Sunday, 21 October 2018

Doctor Who - The Ghost Monument


When I was young, I got a unique thrill out of watching a Doctor Who episode for the first time. It was always there, even if the episode wasn’t particularly good. The show just excited me in a way that’s difficult to express—a way that just didn’t happen with any other show. This is not to say no other show or movie could thrill me. Many did, just not in the same way. Doctor Who’s thrill was something very different. When Doctor Who returned in 2005, that thrill returned with it, and it stuck around through Series 1 through 4.

Sometime during Series 5, that thrill began to diminish and eventually vanished altogether. I was becoming more and more dissatisfied with Doctor Who. I still enjoyed the show, but it no longer seemed to have that quality that—for me—elevated it above other shows. It was actually one of the things that eventually motivated me to start this blog—so I could organise all my scattered thoughts in one place.

Over the next few years, that thrill didn’t return (except maybe for “The Day of the Doctor”), even when I thought the show was getting a lot better again. As much as I really liked Series 10, that thrill still didn’t return. To be honest, I had pretty much forgotten the thrill had ever existed.

However, last week, about midway through watching “The Woman Who Fell to Earth” for the first time, I suddenly realised I was feeling that thrill again, and it produced a moment of joy unlike any I’ve felt for a long time. I didn’t mention it in my review of “The Woman Who Fell to Earth” because, honestly, I was a little afraid it would go away again. However, I am thrilled (I use that word deliberately) to say that it was still present for the most recent episode, “The Ghost Monument.” Of course, there’s always the possibility that things could completely turn around again, but having that thrill there for two episodes in a row is a pretty big thing, and worth celebrating.

Now comes the difficult part of analysing just what it is that creates that thrill for these episodes, and not for the last several years. But I think I’m up for the challenge.

The Ghost Monument”, once again written by Chris Chibnall, is a wonderful episode that mixes tense excitement with heartfelt character moments, some humour, and a touch of creepiness. Jodie Whittaker has settled fully into the role of the Doctor and simply excels. The Doctor’s companions friends (I’m having difficulty getting used to the change of terminology) are similarly great, particularly Ryan and Graham, as are the guest cast. It also looks visually breathtaking, with incredible alien vistas and impressive special effects. On the whole, I like this episode even more than “The Woman Who Fell to Earth’, although I also feel it has more issues than last week’s episode.

SPOILERS FOLLOW

Pacing is a large part of what has helped make Series 11 (so far) so good. “The Woman Who Fell to Earth” benefited a great deal from its longer runtime of nearly sixty-five minutes. The remaining episodes this series are not as long, but they are about fifty minutes, which is five minutes over the standard length episodes have been since 2005. The extra time gives just a little more breathing space.

However, it takes more than just a little extra time to create good pacing. Doctor Who, since 2005, has gone for a much higher pace than the classic series did—a necessity in today’s television environment (and there’s no denying that classic Who stories could be a bit on the padded side). But its fast pacing could sometimes work to its detriment. I found this was particularly true during Steven Moffat’s time as showrunner. Scenes flashed from one to the next with little time to breathe and develop what was happening. There were exceptions, of course—Series 10 had a much better balance of pacing—but on the whole, its pacing could best be described as frantic almost all the time.

The Ghost Monument” starts out frantic, and it works because the situation calls for it. The Doctor and her friends are rescued from the vacuum of space by two separate ships. They find themselves separated in unfamiliar environments. There is a great sense of urgency, particularly on the ship the Doctor and Yasmin find themselves on. This scene works particularly well by starting from Yaz’s point of view as she wakes up to find the situation already in play—with the Doctor already taking control.

Jodie Whittaker is incredible in this sequence, removing any lingering doubts that she simply is the Doctor. She completely inhabits the role as she does one of the things the Doctor has always done best: argue. She also once again shows that this Doctor is much more hands-on when it comes to dealing with situations. She doesn’t actually build anything here, but she takes a very hands-on role in flying and saving the ship, showcasing the Doctor’s technical skills (I also love her snarky comment that the ship belongs on Antiques Roadshow). I can’t help but feel that many of the recent Doctors would have simply waved the sonic screwdriver a few times without getting their hands dirty. Here, the Doctor uses her skill to get herself, Yaz, and Epzo to the ground alive.

(As an aside, I’ve seen a lot of criticisms of this episode that the sonic screwdriver is overused to solve every problem, which just isn’t the case. Yes, the sonic screwdriver does get a lot of use in the episode, but it’s never to solve problems. It’s only ever used to open doors and take readings—which is pretty much exactly what I think it should be used for (though I confess I’ve never been entirely certain exactly how it displays its readings). Yes, she does use it to open some doors she probably could have opened without it, but honestly, if I had a magic door opener like that, I’d probably be tempted to use it on every door, too.)

As frantic as the opening scenes are, “The Ghost Monument” wisely doesn’t attempt to maintain this for the entire episode. It gives way instead to calmer, slower moments. These moments of calm help make the frantic moments all the tenser since the tension then stands out as something different. There’s a greater sense that the tension, when it happens, actually means something. When it’s always tense, it somewhat paradoxically becomes never tense.

The slower moments also allow for character moments, and these are what I feel have been the most significant improvement to the show in these last two episodes. Character moments are where Chris Chibnall excels in his writing, and there are some wonderful examples in “The Ghost Monument”, particularly between Ryan and Graham who get several scenes alone together.

One of the best is when Graham broaches the subject of Grace’s death while they are repairing the boat. “We ever gonna to talk about your Nan?” Moments like these help ground the characters and make them feel more like real people. Graham and Ryan have been through a traumatic experience together, but they have different ways of dealing with it, and this affects their relationship. It’s also a good example of consequence playing a role in character actions. Grace’s death isn’t just something that happened; it has also had an effect on the people close to her. I can’t help compare this to Amy and Rory losing their baby and then virtually forgetting about it ever happening simply because they learn their child grew up fine anyway. Ryan and Graham come across as far more real. Bradley Walsh (Graham) and Tosin Cole (Ryan) also give great performances and sell it extremely well.

There are some good moments between the Doctor and Ryan as well, particularly the scene where she encourages him at the ladder. This incarnation of the Doctor continues to be more empathetic than most previous ones, although she definitely hasn’t completely lost the Doctor’s arrogance. She treats Epzo with the condescension he deserves (“Did you practise those lines in the mirror?”), and calls out her companions when they behave in ways she doesn’t approve of (Ryan foolishly attacking the robots). I’m glad to see this Doctor also making use of Venusian aikido, and I love the addition of her rank: grand master pacifist.

This Doctor is also a little more vulnerable than most Doctors, save perhaps Peter Davison’s fifth Doctor. I will admit, though, that the Doctor’s sudden defeatism just before the TARDIS appears feels...odd. It’s not just being vulnerable. It’s flat-out giving up, and it’s never really built up to. On first watching, I half expected the Doctor to suddenly smile and say, “Just kidding!” and then explain that they just have to wait for the TARDIS to arrive, or something like that. Except that doesn’t happen. Her friends have to boost her spirits. I think the Doctor’s companions giving her a pep talk could be an interesting thing if it were built up to, with the Doctor’s confidence being slowly eroded over the entire episode, instead of it just vanishing out of the blue. but that’s not the case here. As it is, this is the weakest part of the episode. Jodie Whittaker is great and does the best she can with the this odd moment, but it doesn’t quite work for me.

This does, however, lead up to the best moment in the episode: the return of the TARDIS. The emotion in this scene is incredible and it paints a perfect picture of the relationship the Doctor has with the TARDIS (and further develops this Doctor’s character). It also includes the brilliant and funny line, “Come to daddy...I mean mummy...I mean...I just need you right now!” I rather like the new look of the interior as well (though I’m a bit unsure about the spinning police box model).

Of the main cast, Yasmin again remains the least developed with the least to do. At times, she almost seems forgotten. Indeed, the Doctor’s line in the early moments aboard Epzo’s ship, “Sorry Yaz, I forgot you were there,” might even be interpreted as a meta-comment acknowledging how much in the background she is (it’s probably not actually meant that way, of course). With a larger cast, it makes sense that some characters will get more attention in individual episodes, with other characters getting the attention in other episodes. Over the span of the entire series, it should hopefully even out, but it is a bit unfortunate that the first two episodes in a row have done so little for her while doing so much for the others. That said, I do like her reactions to being on board a spaceship at the beginning. Most of them are in the background while the Doctor is the focus, so you have to pay specific attention to Yaz, but Mandip Gill gives a great performance. Later, there is also a reference to Yaz’s family, whom I hope we’ll meet in a future episode.

In recent years, guest characters have tended not to get a whole lot of development beyond the barest necessities for the story. That’s not the case with Angstrom and Epzo in this story. Both characters are fully fleshed out and come across as real, believable people. There are numerous moments that give us insight into their characters, from obvious ones like when Epzo tells about his horrible mother (horrible from the Doctor and friends’ perspectives, as well as probably the viewers’, but not his) to little moments like Angstrom’s response to learning that Graham’s wife died because of the Shenza: “Mine too. I’m so sorry.”

It is really refreshing to have characters who feel so real and grounded.

Like last episode, the plot of “The Ghost Monument” is fairly simple and straight-forward. It’s primarily a story of getting from one location to another and facing obstacles along the way. At times, however, the obstacles don’t seem quite as threatening as they’re made out to be in the dialogue. In particular, the deadly microbes in the water don’t seem to serve much of a purpose as we never actually see the threat they pose. The characters are warned in advance, and never face a situation where they risk contact with the water, as they are provided with a water-tight vessel to travel in. It would be more effective if they actually needed to work to avoid the water. Perhaps the boat has a leak in the engine area, so Ryan and Graham would have a bit of a struggle to fix the boat without getting wet. Of course, putting in moments like that would take away from the character moments the story does so well, so it is definitely a balancing act. It might be better just to leave out the deadly microbes completely and just have the group cross the water in the boat.

The robots also come across as rather ineffective with their complete inability to hit anyone with their guns. This isn’t actually that unusual for Doctor Who, but it is somewhat more pronounced than usual here, perhaps because there are so many of them. This is a minor nitpick though, as overall, the excitement and tension remains fairly high throughout this segment and we get a good moment of the Doctor moralising about guns out of it.

The Remnants, on the other hand, are very effective—creepy and terrifying. One area Steven Moffat always excelled in was taking ordinary, everyday things and making them terrifying. Chibnall seems to be cribbing from Moffat a bit here, turning rags and trash into monsters, and it works wonderfully. That said, I do think they lose a little bit of their menace when they speak. They were more frightening when they were quiet. But other than that, they are truly menacing, and the Doctor defeating them is well set up and executed.

The revelation that this planet was conquered by the Shenza and then used to test new weapons was a bit of a surprise to me. “The Woman Who Fell to Earth” does set them up for an eventual return since we learn that Rahul’s sister and other “trophies” they’ve collected are kept in suspended animation on their homeworld. This would imply that the Doctor and friends will eventually find and free these people. Nevertheless, I didn’t expect another mention of them so soon. It does seem to be setting up an arc for this season—which is another bit of a surprise, since Chris Chibnall explicitly said there was no arc this season!

In addition, the Remnants make mention of the “Timeless Child” when reading the Doctor’s mind—some secret from the Doctor’s past that even she has forgotten. Whether this is setting up another part of an arc for this series or is just adding a bit to the Doctor’s background is hard to say. It may be something more long-term. We’ll just have to wait and see.

To finish off, I should comment on the very first thing in the episode: the new title sequence. The titles are shorter than sequences from recent years and are very reminiscent of the early Jon Pertwee (third Doctor) titles, as well as the black and white ones from the 60s. Overall, I like them. They’re nicely atmospheric. I also love the new theme arrangement. I am intrigued by the fact that there is no pre-titles scene in this episode. Since Doctor Who’s return in 2005, the vast majority of episodes have had one or more scenes before the opening titles. The few that haven’t have mostly been first episodes of a series. “The Ghost Monument” is not the first episode of this series, though it is the first with a title sequence, so maybe next episode will have a pre-titles scene. Or perhaps the show is returning to the style of classic Doctor Who, which rarely had pre-titles scenes. Again, we’ll just have to wait and see.

The main thing I’m waiting to see, though, is if that old Doctor Who thrill sticks around. I’m absolutely loving the show again this year, and I can’t wait to see more.

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