[Editor’s Note: The following contains spoilers from “Doctor Who” Season 11, Episode 2, “The Ghost Monument.”]
“This is proper awesome,” Ryan (Tosin Cole) says upon stepping into the TARDIS for the first time on Sunday’s “Doctor Who.” This sentiment sums up the thrilling, action-packed episode, making up for the lackluster debut of Jodie Whittaker as the new Doctor last week.
Last seen floating in space, the Doctor and her three companions are saved but somehow get caught between the final two competitors in a cutthroat race called The Rally of the 12 Galaxies. The final challenge in the rally takes place on a planet called Desolation, where the first person to survive the planet’s dangers and reach a legendary landmark called The Ghost Monument — which appears briefly for every 1,000 turns of the planet — will win a lifetime of safety. The Doctor realizes that The Ghost Monument is, in fact, her TARDIS, phasing in and out of time and space from faulty engines. If she can stabilize it, then she can bring her companions back home to Sheffield.
As a family show, “Doctor Who” is no stranger to embedding educational messages into its stories. During the Steven Moffat era, the value and power of love was the main lesson that was revisited over and over. From this episode, it appears that new showrunner Chris Chibnall will use the show as a platform to examine additional humanitarian themes.
In particular, the ruthlessness of the rally highlights the horrors that have been perpetrated across space. The final two competitors, Angstrom (Susan Lynch) and Epzo (Shaun Dooley), are literally fighting for their lives and others due to growing up in a universe where systematic cleansing by a brutal race: the Stenza. That’s right. The incredibly gross and tooth-obsessed Tim Shaw from the premiere is part of a race that is practicing atrocities on multiple planets, not just Earth. Social consciousness is seen on a far larger scale on “Doctor Who”; this is not just a global consciousness, but an intergalactic one that is decidedly anti-war and pacifist. The Doctor even busts out some “Venusian aikido” at one point to peacefully settle a dispute, because she is able to temporarily paralyze a person without causing harm.
BBC Studios 2018
The Doctor had already stated that she will always help those in need in the premiere, and here she continues to advocate for altruism. “Some of us feel a duty for others who are in trouble,” she tells Epzo, who doesn’t see the point in trying to figure out what had happened to the previous inhabitants of the now barren Desolation. Sadly, the Doctor discovered the secret from a final message etched onto the floor:
“We are scientists abducted, tortured, and made to work while our families are held hostage. We are forced to find new ways of destruction, poisons, weapons, creatures, we gave them our minds, and they made us the creators of death. This planet is left scorched and barren from our work. The atmosphere and water are toxic. Killing machines and creatures inhabit every corner. We had no choice but to obey the Stenza. We are trying to destroy all of our work before they use it against others. They’re coming.”
In the end, everyone is able to triumph through a combination of teamwork, ingenuity, and scientific know-how. These moments where practical information allows the Doctor to win the day shifts the show’s messaging from just championing those in need, to one of empowerment and finding solutions. Even better, the Doctor’s solutions — taking out an army of robot guards with an EMP and defeating alien “Remnants” by igniting an acetylene field — are incredibly cool to watch. This is what the Doctor ordered.
The episode also served to explore Ryan’s issues with his grandfather Graham (Bradley Walsh) and his dyspraxia a bit more after seeing him botch riding a bicycle in the premiere. His tenacity when it comes to climbing ladders under pressure prompts the Doctor to praise him. “Can I just say you are amazing?” she says. “Think of all you’ve gone through to be here and you’re still going. I’m proper impressed.”
Ryan is also the means by which the show makes a very clear but rather unsubtle anti-gun declaration. Despite the Doctor’s protests that guns do no good, Ryan rushes the robot guards and blasts them with a gun he picks up. But he’s of course outnumbered, and the robots are able to revive within seconds, which makes his hotheaded run exacerbate the situation. “Now see what I don’t like about guns?” the Doctor asks before she implements her EMP plan. “See? Brains beat bullets!” The scene is played for laughs, but the message is clear.
BBC Studios 2018
Overall, the episode works as a fascinating, swashbuckling bit of sci-fi fun. Recalling the Stenza is the first tip-off of a greater story arc for the show, as is an enigmatic comment made by one of the talking Remnants about “The Timeless Child,” setting up a timey-wimey mystery.
Of course, the best capper is the Doctor finally being reunited with her TARDIS, which is a surprisingly emotional moment. Adding to that is the companions and viewers getting their first glimpse into the redecorated interior. Gone is the cold metal and strange flashing lights of its previous iteration. This interior has older, more vintage-looking iron walls, hexagonal-patterned dividers, and what appear to be natural stone or crystal structures lit from within. The overall effect is more natural and warm, but no less awe-inspiring. Welcome to the new era, TARDIS.
”Doctor Who” airs Sundays at 8 p.m. ET on BBC America.