The natural end to last week’s opening episode of the Thirteenth Doctor’s first series, might have been the moment she’s finally reunited with her TARDIS after having fallen to Earth. New showrunner Chris Chibnall opted to close on a ‘lost in space’ cliffhanger instead, delaying that reveal of the new design and interior until the end of the second episode. An explicable choice – spreading the unveiling of everything and everyone that’s new or updated across two episodes, rather than cramming it all into the first (and leaving the curtain-raiser to concentrate almost entirely on the characters rather than the ephemera) – but a decision that does rather leave The Ghost Monument (the second episode in a row to be named after one of Doctor Who’s permanent fixtures) in a bit of limbo.
Chibnall’s slant on the series is beginning to emerge, and this is perhaps where this second episode suffers slightly. His predisposition seems to be towards asking what the audience might expect at any given point, and then giving them something rather different, while compensating for the choice – for those viewers who prefer to be spoon-fed their family drama, perhaps – by over-explaining what’s happening right in front of them. So here, where a simple tale of good versus evil might have been the norm, we have a Steven Moffat-esque story about a race in space, where there aren’t really any bad guys at all – and just in case that leaves us a little confused (it probably doesn’t, but just in case) here’s the Doctor to explain absolutely every last little detail about what’s going on. There’s a real crossing point being navigated by wanting to create a version of Doctor Who that delights and surprises, and not wanting to leave any member of the audience scratching his or her head in confusion (the most common complaint about Chibnall’s predecessor, after all).
Sadly, this leaves Jodie Whittaker’s performance a little exposed; like Ewan McGregor acting against a green screen in The Phantom Menace, Whittaker spends so much time telling us what’s going to happen next, asking questions on our behalf just so we don’t miss needing them answered, or explaining how all the sci-fi works, it’s almost like every time she opens her mouth she’s talking to the entire guest cast at once – and the viewer at home – rather than actually, you know, interacting with the people around her. When she gets the occasional quiet moment, she shines, but for 75% of The Ghost Monument she’s pitching her performance somewhere just off the picture, and that was a little distracting. Because while she’s mastered Tennant’s art of following the thought processes as they jump around here, there and everywhere, she hasn’t yet found her own way of stopping and letting the charm ooze out, quite the way the tenth Doctor did. Tennant’s best moments were when he stopped talking, and just let his face reel you in; Whittaker hasn’t found her ‘Doctor face’ yet, maybe.
The story itself was fine, if a little lacking in urgency; the photography and music might be lush in new ways for the programme, but neither seems light enough to follow when the script calls for the episode to be a romp. And this probably should have been as frothy and as engaging as The End of the World, rather than as gleamingly glacial as Smile. I guess the planet’s not called Desolation for nothing.
South Africa did look splendid though.
There were plenty of indications as to where the series might be heading. The regulars were kept moving on the spot, suggesting a development across all ten episodes; while previous showrunners have given us fully-formed characters from the off and then explored what TARDIS-travel means for them, Chibnall patently prefers his Broadchurch approach of allowing us into their worlds just a little at a time. And this Doctor isn’t going to be as portent-free as the pre-publicity might have suggested; the “abandoned and unknown Timeless Child” isn’t something that’s not going to come back and haunt her by episode ten, and Stenza turned out to be behind not just the plot this week, but the ethnic cleansing on Susan Lynch’s character’s home planet too. A case of just using what you already had in your pocket, or setting something up to be further explored in episodes to come? We’ll see.
We also had another mogul in the form of Art Malik, to go with last week’s swindling monarch. There’s a minor theme of power without responsibility developing, perhaps.
There was a lot to enjoy in The Ghost Monument. Despite the overreaching, Jodie Whittaker feels very much like a Doctor-in-waiting – she just needs to settle down a bit after last week’s enthusiastic debut. And with a little more actual bonding, the likeable regular cast will be terrific. There’s no question there’s an imagination behind the programme, and we’ll see how that manifests itself over the course of the coming weeks. Now that the TARDIS is back – the new set’s a bit spartan and yet paradoxically over-decorated – we can hopefully get down to the business of being Doctor Who … and the feeling of ‘the same but different’ can be allowed to stretch into areas where the series excels, rather than hanging around its fringes. So far it’s all felt a bit well-meaning but overly wholesome; it’s time to break out the sparkle now please.
DOCTOR WHO SERIES 11, EPISODE 2: “THE GHOST MONUMENT” / WRITER: CHRIS CHIBNALL / DIRECTOR: MARK TONDERAI / STARRING: JODIE WHITTAKER, BRADLEY WALSH, TOSIN COLE, MANDIP GILL, SUSAN LYNCH, SHAUN DOOLEY, ART MALIK / RELEASE DATE: AVAILABLE NOW ON I-PLAYER (AIRED OCTOBER 14TH)