So, this is where it all comes together. Having enjoyed the new Doctor and her friends last week, but been less enthusiastic about the actual episode, this week we’re plunged straight into frenetic adventure – crash landing on Desolation, walking through scorched desert, sailing deadly sea, traversing subterranean tunnel networks, and emerging onto a mountain by the Ghost Monument. And maybe I’m the slowest Doctor Who fan on the planet, but I was delighted to be surprised by when Art Malik showed us what, exactly, the titular monument looked like. I loved the way it all fitted together, paying off last week’s cliffhanger and dovetailing into this week’s rally.
Whittaker, if anything, is even better this week. Early in the episode she so joyfully engages in power tussle with a stranger over how to avoid crashing she forgets to be reassuring to her friends…
“They’ll be writing operas about our pointless deaths if we don’t take drastic action right now!”
“We’re about to die?!”
“Oh, sorry, Yaz, I forgot you were there. All going to be fine.”
It’s a delightful moment because it erodes that safety net we, and her friends, enjoy – the safety of the infallibility of our hero. But there is no danger and therefore no drama if she is omnipotent. It’s a fine line that saw Davison’s Doctor cross occasionally to the other side of ineffectual, but Whittaker’s Doctor knows her limits even as she commits to overcoming them – a better place to be than Tennant’s Time Lord Victorious.
There’s a lovely echo of this at the end of the episode when she fears she has let her friends down and they reflect her commitment back at her.
There’s also a very real sense of jeopardy in the way the companions react to first being in space, then crashing, then finding themselves on a deadly alien planet. Their confusion and fear conveys a real sense of fragility in a series of environments that only barely support life – a terror that would be paralysing if they didn’t realise that that would get them killed even more quickly.
Also: love that we’re already not just off Earth but out of its orbit and, indeed, so far away that “I’ve never heard of Moomanbeans”.
Bradley Walsh is even better in this episode too – I’m glad we got an acknowledgement of Grace – and the way he has Graham gently open up about his feelings is beautifully done. It reminded me a little of that scene between the Doctor and Victoria in Tomb where she talks about losing her father. Ryan is the sullen teenage, but Tosin Cole doesn’t overplay it.
“You talk about this stuff way too much.”
“And you don’t talk about it enough.”
The guest actors are nicely drawn, too, and the story is unafraid to deal with some very dark themes – particularly Angstrom’s backstory of the Albarian genocides. Come to that, Enzo’s story of his abusive mother is horrific too. I also liked that even though Enzo is a nasty piece of work, the episode didn’t seek to write him out or have him find redemption in order for the right thing to be to share the spoils of a their joint victory. Body count: 0. RTD wouldn’t approve, but I like it.
But though there are overtones of Troughton, the real vibe in this episode is those early 80s episodes (Kinda) that gave 5 year old me bad dreams.
Not only is the direction dazzlingly fast paced, but every shot is beautiful, making the most of the South African locations… (which at one point reminded me, briefly, of Planet of Fire which was filmed in Lanzarote…)
Overall, this is far away my favourite of all of Chris Chibnall’s episodes. (Yes, that does even include The Power of Three.)
If I had to make a complaint it would be the scary-handkerchief aliens. It’s a rich enough plot with the rally across Desolation, but it seems we still need to have some kind of regulation monster in every episode. (Worse, mention of the… damn, I’ve already forgotten their name… Stenza. Hope they’re not going to be this season’s Big Bad.) Oh, and if I’m honest, my attitude to the new TARDIS redecoration is more Troughton than Whittaker. It’s hard to improve on Pickwoad’s interior, but with the retro titles I thought maybe we’d be getting some update of the classic white roundel motif…
Oh, and I can’t believe I forgot to mention the titles! They’re fantastic! And the theme is perfect with them.
Next week: Rosa Parks? You’ve got to admire the ambition here… but I hope they can do her justice. My fear is she becomes a side-story in an alien runaround, but I’d be delighted to be proved wrong and for this to be the first pure historical since 1982’s Black Orchid…