I've always held the opinion that there is a sort of curse on “second episodes” for each new Doctor. In his bizarre second episode, the Ninth Doctor battled…a piece of skin. Ten's first proper journey in the TARDIS dropped him into the villainous clutches of…the piece of skin, again. Eleven's inaugural trip put him in the middle of an awkward story about unexplained smiling robots and…why democracy is bad, I guess? And Twelve's mission inside a Dalek was interesting in principle, but in the end, only served to make me like him less. (I didn't actually warm to him until Robot of Sherwood.)
Thankfully, at long last, The Ghost Monument breaks that trend. It's a step down from the premiere in some respects, which I'll get into later, but it's far from an absolute stinker. Also, it continues to avoid making the Doctor's gender an issue, which is a relief. My issues with this story are “ordinary” Doctor Who criticisms. They're not actually related to an fundamental problem with Series 11 as a whole.
The Quick, Spoiler-Free Verdict
The Ghost Monument is a visually stunning adventure in a far-flung world for the Thirteenth Doctor, which keeps up the trend of strong character development for both her and her companions. The plot has some flaws, but there are enough fan-pleasing moments to outweigh them, making this episode a satisfying experience overall. Plus, the first seeds of an intriguing series arc are sown.
Content and Themes
(I'm including this section from here on out for people who want to watch the episode with kids, as well as those who just want a heads-up on the episode's content and themes for themselves. This section will only contain mild spoilers.)
No objectionable lines beyond mild profanity. Mild violence and some moderately scary/intense scenes. There's a brief scene involving the Doctor's anti-gun sentiments, but it's done well and isn't out of character for her. One blink-and-you'll-miss-it mention of a female supporting character having a wife.
Spoilers starting now.
What I Didn't Like
While I actually prefer Chris Chibnall's writing to Steven Moffat's in some ways, he does have an unfortunate habit of relying on obvious plot devices. This causes two problems in this episode, one of which stretches back to The Woman Who Fell to Earth. First off, that self-lighting cigar was a bit stupid. As soon as Epzo started explaining its properties, I instantly knew that it would be used to thwart an alien menace before the end of the episode. And it was so impractical in principle that it felt more like a deus ex machina than a natural part of the story. As one review I read pointed out, the lighting of the cigar via finger snap didn't even make sense. It was just a convenient plot contrivance.
Also, there's the issue of Grace's death. In The Woman Who Fell to Earth, the Doctor made a big point of telling Grace not to follow her as she went after Tim Shaw. This, clearly, was intended to absolve her from guilt for Grace's ultimate demise, though it was pretty clear in her expression as she looked down at Grace's body that she felt some responsibility. But why have Graham and Ryan seemingly decided that she was entirely blameless in the whole affair? It would seem natural for one or both of them, at some point, to lash out at the Doctor in grief, saying that if she had never fallen out of the sky, Grace would still be alive. Now, I realize that this technically doesn't make sense, given that the Doctor saved Grace's life when she first arrived, but grieving people aren't usually rational enough to sort that all out. And if the Doctor had refused to involve Grace in her battle with Tim Shaw instead of bringing her along, the outcome could have been different. Plus, Ryan and Graham seem to be handling their loss a bit too well in general. It does play a significant role in the episode, but there are moments when Ryan and Graham just seem a bit too chipper. Ironically, I like the fact that the characters aren't particularly angsty, so maybe I shouldn’t complain, but I do question the logic of this approach.
One other point with regard to Grace's death–in the end of the episode, the companions find out for the first time that the TARDIS is a time machine. So why don't Ryan and Graham, right away, ask the Doctor if they can go back and save Grace? I realize the premise of saving dead loved ones has been used (perhaps over-used) on the show, but all the same, it's something that really should be addressed. I wouldn't be surprised if next week's time travel adventure touched on it, though.
Finally, it appears that the Stenza are being set up as recurring villains/monsters for Series 11, and I’m not sure they’re interesting enough for that. However, my opinion may change once we learn a little more about them.
What I Liked
Let's start with the opening credits, which appear here for the first time in all their glory. I was blown away by the visuals. They're essentially a 3D version of the old 1970’s credits, but they're amazing even without the nostalgia factor. Add to that Segun Akinola's wonderful rearrangement of the theme tune, and you get what is perhaps the best Doctor Who opening sequence in history.
The visual effects through the rest of the episode are equally good, for the most part. Like the premiere, The Ghost Monument doesn't lean too heavily on CGI. There are some beautiful and brief outer space scenes, but for the most part, practical effects and a breathtaking South African location setting are used to make the episode shine. The visuals faltered a little when it came to the evil sentient bandage monsters, but not enough to completely shatter the spell woven by the rest of the cinematography.
Series 9 set a new standard for well-developed supporting characters on Doctor Who, one which Angstrom and Epzo live up to. Both have detailed backstories and motivations which are properly explored thanks to the expanded Series 11 timeslot. I liked these two very much, and wouldn't mind seeing them return.
The three companions continue to be engaging here, and provide some great moments of both humor and emotion. Their attitude is one of wonder mixed with some natural fear, rather than tiresome angst (yes, I realize that I just sort-of complained about this in the previous section). They take the time to observe how utterly cool it is that they're on an alien planet. Not enough sci-fi characters dropped into otherworldly adventures do that, in my opinion.
My current thoughts on how the transition to the Thirteenth Doctor is going are a subject for an entire post, but briefly, I'm very happy with how she's progressing. This episode revealed some intriguing new details about her. First of all, she's not an over-confident girl-power stereotype. She has fear and self-doubt which she tries to hide from her friends–traits which are characteristic of all the Doctors to some degree, though Thirteen wears them on her sleeve a little more. Also, surprisingly, it's divulged here that the Doctor herself is somewhat insecure about her new self, “afraid of her own newness.” Granted, it's not made clear whether this concern is related specifically to her changed gender or her new personality as a whole. But either way, it closes the gap between Thirteen and the still-apprehensive members of the fanbase, and is a sharp contrast to the “I'm a woman now, deal with it” attitude that many expected from her.
While I have mixed feelings about the Stenza as “big bads”, the Timeless Child appears to be some dark secret from the Doctor’s past, and I’m always happy when those crop up. It’s nice to see the beginnings of a series-long mystery, though I realize that these often set viewers up for disappointment. Even so, it makes the new season feel more like the Doctor Who we all know and love, and allows us to have fun speculating as the finale draws closer. (My theory is that the Child is either Susan or the Master’s daughter. Share yours in the comments!)
Last but not least, we have a new TARDIS interior. I wasn’t sure how I felt about it when I first saw it, but it’s growing on me. I think the first design used by Eleven will always be my favorite, but this one is pretty cool too. I like that it’s reminiscent of the TARDIS used by Nine and Ten in some ways, and that it feels alien and organic. The real standout of this part of the episode, though, wasn’t the TARDIS design but the tear-jerking reunion of the Doctor and her ship. Jodie Whittaker did a phenomenal job of acting in this scene, recapturing the familiar dynamic between these two characters. (Yes, the TARDIS is absolutely a character in her own right.) It’s great to finally have the old girl back; I’ve missed her.
In all the most important ways, The Ghost Monument is a success, and it features some beautiful, iconic moments. It may not be a new classic, but it’s not a let-down after the strong premiere. So far, Series 11 is still a fun and satisfying ride.
That said…next week we have a Rosa-Parks-focused episode. I have to admit, I’m apprehensive about the potentially controversial nature of this one. After two great episodes, though, I’m willing to give it a chance.