Doctor Who Review: The Ghost Monument

doctor who the ghost monument review chris chibnall mark tonderai jodie whittaker bradley walsh mandip gill tosin cole

Alright, anyone can focus on the negatives.

I’ve liked this less and less each time I watched it. And I’ve watched it three times now.

Something about this episode has the feel of a first draft about it; there’s a sense that the concepts within it haven’t been entirely considered, that the individual interesting moments don’t really add up to one coherent whole.

Consider what we’ve got. The final stages of a deadly space race. A planet made cruel. Our three companions on their first alien planet. Time and time again, though, The Ghost Monument proves underwhelming: there’s little sense of pace, of genuine haste and competitivity between Angstrom and Epzo; the cruelty of the planet, from the toxic atmosphere to the dangerous water, amounts to little more than an unfired Chekhov’s fun; Yaz, Ryan and Graham have, for the most part, a fairly muted reaction to leaving Earth for the first time.

It’s aggravating, of course, because so much of it feels like an easy fix – certainly, something another draft would’ve solved. Take the cruel planet, for example, a concept that never quite coalesced with a genuine sense of place. I can’t quite get past the little things, the lack of emphasis on different details – they’re in a desert, but they never take their jackets off, they never sweat, they don’t look particularly uncomfortable. They get a boat across a toxic river, but no one’s ever in danger of falling in. Every living organism is dead, they say, trees clearly visible in the background.  For all that this planet is, judging by the dialogue, meant to seem strange and spiky and dangerous by virtue of its mysteries, that never quite lands – if nothing else, “empty” feels like the default state for a desert, rather than something that screams mystery to be solved. The premise of the planet stands up to very little interrogation.

I’m loathe to attribute it to laziness, because that’s such a reductive accusation to level, but there is a certain sloppiness to proceedings in The Ghost Monument; look at that early bit of ADR, clearly inserted late in the day, to explain why the Doctor had Pythagoras’ sunglasses in the coat she bought from the charity shop just a few hours ago. In isolation, it doesn’t say much at all – only really that Bradley Walsh wanted some sunglasses and presumably no one believed Graham would own a pair of his own. But, considering The Ghost Monument as a whole, it can’t help but feel emblematic of an episode where someone took their eye off the ball.

doctor who review the ghost monument water stenza ribbons mark tonderai shaun dooley susan lynch mysterious planet

It’s also aggravatingly superficial as an episode. It’s dense with plot, but very short on story; there’s a lot of A to B and back and forth, but little in the way of subtext.

What’s the episode about? On paper, it’s about the team coming together for the first time – learning to work together, learning to be Doctor Who companions rather than Doctor Who guest characters. In a broader sense, that’s presumably meant to be reflected in Epzo and Angstrom gradually starting to work together – the episode, as a whole, is a rebuke to Epzo’s speech about his mother earlier on in the episode. But, well, it’s a fairly simplistic idea, isn’t it? Or, rather, its realised in a fairly simplistic way – that speech about Epzo’s mother was staggeringly unsubtle, for one thing, and as dialogue more generally it’s just a bit weak. Which is an issue with The Ghost Monument, if not series 11 as a whole so far; the dialogue has been fairly pedestrian, every other line a question, often fairly perfunctory.

Arguably more damning, though, is that Chibnall seems to be struggling to balance the cast, and give them all equal attention. It’s not really a problem if the dialogue is a little generic; after all, they’re all sci-fi characters with broadly similar aims and motivations, so up to a point Yaz, Graham and Ryan are going to have somewhat similar thoughts and reactions and opinions. At the moment, though, Yaz is suffering – the vast proportion of lines are going to Bradley Walsh, leaving her feeling seriously under-utilised. Indeed, Graham is the only one who does feel like a coherent character at the moment, practical and observant, and realised by a genuinely impressive performance. (I really, really like The Chase. I am a little sad we didn’t get some variation on “the race is on” in this episode, but you know. Maybe later.)

I’m hoping, in any case, that future episodes start to get a little more depth. I’m confident they will; if nothing else, there’s some obvious potential to Graham and Ryan as characters (“young man who has trouble processing emotions learns to come to terms with his grief because the first female Doctor Who shows him the stars” is, if nothing else, an idea that could prove fascinating) and I’d be genuinely very surprised if Yaz doesn’t get a focal episode sooner rather than later.

doctor who review the ghost monument jodie whittaker thirteenth doctor tardis reveal desolation sad

I said last week that Jodie Whittaker has consistently been the best part of everything I’ve seen her in. This is still true. Part of this is that her performance elevates the material as written; it was true in, say, Trust Me, and it’s also true here.

What I want to point to particularly – because, much as I’d like to do a line by line commentary noting every time she’s great, it’s probably easier to just tell you to rewatch the episode – is a moment towards the end, just before the TARDIS arrives. It’s something that a lot of people have pointed to as a flaw on a structural level; we know, obviously, that they’re going to find the TARDIS, so the Doctor’s sudden defeatist attitude is unearned.

I’m not entirely convinced by that, though. There are some problems, certainly, associated with that moment (Angstrom and Epzo suddenly falling out of the narrative doesn’t work, though little about them does anyway) but I’m not convinced that “we know the TARDIS is coming back, so the Doctor doubting it doesn’t work” is entirely true. Or, at least, it doesn’t work in terms of making us doubt the TARDIS isn’t coming back (nor the companions), but I’m not convinced that’s what it’s meant to do.

It’s more interesting, to me at least, to consider what that suggests about the character. That level of self-doubt – and more to the point, very sudden self-doubt that the audience understands as unfounded – feels like something we’ve never actually quite seen before. It’s a take on the Doctor that emphasises a certain vulnerability and insecurity, and it’s difficult to imagine Capaldi, Smith, Tennant or Eccleston playing the scene the same way. More to the point, it casts other, more familiar Doctor-ish traits in an interesting new light – the improvisation, the keenness to make friends, all of that feels slightly different. Coupled with certain standout scenes from last week (describing Tim Shaw as “obscene”) and it’s obvious where Jodie Whittaker is going to do some of her most interesting work with the Doctor: carving out a space for subtler, quieter emotions, and in turn evoking the interiority of the part in a way we’ve not seen before. There is, of course, a boring explanation for why this is. The truer explanation, I suspect, is that that’s simply the sort of actress she is.

Ultimately, then, I’m still not entirely sure what I thought of The Ghost Monument. There’s a lot to appreciate about this story; there’s a lot that’s disappointing about it (it’s increasingly apparent just how good at his job Michael Pickwoad was, for one thing). If The Woman Who Fell to Earth felt strange and unfamiliar, The Ghost Monument was perhaps too familiar – a vision of Doctor Who that wasn’t quite ambitious enough. (Though even saying that feels too harsh, or perhaps harsh in the wrong way.)

I don’t know. Perhaps on a fourth watch I’d appreciate it more.

6/10

Related:

Doctor Who Series 11 reviews

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