The first thing to mention about this episode is how utterly bloody gorgeous it looks. Opting to shoot this one in South Africa was a fab decision, not just for the sheer aesthetic polish it provides to the story, but because of how much bigger it makes the show feel. We’re definitely not in Cardiff anymore baby, Doctor Who’s gone global (oh alright, I know they’ve ventured abroad before. Still, South Africa dishes out one heck of a swanky new backdrop for the show’s back-catalogue). Director Mark Tonderai takes full advantage of the crisp blue skies and dazzling deserts with a delectable assortment of vast, wide angled shots. Dare I say this is perhaps the most beautiful Doctor Who has looked to date. It certainly doesn’t feel like some eccentric, sci-fi show made on a BBC budget. This is impressive even by cinema standards. In extension to the fetching environments on offer, the episode’s Spybot villains are an optical pleasure too. It doesn’t get much prettier than this kids. Say what you will about Chibnall, he’s sure as heck given this show a mighty fine buff up.
I can see what Chibnall is trying to do with this episode. The Ghost Monument aims to operate as a cool-down story of sorts; a journey across an alien vista in which our characters are at liberty to process the events they found themselves tangled amidst last time around. Bear in mind they’ve encountered aliens, lost a loved one, and found themselves quite literally jettisoned into the vacuum of space in no less than what appears to be the last 24 hours. That’s a hefty amount of trauma to process. This is intended to be time for Yaz (Mandip Gill), Ryan (Tosin Cole) and Graham (Bradley Walsh) to reflect on their encounter with the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker), not to mention the loss of Grace (Sharon D Clarke). There’s also a sense of exploration to all of this; a visual tour through an alien world’s many lakes, sewage systems, abandoned bases and terrains. We’re not just getting an alien world to function as a backdrop for various extraterrestrial shenanigans to play out within, we’re being invited into the bowels of this world. Moreover, The Ghost Monument hinges much of its story on serving as a mechanic of anticipation for the third act’s big reveal. Audiences are fully aware the episode’s characters are trying to reach the Doctor’s newly rebuilt TARDIS; which we’ve all yet to see (the Doctor included!). We’re two episodes into this new era, yet we haven’t had so much as a glimpse of the new control room. Viewers are eager for such a revelation, and Chibnall knows it, hence why he’s decided to take us on a 49-minute detour before we get there.
These are all good ingredients for a script brimming with potential. New pace, new feel, new way of telling a Doctor Who story. The problem is, for all of its attempts to create a vast, character epic built around anticipation, much of this episode doesn’t quite work. The character moments it’s freed up space for are fleeting and fails to shift the story in any sort of meaningful new direction. As for the much anticipated wait for the big TARDIS reveal, well that becomes far more boring than it otherwise should have be. Despite all those big, shimmering vistas and gorgeous robot designs blasting through our tele boxes, The Ghost Monument just feels like a big old pile of pretty with no meaningful substance applied to it. The ancillary characters are as dull as tentpoles, the villains function as lifeless obstacles with little intrigue to them, the environment our heroes amble through feels like a setting for a story we’re not getting, and the limited plot available to us drags it’s backside across ground for the entirety of the episode’s runtime.
Any attempt to try and establish character development stalls immediately after it takes off. Ryan and Yaz make an effort to spark up conversation about being on an alien world – something neither of them predicted would happen for the in their lives – only such a conversation fizzles into nothingness before it’s even had time to go anywhere. There’s a couple of exchanges between Ryan and Graham about Grace’s death, but aside from a few lines here and there, it’s pretty much left to rest for most the story. I get the feeling Ryan and Graham’s strained relationship should have been at the heart of this story. The pair clearly don’t see eye-to-eye, and while I wasn’t expecting this division to have been resolved by the end of The Ghost Monument, it could have been used to create some genuine tension between the new TARDIS team. One of the things I was most excited about when a three-companion lineup was first announced was the potential for ample drama to be whittled out of so many characters aboard the TARDIS. The tension between Ryan and Graham, not to mention Yaz’s experience with dealing with tense exchanges during her time in the police – as established when we first meet her in The Woman Who Fell to Earth – is a goldmine for some thrilling character drama. The Ghost Monument has so much potential at its fingertips, not to mention a narrative light enough to allow these human conflicts to play out. Sadly, such potential is left untapped. Even when side-character Epzo (Shaun Dooley) tries to deliver a heart-breaking story about his abusive mother use to treat him, it’s only purpose is to explain to audiences why he’s a bit of a jerk. Epzo’s relationship with his mother never becomes central to any plot or subplot. It’s kind of just there for a little bit.
Rest assured, this isn’t a terrible episode. There’s been far worse Doctor Who over the years, and one can’t help but admire this one for its ambition. Aside from the visuals, the scope and overall vision of this script does appear to be attempting to do something interesting. It’s working to tell a different kind of story; one that’s unique to modern day Doctor Who. The Ghost Monument dreams of being subtle character-piece that glides it’s audience through a beautiful, sprawling alien vista. As an experiment, I applaud this one for attempting something a little different from the status quo. Yet while I admire it, I cannot deny it’s also a failed experiment. I’m not saying this sort of script cannot work. I actually think with a few re-rewrites, this could be incredible. What I’m saying is it doesn’t quite work in its current form. But you know what, it’s still early days. Chibnall is in the process of figuring out how to tell his version of Doctor Who. Errors and false starts are to be expected. If he wants to venture down uncharted paths without a compass, that’s perfectly okay. Hopefully he’ll figure out how to make his vision function sooner or later.
The Ghost Monument is an ambitious yet dull second chapter for series 11. I want to love it. Sadly, I don’t. Had this leaned in on its characters and mined something from the tensions bubbling beneath them, I think it could have been great . While I don’t wish to compare this to past eras of the show, I feel this episode needed something similar to 1.2’s The End of the World, in which the story gradually pushed the Doctor (Christopher Eccleston) into revealing the destruction of their home world. The Doctor coming to terms with the loss of their home world throughout that episode’s narrative exposed the trauma lurking within the character. The End of the World pushed the Doctor to reveal themselves in a new light, finally paving way for a fresh new take on the character. I’m not saying the Ghost Monument should have pushed the Doctor into strange new places, but it could have done this with one or some of the three new companions. Their world’s have just been flipped upside down. This is the perfect time to explore what all of this means to them, not to mention the ways it’s going to shape their stories going forward.
I’m confident that in due course, we’ll get a similar story to this one which works a lot more efficiently. As of right now, however, there’s still some work to be done in order to make this kind of narrative function properly. Chibnall is only two episodes into what’s easily the biggest project of his career. Stumbling is to be expected at this stage in the game.