cautiously sci-fi curious viewers running for the hills (or The Chase Celebrity Special): all the guest cast – one of Who’s smallest ever, incidentally – look and sound human, and the regulars keep things nicely grounded with chit-chat about the Antiques Roadshow and Call of Duty.

It also looks familiar because, let’s not be coy, the episode owes more than a passing debt to Star Wars, with its widescreen dunescapes, grimy hardware and amoral gunslinging space pirate (Shaun Dooley’s Epzo). Though Susan Lynch’s punky, peroxide Angstrom is definitely more Mad Max – as, indeed, is the central premise of the lethal Twelve Galaxies Space Rally, run by Art Malik’s Ilin, a sort of space Bernie Ecclestone.

If ‘The Ghost Monument’ has a major faultline, it’s that this final stage of Ilin’s death race doesn’t actually seem that… deadly. The script talks a good fight, with its mist swamps and killer water – and the name ‘Desolation’ can’t exactly be great for tourism – but crossing the planet turns out to be a bit of a cakewalk, with what death traps there are rather effortlessly swerved using electromagnetic pulses, exploding cigars and the like. Certainly you can’t help thinking Steven Moffat would have added a bit of extra nightmare fuel, especially after sun(s)down.

(Doctor Who has a bit of a history of writing cheques it can’t cash in this respect, most notably the Death Zone from 1983’s The Five Doctors, which was sold as the terrible, shameful secret at the heart of Time Lord society, but ended up looking – literally – like a wet weekend in Wales. The city of the Exxilons, from 1974’s Death to the Daleks, meanwhile, saw the Doctor forced to navigate such lethal traps as the mosaic tile flooring… of doom.)

This would be a much bigger problem if a terrifying descent into hell was what Chris Chibnall had set to out write, but clearly he didn’t. What he actually delivers is a story that barrels along on a mix of action, adrenaline and some good gags, is never less than entertaining, and sustains sufficient momentum to ensure restless minds don’t wander, or thumbs stray towards phones. (In this sense, it’s not unlike the writer’s much underrated, against-the-clock David Tennant actioner 42.) Tonally, Chibnall seems to be taking his cue from the Doctor: “Right, let’s get a shift on!”

Plus, the whole thing looks ravishing – surely a contender for Doctor Who’s most cinematic episode ever? Partly that’s down to the location, of course, with the South Africa shoot offering the sort of panoramic vistas just not available in the show’s usual go-to quarries and clay pits. (How gorgeous were those shots of the boat speeding across the shimmering water?)

Doctor Who: The Ghost Monument (BBC)

But equal credit has to go to director Mark Tonderai, who demonstrates a terrific eye for the mise en scène: just look at the sunlight slanting through the portholes of the shooting range, or the much-trailered hero shot of the Doctor and co looking out from the ruined city. It sounds as good as it looks, too, with Segun Akinola mixing clamorous, urgent, industrial rhythms with swooning, mournful cello to create a simply stunning score.

In among the action, the story has Something to Say, with the Doctor’s comment about people being “stronger together” clearly designed to send a message in these fissile times. Angstrom’s testimony about having to leave her family behind, and take terrible risks in order to be able to save them, also touches on the desperate plight of refugees, and is all the better for being done with such a light touch.

‘The Ghost Monument’ also reaffirms one of Doctor Who’s central tenets, that “brains beat bullets.” (For a minute there, I was worried Ryan’s Call of Duty moment was going to land squarely on the wrong side of the line – because if there’s a diametrically opposite entertainment concept to Doctor Who, it’s surely ‘first-person shooters’ – but of course Chibnall came through for us in the end.)

The Doctor’s reunion with her beloved TARDIS (see below) was a really rather touching moment, beautifully played by Jodie Whittaker. And we also got our first look at the new title sequence – an oily swirl of Rorschach smudges presumably designed to evoke the same retro, sine-wave oscillator vibe as Segun Akinola’s back-to-basics theme arrangement. It’s surprisingly muted compared to the kaleidoscopic tumbles and bombastic fanfares of the past decade, but I think I like it.

By the end of ‘The Ghost Monument’, then, all the pieces are in place for the next stage of Doctor Who’s never-ending story. We’ve got a sensational new Doctor who’s been an instant hit with the public, we’ve got a hugely likeable regular supporting cast, and we’ve got a ship that can travel anywhere in time and space. So what are we waiting for? Let’s get a shift on.

Doctor’s notes: Last week I said the new Doctor seems unburdened by the survivor guilt baggage of recent years, but there’s a hint here of a new mythology emerging, with the Remnants taunting her with talk of “the Timeless Child… the outcast, abandoned and unknown”. Is Chris Chibnall going to surprise us all by dipping into the Doctor’s origin story?

Fellow travellers: Some touching scenes with Ryan (Tosin Cole) and his step-granddad Graham (Bradley Walsh) as they slowly grope their way towards a relationship. Yaz (Mandip Gill) talks affectionately of her squabbling but clearly loving brood. And there’s a gorgeous little moment between her and Ryan, when he says “Thanks for waiting” and she replies “Always”. The first stirrings of a tentative romance? Stand by your beds, shippers.

Isn’t that…? Susan Lynch (Angstrom) has been a permanent fixture on TV and film for nearly 30 years. Recent appearances include Killing Eve, Ready Player One and Happy Valley. Shaun Dooley (Epzo) is a graduate of both Coronation Street and EastEnders who has also had regular roles in The Street and the Red Riding trilogy. Art Malik (Ilim) came to prominence in 80s colonial sagas The Jewel in the Crown and A Passage to India, played Arnie’s nemesis in True Lies and has had stints on Holby City and Cold Feet.

Location, location, location: A planet whose only name is “a symbol, or a warning – the closest word is Desolation”.

Scary monsters: The Remnants: scraps of waste fabric made sentient – and deadly. Sniper Bots: armed robots who thankfully turn out to be rotten shots. The Stenza, from last week’s episode, were responsible for the planet’s devastation. Are they shaping up as this series’ Big Bad?

Quote unquote: “Brilliant, about to crash land on Desolation – real grounds for optimism!” The Doctor

“Welcome to what I presume is your first alien planet. Don’t touch anything.” The Doctor

“This was a living breathing planet once, with an eco system, organic life, and a population. There was a catastrophic event here. And as hard as it is for you to understand, you are not the only life form in this universe. Some of us feel a duty to others who might be in trouble. So fix your wound, take one of your heroic naps, and we’ll wake you when we leave. If you’re lucky.” The Doctor hands Epzo his ass.

Danger for the Doctor in The Ghost Monument (BBC)

Gadgets and gizmos: Would the TARDIS take offence at being labelled a gadget or a gizmo? Anyway, her latest makeover feels like a return to the organic, crystalline cathedral of the Eccleston and Tennant eras, with more than a touch of Superman’s Fortress of Solitude. Inside a honeycomb. Plus it now comes with a complimentary in-flight custard cream. (Wot, no jammie dodgers?)

Best bit: The attention-grabbing opening on the crashing spaceship – a terrific, hit-the-ground-running sequence to hook viewers in, and a brilliant showcase for Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor, up to her neck in trouble and taking instant charge of the situation. (“They’ll be writing operas about our pointless deaths if we don’t take drastic action RIGHT. NOW.”)

Worst bit: The “escape by exploding cigar” was a bit silly, wasn’t it? And somewhat clunkingly telegraphed – not so much showing us Chekhov’s gun as picking it up and waving it around in the air.

Scariest bit: The wraith-like Remnants swarming around our heroes in the darkness. Creepy, and also strangely beautiful.

Funniest bit: Ryan’s screaming retreat from the battlefield. “Where’s the reload!? Where’s the reload!?”

Huh? Are we really meant to believe that Ilin – a rich, powerful man who has overseen the deaths of countless race competitors – would be so easily spooked into declaring a draw?

Back in time: The Doctor is a Grand Master Pacifist in Venusian aikido, as regularly practised by Jon Pertwee’s Time Lord.

Fans of Sylvester McCoy classic The Greatest Show in the Galaxy may have felt their hearts skip a beat at the sight of that tent in the desert. Or was that just me?

The Doctor’s “You’ve redecorated – I really like it!” line is a running gag stretching back as far as 1973’s The Three Doctors.

Eighth Doctor mini-adventure The Night of the Doctor (2013) also started with the Doctor aboard a crashing spaceship.

Next time – ‘Rosa’: The TARDIS lands in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955, as Rosa Parks prepares to take a bus ride into the history books…

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