Doctor Who: The Ghost Monument – A Review

Doctor Who: The Ghost Monument

 

The Ghost Monument certainly picks up the pace, but doesn’t seem to be sure which direction it wants to go in.

 

Well… I was right, this definitely would have worked better as a two-part special with The Woman Who Fell to Earth.

No need for a massive introduction this week, may as well jump straight into it! The Ghost Monument is a definite improvement over last week’s The Woman Who Fell to Earth. The story keeps moving, though never to the point where it becomes a rush, and it makes for perfectly solid Sunday evening entertainment.

First things first though – WHAT A TITLE SEQUENCE!

Departing from the general style of the titles we’re used to in the modern series, this one harkens back to the 60’s/70’s era of the show. It is amazing. The effects are so alien and weird but feel so right. And strangely enough, they have even managed to make the reveal of the episode’s title really cool. What was once the afterthought of the titles now ends them with a punch.

Jodie Whittaker continues to be enjoyable to watch as the Doctor, seeming to have found her balance between Tennant’s and Smith’s incarnations of the characters. I do like how she’s given the chance to show off aspects of her character that go beyond happy-go-lucky Doctor. She’s allowed to be angry Doctor, or sassy Doctor, or even just the confused Doctor.

The other performances are also solid across the board. Not much more to say on that, though there does seem to be a slight disparity with how Whittaker appears to be allowed to have some fun with her performance, while the others are stuck with playing their roles very seriously. Yeah it helps to make Whittaker stand out as the Doctor, but it also makes it feel like she’s acting in a different show to the rest of the cast.

Additionally, it’s a shame how the companions appear to be just regulated to asking questions for the Doctor to answer – especially given how those first ten minutes of The Woman Who Fell to Earth started so well. They’re starting to lose their individuality, merging into one big, bland character. Graham is memorable by virtue of being played by Bradley Walsh, but Yasmin and Ryan both get lost in the background. Yasmin especially, who had such a promising start at the beginning of the last episode. She gets completely forgotten about in the script. At least the script allows Ryan moments to focus on his relationship as Graham’s grandson. Yasmin gets nothing, even the Doctor admits to forgetting she’s there at one point in the episode! Going back to the apparent theme of wasted potential, I thought they were going to try something interesting by having the Doctor and Yasmin start the story separated from Graham and Ryan. But nope!

I like how simple the thrust of the narrative was, a literal race to the finish being an episode focus I don’t think we’ve ever had for Doctor Who before. And it works! The way the story always keeps moving from one location to another gives the sense of a grander adventure than what is usually possible on a BBC budget. The scene on the boat in particular is more reminiscent of your typical Hollywood adventure movie than anything Doctor Who-y.

Overall, The Ghost Monument was an enjoyable story from start to finish. However, it isn’t perfect, and I don’t think I can talk about my problems with it without going into spoilers. So, there’s your warning.

Still here? Brilliant!

I have no idea what type of Doctor Chris Chibnall wants Whittaker’s incarnation to be. And I don’t mean in terms of performance, because Whittaker’s got a handle on that. The script in terms of dialogue and general characterisation is perfectly fine for her Doctor. I mean morally, what type of Doctor does Chris Chibnall want Jodie Whittaker to be? What does this Doctor stand for?

This Doctor appears to very openly be anti-guns and anti-killing, and yet last week she tricked the big villain into killing themselves. This week she had a go at Ryan for trying to take out the robots with a gun, and yet takes them all out anyway with an EMP blast The script says that the lesson is that it’s better to outthink your opponents than use a gun, but it comes across more like it’s better to kill all the things with science than one at a time with a gun. Ryan isn’t shown as in the wrong for using a gun, more like he’s just really useless with one.

I think the problem isn’t that the Doctor does all these things: in the past no Doctor’s been a perfect angel. They understand that they can’t always be the pure ‘hero’. I think the distinction is that in previous incarnations, the Doctor is forced to own the moment, rather than flirt around it. You’d know exactly where that Doctor is coming from. Whittaker’s Doctor seems to always want to be seen as the pure ‘hero’ even when making a difficult choice, and it doesn’t work. It only results in what she says fighting against what she does.

This confusion comes across in the side characters of the story Angstrom and Epzo as well. Their function as the ‘good’ racer and the ‘bad’ racer is perfectly fine. But Epzo never gets his comeuppance for being constantly in the wrong, and Angstrom never gets her moment to shine above Epzo. Despite the script constantly making it clear that Angstrom is the better person, it also wants to keep them on the same level, even to the very end when the Doctor makes them end the race in a draw. It’s counter-intuitive to how the story is set up.

Also, for the first properly ‘alien’ story of this new era of Doctor Who. It was a bore visually. Don’t get me wrong, it is technically very well shot and directed, and some of the scenery on its own, without context, looks stunning. But this ‘alien’ world looks far too much like Earth. Aside from the neat visual of the three suns, there’s nothing distinct about this world at all. Not even a unique colour-palette. The Doctor says – “Welcome to what I presume is your first alien planet”, but it sure doesn’t feel like it.

There are also some very odd choices in directing and editing that, to be honest, result in some unintentionally funny moments. For instance, in a scene where the Doctor tells everyone that they should all get some rest. It immediately cuts to a close-up of Bradley Walsh mid-yawn. It’s hilarious, but I don’t think it was intended to be. And there does seem to be a very heavy reliance on the extreme close-up this episode. Which is odd given that the story literally spans a journey across a planet, the last thing you want is for the direction to feel claustrophobic. And yet, so many times throughout the episode you just want the camera to back away and let the actors do their thing.

The big bad this week essentially being haunted paper was quite fun, though I am a little disappointed it didn’t result anyone becoming a mummified monster (looking at you Epzo). Though I thought the connection they made to last week’s villain was a bit weak. Mainly because it didn’t click for me until someone had to outright reference it. Again, probably would have helped if this aired with The Woman Who Fell to Earth, (you may think I’m going to let this go… I’m not).  

Now, let’s talk about the most important part of the episode, for me as both a fan and a nerd. The new TARDIS design… MY GOD, it’s a painfully mixed bag.

First off, I think the exterior looks really nice. A far cry from the clean Fisher-Price aesthetic that Smith’s and Capaldi’s Tardises (Tardii?) had. It’s got a really nice, well-worn look to it.

The interior on the other hand… woah boy. I like the console, I like how it’s full of buttons and levers and switches, and there isn’t a screen in sight. But the TARDIS as a whole feels so strangely cramped and small.

The lighting doesn’t help either, it’s so moodily lit, and it feels counter to Whittaker’s really bright personality as the Doctor. I do like the return of warmer colours to mark the interior, with the contrast of the blue and orange hues. And in fairness, in certain shots it can look really nice. If only a touch dark.

Maybe it’s to do with how the interior was shot. Because there was no sense of scope to showing off the new design, no sense of grandeur. There’s one tracking shot of Whittaker walking in, and then we just get close-up after close-up after close-up and it doesn’t help. It’s especially disappointing as there’s a really lovely continuous shot in the opening of the episode in another spaceship, with the camera constantly moving around the Doctor, and it’s got a great sense of energy to it. Hiding the new TARDIS is constant close-up is just really disappointing. There is one shot that tries to establish the TARDIS as a whole, and it just feels so tiny.

You can tell it was inspired by the McGann’s TARDIS interior from the TV movie. Which also had moody lighting, and huge attachments covering the console. But even that design had more to it. It was massive! All you have to do is compare the two establishing shots to see the difference.

Maybe I’m just spoilt by how good Capaldi’s TARDIS looked – especially towards the end of his tenure as the Doctor (see any episode directed by Rachel Talalay). But the design here just feels so cramped. Beyond the console, there’s no definition to it. There’s no height, or differing levels, or really anything that stands out beyond the console, and even that can be easy to miss at times.

I also don’t know where else to put this, but I really don’t like the weird finger-like attachments surrounding the console. It’s like they’re about to close into a fist, and it really doesn’t help with the cramped environment. Claustrophobic is not a term that should be used to design a TARDIS, and yet it’s probably the most accurate here. It feels smaller than the TARDIS interiors from the classic series, never mind any of the new series designs.

That’s not to say there’s nothing to like. I love all the little details on the console, such as the hourglass, and how, like a little Willy-Wonka machine, it spits out custard creams. I reckon we’ll get the chance to see more of the TARDIS in action, and hopefully we get direction that lets us see more of the TARDIS in general. And I know I’m being picky, but this wasn’t the best first impression. I hope this is a design that’ll evolve over time, because, for the moment, even though the TARDIS is bigger on the inside, it’s never felt smaller.

Clearly, I had a lot to say on The Ghost Monument, and you can blame a new TARDIS for that. But it was genuinely a story I had a good time with, on its own. I’m still not sure what direction Chris Chibnall wants to take the show in, and I would have hoped that two episodes in, we’d have gotten there. That being said I am very much looking forward to next week’s Rosa.