If the premiere episode was all about taking the 13th Doctor out of her element, tonight’s episode, titled “The Ghost Monument,” finds her right smack in the middle of it. The new season’s second installment is Doctor Who in its purest form: spaceships, alien planets, killer robots, terrifying monsters, monologues about using brains over violence, and of course, a whole lot of running. Jodie Whittaker felt like the Doctor the moment she crashed through the roof of a train in “The Woman Who Fell to Earth,” but “Ghost Monument” positions her in a far more familiar situation. She’s got her sonic screwdriver and eventually her TARDIS (more on that later), and if you put her and her friends in a dangerous situation, she’s going to do her darndest to get out of it.
“I’m really good in a tight spot,” she says. “At least, I have been historically. I’m sure I still am.”
Tonight’s episode picks up right where the premiere left off, with the Doctor, Yaz, Ryan, and Graham floating in space. But before long, two ships arrive to pluck them up like an arcade claw machine. The Doctor and Yaz are gathered by Epzo (Shaun Dooley), a surly solitary pilot, while Graham and Ryan are rescued by Angstrom (Susan Lynch). Both pilots are headed to the planet Desolation, which has been knocked out of orbit and is the final leg in a race called the Rally of the Twelve Galaxies.
Desolation itself is brutally gorgeous, and between the cinematography and the setting, “The Ghost Monument” is one of the prettiest episodes of the new series. There are alien suns in the sky, vast deserts, towering ruins, and sinister beaches. The whole episode just looks expensive, and it’s shot in a way that underscores just how alien everything seems to Ryan, Graham, and Yaz. (“Whoa,” Ryan says after they land on Desolation. “I couldn’t have put it better,” Graham replies.)
Once the crew lands on Desolation, they encounter the holographic games-master Ilin (Art Malik), who gives them their final task. (“I was a hologram once for three weeks,” the Doctor quips. “The gossip I picked up!”) Angstrom and Epzo must race across Desolation, avoiding the toxic atmosphere, the flesh-eating bacteria in the water, and mysterious threats that only come out at night to reach something called the Ghost Monument. They’re the last surviving contestants out of 4,000, and the first to reach the finish line wins millions. The loser is left to rot on Desolation. So it’s basically The Amazing Race if Phil Keoghan was an alien hologram and the prize was not dying.
Only after the Doctor pokes around in Ilin’s databanks does she realize what the Ghost Monument actually is: her TARDIS, which has been stranded here and has been phasing in and out of time since the planet was knocked out of orbit. The Doctor’s face lights up as soon as she sees the image of that familiar blue box, and it’s clear that she’s been worried about it. When Ryan scoffs that the box “didn’t look all that,” she replies, “It’s very all that, thank you very much!”
And so the race begins, across lakes and over swamps and through ancient ruins filled with murderous sniper robots. Over time, we get to know Angstrom and Epzo and learn why they’re risking their lives for the race: Her planet is being systematically cleansed, and she’s trying to win the money to rescue her family and get them to safety. He’s a solo traveler who’s convinced himself that you can never trust anyone.