It’s October 14th, 2018. Dave and Fredo are at number one with “Funky Friday.” Calvin Harris and Sam Smith, Kanye West and Lil Pump, Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper, and Rita Ora also chart. In news, the IPCC released one of its many reports urgently warning about the disastrous effects of climate change, which is roundly ignored by the major governments of the world. Canada legalized cannabis. Massive flooding takes place in Wales following Storm Callum, and American ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley abruptly resigns.
Meanwhile, on television, the Chibnall era burns through its honeymoon. Were we in the business of reviews—and indeed this is what I did at the time—we might note that second episode are often a little rough, select some bright points, and decide to look forward to Rosa before making our minds up. But that would be postponing the inevitable and we all know it. The Ghost Monument is a bad piece of television. It is bad in ways that most of what Chibnall writes for this show are going to be bad. So we may as well spell that out clearly, get our cards on the table, and start figuring out what we’re going to do to talk about this mess of an era.
Let’s begin with the most basic structural problem. We have a cast of four, two of which have had virtually no introduction, two more of whom are still scant in many ways. And so in their second outing, the priority is surely to give Yaz and Ryan some characterization. Instead of this, Chibnall introduces Angstrom and Epzo, who effectively serve as one-off companions, and thus heavily clog up the characterization for the main team, forcing the script to deal with a six person ensemble for most of its runtime.
There is, of course, an obvious fix for this available, which is to split the action between two camps. Indeed, that’s what the story does in the opening minutes, putting the Doctor and Yaz on Epzo’s ship and Graham and Ryan on Angstrom’s. This would make a lot of sense given that the plot of the story concerns a race, a dynamic that generally relies on, you know, different competitors moving at different speeds as opposed to a homogenous group that sticks together the whole time. To be clear, Chibnall’s approach here isn’t a complete headscratcher—his end theme is the importance of cooperation, and so he has the characters cooperating throughout. But the result is that he sacrifices needed character development and selling the actual premise of the episode in favor of a point that could have been made by other means. It’s inartful—painfully half cooked.
A similar sloppiness occurs on the episode’s back end. We’re at the climactic moment—the finish line of the race is in sight, and Angstrom is poised to win it, leaving Epzo behind. They argue. The Doctor intervenes, declaring that she has a suggestion, and… we hard cut to a few minutes later as Angstrom and Epzo walk in and declare the race a tie. Is it a bad beat? No. But it’s a curious one that foregoes the actual emotional beat that resolves the episode’s conflict—Angstrom and Epzo coming to their agreement—in favor of a thirteen line of dialogue scene where Ilin resists then quickly caves to the idea of a joint victory. It’s difficult to see why you would structure your episode this way—what there is about the second Ilin scene as written that makes it more valuable than the emotional climax of Epzo finally seeing the light. About the only thing—indeed, the outright only thing that’s actually incompatible with that emotional climax—is that single beat of them walking into the tent in unison.
I highlight this relatively minor infelicity because it’s symptomatic of a much larger tendency in Chibnall, which is the ludicrous overvaluation of surprise over other aesthetic reactions. Dropping an actual emotional climax instead of the beat of “what’s the Doctor’s idea… oh!” is an extremely minor example of this, but it’s absolutely endemic across his era. This is, after all, the guy who was fully prepared to change the identity of the murderer in Broadchurch if it leaked, nobody spoiling it apparently being a higher priority than the emotional integrity of the storytelling.
This showed up in Chibnall’s Doctor Who in the form of a complete and deeply dispiriting abandonment of actually promoting the show. Trailers became ten second affairs with little sense of what episodes were about, while Doctor Who Magazine previews that were once treasure troves of quotes and stories became two paragraph detail-free affairs. It became nearly impossible to get excited about the series simply because there was nothing to hang one’s excitement on. Usually it was little more than “it’s Doctor Who” and the identity of a guest star. This would be a puzzling approach in an era where the show was brilliant and firing on all cylinders. From Chibnall, whose episodes at best tended to elicit a shrugged “well that wasn’t too bad,” it’s ruinous.
The official BBC episode description of The Ghost Monument is indicative. “Still reeling from their first encounter, can the Doctor and her new friends stay alive long enough in a hostile alien environment to solve the mystery of Desolation? And just who are Angstrom and Epzo?” Notably, this description consists entirely of questions. More to the point, the questions are extremely stupid. There is not actually a mystery to the identity of Angstrom and Epzo. This is not something hidden over the course of the episode. We find out who they are up front, in the first couple of minutes. This tease for the episode is literally just “what is the episode going to be about?” As for the mystery of Desolation… what, exactly, is the mystery of Desolation? Why the planet is out of place? What happened on it? Neither of these questions have particularly interesting answers—the most you can say about it is “it’s the teeth guys from last episode,” which sets the Stenza up as the big bads of the season. Except that they’re not, Tim Shaw is, and we literally never revisit the question of the Stenza as an overall alien race. They don’t even appear here, so positioning their revelation as behind the existence of Desolation is daft in the extreme. Certainly teasing a “mystery of Desolation” around it is ridiculous.
In a way, this vapidity ironically justifies the approach. Moffat-era Doctor Who could give three page long previews of episodes in Doctor Who Magazine because his stories did a good job of having multiple ideas. You could spoil the first fifteen minutes of a story because there was a whole half hour doing completely different things—Kill the Moon is probably the best example here, with a gushing Doctor Who Magazine preview about spider horror on the moon followed by, well, we don’t have to relitigate that here.
Of course, not all Moffat era episodes were twisting multipremise spectaculars. Sometimes they really did just take a premise and explore it, and those got perfectly good reviews —Mummy on the Orient Express never really develops new premises past “there’s a mummy and it’s on the Orient Express, only in space,” but there are clear character arcs and reveals that hold it together, and so again, the preview didn’t “spoil” the episode in any sense of ruination. That’s very much not the case here. Describe this as “the Doctor and her companions navigate a hostile alien planet” and you’ve actually pretty much spoiled the episode except for the detail that the prize is the TARDIS. There’s simply not much more than the premise here. Chibnall’s reluctance to have it spoiled makes a vague sort of sense, at least assuming improving the episode to something that could survive having its premise revealed before you watched it was off the table.
Still, you can’t get to fifty minutes without event, or at least without scenes in which people say words and things happen, which turns out to be subtly but crucially different. So let’s look at those. The first big one, obviously, is the conversation between Ryan and Graham on the boat, a dramatic scene that pays off the tension between them set up in The Woman Who Fell to Earth. Except what is the tension within the scene? What do Ryan and Graham want from each other? To put it in drama 101 terms, what’s the conflict? In essence, it’s that Graham wants to have a conversation and Ryan doesn’t. This is, to put it mildly, not a great dramatic engine. It fundamentally positions one character as an impediment to having an interesting scene. There are countless interesting positions Ryan could take here. “You only knew her for a few years, I grew up with her.” “You shouldn’t have let her make that climb; I wish you had died instead.” “You’re not my granddad, you’re just the guy who makes fun of me for my disability.” All of these are interesting options that would open up the possibility of, you know, a dramatic scene with stakes and things that people want. Instead we get an extended scene of Ryan being truculent and avoiding having a dramatic confrontation. Sure, it’s a “believable” response for a teenager, but it’s shitty, inert, and boring drama.
And then, on the other side of some action scenes, we have the Boy’s Own science demonstration. This is tricky to judge as a middle aged fan, because it’s clearly aimed at being Educational For The Kids. Let’s leave aside, then, the actually wrong bits about the science here—that the garlic smell of acetylene is actually impurities from the most common industrial process producing it, and, more significantly, that what the Doctor concocts is essentially a fuel air bomb that would have suffocated all of them. I mean, sure, scientific accuracy is probably nice to have when doing science lessons for kids, but honestly, let’s leave it aside and once again look at this scene as a dramatic unit.
First of all, let’s note the inanity of it, with the final revelation—that acetylene burns—being in fact the only one of the three facts about acetylene that an average non-welder would be likely to conjure up on the spot. But more than that, let’s note the sheer, vapid sloppiness of the way that the set piece has to rely on a self-lighting cigar—an utterly, bafflingly arbitrary bit of “whatever” technology that requires being established in the transparently bland nothing of a line whereby the actual parts about cigars that are valued and respected are then one-upped with a “this is the best bit, they make them self-lighting.” And even there the best that Chibnall can actually manage to come up with is, “It takes half an Althusian lifetime to make just one of these. To make them, roll them, age them,” which is just an amazing bit of dialogue both in that the only thing Chibnall appears to actually be able to conjure up that might be a descriptor of a fine cigar is “aged” and, more significantly, for the rare opportunity to watch someone’s stuttering verbal improvisation make it into finished and transmitted dialogue—just look at that repetition of the verb “make.” And yes, this is tipping into a level of nit-picking that borders on critical sadism, but it’s such a hapless, inept way to flub something that it’s hard not to marvel. Like, could he really not even come up with a second verb? Harvest? Dry? Carefully build molecule by molecule with an Althusian Matter Compiler?
And that’s, in the end, the thing about this script, and about so many others in the Chibnall era. It feels like a first draft. Give this draft to Russell T Davies and you’d get, well, probably something about as good as 42, but look, that’s miles better that this is. Give it to Moffat and he’ll at least make sure a The Power of Three gets crafted in the edit. Heck, give this draft to a mostly checked out and working on other shows Russell T Davies and you’ll still get a Countrycide out of it. But left on his own, with no higher authority on the scripts, we see Chibnall’s vision, and it amounts to… nothing. Just… nothing. Script after script where the ideas simply are not honed to the point where they cohere, where they say anything, where they even function as basic drama. I’ve written about fifty-four years worth of Doctor Who successfully and found things to talk about in all of them, but this is legitimately the hardest one I’ve ever attempted to look at because it’s just an absolute void—ideas so coarsely and ineptly worked that they do not actually have the property of “aboutness” yet. I honestly have no idea how I’ll get through three seasons of it. But here, at least, is a map of what goes wrong. So now let’s trace the implications.