Doctor Who: 11.02 The Ghost Monument
The second episode of Chris Chibnall's Doctor Who continues to establish the new era as the showrunner and episode's writer sends the new Doctor and her companions off into space for a daring adventure on an alien world. It's simply but effectively done with the 50 minute running time again making for strong use of character development.
Not only do we get more glimpses into Ryan and Graham's somewhat strained relationship and the new Doctor in action (Yaz still feels slightly undeveloped compared to the others) but Chibnall also affords the same level of focus on guest stars Susan Lynch and Shaun Dooley as human-looking aliens Angstrom and Epzo. There isn't a huge amount of plot twists or complex narratives, though there are couple of surprises later on to intrigue the viewer. But Chibnall's strength seems to be in focusing on well rounded characters - main or guest starring - and by the episode's climax we understand the aliens' motivations too.
I wish Chibnall's dialogue was just as strong though. It's perfectly serviceable and suits the new companions with their many questions, but there is a sense that he overwrites Whittaker's dialogue. I love the fact that she engages with and educates her companions on what is happening but there were times when what she said felt unnecessary, even clunky. Sometimes simpler, sharper dialogue can be more effective. It's almost as if Chibnall wants to make sure the audience doesn't miss anything. Perhaps it's the years of watching Moffat's Doctor Who and the need to pay attention (though I never found it confusing) but I feel Chibnall needs to trust the audience more to get what is happening.
Whittaker does a great job though, even with a few over-written sentences of dialogue. There is a great energy to her; she's still feeling her way around her new mind and there's definitely a sense that Chibnall was influenced by Tennant's more human Doctor when writing her. The earnest compassion, excitement and thrill of the mystery make her a joy to watch. There's no focus on her gender, no post-regeneration trauma. She just wants to find the TARDIS and take her new best friends home.
The grounded, back to basics approach of last week's episode is still felt here, even on an alien world with a story that is more about the human (or human-like) journey than sensational spectacle and timey wimey twists and leaps. Chibnall keeps things straight forward and focused. The Doctor and her companions are quickly rescued, resolving the great little cliff hanger from The Woman Who Fell To Earth, and introducing racing pilots Angstrom and Ezpo as the team is split up and find themselves on a dramatic crash landing on the planet Desolation.
It's certainly an exciting hook to the rest of the episode and even with a straight forward narrative, you can also see Chibnall letting loose with the alien world that looks gorgeous - sweeping desert dunes, rolling hills, rivers glistening in the light of three suns; director Mark Tonderai really makes the most of the South African filming location, conjuring up a quasi Lawrence of Arabia vibe (the floating alien ribbons have a very Aladdin flying carpet vibe too). Art Malik makes a couple of fun appearances as the holographic mastermind between the brutal, intergalactic race, setting up Angstrom and Ezpo's final daring trek acrpss the planet with the Doctor and companions in tow. The reveal that the TARDIS was the titular Ghost Monument was a great little twist though and cleverly explained how the Doctor so drastically missed the co-ordinates when tracking her ship down (the planet moved).
Despite the sweeping grandeur of the place, there was also a focused intimacy in Tonderai's direction; the heavy close ups on character faces supported the exploration of each character, including the ruthless desperation of Ezpo and his story of his mother and the worst case of parenting ever. Angstrom's weary desire to save her family from a brutal enemy was even more engaging, Lynch embuing her with real humility under the hard exterior. There were some nice moments as Graham and Ryan worked together to fix the boat and some lovely encouragement by the Doctor too. It wasn't thrilling high drama (though the deadly flesh-eating water was a nice added threat) but you can't deny Chibnall's attempts to explore these people further.
The story did pick up with the discovery of the ruins and the surprise assault by the killer robots. My first thought was to groan (two episodes in a row and alien robotic creatures hunting them down) but it soon made sense when the alien race behind this planet - and the persecution of Angstrom's people - was revealed. I've heard rumours that there won't be an overall mystery to series 11, but Chibnall's creation of the Stenza suggests otherwise. It seems no coincidence that they are behind the events of both of his opening episodes and I would bet on them being the threat come the finale.
The killer ribbons were an intriguing threat, even if the use of the self-lighting cigar to defeat them was set up a little too obviously earlier on in the episode. Ryan embracing his Call of Duty days to try and take on the killer robots, only for them to self replicate was a funny moment too; but seriously, for killer robots their aim was terrible. I would have liked some more tension and atmosphere in the underground scenes but they added some additional mystery to the piece.
Angstrom and Ezpo taking the prize together was another nice moment of characters coming together, something that seems to be a driving force of this new Doctor Who era. The final reveal of the TARDIS was lovely too. I like the new interior though it doesn't jump out quite so much as previous incarnations. The crystals are a nice touch and there's again a definite influence from the Tennant era of the show. But as one of the show's most popular periods, the call back to the somewhat more friendlier era might not be a bad thing.
The Ghost Monument was a simple but effective episode, throwing the Doctor and her companions into an alien world and having them think on their feet. There were plenty of delightful character moments (though I'm still missing Grace) and it feels as if Chris Chibnall has really made his mark on the show already. Oh and the title sequence is lovely - dark, bold and a delightful fusion of 60's Doctor Who and the modern era. New composer Segun Akinola has already made his mark on the show. He's much more understated than Murray Gold but there were moments this episode where the music was stunningly beautiful to listen to, the Doctor reconnecting with the TARDIS in particular. Overall, I'm enjoying the fresh take on the series and with the set up complete, I'm looking forward to where the rest of series 11 takes us.