If there’s one thing the original 1963-1989 run of Doctor Who knew how to do, it was cliffhangers: the perfect way to hook the audience, and make them want to tune in next week. It’s a trick which is especially important in today’s era of boxed sets and Netflix, where instant gratification comes from being able to get through whole series in a weekend.
Cliffhangers can be tricky beasts, as you don’t want to have a simple ‘with one bound, he was free’ resolution, but you also want to make it believable, and definitely nothing too clever or incredible. The predicament in which show runner Chris Chibnall last week left the Doctor, Graham, Ryan and Yaz – adrift in space – was very much akin to the plight of Arthur and Ford in Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy.
Much like that, the only logical way out would be getting picked up by a passing spaceship before dying in the vacuum of space, so it was a neat twist to find there were two such ships here – en route to the literally cruel planet of Desolation, as part of a great space race, which was part Paris-Dakar Rally, part It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, but equal parts deadly.
Amother revisited trait of classic Who is splitting up the characters, and giving them the chance to have their own stories, before bringing them back together. As we’re so early on in the new series, it’s a smart move to have such a small supporting cast, giving the regulars further space to establish themselves, and bring out their best traits, showing them thinking on their feet and earning their place as the Doctor’s new best friends.
Given the great job Chibnall did with his economy of writing doing such a great job of giving us an insight into his characters, it’s a real shame to see that Angstrom (Susan Lynch), Epzo (Shaun Dooley) and Ilim (Art Malik) all seem rather thin, and rather generic character types – particularly Epzo as the Han Solo-esque space rogue with a conscience, who does the right thing in the end.
Although Art Malik is perfectly cast as the rather louche, debonair and amoral billionaire behind the Rally of the Twelve Galaxies, it’s a shame he doesn’t have more to do. As well as the characterisations, it also seems a rather sparse plot this time round, giving us a bit of a runaround in tunnels and corridors.
However, it’s still a tremendously fun romp, and as well as giving Chibnall another chance to lay out the Doctor’s moral code, making a big deal out of her dislike of guns, and a preference for thinking her way out of situations. Given the ingenuity we saw last week, it’s a shame we’re falling back into the Sonic Screwdriver being the magic wand which gives us an easy way out of tricky situations.
The regular line-up are doing a great job of keeping the characters likeable, and letting us see more of their dynamic through their interplay. Hopefully, we’ll see all of them get a more even slice of the pie moving forward, as Yaz seems a bit wasted at times, which was sometimes a problem in classic Who, where one or more of a larger ensemble cast ends up being sidelined.
Jodie Whittaker continues to impress greatly, finding her feet more as the Doctor, and her chatty, ebullient energy is infectious. In fact, with her delivery mixed with her Northern inflection, at times she comes across – in a good way, I hasten to add – almost like if we’d seen Su Pollard’s turn as the venerable Time Lord. She’s a compelling watch, and deserves her place at centre stage of all the action.
After what seemed like a welcome move away from the tiresome story arcs for which modern Who was becoming notorious for doing year on year, it’s troubling to see hints of something similar happening here – suggestions of more revelations about the Doctor, with “the Timeless Child” being a rather portentous phrase; as well as a callback to last week’s alien race, the Stenza. Hopefully, this will be deftly handled, but coming weeks will be met with a tad more trepidation than expected.
The early reveal of the TARDIS as the Ghost Monument of the title is a welcome twist, but Chibnall again carries on his running theme of deferred gratification – we have to wait until the very end to see the Doctor reunited with her time machine, and what a glorious reveal it is, seeing her new all-singing, all-dancing, all-biscuit dispensing ship in its metal and crystalline glory.
Another example of this is not having last week’s cliffhanger resolved in a pre-credits sequence, plunging us straight into the new opening titles – again, a holdover from last week, which denied us the big moment by plunging straight into the action without any ado. The titles themselves are a nice throwback to the original series, and perfectly compliment the latest take on the theme.
In fact, the theme’s arranger – as well as house composer – Segun Akinola is rapidly becoming the production team’s MVP, as his incidental music ia exactly that, and doesn’t swamp or everwhelm the action. It’s a welcome shift from the orchestral verbosity of his predecessor Murray Gold, and is beautifully understated.
Chibnall certainly seems to be following the pattern of modern Who, staring with a contemporary opening, before going onto a futuristic/space setting, and then going back in time for a celebrity-based Earth historical. It’s a trick which works, and means we get to see the full flexibility of the show’s format. It also means that Joe Public won’t tune off for fear of having week after week of tales on Planet Zog.
The show certainly makes a good fist of presenting a believable alien landscape, having done location filming in and around Cape Town, mixed with some CGI tweaking which works very well indeed. It certainly bodes well for any other space locales the show needs to depict in the coming episodes.
While not quite as strong as the series opener, The Ghost Monument does keep up the momentum, and is more than enough to keep people coming back for another week. Hopefully, Chibnall will manage to pull off something close to the home run of Russell T. Davies’ revamp in 2005 – I’ll certainly be happy if it keeps on doing such a cracking job with each episode.
Doctor Who airs Sundays on BBC One.