Doctor Who: The Ghost Monument review: “a clearly told adventure, realised with pace and panache”

Jodie Whittaker's Doctor continues to impress but Bradley Walsh's Graham is the beating heart of the show in a story that harks back to a classic Who adventure, says Patrick Mulkern

WARNING: Embargoed for publication until 00:00:01 on 20/09/2018 - Programme Name: Doctor Who Series 11 - TX: n/a - Episode: n/a (No. 2) - Picture Shows: **General Release Ep 2** *Strictly Embargoed until 20/09/2018 00:00:01** The Doctor (JODIE WHITTAKER), Graham (BRADLEY WALSH) - (C) BBC / BBC Studios - Photographer: Simon Ridgway

★★★★ First challenge: that new Doctor Who title sequence… Does it show Time? Is it Space? They’ve always been abstract but this one surely depicts Matter. It’s like watching extravagantly soiled nappies churning in a Zanussi, an almighty “Rabelaisian bowel movement” (phrase © Tom Baker) being flushed – with some resistance – down the drain to the sewage works. Not what you want to see with your teatime bangers and beans.

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The opening theme music is similarly turbid and sludgy and takes some digesting, although I appreciate the reuse of elements of the old Radiophonic Workshop score. I’ve watched the sequence a few times and admit it’s peculiarly fascinating. It might grow on me. And I do like the simplicity of the black title card with the episode and writer names in gold.

The boldness (or inadequacy) of Chris Chibnall’s Who is that it doesn’t stop to explain the inexplicable. Last week, there was no explanation of how the Doctor fell through the sky and landed on her feet in a train without any injury. This week, the WhittakWho Quartet are stranded in space but do not freeze/explode/boil or whatever else is supposed to happen physically in the vacuum. They’re scooped up intact by passing spaceships and revived without frazzled brains or popped eyeballs. I suppose the point is it doesn’t actually matter and it makes for a bit of jeopardy and good visuals.

The Ghost Monument does look very good indeed. This isn’t just down to the epic scale of the South African locations – the desert, the mountains, the ruined coastal resort – captured in gorgeous sunlight and thoughtful camera angles. It’s well directed by Mark Tonderai in the smaller details too. Right from the top. The opening montage as seen through Ryan’s eyes, reflected in his pupil – stars, spaceship, medical equipment – is strange and disorientating but resolves on a reassuring close-up of Graham as he leans over and mutters, “Breathe slowly, son. Well done.”

The Doctor may have two hearts but Graham is really the beating heart of the revamped series, in a delightful, understated performance from Bradley Walsh. He comes close to the role Bernard Cribbins played a decade ago as Donna’s grandad Wilf and even Rory’s dad Brian (Mark Williams), a lovable character Chibnall developed in his two 2012 episodes (Dinosaurs on a Spaceship and The Power of Three). Graham’s good-natured blokey-ness is the closest this show now gets to humour. “Eh? Pythagoras never wore shades,” “Can people and fings stop puttin’ stuff inside me wivout my permission!” and “Yeah, she sounds trific,” after hearing Epzo’s boyhood anecdote about his ghastly mum.

Graham is by far the strongest personality among the Doctor’s new friends, leaving the other two, Ryan and Yaz, teetering towards vapid. The script picks up on Ryan’s grief, his dyspraxia and impetuous impulses, but Yaz is given little of note to do or say this week.  (Happily, they’ll come to the fore in the following episode.)

Now we can tick off some of the guest actors deemed worthy of bigging up in last week’s risible trailer. Art Malik plays the race-master Ilin and looks like he’s just emerged from a heavy lunch at the Garrick and been asked to judge a jam competition. “You’re intruding on the final stage of the last ever rally of the 12 galaxies,” he tells the Doctor’s party without interest. At the end, he is persuaded to accept joint winners with remarkable ease. So much for investing in that story then.

Susan Lynch and Shaun Dooley are likable performers and make Angstrom and Epzo three-dimensional. She’s harsh with a heart. He gives damaged tough-guy oik. Yet they’re implausible as the last two standing from 4,000 competitors in this interstellar contest. Amusingly, these aliens know nothing of Earth and have “never even heard of ‘Moomin Beeins’ [human beings]”, though no attempt is made to give either of them alien looks, voices or attitudes. Both actors have long CVs. If you’re struggling with Susan Lynch, she was most recently in Killing Eve as Anna, Villanelle’s ex-teacher in Russia, with a thicket of dark hair.

I’m trying to put my finger on why I enjoyed this episode more than last week’s. It’s not that it’s a better story. It’s a simple quest. Something presented myriad times in sci-fi and fantasy. And even then, this quest cuts out a lot of its potential perils when the Doctor’s team discovers a tunnel system to bypass them and arrive fast at the finish line. Handy in a 50-minute ep already stretching its budget.

One peril, the robot guards, are featureless, unmemorable and, typically, lousy shots. The Monsters of the Week, the Lethal Cloths, the Hissy Flaps, whatever they are (according to the credits “Remnants”), are literally rubbish. What next? Vexed refuse? Deadly dust? Oh yeah, Mark Gatiss did that one already.

This isn’t even particularly original within the Saga of Doctor Who. Boil The Ghost Monument down to its basics. A race against time on a distant world… a series of tests set by a fine-robed Eastern potentate… fought alongside shifty male and female competitors… with the police box as the almost unobtainable prize… These are the bare bones of The Celestial Toymaker, a 1966 Doctor Who adventure – only that William Hartnell and Peter Purves weren’t flown to South Africa to incinerate Dirty Rags.

I think why I like The Ghost Monument is that it’s another clearly told, linear adventure, realised with pace and panache, far sunnier than last week’s Torchwood-lite grim-fest. It has underlying themes of trust and the importance of family. There’s another terrific score from Segun Akinola and his team, often mournful, heavy on the horn and cello, quite different from last week. And it has Walsh in Space.

Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor continues to impress, despite the odd wobble. She witters under pressure, reviving the gabbling and gaping of David Tennant’s Doctor, and often registers as Bossy Head Girl. But as the end approaches, with her goal in sight and the police box materialising, she clicks into Doctor mode again, and I start to believe in her. And the new Tardis interior is a wondrous temptation, a warm, embracing cave of burnished bronze hexagonal cogs and golden crystalline pillars. The final scene inside the Tardis re-instils some magic, not just in Chibnall’s Doctor Who but in Whittaker’s Doctor too.


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This article was originally published on 14 October 2018