There’s a typical review structure where I talk about the good things for a while and then lead up to a “but” that brings it all crashing down. I liked this, though, so let’s do it the wrong way around. The biggest problem is in the resolution, and what it ends up doing to the sense of pacing. Having Angstrom and Enzo simply vanish into thin air with all the implications of their characters being left entirely unresolved is deeply weird, or at least it would be if it came from someone other than the guy who found no implications to consider in the Doctor committing stone cold murder in Dinosaurs on a Spaceship and who wrote the bewilderingly misshapen The Power of Three. As it stands, it’s a deeply worrisome “ooh, you still aren’t real big on dramatic unities are you?” moment. Jumping from that to a bizarrely unearned moment of the Doctor giving up hope when the TARDIS isn’t on that specific rock at that specific moment is clearly a problem. And similar problems abound. The “Ryan charges out with a gun” sequence is put together with no real thought towards the degree that it renders the already not that compelling robots an object of abject comedy for their sub-Stormtrooper aim. The Stenza reveal communicates “there is an arc” as opposed to actually feeling like anything follows from it. Most particularly, the Bedsheets of Death (clearly a better title for this episode) turning out to be mind-readers that try to terrify you is not set up well at all.
So clearly this is just something we’re going to have to live with in the Chibnall era, because multiple years of pointing it out every week is going to be agonizing. Whatever pleasures are going to be offered by this phase of the show, they’re clearly not going to be rooted in the sense of how structurally tidy things are. Nor, for that matter, are they going to be rooted in any sort of vivid character work. Chibnall’s characters talk like television, and have a thinness because of it. Davies, of course, created his version of Doctor Who by stitching together bits of other television shows, but he was incredibly deft and efficient at creating vividly human characters out of these components. Chibnall isn’t doing that. Ryan and Graham are roles, not people; their dialogue about Grace and their relationship isn’t showing human trauma, it’s communicating what tropes have been chosen for them. And Yaz isn’t even that yet.
But what if we just accept that and let ourselves be pleasantly surprised if a guest writer turns up and offers that. After all, it’s nothing we hadn’t gotten good at doing for Mark Gatiss. But what is this era offering if not what most conventional aesthetics of television in 2018 consider to be basic competence? Sure, this question is implicitly damning with faint praise; Chibnall isn’t going to top any of the three previous showrunner/script editors for me. But god, I don’t want to write that for three years straight and I can’t imagine you want to read it. So what is this doing?
A Terry Nation episode, apparently. Nation, of course, was a distressing hack of a writer who we had to endure in order to enjoy Raymond Cusick’s brilliant creations, but it’s also a genre staple that Doctor Who has mostly avoided. There really hasn’t been a “trek across a hostile alien landscape” story in the new series. Planet of the Dead is doing something one door down, but it lacked an actual trek. Which means we have to go look at classic series stories, where the obvious choices for most recent examples are all consciously retro pieces—Planet of the Daleks is actually a fairly reasonable answer for the last time the series did this. This is basically a Hartnell-era concern, especially given that the central dramatic question of the episode is “what is this place?”
But this is a bit of a trap. Yes, The Ghost Monument is positioning itself in a Doctor Who subgenre that hasn’t been a major part of the series in over half a century. And this feels fresh in an important way, not only hitting notes that the new series hasn’t hit before, but hitting notes that weren’t actually reachable by the series as Chibnall’s two immediate predecessors created it. But critics, myself included, are far too eager to pick the Hartnell era as our touchstone for “everything old is new again” regardless of whether it’s the comparison that actually tells us the most about the episode. I asked when the last time the series did an episode like this was. The factually correct answer is just under thirty-one years ago, with Dragonfire. Not only does that feature a significant amount of hostile trekking, it shares considerably more tonal similarities; Iceworld and an intergalactic rally are obvious aesthetic matches, while Angstrom’s background and look echo Halo Jones in a way that’s probably less deliberate than Cartmel. More to the point, Dragonfire is squarely in the phase of Doctor Who that Chibnall was actually watching and invested in.
So we have Chibnall grabbing from a heritage within the series that can only be described as idiosyncratic. Dragonfire is surely nobody’s favorite McCoy story, but that feels like a virtue in this context. Two weeks in a row now we’ve had the series doing something we haven’t really seen. For all the spottiness of the construction, this is beautifully shot and has a sense of constant, propulsive motion across the planet. The sloppiness also means that it feels like there’s a surfeit of extra ideas. It’s frustrating that these are underdeveloped, yes. But if they were well developed there wouldn’t be room for as many of them as they are.
Ultimately, we’ve got a show that’s fizzing with energy and that just pulled the highest-rated debut for a new Doctor ever. The overnights alone for this beat all but nine episodes of the Capaldi era, and the finals should comfortably put it ahead of all but one or two. It’s in third place for the week. All of that is contingent, and there’s still plenty of time for it to go dreadfully wrong. But that’s exciting too. For all the Moffat era’s grandeur, the range of what you could and couldn’t expect from it was, by 2017, exceedingly well-defined. And while the contours of what we cannot expect from the Chibnall era are both rapidly clarifying and fairly irksome, the question of what we can expect remains magnificently, tantalizingly large. That hasn’t felt this true since The End of the World. And that feels somehow more important than whether the plotting is entirely tight. Doctor Who is allowed to be messy. Boring, on the other hand, is intolerable. The show still needs to find a higher gear than this, but right now, in this moment, there’s no problem whatsoever with where we are.
- Odd to get 1100 words of review out in which “how’s Jodie Whittaker doing” doesn’t come up. Marvelously, in any case. Early returns have her trending more towards the Davison/Troughton “background Doctor” approach, which is probably at least partially the semiotics of her gender. Her initial scene with Enzo is instructive; you certainly could have a woman behave like Tennant or Capaldi would and effectively bully her way into control of the situation, but she’d read to a non-trivial portion of the audience as ball-busting and abrasive instead of charismatic (Tennant) or compellingly dangerous (Capaldi). So instead we get a Doctor who wins control of the situation gradually, not without browbeating, but certainly without bravado. The notion of this Doctor as one who is more focused on the community around her, maintaining a focus on her companions’ well-being, and continuing to perform emotional labor in a way previous Doctors simply wouldn’t. But for all these differences, the basics are clear and strong. Jodie Whittaker simply is the Doctor; the character she portrays is as obviously that guy who cleared up a political mess on Tara with some robots as I’m that guy who manufactured a quote and attributed it to a seance with William Blake. One thing I’m particularly interested to see is how this Doctor leaves situations. The “leave before things are actually quite settled” move that’s iconic for the character feels hard to imagine so far.
- In terms of the other companions, the downsides of a 50 minute format and a three companion format are becoming obvious fast. Ian, Barbara, and Vicki this crew ain’t. Graham and Ryan have vague definition in relation to each other, but there’s no sense that they respond with any individuation in their responses to Doctor Who stuff. They seem to just have worked out a rotation for asking the Doctor to explain the plot and that’s it. Separate from Chibnall’s deficiencies in writing this sort of stuff, he’s got precious little oxygen to actually do anything with it.
- I basically love the new credits. They could use to be longer—there’s a couple extra seconds on the previous versions that feel really lacking in the final seconds. But I love the change to something that pulsates instead of a straightforward tunnel—a return to the feel of Hartnell/Troughton howlaround credits. And the theme is delightful, especially the decision to make the transition into the main portion a drop. It is, again, too short—a third repetition of the bass line before the drop would give it wildly more impact—but this is good stuff, and Akinola continues to basically kill it.
- The TARDIS interior, on on the other hand, is desperately try-hard, combining the worst and goofiest excesses of the early-Smith TARDIS (delightful in its first shot, progressively more cloying after, and very possibly the worst aging design in series history) with an overwhelming “crystal cave” vibe. It’s hard to imagine what TARDIS scenes are going to feel like here, and not in an exciting way. Worst bits: the custard cream dispenser and the absolutely appalling hourglass control.
- Also, really Chibnall? Your idea of queer representation is a single line that serves to kill an off-screen lesbian? Fuck off.
- Let’s say podcast Friday this week, featuring the very welcome return to the site of Shana Wolstein.
- And really? Rosa Parks? I have… concerns.
- The norm is for Doctors to go a bit downhill from their first story to their second—only the Bakers and Sylvester McCoy have ever had their second story be better than their first, two of them by having brilliant second stories, one by having a legendarily terrible first and an only slightly less legendarily terrible second. None of these situations apply here.
- The Ghost Monument
- The Woman Who Fell to Earth