This review is spoiler-free – but does contain spoilers for Episode 1 of Season 11. Haven’t seen it? Catch up with our review here. Already seen the episode? Read on below for our post-broadcast spoiler notes.
“Welcome to what I presume is your first alien planet. Don’t touch anything.”
The difficulty of writing spoiler-free reviews for this season of Doctor Who is that newly minted showrunner Chris Chibnall has done such a spectacular job of keeping secrets about it. Season 11’s premiere and this follow-up, The Ghost Monument, serve as something of a two-parter, linked not only by one heck of a cliffhanger but by the sheer ambition and gusto of this latest incarnation.
Last time we saw our heroes, they were suspended in space after a miscalculation brought Graham, Yas, and Ryan along with the Doctor for what was supposed to be a solo, TARDIS-free trip to another planet. You’ll be floored to learn that our regulars do make it out of this pickle, as opposed to suffocating in the vacuum of space by Episode 2. But as in all of the show’s cliffhangers, the question is how they will get out of it – and we’re not answering that one for you.
It’s just about safe to say that, not too far where the Doctor and her new friends were aiming to land, the story finds two weary travellers, Epzo (Shaun Dooley) and Angstrom (Susan Lynch), arriving on a planet “made cruel”. Although they land separately, they both act at the behest of the ruthless Ilin.
In lieu of talking about any more specifics, let’s take a moment to celebrate Chibnall’s success in marketing this season, which has already proven to be one of the most distinctive things about it in comparison to his predecessors. Russell T Davies turned the series into a quality drama with publicity fit for popular soaps such as Corrie and Emmerdale, complete with the occasional spoiler to get people talking. Steven Moffat gave enough away as well, but also loaded his episodes with incidents and twists that would surprise viewers anyway.
Chibnall has form for creating watercooler television with ITV’s Broadchurch, but appreciating that both Davies’ and Moffat’s era endured copious spoiler leaks, he’s proofed his appointment-telly version of Who here by making it so eminently discussable. Even if all the series’ details were spilled, this is a real attention-grabbing outing. With director Mark Tonderai at the helm, Episode 2 has a better-fitting script for the new, extended running time, and the final result shows off its ambition in both visual and narrative terms.
When Season 10’s Smile was broadcast back in 2017, there wasn’t a whole lot of competition with it for Best Looking Doctor Who Episode Ever. Shooting in South Africa, The Ghost Monument instantly snatches that title with some truly gobsmacking cinematography and location work. It’s not a universe-spanning story, but its scope is unparalleled. As well as making the most of its story time to flesh out both guest characters and regulars alike, this is a blockbuster that just happens to be filled with watercooler moments.
The story also benefits from this series’ larger ensemble cast. Lynch, Dooley, and Malik are guest stars who give great one-off turns while generously fleshing out the story background to save time for our stranded leads. Providing our first proper glimpse of how the expanded four-person crew will share screentime, Jodie Whittaker gets to spend individual quality time with Bradley Walsh, Tosin Cole, and Mandip Gill throughout the action. While all establish their characters a bit more, it’s a slower burn for some than others. Cole is still the standout among the three companions and Gill still feels like the least developed, but everyone makes headway in this very even-handed script. In the centre of it all, Whittaker continues to shine, as a Doctor who plays more like her conscientious, name-dropping self this week. From 2005’s The End Of The World to last year’s Smile, the function of Episode 2 for any new companion is essentially to show us their relationship with the Doctor in situ. To some, this may only be another version of that, but it balances its big cast and even bigger ambitions very well.
Ultimately, it’s a really entertaining episode that benefits considerably from our expectations of the programme, whether due to the successfully secretive approach or our own assumptions about the production value the show’s capable of reaching. Even though we know this song so well that we start singing along before it hits certain beats, Chibnall’s first two episodes always feel like a breath of fresh air.
Doctor Who Season 11, Episode 2 is available on BBC iPlayer until June 2019.
Additional notes (spoilers)
Chris FIB-nall is more like it. Having promised that there would be no arc or returning monsters this year, the showrunner cleverly shifts all the traditional story arc hints from Episode 1 into Episode 2, allowing him to bring back the Stenza (sans Tim Shaw) as the unseen threat on the planet Desolation. Weaving their tendril-like Remnants through the stories of Epzo, Angstrom, and, of course, Graham, they become more established as a lasting threat here.
Other bits that traditionally would have made it into Episode 1 include the new title sequence and the new TARDIS interior. The latter is one of the few pre-series leaks, but as expected, it looks much better in action than it did in the badly-lit phone photo that circulated among spoilsports (that didn’t include us) earlier this year. As to the titles, there’s a true 3D Pertwee quality that is best described as “what the heck am I looking at?” We like them a lot.
The great space race that makes up the key conflict between Epzo and Angstrom is a really fun conceit that lends itself nicely to a setup where the regulars comfortably outnumber the guest characters. Art Malik is great as a heartless hologram and Dooley and Lynch both play their cynical rivals terrifically.
Brilliant photography aside, the notion that this is a dangerous planet really comes across more effectively than usual. With more time to breathe, the stakes are more keenly felt by characters and viewers alike, so that the poisoned water and treacherous nighttime activity are taken seriously. The story may feel slight, but happily, it’s what‘s felt rather than what‘s told.
“Brains beat bullets.” Further to our earlier comments about the companions, Ryan is still comfortably at the forefront, from his ill-at-ease interactions about grief with Graham to his riotously funny attempt at doing a Call of Duty (much to the Doctor’s chagrin) on the sniper bots. It’s the sort of gag that Chibnall has delighted in doing in this loosely-connected two-parter, showing us new ways to convey the show’s usual parish notices. Here’s hoping Yas gets more to do in Episode 3.