Doctor Who: Tenuous Assistants Render Dynamic Intergalactics Standard
Well, after last week’s tentative but pleasing opening to the series, we’re back for this second episode. Traditionally, from The End of the World onwards, these episodes revolve around an adventure into space, and this week’s outing, The Ghost Monument, is no different.
This episode revolves around a space race – well, not that kind, but one that pits hundreds of competitors against one another in a battle for an enormous fortune that takes places across dozens of planets and terrains. Our characters are dropped, in the middle of space, straight into this race, a breakneck start for a breakneck episode that doesn’t lift the foot off the gas for a singular moment. Sure, I’d rather there was too much than too little in an episode, but The Ghost Monument sometimes felt like it was missing connective tissue, surging from one plot point to the next with barely a moment to string them all together. The monsters were piled on as the gang traversed a creepy abandoned planet to track down the TARDIS, some of them effective (magic flying rags that got into your mind and exposed your fear), some of them bland (killer robots), some of them not seen at all (flesh-eating microbes who never even appeared on-screen).
To be fair, I thought this episode was perfectly solid, a decent enough outing: it looked spectacular, cinematic, even, though I could have used without some of the thrusting close-ups during conversation, courtesy of some overzealous direction. Jodie Whittaker is still settling in to the role, but she’s on the way to getting there – the comedy stuff seems to come easy to her, while the dramatics can err on the side of stilted sometimes (and dammit if I didn’t prefer her in Capaldi’s leftovers than I do in her current look). The one-off characters – the two racers battling for the main prize – were well-formed and solidly acted (and gay, so points), and the setting and the story felt fresh and new, probably just thanks to the fact that this is the first freak-of-the-week episode we’re getting from a showrunner who isn’t Steven Moffat in an entire actual lifetime. The action was surprisingly solid with an undercurrent of wit, just the way I like it.
An obligatory mention here, of course, of the new TARDIS, whose design actually really enjoyed (and yes, I refer to it with “who”, because it is a woman, and Jodie Whittaker is married to it, and they’re lesbians, let me live my life) – it was pleasingly new, organic and techy at the same time, and Whittaker’s reunion with her ship was probably the best bit of acting we’ve seen from her so far in the role.
But, if last week was introducing the Doctor, these next few weeks should go a long way to giving us some insight into the sidekicks. And, look, it wasn’t that I thought the sidekicks were bad here – I still like them all well enough, with Bradley Walsh standing out as my favourite so far (and yes, those words caused me to expire upon writing them). But this episode felt as though it should have come six episodes down the line, once we’ve actually got a handle on the assistants as characters better than we do now. I know of them, but I don’t know them yet – I would nod to them in the street, but wouldn’t set them up with one of my friends, you know?
I feel like an episode like this one relies on a strong chemistry between characters already existing and, while they’re certainly not flat, they’re still not quite fully-formed yet, their dynamics still sketched-in instead of clearly defined. Yas, Ryan, and Graham aren’t bad characters, per se, but they’re just not really characters yet – would that this story had been a little less convoluted and packed-out so that they could have had some space to grow. Bringing in two one-shot characters who got so much screentime, too, felt like a mistake where the show should have been focusing on building our rapport with the assistants – especially now we have three times the work to do to connect with the newly-expanded crew.
So, yeah, this wasn’t the finest episode of the show to date, but it also wasn’t half bad. I feel like it’s main problem was just being in the wrong place in the season. A few episodes later, with the characters standing up a little better on their own merits, maybe The Ghost Monument would have rolled a little smoother. But I’m still optimistic for the rest of this season, and am thoroughly looking forward to our first history episode next week – and more of Jodie and her wife the TARDIS, of course.
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(header image courtesy of Den of Geek)