The Ghost Monument by Chris Chibnall
The first episode of Series 11 showed a lot of promise (particularly from the cast and the new composer), but a few lingering questions remain. Most importantly, can Chibnall live up to the relatively high standards set by both Moffat and Russell T. Davies? Davies may have written some absolute stinkers of episodes (The Long Game, Gridlock, Love and Monsters, the End of Time Part 1 etc.) and Moffat may have given us some deeply unsatisfying series arcs (The Hybrid, The Vault) but both oversaw very successful eras of the show and wrote some cracking episodes (The Parting of the Ways, The Girl in the Fireplace, Blink, The Waters of Mars etc.). To date, Chibnall’s best effort for Who (or Torchwood for that matter) is Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, which I’d give a 4/5 to for its excellent comedy value and character work. But he’s never written a real classic for either series he’s worked on, which, now he’s showrunner, really needs to change.
After the Ghost Monument, I can safely say: it hasn’t yet.
Chibnall’s strength definitely seems to lie with character work. His previous instalments of Who and his efforts on Torchwood tend to support that statement, and it was no doubt a factor to making Broadchurch such a success. Unfortunately, his storytelling prowess isn’t anywhere near as refined. As with last week, the Sonic was overused to get out of trouble, the cliff-hanger was resolved with minimal fuss or logic, and the story’s villain were little more than window dressing. The plot, like last week, also isn’t all that inventive for sci-fi shows, and again didn’t justify the full runtime. While I’m broadly supportive of Chibnall’s decision to rely solely on new villains for this series, they need to be good ones for that to work. Focus solely on the heroes and neglect the monsters and villains they face off with and you end up with Thor: The Dark World or the Flash Season 3 and 4: superficially fun but ultimately inconsequential and forgettable. Last week I gave Chibnall a pass because he wrote Whittaker and the new companions rather well. This week even that was a bit shaky – having Jodie talk her way through half an episode doesn’t work when what she’s saying has no oomph or real interest. The dialogue was generally pretty forgettable – Moffat and Davies may have relied too much on flamboyance and punchlines, but as least they gave Eccleston, Tennant, Smith and Capaldi something that would actually hold your attention.
Moving past Chibnall, the support cast are still generally working quite well. Bradley Walsh was probably the standout companion this week, though Tosin Cole still had a decent share of the action as Ryan. Yaz seems worryingly underutilized so far, generally existing to ask questions so the Doctor can go into long, never-ending answers. This is no slight on Mandip Gill, its just that so far, she hasn’t really been given anything decent to work with, which needs to change soon. Ensembles only work if all the cast add something and their characters get developed somewhat evenly. Jodie Whittaker didn’t impress as much this time round. She’s clearly a good actress, but talking ENDLESSLY and waving the sonic about is not what makes a good Doctor, and the writers really need to give her something more substantial to do (there was no real standout heroism this time, and the character’s pointless manic energy started to grate a bit).
The guest cast, at least, are good value here. Susan Lynch and Shaun Dooley made for an enterprising pair of rivals/rogues, and Chibnall does give them both distinct personalities to work with. Art Malik also makes the most of his limited role as the rather sinister Ilin, who a better episode might have made far more use of. He gives up way too easily at the end, which was a sure fire sign the plot had run out of steam. The direction isn’t as good as the premiere but is still decent, and we’ve seen far worse effects on this show. Still, Mark Tonderai is no Rachel Talalay, and I hope he adds a bit more spark to proceedings next time. The new composer is still performing though, his more understated style a real contrast to Murray Gold (who did sometimes have a tendency to get a bit too loud and bombastic, even if he nailed it the other 80% of the time).
Overall ‘The Ghost Monument’ was a definite step back from the premiere. Whittaker’s Doctor suffered noticeably with weaker material, and despite Bradley Walsh’s best efforts, the companions didn’t shine as much either. The guest cast were good, but had so much emphasis on them they overshadowed the regulars. Another weak villain leaves me worried that Series 10’s flaws may not be entirely gone yet.
Rating: 2.5 out of 5. On the plus side, that’s what I gave Matt Smith’s 2nd episode, so the show does have a record of improving from here on out in a Doctor’s run. It better bloody get a move on though.
Next Time: The Doctor and friends run into Rosa Parks (aka Sergeant Donovan off Sherlock). The trailer was so ludicrously short that’s all I have to say. I mean, I don’t mind a lack of spoilers, but why even bother with trailers if they tell you basically nothing nor give you a reason to tune in next time?
Final Thought: While I’m ambivalent about the new Sonic Screwdriver, I’m really not a fan of the new Tardis design. I can see what they were going for, but it seems far too gimmicky for me.