One of the reasons I’m not as good a writer as I probably should be is my innate ability to be distracted. Having very much enjoyed a rollicking, jollicking romp of a Doctor Who sophomore episode, I started writing about how its “race for riches” plotline reminded me of the underrated 2001 comedy Rat Race, in which six teams of random people race from Las Vegas to Mexico to claim $2 million.
Then I remembered that Rat Race has one of the funniest f***ing scenes of all time in it, in which Jon Lovitz and Kathy Najimy stop for a break to let their kids visit The Barbie Museum:
Ahhh, remember a time when neo-Nazis were simply the butt of jokes, rather than internet users, talk-show hosts or political candidates? Those were good times.
Anyway, this clip of course led me the next clip, in which Jon Lovitz has stolen Hitler’s car in order to finish the race:
Oh man, accidental Hitler impressions are so my jam. Hence:
And so you can see my problem… easily distracted, particularly by the YouTube vortex.
But no! I must recap Doctor Who, which not only had plot points reminiscent of Rat Race, but shades of The Hunger Games and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire as well. You see, I parse all pop culture through other pop culture prisms. One day I’ll read some Tolstoy or Foucault or something and get really erudite, but until then, it’s erudumb all the way.
S11, E2: The Ghost Monument
First up - new title sequence! What did we think? They seem to have ditched the face image thingy they brought back for Peter Capaldi, and they seem to have gone for a funkier, rather than orchestral, clockwork-y vibe. I felt the like the swelling and circling of the “time-tunnel” visuals looked like an MRI scan of the brain. Anybody else get that? Wonder if that’s a hint for more internal soul-searching of the Doctor character this time around (or a comment on brains and gender?) It also ended with an explosion of stars, which could be a pointer towards more space-based adventures this season? I seriously have no idea, I’m just making this stuff up. All theories welcome.
The episode picked up where we left off last week - with the Doctor and her new best friends lost in deep space. However all were immediately picked up by two different space adventurers, each doing their best impression of Ace Rimmer from Red Dwarf.
How they each only saw two of the group of four confuses me somewhat, but there’s no time to ponder why, as the action kicks in straight away. Ryan and Graham are confused by their rescue by the Chick Adventurer, while Yas awakes to realise she’s on the Dude Adventurer’s ship, which the Doctor is desperately trying to stop from crashing.
Eventually all four are reunited in desolation; or rather, ON Desolation. It’s a parched, despairing wasteland of a place, serving quite well as a preview of what Planet Earth will probably look like in couple of decades according to the UN IPCC, so that’s nice, isn’t it?
The Doctor admits to a calculation error on her part, and promises to return the gang home; meanwhile the adventurers reveal their names, Angstrom and Epzo, and their status as rivals in some sort of competition. Two others failed to make it through a hyperjump (Hyperleap? Hyperspace? Hypermarket?), so it turns out they’re the last ones standing.
The group walks across the dunes (with the Doctor loaning Graham sunglasses that once belonged to either Audrey Hepburn or a totally hypotenused Pythagoras), and finds a tent containing Art Malik, the Pakistani-British actor clearly having fun with his cameo appearance.
Turns out he’s some sort of intergalactic Richard Branson type, running a race called the Rally of Twelve Galaxies and issuing instructions via long-distance hologram. Angstrom and Epzo have reached the final section, and it turns out both of them only picked up the Doctor and co because they thought they worth bonus points, as opposed to the off-brand Coles Little Shop collectables they actually are.
No matter, Art Malik gives them the instruction to cross the dangerous terrain of the “cruel” planet, pass safely through destroyed settlements and reach the site of The Ghost Monument. First one there wins a truck ton of inexplicable alien fun bucks, while the loser loses everything, including their life, and likely that of their entire family/extended family/planet/galaxy/tiny marble that the giant weird aliens flick around at the end of Men in Black.
The Doctor meanwhile is bounding around like a puppy that’s just seen another puppy, demanding to know what the Ghost Monument is. Eventually Art Malik does her a favour and whips up a hologram display and of course it’s the TARDIS.
This means the Doctor can get her new best friends home, as long as they follow Angstrom and Epso and stay alive.
Art Malik has left them a boat to cross the water, given that the water is full of flesh-eating microbes. There’s a lovely moment where the Doctor uses Venutian Akido to calm Epzo, who was being all Captain Bullshit by pointing a blaster in Angstrom’s face and saying “Maybe I don’t play by the rules”. Show experts will no doubt correct me but I believe it was Jon Pertwee’s Doctor who was super into interplanetary martial arts, so that’s a fun throwback.
Graham and Ryan have a brief D&M about Lorraine’s death last week, in which Ryan plays the strong, silent, repress-it-all-until-it-bursts-forth-in-an-unhealthy-bout-of-rage type while his step-Grandad is all “Let’s talk about our feelings”. Blimey, YET ANOTHER straight white middle-aged man being all in touch with his emotions and wanting to establish effective communication in his interpersonal relationships GAH it’s so CLICHE.
While doing this, they figure out the “engine” of the boat is actually a battery, the Doctor gets it up and running, and they set off across a lake, possibly a river, some sort of body of water.
This might be a good time to ask in a logistical/technical question: wasn’t anybody thirsty? I mean, they’re wandering around the desert in direct suns-light (there are three of them), but nobody seems to be sweaty or needing a good swig of H20. If that was me I would have stripped down, tied a hanky to my head and demanded the Doctor rustle up some SPF 50.
The boat trip gives us a chance to learn about the very different motivations behind Angstrom and Epzo’s decision to compete/survive. Epzo is a loner; instructed by his mother very early on that he couldn’t trust anyone after playing the harshest game of catch ever. He’s in it for personal gain. Angstrom, however, is all about saving her family from a planet that is being systematically cleansed. She doesn’t even know if they will be there when she returns, but all of her struggles in the mammoth race are worth it just to try.
On arrival at the beach, there’s a lot of very specific talk about Epzo’s special cigar, one he’s been saving for a Churchill-style victory smoke.
I guess it’s really important we know that the cigar is self-lighting, requiring just one click of the fingers to smoke up. I mean, to me that seems really hazardous - not only could it be a risk to your personal safety, but surely it could go off by accident? I cannot foresee ANY situation in which a self-lighting cigar would come in handy. I JUST CAN’T.
Angstrom and Epzo split up as the group approaches what looks like a really cool paintball activity centre. It turns out that’s pretty much what it is, except it’s more of a lasertag place, with robot guards activated to shoot all comers.
Once the Doctor realises this, she does something that Rickon Stark FAILED TO DO (still cut up about it) - she instructs them all to SERPENTINE as they run away from the robot guards. Once in an underground area, she realises the whole place is a training ground for sniper bots.
I actually really liked Ryan’s subsequent Call of Duty inspired first-person shooter mission. I’m glad they actually showed him going out and being a numpty hero, rather than just accept the Doctor’s warning. It made her rejoinder “Brains always beat guns” stick more, once he freaked out that the bots all came back to life and he no longer had any ammo. Luckily the Doctor was able to trigger an electro-magnetic pulse that deactivated them for a time, a la the 1995 James Bond film Goldeneye.
I do wonder how these anti-gun sentiments go over on BBC America; although perhaps there’s not a huge crossover between the kind of Americans who love their guns and the kind who watch Doctor Who.
The Doctor realises there are tunnels underneath the lasertag complex which they could use to pass safely through. Epzo, who’s been wounded, is still standing by his “I’m a Cool Loner” philosophy, but still tags along with the rest of the group once the Doctor discovers underground tunnels that will allow them to move safely at night.
Ryan manages to get down into the tunnels despite his dyspraxia, and it isn’t long before the Doctor finds a huge locked door and busts in to find a deserted laboratory.
She sends a prattish Epzo off for a nap while she and the rest investigate mysterious writings on the floor. The three companions may have been implanted with universal translators when they were picked up in space, but clearly it doesn’t work visually, as it’s the Doctor who has to read the message aloud. It turns out that scientists on the once vibrant planet were kidnapped and forced to make weapons of mass destruction - by the Stenza. GASP! Villain recall alert. There’s a moment of bonding between Graham and Angstrom as their share their communal loss of a loved one, while Ryan and Yas notice on surprisingly-still-working surveillance cameras that the sniper bots are on their tail.
Just as the Doctor utters the scientists’ final words - “They’re coming” - Epzo is attacked while napping by the first of what I can only call “Paper Dementors”. I think they’re supposed to be bandages that strangle you, but with an obsession with feeding on fears, they really are like something out of the J.K. Rowling bag of tricks.
Angstrom manages to cut Epzo free (very nice of her considering he’s her rival and a Man Solo Douche Nozzle), but the group then must flee the lasers of the sniper bots. There’s acetylene fields above them, but decreasing airflow and an army of trigger happy cyborgs means they have to take their chances above ground.
Ryan manages another ladder, but the group is quickly surrounded by more Paper Dementors, who appear to be quite chatty. It’s here that they drop the Bad Wolf/Vote Saxon/Doctor Donna/Crack in the Wall/Impossible Girl bit of sizzle that will no doubt be RELEVANT this season.
“The Timeless Child.”
The Paperiest of Dementors taunts the Doctor by saying how her fears are more intense than any of the others - not surprising given the Doctor is shoulders so much of the burden of loss and danger and grief and yet hides it under quips and quirkiness while still taking people along with him/her for the ride and risking their lives. YES I SAID IT THE DOCTOR IS AWESOME BUT SELFISH.
But what is The Timeless Child? “We see what’s hidden, even from yourself - the outcast, abandoned and alone,” the one-dimensional mummy chants. Does it mean The Doctor as a child? Or perhaps another hidden regeneration of the Doctor, like the War Doctor? GASP - what if they’re setting up the Doctor as HAVING a child? Gee, wouldn’t that trump Harry and Meghan for baby bump news? Not to mention the “It’s bigger on the inside!” womb jokes.
Anyway, by talking through the qualities of acetylene with Ryan, the Doctor manages to pull off a fantastic destruction trick - having them all hit the ground after Graham pinches Epzo’s cigar and tosses it into the air. There’s a fantasti slo-mo shot of the Doctor clicking her fingers poetically, and the whole pack of demon bandages goes up. SO THAT’S WHY THE CIGAR HAD TO BE SELF-LIGHTING OHHHHH.
They’re then able to commando crawl away and start their hike to the site of the Ghost Monument. There’s no indication given of how BIG the acetylene fields were - one assumes that if it was extensive and hanging over the surface, they may have had to commando crawl the whole way.
Anyway, a very welcome dawn transition shot allows the gang to just turn up at the finish line. Angstrom and Epzo have a final argument about who the rightful winner is, before the Doctor makes the suggestion that they should finish in a dead heat.
Art Malik is not keen on this idea, but changes his mind after a threat to his life from Epzo. The guy is literally a hologram, he can disappear and leave them all in an instant, he knows despite Epzo’s talk that they will die out on Desolation - and yet he changes his mind and allows the draw. Why? It doesn’t make that much sense, unless he may feature later on. It wasn’t really clear why he was deciding to finish this foolhardy intergalactic race anyway, so maybe that will come back into play down the line.
It is super hilarious when Angstrom says to take the Doctor & Crew off the planet with them, and Art Malik simply scoffs “No”, clicks his fingers, and they all disappear. A very tidy way of finishing that part of the story.
Which leaves us with a slightly despairing Doctor, who can see no sign of her TARDIS. She apologises to the crew for breaking her promise to keep them alive and get them home, saying they’ll die pretty quickly once the sun goes down. But the gang are not willing to accept that, saying they’ll fight on.
At this point, I noticed something very strange about our new Doctor; namely, THIS EARRING/EAR CUFF COMBO:
She’s only wearing it on the one side. When did she put that on? Did she get it at the op shop as well? And would you put on op shop earrings without giving them a going over with Isocol first? Just for bacteria’s sake, you know. I can’t remember any previous incarnations of the Doctor having their ears pierced; and besides, surely a regeneration would stitch those bad boys back up? Are they telling us that sometime after Grace’s funeral and before she accidentally zapped them into space, the Doctor paid a quick trip to “Let’s Get Pierced” for a lobe and rook?
Anyway, nitpickings aside, it’s a lovely moment when the Ghost Monument does appear, and the Doctor is able to stablise it. “Come to Daddy! I mean, Mummy… I mean, I really need you right now!” is very sweet.
The TARDIS has turned an interesting teal shade of blue in its absence, but still lets the Doctor in despite losing her key. Ryan, Graham and Yas are skeptical, but upon entering are flabbergasted as companions usually are - even if they resist the usual “It’s bigger on the inside” for some different stunned comments.
In terms of the new TARDIS’s design - it’s quite dark and almost looms over its passengers. The steel and crystal combo make it look somewhat similar to a hippy Goth’s underground cave bunker. I did notice the number SIX seeming fairly consistent as a motif - there were six large orange crystal arms over the centre console, hexagrams on the walls, and the steel interlocking circles each had six arms in their middles. Given this Doctor is Thirteen, I wonder what the reference is to Six?
Unless of course it’s to the Sixth Doctor, Colin Baker, aka “The Best Ever Doctor Because He Called Me Pretty at a Convention Once”. I say yes.
Anyway, the Doctor very happily boots up the TARDIS - complete with spinning crystal mini-TARDIS and biscuit dispenser - and the group get on their way back to Earth.
All in all, a fun romp with a bit of Stenza sizzle for the future, as well as The Timeless Child mystery. Although Yas didn’t have a heap to do, so hopefully they can give her more oomph next episode.
Until next time, Whovians!
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