Hark! Is that the sound of barrel scraping? The barrel is labelled “making everyday things scary”. A monster that resembles fabric coming to life is probably pushing things a bit far, but like most aspects of this series so far it ends up as something of a triumph of style over substance. For the second week running, that applies to the plot as well.
What we have here is an old-fashioned quest story, with a twist, just like last week’s was an old-fashioned alien invasion story, with a twist. Nobody is breaking any moulds here, but everything is being done with such conviction that it somehow works reasonably well, and the impressive filming in South Africa certainly helps.
The quest is a competition in this instance, with two competitors: Epzo and Angstrom. Two things matter above all else with a quest plot: the journey has to be interesting, with some good obstacles on the way, and the resolution has to be satisfying. I would argue that Chris Chibnall drops the ball on both of those.
With only two competitors, the characterisation is of the utmost importance. Angstrom is a fascinating character, her background raising the spectre of “cleansing”. Epzo, on the other hand, is a walking cliché of a tough bloke, with a ridiculous back story: his mother deliberately allowed him to fall to his death, for all she knew, as a lesson in life. The resolution to the quest is for the object of the quest not to be found (which doesn’t seem to matter to the competitors or to Ilin), and Angstrom to choose to share the prize with Epzo, a man with basically no redeeming qualities, risking losing the money she desperately needs to save the lives of her family. The fact that this works is equally difficult to believe. Ilin is a great character, played with a quiet, indifferent menace by Art Malik. He successfully establishes Ilin as exactly the sort of person who wouldn’t be in the slightest bit concerned about Epzo’s threats of violence. If he can click his fingers and remove the competitors from the planet in an instant, then he is more than capable of organising a much less pleasant fate for them. It also leaves us with a muddled message: make threats and you might get your own way, which doesn’t sit all that well with the Doctor’s earlier point about guns.
…speaking of which, that brings us to probably the most successful part of the episode. The Doctor has often expressed an antipathy to carrying guns, but this went a step further. It’s one thing for the Doctor to say they make things worse, and another to do what Chibnall does here and show exactly why they make things worse. A brilliant moment.
Not so successful are the robot guards, which I don’t think will stick in the minds of many viewers, and that brings me back to a point I mentioned above about quest episodes. The resolution has to be satisfying (and I’ve already dealt with why it wasn’t), and the journey itself has to be too. A couple of run-ins with some fairly run-of-the-mill robots and some floaty fabric en route doesn’t really do the job very well, especially as the big set-piece with the fabric monsters was terribly contrived. As soon as the very convenient click-activated cigar was mentioned, I could see that clumsy Chekhov’s Gun moment approaching from a mile off. Then there was apparently a desperate need to vacate some very large tunnels, as if the air was going to run out immediately, and venture out onto the surface of the planet at night.
So those are the negatives, and it’s frustrating to see so many of them cropping up in a series that is clearly doing very well and proving popular. It has to be said, it all comes down to the writing. But the reason Doctor Who is doing so well this year, despite a writing standard that falls well short of what we have come to expect this… well… century, is that we have four brilliant lead actors doing amazing work with the scripts, and probably the most inspired directing we have ever seen on Doctor Who. Style over substance. Imagine how amazing this series will be if and when a good script actually comes along. I’m looking forward to that moment.
One final thing I have to mention: my first thoughts on the new TARDIS. Love it. The interior and exterior design are both great, although the console room is perhaps a little underlit (atmospheric, I admit). I loved the little spinny TARDIS, and want one of those. The egg timer was a bit of an obvious choice. And all modes of transport should come fitted with a biscuit dispenser.
No custard cremes though, thanks. Style over substance. RP
The view from across the pond:
The Ghost Monument is a great title. If this were part of the classic series, it would have been called The Return of the TARDIS, and that would have utterly ruined any surprise!
But before the title even appears onscreen, let’s talk about the new opening credits and music. I was all worried that it would have changed unrecognizably, but instead, I have a new ringtone waiting to be installed! The music is great without losing any of the classic sound, it opens a new era. Not to mention, even those opening visuals have that cinematic feel we’ve been hearing so much about. Then in under 60 seconds, the cliffhanger ending from last week gets resolved and the crew is picked up by two different ships (which makes close to no sense). Chibnall ignores the effects that space has on a body (the same effects that we saw just last season in Oxygen) in favor of jumping into the story. That’s far from a showstopper but it was a little bit of a surprise. Where was the drama from that? Ok, as far as we know, the Doctor was out in the vacuum much longer than these guys anyway during Capaldi’s episode so we can ignore that.
Now, the episode really begins once we realize the crew has been separated onto two different ships taking part in a race. This is the third space race in Doctor Who with Enlightenment and Shakedown from the classic era and the wilderness era, respectively. We are treated with more amazing visuals leading to a stunning crash and by 8 minutes into the story, even the isolation is over and the crew is reunited and it feels so good. Fast, indeed, but it suffers what I call the Superman Returns syndrome; there’s a threat that holds no weight whatsoever because we know the crew will end up together, and they do that in less than 10 minutes. There was no actual sense of danger. Then we meet the contestants. There’s the wannabe Russell Crow, Epzo who cares nothing for others and Angstrom cares so much, she’s actually in this race. Who do you want to see win? Well, after the Doctor uses a bit of Venusian Akido on Epzo (with comical results), I confess I started to like Epzo and actually wanted to see both contestants win; but that’s not how it works, is it? And before ever seeing the Ghost Monument, the description of what it was might as well have been in the title. Thus, by 15 minutes in, any sense of surprise was taken away because they explained the ghost monument in such a way that I knew instantly what we were looking for! So what follows is a pretty typical “gauntlet” episode. You know, the ones where there are a series of challenges like Death to the Daleks that the Doctor has to get through and try to keep everyone alive. But where this one differs is that the Doctor keeps the “extras” alive also. No one need die when we work as a team! (More on that in a second!)
Unfortunately, it’s not as strong an episode as the first one. There are a lot of little niggling things wrong with it. For instance, the scientist’s journal that the Doctor reads on the ground… was a book! Who leaves a message for people that requires reading a novella? It went on and on, basically explaining the plot so the writer didn’t have to! That was ridiculous. In fairness, it takes away very little, so I could look beyond it. Also the creepy rags could speak, but how? Was it meant to be telepathic? And what’s the likelihood that we’d already be encountering something to do with the Stenza again? We never heard of them before last week, now the whole universe is in terror of them! Also, doesn’t Ryan have a coordination disorder? How was his aim so perfect that he was able to shoot down all the robots without a problem? Video games help eye/hand coordination and presumably that’s the implication by what he trained for, but he does have a disorder that should make that difficult, if not impossible. (Maybe I just don’t understand the disorder, and I can accept that!) And look, that’s all balanced out by the message that the episode relays: think through problems, don’t fight, but it’s minor oversights like this that make me worry for the future! The worst oversight of the episode was the sunglasses. This sounds like a silly thing to say – the major plot points were not the worst? No, because the little things should be the easiest to get right. So here’s the thing: throughout The Woman Who Fell to Earth, the Doctor complains about empty pockets. The episode ends with her buying clothes (or more accurately, Yaz buying clothes) before they get shot off into space. So how does she have glasses that she “borrowed from Audrey Hepburn or Pythagoras”? The season is too new to have such a gross oversight. I could ignore it if these were the ones Capaldi wore, but then she would have had a sonic on her the whole time which would have negatively impacted the first episode. And yeah, we could say that this is like the teacup during The Witch’s Familiar, but that’s a cop out. The fact is, Chibnall was trying to be funny but overlooked a major flaw in the dialogue. I’d almost be happier if Graham would have called her out on it and have her admit to having pocketed them from the shop. Not that I want to see the Doctor as a thief or a liar, but fibbing for the sake of a laugh instead of the writer forgot his own storyline. That’s embarrassing!
In fairness, I still found the episode to be incredibly entertaining. The pacing is fast, the Doctor is on form and the companions are great. The cinematic visuals are stunning when they do outdoor shots but I still think we’re seeing too many dark places. And I’m a sucker for cryptic messages. “the Timeless child… the outcast, abandoned and unknown”. I have a strong suspicion on this one and can’t wait to see if I’m right. So maybe no returning enemies this season, but I think we’ll see a long overdue companion’s return. Of course, it could be a total blind alley, but I don’t think so. Plus, as I mentioned above, the episode goes out of the way to talk about teamwork and the merit of thinking instead of fighting. I think a moral compass is something the Doctor needs and messages like that, fables for the modern era, are good things that will elevate this series. A much needed return to a positive message for the audience.
And then we get to the part we’ve been waiting for: the TARDIS. I admit it freely: I was giddy. It was truly a surprisingly emotional reunion considering we are seeing a reunion of a character and a box and yet, I could hardly contain myself. A slow build reveals the walls first, then the center and I loved the console and the light from the crystals. But it did feel far darker than I expected. It’s reminiscent of the 2005 return. It’s darker, less technological and has a food dispenser. But there appears to be a vast empty area surrounding the console’s crystal spires and that whole area is simply too dark. I’m hoping she simply hasn’t found the light switch yet and the room is full of wonder.
All in all, the episode was very entertaining but I hope these are the only blunders we see in the season. Thankfully, the Doctor is so spot-on that I’m not going anywhere. And those visuals… even watching the TARDIS dematerialize proves that we are in for a number of visual treats this season… ML
Read next in the Junkyard… Rosa