This story in a nutshell: Winner takes all…and the Doctor claims her Ship...
Graham: It’s the most convincingly handled set of regulars in quite some time because a great deal of thought has been given to the idea of what it would be like to find yourself in outer space after living a perfectly normal life. The Ponds and Clara shrugged their shoulders at this stuff and so there was no real sense of going on a journey with them (and besides they were far too caught up in mysteries and arcs to be accessible from the beginning). Graham is especially compelling because he’s just a normal bloke who is trapped in an impossible scenario and is trying to make the best of it. He’s the most natural and the funniest too. Bradley Walsh underplays his part beautifully whilst scoring every laugh. The initial scenes of the three of them acclimatising to spaceships and alien planets are some of the best scenes in the episode. I appreciated the scene where they all discuss whether they can trust the Doctor and simply decide, based on her actions and her character, yes they can. It’s great that there is no manufactured tension between the regulars just to make the story juicy. They all get on very well, and work together very well. It’s a lot harder to write interesting people that get along, it’s much easier to write them in unrealistic conflict. Bravo for taking that approach.
Ryan: I raised my eyes to the heavens as Ryan grabbed and had his ‘Call of Duty’ moment. It felt very out of character given he has been quite a considered young man until this point. However, his ridiculous girly screaming as it all goes horribly wrong is actually the funniest thing in the entire episode and really made me laugh out loud. It’s not exactly Joss Whedon style humour led characterisation (he has an ability to make you laugh with his characters by having them fall flat on their face) but it did warm me to him after this spectacular moment of idiocy. Huge kudos for the scene where Graham and Ryan discuss Grace, the sort of character pause that the show abandoned in the past couple of years. It’s where Chibnall’s writing is at its best too, real people discussing real feelings. He writes people far better than he writes science fiction. Ryan’s dyspraxia gets a mention again, I’m pleased this is going to be a running thread.
Yaz: The weak link in the regulars at the moment, but through no fault of the actress. Yaz is just waiting for her episode to shine. For right now she is a perfectly serviceable, if unmemorable, member of the ensemble.
Sparkling Dialogue: ‘If you’re an interfere then those are excellent nose hairs.’
‘You talk about this stuff far too much. And you don’t talk about it enough.’
‘Don’t ever take them for granted.’ Wise words.
The Good: An immediate shout out for the visual this year that are standing out much more than in previous seasons and the arresting opening sequence that is told entirely in silence with the spaceship appearing the grappling hook being revealed in the reflection of somebody’s eye is extraordinary. Doctor Who has so often been told (for budget reasons) in words so to see it leaning so heavily and creatively on visual storytelling is refreshing. The spaceship crashing onto the planet is the sort of set piece we have always dreamed of on Doctor Who but the show could never quite afford. Don’t get me wrong Doctor Who has often shown great ambition and bravery in its action set pieces but more often than not the budget conspires to a resulting dodgy model shot or a reaction shot. This looks as though it has sprung from your local cinema, it’s dizzyingly stylishly shot. I rather like the idea of human beings being irrelevant in this sector of space. Too much has been made about the indomitability of humans in the universe, it’s nice to visit somewhere where they are immaterial. Susan Lynch and Shaun Dooley deserve a massive round of applause for bringing Angstrom and Epzo to life so convincingly. I haven’t seen detailed guest characters of this ilk for some time, especially ones played with such down to earth conviction and given this much screen time. These are people I can believe have lives outside of the confines of this story. And Chibnall didn’t go down the obvious route of the two of them being in love with each other, it’s just mutual love/hate friendship all the way. As much as they are merely distraction techniques, the Sniper Bots and wraiths are responsible for some decent looking set pieces. As delaying tactics go, they look pretty. It makes a lot of good sense to set the Stenza up as the new Big Bad of the season and to have one of them appear in the first episode and then to see the devastating effects of what they can do out in the universe in the second sets them up well. It’s just a shame that they were pretty underwhelming in execution. Loving the new TARDIS; it’s a little too early to make any solid judgement but its back to the more organic look of the Tennant era (which I LOVED) and the use of crystal is inspired. I especially love the new walls as you come in. Very Invasion of Time.
The Bad: If you were excited about Art Malik’s participation you might be disappointed to discover it is little more than a cameo in two scenes that bookend the ‘plot.’ However, he’s as good as you would imagine, but in a very underwritten role. Having the TARDIS revealed as the ghost monument completely the guts the story of its emotion at the climax. The Doctor and friends should have gone along with the racers simply because it was the right thing to do, rather than because the Doctor wanted to score a win with the TARDIS. Imagine the climax had the TARDIS been revealed as the monument with no previous warning or expectation, it would have been a really climactic and satisfying scene. Instead we have to go with the Doctor thinking she has lost and the ATRDIS just appearing out of nowhere. Which doesn’t have anywhere near the same sort of emotional power (which I thought Chibnall was all about). What was the point of the flesh-eating microbes in the water if we were never going to see them in action? Chibnall is such an obvious writer at times – the introduction of the cigar is such an noticeable plot point (can anyone say Hexachromite?) that will be relevant to an escape later in the episode you can practically see a huge arrow on screen screaming IMPORTANT. Moffat was better at hiding this sort of stuff. Sniperbots and sentient wraiths are merely present to add a little tension to a story that honestly lacks any, they are distractions techniques to fill time and give the regulars something to fight to delay finding the TARDIS. Truly, they don’t amount to much in plot terms.
The Shallow Bit: We’ve been through so many title sequences since the show has come back that I’m kind of used to them swapping and changing by now. Whittaker’s is no better or worse than any of the others (except Matt Smith’s series 7 one, fuck knows what that explosion in a rainbow factory was all about); it’s more organic and amorphous and it’s pretty short. Inoffensive I would say, but not a patch on the original Christopher Eccleston one which seemed to suggest the joy of travelling the universe like no other.
Result: Lots of nice details and moments, but an uninspiring storyline. I’ll add a caveat to my previous review with regards to the series; Doctor Who is about people again but that is all it seems to be about for the moment. Challenging plot details need to be added because this was a perfectly serviceable run-around but it had a plot as light as last weeks and it lacked the excuse of having to set up the main characters. As a result, it feature a lot of very good character moments that explored the new dynamics and gave the guest actors plenty to work with but I can’t pretend at any point I was particularly surprised or engaged with what they were going through. It’s a fascinating conundrum, with Moffat I was often dazzled by his sparkling imagination but disappointed by his lack of heart. With Chibnall it seems to be the reverse problem. And heaven forbid if I praise Russell T Davies once again but he did set the benchmark when the series returned with The End of the World; a stunning little piece that married intense character beats, fun, excitement, shocks, terrific creativity and visual splendour. He knew that in the second episode that the show had to show everything that it could offer and in comparison The Ghost Monument is a little neutered. Because as entertaining as this was at times, I truly hope it isn’t all the show has to offer now. And where Moffat presented too much as a mystery (the characters, the individual stories, the arcs) with too many unanswered questions, Chibnall simply presents his ideas straight up with no ambiguity or ability to surprise. A planet that moves, a space race, a ghost monument, a missing TARDIS, deadly water, sentient cloth…these are all decent ideas that are worth building up but the Doctor and her companions merely hop from one set piece to the next with the end game something that is spelt out since the beginning. Countering that you have two brilliant guest characters, very well played and with interesting backstories. And this is an excellent chance to see the regulars gel, for Whitaker to take charge of the show through some moments of danger and for Graham, Ryan and Yaz to step into peril and still want to move on at the climax. It would be remiss of me to fail to mention how beautiful this episode looks and the lengths that the production team have gone to to ensure this show matches the expensive American imports on Netflix. Chibnall said that was his aim with the production values and they have achieved that. The cinematography is phenomenal, the direction stylish and the score refreshingly unhysterical and atmospheric. I liked The Ghost Monument, but there were moments where I was clock watching between all the decent character beats: 6/10