It doesn’t matter how many years I accrue on this planet, my needs from an episode of Doctor Who remain the same now as they were when I was small and hiding behind the sofa – does it make me go “Wow”? Does it make me laugh? Does it make me jump? Does it push me close to tears? Does the Doctor save the day?
While Jodie Whittaker’s debut last week was a superb introduction to the new lead and her band of motley companions, it did not quite tick all five boxes. Any Doctor’s first appearance has a bigger task to manage in that it must convince the audience the new person IS The Doctor beyond a shadow of doubt. With the exception of Tom Baker and David Tennant, none of the Doctors have rung those five bells on their debut.
Second episodes, then, are where I decide whether I’m going to have trouble working out a new order for my most favourite Doctors as time goes on and ‘The Ghost Monument’ had so many bells ringing in my head I thought I’d developed space tinnitus.
There were jumps aplenty on an increasingly savage planet that was two parts Pitch Black to one part London Underground (and thus slightly Troughton-meets-the-Brig). Biggest and best scare came when Epzo, one of the space race finalists, was assaulted by some cloth (way more disturbing than it might sound).
Whittaker herself is very funny but Bradley Walsh made me laugh the most, especially when dismissing Epzo’s anecdote about the lesson on life’s cruelty he received from his own mother by sarcastically muttering “Well she’s sounds triffic!”
Wow happened a few times, not least when Walsh’s Graham and his step-grandson Ryan (along with the other space racer, Angstrom) narrowly avoided being turned into jam by Epzo’s crashing ship. There was an even bigger wow but I’ll come to that.
Does the Doctor save the day? Well, duh! But she relies on input from her new found friends, especially once the race is over and Epzo and Angstrom have departed, leaving the Time Lady and the three human apparently stranded. Which is where the last wow and the brimming up with tears came in.
Of course it was obvious the Tardis would appear at the end, given we already knew that’s what the ghost monument really was. And when she did finally rematerialise and The Thirteenth Doctor strode inside to get her first glimpse of the re-fitted interior, I literally did a bit of a wow out of my real mouth and not just my brain place. With nods to the organic feel of Eccleston and Tennant’s interior but with a biscuity touch Matt Smith might admire and a sort of coral glow radiating throughout, it’s a world away from more recent, steampunk versions of the time travelling machine.
That in itself isn’t what almost made me cry, however. It was when The Doctor herself says “You’ve redecorated” and then walks around in wide-eyed wonder before offering up a touching subversion of a joke that’s been done about Tardis rejigs since the 1973 special ‘The Three Doctors’. The delay meant I knew she would say she liked the redecoration but the longer the pause extended, the more I welled up, like a tearful version of my reaction to the best Laurel and Hardy gags that see Olly smashed on the head repeatedly by bricks or some other unforgiving material, then the smashing stops, he looks grumpily resigned, maybe drums his fingers, then a final brick loudly thwacks his bonce just to rub it in.
Jodie Whittaker added nuance to her portrayal in this episode. The babbling mouth is obviously here to stay but now that she’s remembered who and what she is there were more dynamic shifts. Can’t wait for an alien to truly disgust her, given the cursory put-downs she threw at Epzo and at Art Malik’s race organiser, Ilin. Maybe the fact that the Stenza are clearly a villainous race we will reencounter across this season will provoke the rage of Thirteen at some stage?
So far, absolutely no rage from me. Me likey Thirteen. Who was the other guy again? And all the other guys before that?