The makers of Doctor Who confirmed their intention to strip the series back to basics last weekend, with a pared-down plot, a simple message and an almost-empty planet.
The second episode of series 11, The Ghost Monument, continued to give new viewers a gentle introduction. After not even mentioning the Doctor’s name for most of episode one, it took until the end of episode two to enter the Tardis and marvel at how it is bigger on the inside.
But it was nothing like so gentle for the characters. After a first outing spent entirely in and around Sheffield, the second opened with Graham (Bradley Walsh), Ryan (Tosin Cole), and Yas (Mandip Gill) floating in deep space before throwing them down onto their first alien planet, complete with two moons, three suns and a host of deadly dangers. There, after a bit of excitement with crashing spaceships and a smugly villainous hologram (Art Malik), they joined the two surviving racers on the last leg of an interplanetary rally.
The desert provided an eerie setting. Where once had been civilisation, the only life was the killer microbes that infested the water—so what had happened, as the Doctor couldn’t stop asking? The eventual answer to that mystery brought little to the episode, though it did set up the creepy Stenza seen the previous week as a long term threat. But the booby traps set for our heroes made for some effective set-pieces.
Having to be afraid of water is never a good thing, but it’s especially scary in the desert. Chibnall had his cake and ate it with the killer robots, giving Ryan a fun shoot-em-up sequence and the Doctor another chance to show off her “black belt in pacifism”. The talking, floating rags that switched almost instantly from harmless scenery to imminent suffocation were potent nightmare fuel.
The episode’s core was the contrast between the two lead racers, sympathetic refugee Angstrom (Susan Lynch) and Epzo (Shaun Dooley), trained the hard way to trust no-one. Epzo’s thawing frostiness unsubtly echoed Ryan’s difficulty in opening up to Graham. Ryan’s continuing struggle with dyspraxia provided some nice character moments too—but when is the show going to give Yaz anything to do?
By the time the new Doctor entered her spectacular new Tardis, it felt like she’d earned it. But it also felt like the new series was still only just getting started.
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