13 December 2021: not really a review of Flux added.
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THE GHOST MONUMENT
Oh, God. Already?
We're willing to cut regeneration episodes a lot of slack. But when the rubber hits the time-space continuum, the showrunner's now 100% accountable. And alas, after getting off to a promising start in The Woman Who Fell To Earth, in The Ghost Monument the Chibnall era comes crashing down with a serious attack of the dumbs.
To be fair, it starts pretty well. Like the previous episode, it's businesslike, stripped-down serious drama. The new companions are thrown into a totally confusing situation and we really feel that. And once the boys are planetside the investment in the South Africa junket pays off: it's definitely a step up on the good old quarry.
But it doesn't take long for the dumb to start rolling out. The other spaceship's about to land on their heads, so they start running. Up the dunes to the side to get out of the way, right? No. Forward. Forward.
Then a tent pops up out of nowhere with Art Malik inside, and we're not commenting on his controlled substance proclivities (if any) if we say he's totally wasted. Turns out it's a race. How very interesting. And it's the final one ever. Gosh, even more interesting. Why are we supposed to care, exactly?
Now, you might be thinking that it's a pretty cruel race that leaves the loser stranded. But no need to stress the grey matter doing any thinking here, because the Doctor does it for you, saying "Pretty cruel race, leaving the loser stranded". Then she gets out the sonic and never puts it away again. We've complained about sonic overuse in the past, but this is utterly ridiculous. We were expecting her to start yelling "Expelliarmus!".
The Doctor asks questions. Lots of questions, actually. And most of them are ignored. In fact, we're not sure the Doctor has ever been ignored quite this much in more than fifty years. And Evil Space Dude talks about his, er, cigar, in a piece of foreshadowing that's about as subtle as a neon sign in a dark sky preserve. Equally subtly, and for no reason other than expediency, the Doctor fixates on what the ghost monument looks like. To the astonishment of no one, it looks like a TARDIS.
Off they trudge to rendezvous with it. There's no obvious foe here, since Evil Space Dude isn't allowed to shoot anybody with his big gun and the hologram stranding them on the planet is actually zillions of miles away. So it has to be the planet that steps up. The trouble is, Chibnall doesn't seem to have a clue how to make anything scary. He rolls out obstacle after obstacle, all with the dark force of a toasted marshmallow. The water has flesh-eating microbes, but our doughty heroes all easily avoid the merest hint of getting damp. The robot guards, which should be terrifying (robots with guns? The Autons still give us nightmares) turn out to be terrible shots and are quickly knocked out with an EM pulse. The rags, broodily signposted with ominous closeups, are…rags. (And the solution, with the Chekhovian cigar and the acetylene field (acetylene field)? Don't get us started.) Problem after problem is set up only to be instantly thrown away, with the characters barely reacting to them.
They're all rubbish in themselves, but it's worse than that. You never at any point feel that anyone's in real danger: it's like Chibnall is terrified to threaten the companions in case it scares the kids. It's utterly wrong-headed. Not only does it rip any tension out of the story, it grossly underestimates the audience, including its youngest members. Chibnall should brush up on his Who history: the Daleks, in only the second Who story ever, were utterly terrifying and the execs involved started writing their resignation letters, only to find kids up and down the country being Daleks in the playground come Monday.
And the dumbness. The dumbness. The Doctor never stops banging on about wanting to know what happened on the planet, like it's some huge anomaly. Don't tell us she's never been anywhere where civilisations have thrown in the towel, because we have tons of them just on Earth. They can't let us figure anything out for ourselves: they follow a closeup of inscriptions on the floor with Yaz saying "Inscriptions on the floor!" And the characters aren’t just left to show us who they are: they have to be thuddingly explained as well ('I don’t need other people!".)
Then we get to the resolution, and if you couldn't see the redemption of Mr Evil and the joint-equal ending coming from Mars, you forgot to take off your eye mask this morning. Add to that all the musings about how families are really really great, possibly the least controversial point ever made and yet presented as some kind of profound insight, and we're drowning in syrup.
Even worse than any of that is the effect it all has on the Doctor. Don't get us wrong, we still love Jodie, but what she's given to work with here is massively disappointing. Well, we say disappointing. We actually mean offensive. We seem to have a greater than usual quantity of four-letter words in our notes here, which we'll try to moderate, but WT actual F? This is supposed to be the Doctor? We know they're all different, but come on. She's constantly apologising. She keeps saying she's stuffed up. She pleads endlessly for the companions' respect. "I've made a terrible mistake." "These people have been very good not going on about it. Very grateful you came along." "Don't you see? I got it mostly right!" That's not the Doctor. And when she's not doing any of that, she's moralising about weapons and handing out lectures on how teamwork makes the dream work. Blech. Worst of all, when she can't find the TARDIS, she gives up. She gives up. The companions have to pat her on the head and tell her it'll all be OK. Unforgivable. And how amazingly coincidental that the first female Doctor gets given this bunch of weak and frankly pathetic character traits that none of the others have manifested in the slightest. We are most definitely not here for this steaming pile of sexist bullshit. Why even cast the Doctor as a woman if you're going to go down this road?
Ahem. You may perhaps be able to discern that we are a little annoyed. Taking a deep breath and letting the red mist recede: what about the companions? First of all, fears that three is too many is more than justified here, because it's simply overstuffed. Bradley Walsh is again the instant standout: he's funny and warm in the Wilf tradition and is utterly believable as Bloke In Space. The sulky teenager aspects of Ryan we could richly do without. Yaz we love, but she barely gets a chance to do or even say anything. And the other characters, Cardboard Villain Who Sees The Error Of His Ways and Prickly Space Chick With A Heart Of Gold never get beyond two dimensions.
And the TARDIS? Ew. Why is the ceiling held up by slabs of melting toffee? And can't they afford lightbulbs? Also, half the fun of the bigger on the inside thing is that it looks like a police box only from the outside. Seeing it from the inside, like a police boxy vestibule, wrecks that utterly.
The Woman Who Fell To Earth wasn't without faults, but it was entertaining. This, on the other hand, is the Chibnall Who we were dreading. We know we hated Moffat's insistence that Who is a fairy tale, but nevertheless, done properly, it should have a sprinkle of magic about it. This, despite being on a alien planet, with actual aliens, is so utterly prosaic. It has about as much magic as an accounting seminar. Add to that plot and characters spelled out in letters of fire and an unacceptably wibbly Doctor, and we're just…. Please tell us it isn't all going to be like this.
We're sure they think they're being extremely right on including a character with a disability, but it's a shame they stuff that up by having the other characters patronising him by telling him how amazing he is.
These microbes, right. If they're flesh-eating, how have they survived on a planet that now has zero flesh?