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Doctor Who Recap: Brains Beat Bullets

Doctor Who

The Ghost Monument
Season 11 Episode 2
Editor’s Rating *****

Doctor Who

The Ghost Monument
Season 11 Episode 2
Editor’s Rating *****
Photo: Simon Ridgway/BBC Studios 2018

It is customary for showrunners to kick off their inaugural seasons or eras with a present/future or sci-fi/past or historical trilogy, and Chris Chibnall has crafted his first episodes as Davies and Moffat did before him. Though this is a practical exercise for a writer to get a feel for the series and to demonstrate range, it’s equally useful as a means of introducing new companions to the Doctor’s world. In any case, “The Ghost Monument” is a serviceable actioner even if it’s somewhat unremarkable in the storytelling department. With the early revelation that the titular marker is no less than the TARDIS itself, “The Ghost Monument” makes for an episode that one is eager to get to the end of, as we’re all excited to see the new inside of the ship. One should never want to get to the end of a Doctor Who episode.

How about that fabulous psychedelic title sequence and the unnerving rearrangement of the theme tune? This is 30 seconds we’re going to see over and over, likely for numerous seasons to come, and for an old-school fan it hits all the right spots. As the current TARDIS team echoes that of 1963, so does this title sequence and theme tune. A swirling pattern akin to a massive lava lamp, it eventually gives way to a star field of sorts. Some may miss the Doctor’s visage, but I think this particular sequence works better without it. This is also the first time since the 1970s that a new Doctor Who theme can be accurately described as spooky or alien. Segun Akinola is killing it.

I have a general rule about cliff-hanger resolutions, and that’s that they’re almost never as exciting as the cliff-hangers themselves, and, true to form, last week’s nail-biting ending is resolved in the least engaging of ways: the time travelers are scooped up in pairs by two spaceships emerging from hyperspace. This is fine, as you can’t begin an episode at the same level on which you ended the last one. All parties and ships are headed for a planet called Desolation.

The crash landing of Epzo’s (Shaun Dooley) ship onto Desolation’s surface while Graham, Ryan, and Angstrom (Susan Lynch) flee from it had me cackling and chortling and having a general blast. It quickly becomes apparent that the real star of the episode is all of the gorgeous location shooting in South Africa, and the numerous set pieces used to create this ravaged world. This isn’t to say it’s style-over-substance. Something that remains constant is the emphasis on character, a trait that I suspect will come to define the Chibnall era of Doctor Who.

The two figures played by Dooley and Lynch — damaged people nearing the end of a seemingly epic scavenger hunt — are shaded with all sorts of layers that get peeled back as the hour moves forward. Angstrom is fighting to save her family, her planet having been ethnically cleansed by the Stenza, in a surprising callback to the previous episode’s villain. The mention of them so soon again makes me think we haven’t seen the last of the Stenza, this season. Epzo is far more self-centered, with a back-story involving someone unlikely to win any Mother of the Year awards. The pair have made it so far in the race that they seem to have begrudging respect for one another, and even though the rules of the game prevent them from taking each other out, neither of them seems like the kind of person who would kill the other, anyway.

The relationship between Graham and Ryan continues to develop, or not, as the case seems to be. Grace’s death quite rightly still weighs heavily on their minds, factoring into their inability to connect. A scene in which Graham wonders if Ryan will ever call him Granddad is loaded with importance. It’s as though if he keeps his distance and doesn’t let Graham in, he can somehow keep his version of Grace alive; but if he gives himself over and accepts the man into his life on a deeper level, he’s admitting that his Nan is gone for good. This duo continues to remain a fascinating slice of this series, but one of these days the dam will burst and all sorts of emotion will come flooding out. Sadly, once again, Yasmin takes a backseat to nearly every other character to the extent that it’s easy to forget she’s even there.

Jodie Whittaker continues developing the Doctor, but even more so than last week, this felt like a real ensemble piece, so she didn’t quite have as many standout moments as in her opener. “Let’s get a shift on” is, after two episodes, the kind of thing that’s going to pepper the speech of fans for years to come, and folks are going to meme the crap out of it and plaster it across T-shirts. More power to it, as it’s an excellent catchphrase, akin to Tennant’s “Allons-y!” “Brains beat bullets” was another inspired bit, and one that in so many ways sums up the philosophy not only of the Doctor but of the show itself. Even though the Doctor has rarely used weapons in the recent series, previous incarnations have not openly condemned the use of them as often as they might have, and in this political climate, a statement like that is exactly that: a statement, and a powerful one. In another scene, she whips out Venusian aikido on Epzo, praising it for its ability to render the victim helpless while doing no serious harm. Perhaps her most intriguing scene is with the Remnants, a truly disturbing alien force that seems able to read the Doctor’s mind. It speaks of “the timeless child … the outcast, abandoned and unknown.” Chibnall has stated that this season is made up of ten self-contained adventures, but between this moment and the Stenza plot-point, one wonders how hard-and-fast that rule will be.

If you’re an old-school fan: Between the race and the various set pieces the characters traveled to one after another, and then the various villains and the poisonous water, did anyone else get a “Keys of Marinus” vibe from this thing? Sure, this is a far more compact version, but the similarities were there and once it occurred to me, I couldn’t get it out of my head. For those who’ve never seen it, “Marinus” is a serial from the show’s first season, which aired way back in 1964. It’s not a particularly good story — probably the weakest in an otherwise strong season. Maybe Chibnall felt it needed an update of sorts. To whip around to the other end of the classic Who spectrum, the mysterious tent in the middle of the desert recalled 1988’s “The Greatest Show in the Galaxy,” though it was probably the only thing here that did.

One befuddling aspect was that from the start it was revealed that the TARDIS was the titular Ghost Monument. Yet the race is declared over and ended when they reached the holographic tent once again. Neither of the players, nor Ilin (Art Malik), seemed to care or even notice that the ultimate goal wasn’t reached. It all seemed terribly anticlimactic, and the guest stars literally disappear in a flash, leaving the Doctor and her friends behind to fend for themselves, a situation that remedies itself almost immediately as the TARDIS finally appears.

Ah, yes, the new TARDIS, which will no doubt be the most discussed topic among fans in the coming days. Many will love it and just as many will hate it, but one thing’s for certain: We’re all going to have to live with it for a few years. It’s certainly original, and it feels like we’ve only scratched the surface of this dark, mysterious new interior. Those giant walls with roundels of a sort the series has never seen before. They almost look like they’re meant to be climbed. The console is surrounded by those hulking, glowing chunks that look like they’re on loan from Superman’s Fortress of Solitude (they also just so happen to complement the new sonic design). There’s an hourglass and, perhaps most improbably, a tiny spinning crystal version of the police box itself. And the final, glorious touch? The new console provides a presumably endless supply of biscuits. Mercy. The crew will have to run laps around that vast interior.

I cannot convey how excited I am to meet Rosa Parks next week.

Doctor Who Recap: Brains Beat Bullets