FREELANCE WRITER. JOURNALIST, AND SCRIPT READER – FAN OF SCI-FI AND CHOCOLATE DIGESTIVES – YSTV'S BEST DRESSED MEMBER 2013

Tuesday, 16 October 2018


If the first episode of any TV series has to hook viewers in, the second has to keep them, to reassure us of the quality and tone we’re in for a whole series of. Which means, going by The Ghost Monument, we’re in for a whole series of sci-fi that’s impressive on the surface but ultimately a bit shit (and isn’t that the opposite of what Doctor Who’s meant to be, I hear you snark).

Ghost Monument does have a lot going for it, not least a cracking premise; sometimes you watch an episode of Who and realise you’ve seen fifty variations on the same plot before, but ‘rally across space’ feels fresh, especially when combined with the cool setting of a planet littered with abandoned weapon designs. It’s also a perfect fit for the show's refreshed, cinematic look, with the South African landscapes and some energetic camerawork (director Mark Tonderai is a camera operator himself, as evidenced by the fluid tracking shots around the crashing spaceships, so good they're practically showing off), really adding a visual panache befitting of the standards Netflix, HBO and co. have led us to hold for a 'quality' TV show in 2018.

If only that was enough to make up for the numerous things about this episode that don’t work. Worryingly, it mostly comes down to the script from new showrunner Chris Chibnall. At least when Steven Moffat was crap, it was in ways you could get angry about. Crap Chibnall is just disappointing. For starters, that setting becomes less cool when you realise that all the weapons are either, like the episode itself, good ideas executed badly, or just complete crap. The flesh-eating water – goes nowhere, a set-up without a pay-off. The robots – men in suits, after we had a man in suit villain last week; described as snipers but worse shots than stormtroopers; oddly static and defeated by an inexplicably convenient EMP. The bits of rag – original at least, but the climax falls flat because they just fly around not attacking anyone.

And then there’s clunkers like the heavy signposting of the cigar, the even heavier arc drop of whatever this ‘Timeless Child’ bollocks is, and the lack of point to the rally – surely a sport needs more than one spectator? It’s thin, first draft writing.


Jodie Whittaker does continue to be fun to watch as she grows her incarnation of the Doctor. I’ve realised since writing last week’s review that she seems to be stronger in the more compassionate, lower key moments, such as the conversation after the funeral, and in the matey, slightly daft humour (again evident in this episode – “It is all that!”) but not quite as confident when it comes to dramatic monologuing at aliens. The true art of playing Doctor Who is being able to defeat some bits of cloth by chucking a fag at them, and somehow making it as exciting as the Death Star trench run; Peter Capaldi or Matt Smith might have been able to pull this off, but I’m not convinced Whittaker’s there yet. Perhaps the writing will develop to match her strengths as her time in the role goes on.

Ryan and Graham get some nice development (though again this is tarred by odd writing – the thing about him struggling with ladders might work if we actually saw him on either of the ladders rather than just talking about them). Yaz still hasn’t done much.

Looking back on this review, it reads as if I really disliked The Ghost Monument. But I didn’t. I enjoyed it. There’s nothing majorly wrong with this episode, it’s a finely entertaining piece of TV, but there are lots of little things wrong with it, which is frustrating, as it could be so much better. Here’s to eight more weeks of "at least it's not Twice Upon A Time".

(I am optimistic for next week’s though, as Malorie Blackman could be a superb guest writer.)


Oh, and the new TARDIS set. Hmm. Going back to a layout similar to Eccleston and Tennant’s feels like a regression from the more three-dimensional sets Smith and Capaldi had to play with, the colours are a bit much and the big coral rock things are ugly. I like the custard cream dispenser, though.


DOCTOR WHO SERIES 11 RANKING
  1. The Woman Who Fell to Earth
  2. The Ghost Monument

Monday, 8 October 2018


Every new Doctor Who has a moment where they fully become the iconic hero, casting aside any doubts about their casting. For Matt Smith, it was striding across a hospital rooftop, literally emerging from an image of his past selves, to confront the Atraxi. David Tennant’s involved a satsuma and a swordfight. And with Jodie Whittaker’s Thirteenth Doctor, it was the moment she looked a vicious alien warrior in the face and declared “Tim Shaw is a big blue shit.”

“Yes”, I thought, “this is the Doctor. This incarnation has no time for any nonsense, whether it’s Predator wannabes running rampant through Yorkshire or silly rules about what words you’re allowed to say on family television.” And then I realised she had in fact said ‘cheat’.

That misunderstanding aside, I hope anyone who had any doubts about Whittaker’s casting feels they’re assuaged. Right off the bat, both actor and writer seem confident in the character, comfortably balancing her sci-fi exposition with a refusal to take it too seriously (the ‘Tim Shaw’ joke fits into a long tradition of Doctor Who lampooning the pomposity of its own genre), and balancing the Doctor’s control of the room with her compassion for everyone in it; this is a Doctor who apologises for leading her new ‘friends’ into having to see Rahul's corpse and who sticks around for Grace's funeral – perhaps a deliberate attempt to skew away from the common (and sometimes fair) criticism of Peter Capaldi’s Doctor as too distanced.


Introducing the Doctor was just a quarter of this episode’s main job, as it also had three companions friends to show off. In what seems so far one of the bigger differences between Chibnall’s approach and that of former showrunner Steven Moffat, the episode seemed equally interested in all its characters, with the opening act setting up backstory and embedding them in a world and problems that feel tangible and believable. Ryan and Graham certainly have an interesting dynamic and lots of potential to develop across the series; Yas felt sidelined after the opening act, but hopefully will get fleshed out in the episodes to come.

In fact, Chibnall's tone seems more grounded and human overall than Moffat's. Tzim-Sha has a backstory and a culture too – something very rarely given to villains in the Moffat era. Side characters like garage owner Rahul and unfairly targeted Carl have properly worked out motivation. Even the setting of Sheffield is lent a truthfulness by its specificity; Series 10’s Earth-set episodes were allegedly set in Bristol, but put so little effort into showing us this, that a lot of viewers probably didn’t even realise it wasn't the 'default' of London, whereas here we have wide shots composed to show off the landscapes, a sonic screwdriver made of Sheffield steel, and enough Yorkshire accents to have American viewers reaching for the subtitle button.


I’ve barely touched upon the plot, which is probably fair, as the episode deliberately went for a low-key and generic approach in order to focus on its characters. It's certainly refreshing to be away from the often smugly complicated plotting of the Moffat years (while I wan't the strongest critic of this, I've heard a lot of people say it's what made them stop watching), though it perhaps goes a bit too low-key and generic. Tim Shaw and his ball of electrified string are hardly going to go down as one of Doctor Who’s best villains, and some odd plot beats take the energy from the whole thing: having the Doctor theorise about two alien races at war, only for it to be revealed that they’re on the same side, is lowering the stakes when they should be being raised; and all the business about Ryan having touched the portal to let the alien through neither adds anything to the character drama nor makes any logical sense from the Stenza’s perspective, so it would actually benefit the episode for this to be cut completely. The finale on the cranes has half of a superb set piece – the Doctor’s confrontation with the villain looks and feels spectacular – and half of a muddled one – the companions' roles in it don’t play to their individual strengths and could be swapped around without any change.

So overall, I don’t think The Woman Who Fell to Earth is a brilliant episode – yes, even despite the title referencing a Bowie movie. I’m not even sure it’s as good as The Pilot, the much pacier first episode of the previous series. But it does introduce a great new team, who I’m really excited to go on more adventures with, and a very promising tone for the series to come.

The one part of the episode that I did dislike was that ‘Coming Soon’ montage after the credits, the most bizarre bit of TV marketing I’ve seen. Doctor Who episodes are sold, particularly to kids, on the adventure and the aliens; a series of close-ups of human characters is completely missing what makes the show unique. And while Alan Cumming and Julie Hesmondhalgh might bring a few extra viewers, I haven’t even heard of half those names. I just can’t understand the thinking behind it.