Matt Brennan and Josh Jackson review Doctor Who each week in a series of letters.
I may still be delirious after spending the weekend sick in bed, but “The Ghost Monument,” featuring the new companions’ first visit to an alien planet, struck me as a big step up from “The Woman Who Fell to Earth.” In part, that’s because there’s less housekeeping to do: The series is already becoming familiar enough with the main characters, and the actors who play them, to have a bit of fun, putting Graham (Bradley Walsh) in Audrey Hepburn’s—or is it Pythagoras’?—sunglasses. But I also think it’s because the episode’s broader objective—retrieving the TARDIS—is woven so seamlessly into this week’s adventure, which takes place during the final stage of the last-ever Rally of the Twelve Galaxies.
You might be surprised to learn that I was a huge fan of motorsports growing up, so the “Paris-Dakar in space” conceit immediately appealed to me. (I remember more than a few late nights watching this and other obscure forms of racing on Speed Network—which will date me, since it went defunct in 2013.) I was especially taken, after last week’s more deliberate pacing, with the episode’s great set-up, in which Graham and Ryan (Tosin Cole) are separated from Yasmin (Mandip Gill) and the Doctor, having been scooped up by different ships. The rest of the hour had its high points (the solid foreshadowing about those deadly, ghost-like sheets of canvas) and low points (zigzagging is not enough to avoid robot snipers), but by the time the guys eluded the gals’ crash landing, I was wholly on board.
There’s much more to discuss—I definitely want to talk about this episode’s focus on the Doctor’s pacifism—but I’m interested in your first impressions before we get into the nitty-gritty. What did you think?
After last week’s introductions, this had a lot of the qualities of a typical episode of Doctor Who—that is to say, if you liked this episode, you’ll like most of them. There was the immediate drop into a situation they didn’t understand (the space race), new characters who were in danger (though, surprisingly, none of them died), and a lot of running (from assassin robots who make Strormtroopers look like expert marksmen).
That said, for a race across 94 planets, we kind of got an anti-climactic finish. A deserted planet, an uneventful boat ride and some tunnels underneath some ruins. The villains were generic-looking robots and killer bolts of cloth. And then the grand villain behind it all caved after some stern words from two contestants trapped on a planet called Desolation, a long, long way from being able to carry out any sort of threat..
That said, there was enough here to enjoy, and I continue to really like Jodie Whittaker in this role. The Doctor is always a pacifist, but she’s almost militantly pacifist. She hates guns, but shorting out the circuits of all the robots at once is a fine cheat. And the trick she did with her pinky to the neck was new. Violence makes her angry, and she’s not going to mince words with mean people. And still that joyfulness and sense of wonder is always bubbling under the surface.
But the real treat was the trip inside the TARDIS. As someone who’s never seen an episode, it bears mentioning that each new Doctor gets their own renovation, and this one was a doozy. Plus, it now comes with what appears to be a biscuit-dispenser. Every companion has their mind blown by the police box that’s bigger on the inside, but those first encounters never seem to get old.
But I want to hear more about your obsession with motorsports. And whether you’re feeling inspired to go back and watch earlier seasons and other Doctors. And your take on a brand of pacifism that always stands up to bullies.
I agree that the episode tapers off after the strong opening sequence—one thing I’m noticing, two episodes in, is a weakness in Chris Chibnall’s writing, and maybe the series as a whole, for telling rather than showing. I wondered if there might’ve been a visual way to introduce that the water on Desolation was full of flesh-eating microbes, for instance, instead of the Doctor waving her sonic screwdriver at it and saying, “It’s full of flesh-eating microbes!” If I’m considering watching earlier seasons, in fact, it’s less because of wanting to see other Doctors—though I am curious to see how Eccleston, Tennant, Smith, and Capaldi interpreted the character—and more because I’d like to know what Doctor Who looks like when the action-adventure is firing on all cylinders. Because so far this season, that’s been the weak link. (If you have any particular episodes you think I should look at as homework, I’m all ears.)
My (lapsed) love of motorsports aside—I woke up early to watch Formula One races as a child, not cartoons—the episode drew me in with, as you put it, this Doctor’s almost militant pacifism. “The Ghost Monument,” after all, is set on a planet that has been destroyed by “poisons, weapons, creatures” of destruction built under duress by captive scientists, and it’s the Doctor that insists, time and again, that understanding what happened on Desolation is the key to avoiding a grisly fate. I certainly wasn’t expecting anything quite so forceful as the disgust in Whittaker’s voice, reading the message the scientists scrawled on the floor, or her horrified reaction to Ryan picking up the robot guard’s gun. “You can’t out-think bullets” / “Been doing it all my life” could be just light repartee, like Simon Pegg’s character in the Mission: Impossible franchise, but the writing and Whittaker’s delivery put real backbone behind the sentiment. Bravo, I say.
I should add, because I brought it up last week, that I was struck by the gender dynamics in this episode in a way I didn’t quite expect, either. Throughout the episode, the Doctor and the female pilot, Angstrom, are voices of reason, circumspection, teamwork; Graham, Ryan, and the male pilot, Epzo, are instinctive, aggressive, and independent. (Yasmin is rather underutilized, this time around, though she clearly sympathizes with Angstrom.) At first, I was wary of the series reinforcing “war of the sexes” stereotypes, but in the end the women’s approach to problem-solving is such a clear winner that I felt like the episode was a celebration of moxie, rather than might.
“Moxie over might” is a decent slogan for Whittaker’s Doctor, come to think of it. Should we get T-shirts?
I love “Moxie over might” and will absolutely wear that T-shirt. Here’s my watching guide for you if you want to get the gist of Doctor Who in 10 episodes (in chronological order), though I kind of want you to wait until the end of this season:
1. “The End of the World” – Season 1, Episode 2: The first episode of the reboot isn’t a great introduction—basically it features killer mannequins. But “The End of the World” stretches the show to the ends of time and gives you a good sense of Christopher Eccleston and Billie Piper.
2. “The Empty Child” – Season 1, Episode 9: A little boy in a gas mask asking “Are you my mummy?” is one of the creepiest moments in the series. You never forget how very English this show is and how lingering the affects of World War II are on that country.
3/4. “The Impossible Planet”/”Satan’s Pit” – Season 2, Episodes 8 and 9: The Ood are among the most memorable alien species in the Whoverse. And this is a good example of the two-episode arc that is a staple of the show.
5. “Doomsday” – Season 2, Episode 13: The Doctor’s biggest nemeses are the Daleks. But second are the Cybermen. The two domineering races battle it out in this epic episode.
6. “Blink” – Season 3, Episode 10: I’ve said before that the tone of Doctor Who can shift from slapstick comedy to action-adventure to horror. And there is no better example of the latter than “Blink” and its Weeping Angels. There’s a reason you see people dressed as blue-grey statues at every pop-culture convention on the planet.
7. “Turn Left” – Season 4, Episode 11: An alternate timeline, a cameo from the past and the world in the balance? This is new classic Who, and it allows Catherine Tate (companion Donna Noble) to take center stage.
8. “The Stolen Earth – Season 4, Episode 12: Here we get several of the Doctor’s companions (Rose, Donna, Jack, Martha and Sarah Jane) working to help the Doctor save Earth from the Daleks, along with some Torchwood spinoff characters. I also highly recommend the whole five-episode “Children of the Earth” run of Torchwood.
9. “The Eleventh Hour” – Season 5, Episode 1: Here we meet Matt Smith and Karen Gillen (companion Amy Pond) in a platonic sci-fi meet-cute adventure.
10. “The Woman Who Lived” – Season 9, Episode 6: Clara (Jenna Coleman) was a fine companion, but the best pairing with Peter Capaldi was Game of Thrones’ Maisie Williams as a Viking girl, Ashildr, who the Doctor saves, granting her with the blessing and curse of immortality in “The Girl Who Died.” Her actions come back to haunt him.
Okay, 10 isn’t enough. “Girl in the Fireplace,” “The Doctor and Vincent,” all of the River Song episodes, most of the Christmas specials—and I haven’t been fair to Matt Smith or Peter Capaldi. But this is a good primer.
With everything Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat threw at the screen, it’s been an uneven ride with some really high highs. I’m hopeful that Chris Chibnall and company will give us their own iconic moments, as well.