Doctor Who, “The Ghost Monument”
Series 11, Episode 2
Written by Chris Chibnall
Directed by Mark Tonderai
Starring Jodie Whittaker, Tosin Cole, Mandip Gill, and Bradley Walsh
Guest Starring Shaun Dooley, Susan Lynch, and Art Mali
Original Broadcast 14 October 2018 (49 minutes)
As Doctor Who’s Series 11 unfolds, showrunner Chris Chibnall is following narrative paths blazed by Russell T. Davies, the man who revived the program more than a decade ago.
The world’s longest-running science-fiction television series returned to our screens in 2005 thanks to Davies’s energetic—even manic—commitment to the idea that Doctor Who should be, in his words, “nonsense, but sort of believable nonsense.”1 To drive home this point, Davies made two significant changes to Who’s storytelling structure that resonate down to the present day. First, he made the Doctor’s primary companion, Billie Piper’s feisty and formidable Rose Tyler, a member of the British working class whose grounded-yet-cheeky view of the world made her the audience’s viewpoint character, or, stated simply, its port of entry into Doctor Who’s unhinged fictional universe: the extraterrestrial allies and enemies threatening human civilization; the ceaseless running down corridors and hallways to escape threats lurking in the dark; and the fact that, no matter how far the Doctor travels in space and time, he always returns to Britain to battle hidden foes just as they break into public view.
No previous companion had functioned quite like Rose, although Daphne Ashbrook’s Dr. Grace Holloway came close in the 1996 telefilm Doctor Who that introduced Paul McGann as the Eighth Doctor and that tried (but failed) to re-launch the series, cancelled seven years earlier in 1989. Davies’s second major transformation was to tell standalone stories ranging from 45 to 60 minutes in length, loosely connected by season-spanning story arcs and characters, rather than dividing each season (or series, in British-television parlance) into the serialized sets of four, five, six, or even twelve 30-minute episodes that typified Classic Who. Davies wanted his individual episodes to have more heft than the quickie productions of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, while the BBC preferred episodes that could be shown in any order, making them easier to sell into syndication.
Davies, never short of ambition, also reversed expectations by making New Who’s first episode—2005’s “Rose,” the revived program’s premiere and, in essence, its pilot—less bombastic than its second, “The End of the World.” Davies cops to this plan in his introduction to “End’s” script, published in the BBC’s invaluable collection of Series 1’s published teleplays (Doctor Who: The Shooting Scripts), by writing, “Everyone expects an Episode 1 to be big, and for an Episode 2 to calm down. So I did the opposite.”2
Chris Chibnall does the same with “The Ghost Monument,” a sprawling adventure tale that makes Series 11’s eventful premiere, “The Woman Who Fell to Earth,” seem staid by comparison. The Thirteenth Doctor (Jodie Whittaker), in that outing’s final frames, mistakenly teleports new acquaintances Ryan Sinclair (Tosin Cole), Yasmin “Yaz” Khan (Mandip Gill), and Graham O’Brien (Bradley Walsh) into deep space when she intends to transport only herself to her missing TARDIS’s location. “The Ghost Monument” opens moments later, with the TARDIS gang floating in deep space. The shocked Ryan sees a large spacecraft blast into view before losing consciousness, then awakens inside a vessel belonging to Angstrom (Susan Lynch), one of the two final participants in a cosmic race known as the “Rally of the Twelve Galaxies,” founded and funded by the supercilious Ilin (Art Malik), a wealthy entrepreneur who appears in holographic form. Angstrom’s counterpart and competitor, Epzo (Shaun Dooley), helpfully retrieves the Doctor and Yaz before they suffocate in the vacuum of deep space when his ship, the Cerebos, hyperjumps to the Rally’s final destination, a planet called Desolation, which just happens to be the same place where the Doctor has detected her errant TARDIS.
Chibnall therefore affirms his love of cosmic coincidences in “The Ghost Monument.” His second episode as New Who’s head writer depends upon a fluke as astonishing as the fact that, in “The Woman Who Fell to Earth,” the Doctor arrives in Sheffield, England just as Stenza warrior T’zim-Sha begins killing the city’s human inhabitants during a ritual hunt. Such unlikely incongruities are Who staples, but “The Ghost Monument’s” opening act moves fast enough that we barely notice how unlikely it is that 1) the Doctor and her companions survive in empty space before being rescued, 2) Desolation is “out of orbit,” meaning the TARDIS crew should but doesn’t teleport to the planet’s surface (so perhaps a pocket of residual atmosphere explains how the Doctor’s hair blows and everyone can breathe?), and 3) Angstrom and Epzo arrive at precisely the right moment to save our heroes from asphyxiation.
“The Ghost Monument,” for these reasons, is not as good a second episode as “The End of the World” was for Series 1, yet it remains a worthy descendent. “Monument” not only lacks “End’s” prolific (and inventive) panoply of extraterrestrial creatures but also offers no emotional stakes to match those in Davies’s earlier masterpiece, namely the Ninth Doctor’s confession to Rose that he is the last living Time Lord, all others having been slaughtered during an ultimate conflict known as the Time War. This backstory remains heavy stuff for any work of art, but Davies skillfully weaves it into an episode that is, by turns, lighthearted, gloomy, hilarious, and touching.
Jodie Whittaker, however, makes “The Ghost Monument” worthwhile by playing the Thirteenth Doctor as a fun-loving adventurer who isn’t afraid to take charge, get serious, or consider unthinkable options if the situation demands it, which recalls no one so much as Christopher Eccleston’s emotionally scarred Ninth Doctor. When Doctor Thirteen and her companions join Angstrom and Epzo to trek across Desolation’s forbidding sand-dune landscape (impressively filmed in South Africa), they work their way toward the Rally’s final destination, the mysterious Ghost Monument, only to discover an industrial complex that hides secrets that the Doctor recognizes as lethal long before anyone else.
So far, so good, although this plot remains standard Who fare, perhaps by design. Chibnall is indebted to the program’s narrative conventions despite all his talk that Series 11 will pioneer new trails. Ryan, Yaz, and Graham—like Rose Tyler before them—are working-class Brits unsure how to handle the strange, new environments they encounter, but who quickly acclimate when crisis piles atop crisis. The Doctor discovers that the cavernous building is an abandoned research facility whose unseen owners tortured captive scientists into developing terrible weapons that destroyed their own creators. This tried-and-true SF plot forces the Doctor, her companions, Epzo, and Angstrom to run down corridors, hallways, basements, and tunnels before confronting the Remnants, living weapons that resemble cloth rags (no, seriously) that coil around their victims’ bodies in serpent-like fashion (and that the visual-effects team clearly had fun animating).
The Remnants are also sentient, which is bad news for the Doctor. They read her mind, realizing that she holds devastating secrets of her own, among them memories of “the Timeless Child” that set in motion a season-long mystery recalling the story arcs that Russell T. Davies loved when he was running the show; that his successor Steven Moffat transformed into intricate, year-long, puzzle-box mysteries that some viewers never could unpack; and that Executive Producer Matt Strevens has downplayed in media interviews.3 Plus, Angstrom reveals that her planet suffers the effects of invasion by the Stenza, the extraterrestrial species that the Doctor meets for the first time in “The Woman Who Fell to Earth” and that now seems to be Series 11’s principal threat.
“The Ghost Monument,” as such, is more affectionate homage to the Davies era than anything else, but also seems destined to be remembered as a mediocre effort (despite desert vistas that cinematographer Tico Poulakakis captures in remarkable detail, inventive production design by Arwel Wyn Jones, and another outstanding musical score by Segun Akinola). That’s a shame, since Shaun Dooley and Art Malik give good performances in underwritten roles, Susan Lynch is wonderful as Angstrom, and Whittaker—in a ferocious and funny performance—continues her outstanding turn as the Thirteenth Doctor. Her new companions become more sharply defined by their experiences on Desolation (with Ryan and Graham’s relationship receiving more screen time than Yaz’s sharp wit). Tosin Cole, Bradley Walsh, and Mandip Gill remain excellent, but here’s hoping that Yaz takes center stage soon, since she receives nothing as substantial as Ryan and Graham’s testy conversation about the death of Grace (Sharon D. Clarke)—Ryan’s grandmother and Graham’s wife—in “The Woman Who Fell to Earth.”
And what exactly is the titular Ghost Monument, that mysterious endpoint of Ilin’s Rally of the Twelve Galaxies? An object that appears and disappears at random, phasing in and out of history, like an intergalactic Flying Dutchman? If you guessed the TARDIS, full marks, but a newly regenerated TARDIS whose orange crystalline interior recalls the organic design of the Ninth Doctor’s timeship (and whose central console matches its contours). This, coupled with the fact that the first musical cue heard upon the Thirteenth Doctor’s inaugural appearance in 2017’s “Twice Upon a Time” was Murray Gold’s theme for the Ninth Doctor (sometimes known as the “Bad Wolf” melody), confirms that Chibnall is taking New Who back to its roots in Series 1. Considering how good that season was, every callback to the Ninth Doctor’s travels is a welcome reminder of New Who’s origins.
“The Ghost Monument” will never be forgettable (no segment that introduces a new TARDIS can be), but it recalls the middling second journeys of the Eleventh and Twelfth Doctors—Series 5’s “The Beast Below” and Series 8’s “Into the Dalek”—more than “The End of the World” or the Tenth Doctor’s outstanding sophomore adventure, Series 2’s “Tooth and Claw.” Not a ringing endorsement, perhaps, but “The Ghost Monument”—implausible, diverting, and enjoyable—is a fine specimen of traditional Doctor Who that, while it may never rank alongside the program’s best episodes, is still well worth the viewer’s time.
- Russell T. Davies with Benjamin Cook, The Writer’s Tale: The Final Chapter, London, BBC Books, 2010, 221. Davies writes these words in a 6 September 2007 email message to Benjamin Cook, time-stamped 23:18:24 GMT.
- Russell T. Davies, introduction to “The End of the World,” Doctor Who: The Shooting Scripts, London, BBC Books, 2005, 48.
- See Strevens’s interviews with Digital Spy (http://www.digitalspy.com/tv/doctor-who/news/a867418/doctor-who-series-11-no-story-arc/) and We Got This Covered (https://wegotthiscovered.com/tv/doctor-who-season-11-no-ongoing-story-arc/) for his full comments about how Series 11 will tell standalone stories with few recurring plot points.