Doctor Who recap: A happy reunion
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.
But the episode also takes the time to give us a more in-depth look at our three companions. Like last week, Ryan gets the most screen time, and we see him grappling with the loss of Grace and also struggling with his dyspraxia as he tries to climb ladders. (There's also a great moment where Ryan rebukes the Doctor's anti-gun stance and shoots down a bunch of robots — only for them to immediately rise back up again. "See?" the Doctor replies. "Brains beat bullets.")
Graham and his sunglasses also get a few nice moments, particularly on the boat when he sits down with Ryan to talk about Grace. They're both still struggling with her loss, especially because she's the one who would've been so thrilled to be adventuring on an alien planet. It's a reminder that even though Ryan and Graham are coping pretty well with this whole interstellar time travel thing, they're still deep in grief. Graham is also the one who questions how they can understand Angstrom and Epzo if they're aliens, and the Doctor replies that when they were rescued from space, they were implanted with universal translation chips. It's a clunky bit of exposition to get around the lack of the TARDIS's translation matrix, which usually automatically translates speech and writing, but hey, whatever works.
And then there's Yaz. The first episode introduced her as a rookie police officer eager to prove herself, but beyond that, we haven't really gotten a sense of her personality. She's brave and loyal and capable, of course, and she briefly mentions a dad and a sister at home, but she's definitely the least fleshed out of the companions. Here's hoping she gets a little more of a character arc in coming episodes.
Eventually, the Doctor uncovers the secret of Desolation: Its scientists were held captive and forced to engineer new killing machines, from the sniper robots to the toxic atmosphere. All that's left is a planet of devastation and murder. The scientists' captors? The Stenza, the murderous warrior race led by Tzim-Sha. This is the second time in as many episodes that the Doctor has come face to face with the Stenza's bloodthirsty traditions, and I'm willing to bet this isn't the last we've heard of them.
One of the scientists' most deadly creations are the Remnants, slithering strips of cloth that are dormant by day but come to life at night. (Leave it to Doctor Who to give us all a new inanimate object to be terrified of, joining statues, shadows, and cracks in the wall.) Soon, the Doctor and her companions are cornered and surrounded by the Remnants, who start whispering about their victims' inner thoughts and fears before latching on to the Doctor. "You lead but you're scared, too, for yourself and others," they tell her. "Afraid of your own newness. We see deep through, further back: the timeless child." Something about the words "timeless child" makes the Doctor freeze before she lights Epzo's cigar to drive the Remnants away. The show has hinted about the Doctor's childhood before — the young Time Lord who stole a TARDIS, ran away and has been running ever since. The Doctor herself has spoken about how she never wants to grow up, but something about the Doctor's reaction to the phrase "timeless child" made me wonder whether this is something new — and something we might hear more about down the line.
Eventually, the team makes its way to the finish line, where Angstrom and Epzo decide to split the prize and are teleported off the planet. The Doctor, Yaz, Ryan, and Graham are left behind, and for the first time, we see the Doctor's resolve falter. "I'm sorry," she says, and she almost looks like she's on the verge of tears. "I failed you. I promised you, and I let you down." Now, it's the companions' turn to comfort her, as they start brainstorming ways to get out of their predicament. But just as the Doctor loses all hope, she hears it: the most hopeful sound in the universe. The arrival of the TARDIS.
There's a stunning shot of the Doctor sprinting across a clifftop, and then suddenly, she's reunited with her oldest friend. "It's alright! It's me!" she says. "Stabilize. Come to daddy. I mean, mummy." She's lost her key, but the TARDIS lets her in any way, and we finally get to see the 13th Doctor meet her newly redecorated ship. Whittaker walks in slowly, and you can see the waves of emotion on her face as she takes it all in: gratitude, joy, and an overwhelming sense of wonder. I'll admit it: I got chills at the sight of the new control room, with its towering crystal pillars and sci-fi machinery. Some of the more recent TARDISes have been heavily mechanical, all steel and glass and straight lines, but this one feels more organic — a reminder that yes, the TARDIS is a machine, but it's also a living creature with a mind of its own. (The new control room reminds me most of Nine and Ten's TARDIS, with its coral-like structures and warm color palette.) In fact, everything about the 13th Doctor's aesthetic feels more organic and imperfect than her predecessors, from the new TARDIS to the curved, handmade sonic screwdriver. Even the new opening credits ditched the clock gears for swirling colors and galaxies. Finally, the Doctor is back where she belongs — and she's ready for her next adventure.