❉ Jodie Whittaker continues to shine and banish further into the misogynistic past the suggestion that only a man can play the Doctor.
So far, so so.
The Ghost Monument was an odd episode. On one hand this was a bonding story, where four regular characters who don’t know each other well have time to do just that, coming out at the end of episode the better for it. On the other hand, you could argue that an epic race across space to the planet Desolation, originally numbering 4,000 entrants knocked and whittled down to two, was reduced to a dull trudge across some sand to a tent.
I had the nagging feeling that if this hadn’t been filmed in a truly spectacular location in South Africa – a gravel pit in Reigate, say – the slightness of the story would have been even more apparent, because both The Ghost Monument and The Woman Who Fell to Earth felt like 45 minute scripts stretched out to an hour, with a consequent hobbling of the pacing.
Having said that, the extended running time allowed for better development of two of the guest roles. Shaun Dooley and Susan Lynch, two of my favourite character actors, made Epso and Angstrom, respectively, three dimensional and lived-in in a way that secondary characters haven’t been for a while. There was time to get to know them, warts and all. Epso’s shocking story about his mum telling him to jump out of a tree so she’d catch him, then stepping aside at the last moment so he learnt a hard lesson about trust, will linger in my memory longer than the panoramic scenery. As for Art Malik’s condescending entrepreneur Ilin… no one does smug superiority quite like him.
Overall, the point of the story – “we’re stronger together” – was rather obvious, but on the plus side, Epso’s depressing story suggests, along with the fate of the original inhabitants of Desolation, that Chris Chibnall’s Doctor Who universe is a much harsher and brutal place those fashioned by Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat. Scientists forced to poison and weaponise their own planet under the jackboot of an alien aggressor is a particularly grim idea, calling to mind the V1 and V2 missile factories run on slave labour by the Nazis in WWII. This bleakness is, intriguingly, very much at odds with the happy clappy image of the show presented in the technicolour publicity images of the new main cast.
Speaking of which, I felt that the new regulars were all much better than the material they were given to act. Jodie Whittaker continues to shine and banish further into the misogynistic past the suggestion that only a man can play the Doctor, but for all her hard work here, I couldn’t help feeling that the sedate narrative needed to match her energy and urgency.
Another case in point: Bradley Walsh is an amusing and spontaneous performer, but so far his characterisation of Graham has felt like it’s reigning him in. Mind you, he still got the best lines outside the Doctor, wishing aliens “would stop putting stuff inside me” and the priceless “[it’s] our best hope or only option, depending on your politics.” Ryan (Tosin Cole) and Yaz (Mandip Gill) each had some good moments, but after two hours I still didn’t feel as if I knew these two very well.
And the TARDIS (the rather neatly named Ghost Monument of the title) is back, and it was a real punch-the-air moment when it finally did arrive. At the risk of sounding like a grumpy old man – “I’ve been watching since 1966, y’know” – I didn’t like the redesign of the interior, mainly because such a dark space (something of a visual theme with this series, so far) doesn’t suit the new Doctor’s bubbly, sunny character. The overall impression – at the moment – is of a budget version of the first Matt Smith control room. We’ll see.
Going by RTD and the Moff’s treatment of similar scenarios, if either of them had written The Ghost Monument we’d have had hundreds of (probably CGI) spectators to the interplanetary “Paris Dakar”, with accompanying satirical service industries, and maybe a knowing, Greek chorus-style news reporter. Such detail gave their stories a sense of scale, which – this week’s South African vistas aside – has been missing from both Series 11 episodes. Still, the killer bandages were a wonderfully grisly, behind-the-sofa idea bound to upset the under tens (if any were watching).
The main thing, though, is to get the narrative pace out of first gear. Everything else is in place; Chibnall just needs to put the pedal to the metal.
❉ ‘Doctor Who’ airs on BBC One, and is made by BBC Studios in Wales. Series link: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006q2x0
❉ Robert Fairclough is a film and TV journalist and blogger and a regular contributor to We Are Cult, ‘Doctor Who Magazine’, ‘Infinity’ and ‘SFX’. He is the author of The Prisoner: The Official Companion to the Classic TV Series, and co-author (with Mike Kenwood) of definitive guides to the classic TV dramas ‘The Sweeney’ and ‘Callan’.