Photo: Simon Ridgway (BBC America)

For the second outing in this new era of Doctor Who, Chris Chibnall offers an episode that’s part survival story, part mystery, and part character study. On paper, those are great qualities to emphasize this early in the season, as is the choice to make this Doctor’s first intergalactic adventure a relatively stripped down one. Unfortunately, in practice, “The Ghost Monument” winds up feeling a little bit underbaked. It can’t quite figure out where to put its focus so it hints at a bunch of really interesting angles without fully committing to any of them. The best episodes of Doctor Who feel like a full-length movie crammed into a 45-minute episode of TV. “The Ghost Monument” feels more like one act of a movie stretched across 50 minutes.

The good news, however, is that even if it’s a little lackluster in execution, “The Ghost Monument” is off by a matter of degrees rather than in a way that indicates the show is fundamentally missing the mark. This very much feels like a proper episode of Doctor Who, even more so than last week’s post-regeneration episode. There are ship crashes, robotic foes, anti-gun monologues, locked doors to be opened by sonic screwdrivers, ominous alien warnings, and lots and lots of running. Director Mark Tonderai takes great advantage of his South African shooting location to craft an otherwordly alien planet, and “The Ghost Monument” is consistently beautiful to look at, even in its weakest storytelling moments.

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Picking up where last week’s cliffhanger left off, the Doctor, Yaz, Graham, and Ryan are rescued from their near-death space jump by two pilots competing in “the final stage of the last ever rally of the 12 galaxies,” which is being run by a mysterious wealthy man named Ilin (Art Malik). It’s an intriguing setup with hints of much more complex worldbuilding around the margins and a fun quest structure that gives the episode a palpable sense of forward momentum. The two main guest characters provide two very different worldviews around which the Doctor can define her own. Epzo (Shaun Dooley) is a staunch loner whose own mother taught him never to trust anyone but himself. Angstrom (Susan Lynch) is a prickly survivor with her own trust issues, but a willingness to work with other people once they’ve proven themselves. Of course, the Doctor falls on the even more collaborative, humanistic side of the spectrum, as do her companions—at least once they get used to the idea that they’re on an alien planet.

In the long run, I suspect that having a larger TARDIS team will allow Doctor Who to tell more expansive ensemble stories. But in these early episodes, it’s an extra hurdle because the show has so many characters to serve. “The Ghost Monument” can’t quite decide if it wants to focus on Angstrom and Epzo, the Doctor, or her companions, so it kind of winds up not really focusing on any of them. Ryan, Graham, and Yaz remain incredibly likable, but I don’t really feel like I know them any better than I did last week. The Doctor, meanwhile, is still coming into her own, which is something the episode mentions several times. So far, she continues to be a more low-key, relatively human Doctor—one who thinks to thank her companions (a.k.a. her “new best friends”) for not complaining too much about the fact that she’s gotten them stranded halfway across the universe. Still, she’s far from a pushover, calling out both Epzo and Ilin for their callous behavior and confidently dealing with the planet’s various threats, including some sentient, murderous scarves.

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The only Doctor-centric moment in this episode that feels off is the brief scene in which she immediately gives up hope after Ilin transports Angstrom and Epzo off the planet following their joint win. It’s clearly designed to serve as a moment in which her companions prove their mettle by rallying around her, and it does provide an even bigger sense of relief when the TARDIS does finally appear. But immediately adopting such a defeatist attitude feels really out of character for the Doctor. That being said, the episode almost makes up for it in the next scene in which the Doctor denies that it ever happened, which does feel very Doctor-ish.

Most of my problems with “The Ghost Monument” are rooted in the final act of the episode, which can’t find a way to satisfyingly resolve the many intriguing threads the first two acts set up. I enjoyed watching the Doctor and her companions battle the various booby traps and threats of the inhospitable Planet Desolation, but in retrospect they never really added up to something more than the sum of their parts. Neither the competition itself nor Angstrom and Epzo’s budding friendship are all that well developed, and the idea that the planet was once a major civilization forced to become a sort of weapons factory is also an intriguing idea that doesn’t really go anywhere. Perhaps the most interesting thing about “The Ghost Monument” is its tone. Like “The Woman Who Fell To Earth,” it feels far less whimsical than the Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat eras of the series did. To be fair, there were plenty of un-whimsical episodes during those eras too, particularly during Peter Capaldi’s run as the Doctor. And this episode still offers classic Doctor Who gags, like the Doctor handing Graham a pair of sunglasses she got from either Audrey Hepburn or Pythagoras. But at least for now, Chibnall seems committed to making his era of the show more grounded and less goofy.

What the show hasn’t lost, however, is its sense of wonder, which echoes throughout this episode’s central mystery and rings out loud and clear in that final TARDIS introduction sequence. Jodie Whittaker completely sells the Doctor’s palpable joy at being reunited with the ship that has long functioned as her true best friend (and/or her wife). As a viewer, it’s easy to take the TARDIS for granted, but withholding the reveal until the second episode is a smart way to emphasize just how meaningful it is. I was surprised by how emotional I got when the TARDIS finally materialized at the end of the episode. The new, redecorated interior echoes elements of both the Ninth Doctor’s TARDIS as well as the Eleventh Doctor’s first model, while still feeling like an entirely new space to fit this entirely new Doctor. And the fact that this TARDIS redesign features not only a tiny, spinning glass replica of itself but also a custard cream dispenser means Doctor Who clearly hasn’t given up on the whimsy entirely.

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Stray observations

  • I very much enjoyed the new opening credits sequence!
  • Interestingly, no one actually says, “It’s bigger on the inside” during the TARDIS reveal sequence.
  • Given their mentions here, it looks like Tim Shaw and the Stenza race will be a major thread of this season. We also hear mention of “the timeless child,” which is further described as “the outcast, abandoned and unknown.” Right now it sounds like it could be an early, forgotten regeneration of the Doctor, but that’s very much a preliminary guess.
  • I doubt I would’ve questioned it, but having Ryan, Graham, and Yaz receive universal translator chips from their medipods was a smart way to work around the fact that they haven’t yet interacted with the TARDIS’ translation circuit.
  • Yaz has a dad and a sister, and that’s just about all we learn about her in this episode.
  • I love that Graham calls the Doctor “Doc,” and I can’t believe the modern era has never had a companion do that before.
  • “Come to daddy... I mean mummy.”

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