Caught in the Devil’s Game: A Julie River Review of “The Ghost Monument”
Chris Chibnall promised us a very different Doctor Who from the Moffat era. 10 stand-alone episodes, he said. No two-parters, he said. No season long story arcs, he said.
Rule 2: Chibnall lies! And I love it!
I admit, this episode didn’t thrill me as much as the first episode, but I still enjoyed it. I would have liked it to be longer. The mystery of the planet felt like it didn’t entirely get fleshed out in this episode, and I felt like I wanted to know a lot more. Then again, now that we’ve seen the Stenza two times in the series, I feel safe in saying that that’s not a coincidence, and that they are going to be the primary enemies of the entire series, giving us a chance to go back later and revisit them and figure out what really happened on Desolation. Because this episode left a lot of questions unanswered: Why was the planet out of orbit? Why did the Stenza want the inhabitants killed? And there’s one thing that I don’t think will be addressed, but why is it even possible to set foot on Desolation? A planet knocked out of its orbit would undergo drastic climate change and likely be uninhabitable.
If you want an example of what mansplaining looks like, it’s the image of a man trying to tell a 2,000 year old woman who’s an expert in special and temporal mechanics that he knows more about landing a ship than she does. And I don’t think that the gender dynamics of that scene were accidental, either. The Doctor seems to finally have her head back together and has her usual confidence, and there’s something really special about a female Doctor showing the same confidence as her male counterparts. A few people have challenged my claim that she’s reminiscent of Matt Smith, saying she’s more like David Tennant. To me, though, David Tennant was always the cool as a cucumber, nothing phases me, James Bond type Doctor, where as Matt Smith was the king of being paradoxically awkward and confident at the same time, which is more how I see Whittaker. That being said, it’s also important to acknowledge that Jodie Whittaker is not a carbon copy of anyone, and there are nuances to her performance that are specific to her and don’t necessarily mimic anyone who’s come before her. The Doctor is always the same person and a new individual every time, and Whittaker really seems to understand that.
The overall concept of the episode was delightful, in a dark and scary sort of way. Desolation was an absolute death trap and you could feel a real sense of danger throughout the episode. I loved that the Doctor stands by her pacifist stance in the face of gunfire on a very dangerous planet and insists that Ryan not use the gun to fight back. I’ve seen it pointed out in some places that the idea of the Doctor as a strict pacifist is somewhat of a new series invention, and that the idea of the Doctor as a pacifist in the classic series is a bit of an exaggeration. While I think there’s a point to this, and that there were occasions where the classic series Doctors (particularly 6) used violence, it was still the story of a man who always walked into dangerous situations with a series of tools and never with any weapons. It’s not hard to extrapolate that he was somewhat of a pacifist, and that the new series solidified that seems appropriate because we need more pacifist heroes in this world. Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor carries on that proud tradition with her great line about out-thinking bullets.
Okay, so what the hell is the “timeless child?” My mind immediately goes towards the Doctor’s granddaughter, Susan, who was referred to as “The Unearthly Child” in the title of the show’s first episode back in 1963. But that may be wishful thinking, as I spent most of the 11th Doctor era speculating in vain that Susan was coming back, always to be proven wrong, so now I’m a bit hesitant to speculate that that’s what the ribbon monster thing meant. But I do love that, like I said, Chibnall seems to have lied outright when he said that there’s no series arc this year, as the second mention of the Stenza and the mystery of the timeless child are clear threads that are definitely going to be woven through this season.
Opening credits! We finally get to see them, and they’re really a great throwback. Murray Gold’s replacement, Segun Akinola, has gigantic shoes to fill, and he said that, for the new series’ theme music, he went all the way back to the original 1963 theme music and came up with something new based on that. You can really hear that in the new theme music, as it really is a back-to-the-beginning kind of thing. Visually, the opening credits are also a straight up throwback to the classic series, bucking much of what we’ve come to expect in new series opening credits. The only way it could be more old school would be if they somehow worked Jodie Whittaker’s face into the credit sequence.
As for the new TARDIS interior, I have to admit that it’s one of the few things I’m less than thrilled about. It looks like the 9th/10th Doctor’s TARDIS interior had sex with a beehive and that was their baby. I tend to associate Chibnall with this sort of reptilian aesthetic, which I guess might be because he wrote two Silurian episodes, one of which also featured dinosaurs. But the Stenza, being extremely cold blooded, were clearly reptilian in nature as well, and their armor has a reptilian style to it. I like that the walls of the new TARDIS seem to share some of that reptilian aesthetic, but I hate that center console. Still, if that’s the only thing I’m not crazy about this season, that’s a sign of a pretty good season. I love how the Doctor walks in and says “You’ve redecorated. I really like it.” It was a pretty clear reference to the classic series moment when the 2nd Doctor first saw the interior of the 3rd Doctor’s TARDIS and said “Ah, you’ve redecorated. I don’t like it.” (Which the 10th Doctor repeated to the 11th Doctor upon seeing the interior of his TARDIS in the 50th anniversary special.)
For the second episode in a row we have an episode that’s got plenty of meat in it for Ryan and Graham, but with little character development for Yaz (apart from the discovery that she still lives with her family). They’ve just finally released the details for episodes five and six of the season, with confirmation that the sixth episode will be Yaz-centric, with the new TARDIS crew travelling back in time to 1947 in Punjab, India to meet Yaz’s grandmother. While it’s good to know that there will be an episode all about Yaz down the line, I sincerely hope that we won’t have to wait until episode six before getting some character development for her.
So, next week, we have an episode about Rosa Parks who, I have to admit, I didn’t know was as famous in the UK as she was in the US. I have some trepidation about the ability of a science fiction show with a white lead and a white head writer who co-wrote the episode to be able to handle that topic with the sensitivity and gravity it deserves. Thankfully, the episode is co-written by a black woman so hopefully she can help the show get it right. So we’ll see how that works out. See you next time!