Series 11 “The Ghost Monument” Review – Doctor Who and the Not-Quite-AMAZING RACE
Clint Hassell gives his spoiler-filled commentary on the second episode of Doctor Who Series 11.
Note: this review contains full SPOILERS for episode 2 of Series 11.
Despite telling a distinct story, “The Ghost Monument” continues from “The Woman Who Fell to Earth” to form a virtual two-part premiere. Proceeding through a series of story beats normally found in a series’ first episode, “The Ghost Monument” establishes many elements – – both familiar and redesigned – – within the narrative.
Most importantly, “The Ghost Monument” sets up the Stenza as the recurring threat for Series 11. Represented in “The Woman Who Fell to Earth” by would-be-warrior commander Tim Shaw, the Stenza threat has increased beyond using Earth as an arena for their leadership trials. The Stenza have been using torture and hostages to coerce abducted scientists to develop tools of war and destruction. “They’re coming,” an ominous message warns, a sly meta reference to both the in-narrative danger and the continued appearance of the alien race throughout the series. Further, “The Ghost Monument” first mentions the “Timeless Child,” a mystery concept or character “hidden, even from [the Doctor her]self,” that will surely recur in Series 11.
Thematically, “The Ghost Monument” continues the character study of the companion role started in “The Woman Who Fell to Earth.” In a notable scene, a newly-awakened Yasmin struggles to acclimate to her sudden appearance on a spaceship. Adaptable companions are plus for the Doctor, but a believable moment of pause – – especially from a by-the-books character like Yasmin – – is a bonus for the narrative. Not since Rose wrestled with the enormity of Earth’s demise in “The End of the World” has Doctor Who so pointedly demonstrated what “all of space and time” would mean to the human psyche.
Note that the episode deliberately notes what makes each new character ideal as a companion. While Angstrom marvels at the enormity of the water along the alien beach, Yaz is focused on relating to the Albarian as a person. Graham reflects on his past – – but not on what he has lost – – to mine his current, outlandish predicament for opportunities to connect with his grandson. Ryan lacks confidence in himself, but is focused enough to be an effective asset when the need arises.
“The Ghost Monument” completes the examination of the show’s new “look” by featuring several redesigned series elements unseen in “The Woman Who Fell to Earth.” Previous opening credit sequences have focused on the time vortex, the panorama of space, or something conceptually related to the narrative, like clockworks. The reimagined credits are reminiscent of classic Who, presenting a phantasmagoria of color that subtly reference space only in their final seconds. Like the series it portends, the sequence is indescribable and shifting, but is bright, beautiful, and otherworldly nonetheless!
Similarly, Segun Akinola’s reconceived theme captures the best aspects of Delia Derbyshire’s original arrangement. Previous iterations of the iconic song have been used to highlight specific aspects of the series. With its bombastic, running underscore, Murray Gold’s recent themes referenced the series sense of adventure; Peter Howell’s synthesizer-driven tune focused attention on the sci-fi aspects of Doctor Who; the grandeur of John Debney’s “middle eight” lent an epic scope to the TV movie. Segun Akinola’s score returns to the intended ethereal quality of Ron Grainer’s tune, it’s eerie, E-minor key sounding different to the ear than any other theme song on television.
Finally, the new TARDIS is beautiful, a spacious, neon-lit shell of layered roundels surrounding giant columns of softly glowing, orange crystals. This fusion of technical and organic is highlighted by Akinola’s score, which features the warm sounds of stringed instruments over an inquisitive, electronic backbeat.
Ultimately, where “The Ghost Monument” defines itself apart from “The Woman Who Fell to Earth” is its extensive use of location filming. Like series 10’s “The Eaters of Light” (my reviews are here and here), which capitalized on Scotland’s low-hanging clouds and dark, overcast sky to add weight and gravitas to the adventure, the severe remoteness of the expansive scenery imbues “The Ghost Monument” with a bleak, extra-terrestrial quality.
So, despite resolving the cliffhanger and character development from the previous episode, and featuring grand cinematography, why does “The Ghost Monument” feel so insular and isolated? In part, the story elements feel lackluster because the standard run time, compared to the hour-long premiere, forces scriptwriter Chris Chibnall to rely on narrative shorthand. The aforementioned cliffhanger resolution is a bit of a deus ex machina, as is the reappearance of the TARDIS, and the episode’s denouement is familiar to anyone who’s seen The Hunger Games.
Further, the episode’s villains lack any real threat. The hooded “sniper bots” look like low-rent Judoon and shoot with the efficacy of Stormtroopers, meaning the most terrifying monsters are the Remnants – – telepathic, CGI bedsheets. Neither can match the energy of Tim Shaw, who, though comically named, was actually menacing. The revelation of the Stenza as series-arching villains does more to highlight their involvement in “The Women Who Fell to Earth” than it does to bolster “The Ghost Monument.”
Critically, the space rally doesn’t feel as epic as a race that covers “209 terrains, [over] 94 planets” should have – – perhaps because only the final planet is shown, and, despite the sumptuous location filming, it is mostly desert, with one bunker pulled from a standard “base-under-siege” episode. Characters keep referring to the “toxic atmosphere,” but no one seems to suffer any ill effects. Ilin claims that 4,000 contestants entered The Rally of the Twelve Galaxies, but only two remain. The episode would’ve benefitted greatly from the increased sense of excitement inherent in seeing more contestants vying for the prize. As it stands, “The Ghost Monument” is more of a character piece, which would be fine, except Epzo and Angstrom are cut from the same “battle-hardened-but-ultimately-redeemable” cloth. The two are so perfunctory that the exact moment their storyline is completed, they literally disappear. Further, one has to question why such an ostensibly momentous race isn’t being recorded and broadcast across the titular 12 galaxies. Cutting to footage of audience members watching the rally would not only have added to the episode’s excitement, it would also have been a sly way to preview the alien races featured later in Series 11.
Perhaps, there is more to the space rally than presented. For example, the event seems to lack a way to fund itself. The contestants are too poor to afford lavish entry fees, “start[ing] the race with nothing and barter[ing their] way up,” and, without being broadcast to an intergalactic audience, Ilin cannot recoup the expense of the race’s production via advertising. Further, aspects of Ilin’s backstory seem dubious. He claims to have started the race, competed in it, and won. Surely, it’s not ethical for Ilin to claim prize money for winning a race that he organized! Now, Ilin wishes to end the rally, offering the “biggest ever prize” – – i.e., more than Ilin received in winnings, which practically necessitates outside investors – – for finishing first. Honestly, this “final ever race” sounds like a cover-up for embezzlement. Who are these investors? Is it a coincidence that the race ends on Desolation? Did Ilin hope that any remaining contestants would be killed, or does this hint that Ilin is merely a figurehead for the Stenza, making the rally another of their nefarious ploys?
(Time) Capsule Review
As the second half of a virtual two-part premiere, “The Ghost Monument” is largely successful, not only establishing the Stenza and the “Timeless Child” as the series-long threat and mystery, respectively, but revealing a redesigned credit sequence, theme, and TARDIS interior, completing the new “look” of the series. Most impressive is the location filming – – particularly a series-defining shot of dawn on Desolation – – which adds to the alien feel of the adventure. Unfortunately, an abbreviated running time prevents Chibnall from fully displaying the grandeur of the space rally, and to rely on narrative tropes to efficiently tell the story, making the episode feel smaller than expected.