The Ghost Monument – Doctor Who And the Consequences of Conquest
Systematic oppression is emerging as a major theme of this series of Doctor Who. The Ghost Monument presents us with some new characters and settings, but at its heart, there is a lot here to compare with The Woman Who Fell to Earth.
With the new title sequence in place, the TARDIS at the centre of the quest, The Ghost Monument promised to be just the thing to keep audiences hooked. Brightly coloured, sweeping landscapes, and new enemies. It’s all happening here.
Arcs of Time
In spite of Chris Chibnall’s insistence that this series would be made up of entirely stand alone stories, there does seem to be a larger arc developing. Not just for the characters and their development, either. Thematically, there’s something coming to central focus.
This episode explores the aftermath. Not only do we get a resolution to last week’s cliffhanger, but we also deal somewhat with the aftermath of Grace’s death. But more than that, everything here is about recovering from devastation. Or, perhaps, Desolation.
Dealing with grief is something Chibnall does a lot in his writing elsewhere, so it should come as no surprise that he is bringing this strength to Doctor Who. The characters who are in focus this week are all dealing with some form of grief, trauma, or loss.
For some it is immediate and localised loss, for others it is more esoteric. While the Doctor and her companions deal with the loss of Grace, they meet two space rally racers, Angstrom (Susan Lynch) and Epzo (Shaun Dooley). Both characters deal with trauma but of a very different sort. Theirs is systematic, built by a galactic society and empire.
For Angstrom, the oppression of her people, and specifically her family, is something that cannot be escaped by usual means. She needs to win this rally to get them out of an endless loop of oppression and subjugation. Epzo, on the other hand, is one who has been brought up in a horrifying society, and rather than trying to escape it and the damage it has done him, embraces it.
Dealing with it
These two characters – Epzo and Angstrom – display two very distinct reactions to oppressive regimes and cultures. To flee from it, or to become part of it. The Doctor would no doubt argue there are other avenues to take. But for Epzo especially, this is just the way the world is, and only a fool would argue otherwise.
Ezpo is a victim of trauma and abuse who has developed a certain mentality; of defending the abusers, or simply wishing to take their place. He has become a part of a cycle of violence, from one generation to the next. His mother taught him a lesson – not to trust anyone – and he has taken it to heart. He won’t trust anyone, and won’t let anyone trust him in tern.
Angstrom, similarly, comes from a deeply oppressive culture, one where her people are kept down – by the Stenza, no less – and her only hope is to escape. While more selfless than Ezpo, her ambition is still somewhat limited in scope. She does not believe that the regime can change or fall, and that to escape is the only option. She is driven by her trauma, and will do anything to protect those she loves from suffering under it.
By a similar token, Ilin, who set up this whole rally, has a similar story. He competed and he won. So his choice was to end the rally for good. No doubt, he suffered similarly in his rally, and went through similar trials. His reaction was that it must be stopped. But he can only see one way of doing it – through one more race.
This series seems to be drawing its central momentum from team dynamics and building. Having already established the main crew – The Doctor, Yas, Graham, and Ryan – we are given two more people to delve into. I had been worried this would leave the show feeling crowded, but so far it’s felt about right.
The down side is, of course, that Yas has been sidelined for most of these two opening episodes. Though we get a glimpse of her family anxieties, it’s not much. Though there are still plenty of episodes to go, so it’s best to wait to pass judgement.
Team players though the main cast are, Angstrom and Epzo are less so. Though the former quickly realises the strengths they can offer, both stay at arms length for much of the story. Angstrom, though, does take time to open up to the gang, and the fact that she is fighting for something is what makes her the more relatable of the two. In another timeline, she might have made a companion herself!
If there is something that let the episode down it was the mystery of Desolation itself. While intriguing, the way in which the puzzle was solved was not especially satisfying, and I expected better of Chibnall. Along the way, the Doctor and company pick up clues and ask questions. Then about two thirds of the way through, all the answers are simply given in exposition written in big letters on the floor.
This was something I had been hoping would have been left behind in the Moffat era. With Chibnall’s history writing mystery investigations in Broadchurch, I would have loved to see Doctor Who tackle something that way. Have the pieces slowly fall into place and the Doctor (or her companions) putting them together with their brains. It was as if they simply ran out of time and had to quickly fill in the gaps.
That being said, I do get the impression that this episode will form just a single piece of a larger puzzle that will be investigated over the course of the series. That, I hope, will prove more in the vein of the sort Chibnall is good at.
What stood out to me especially well in this story was something I have wanted from Doctor Who for quite some time. The Stenza, the “conquerors of the nine systems” as Tim Shaw called them. A throwaway line, it seemed. But now we are seeing people affected by those conquests.
I have wanted something like this for the Daleks for years. We hear about how they conquer and oppress, we see them blow things up, but we don’t often get to feel the wide ranging and long lasting effects of Dalek empires. To have a villain whose empire is going to have consequences is welcome. We shall see exactly how Chibnall handles it, but as an idea, I’m on board.
It’s a topic we need to see, and need to see being dealt with. And, given the next episode is about Rosa Parks, the theme of systematic oppression may well be a major one this series. It is a delicate issue, for sure, and not one Doctor Who has handled with great delicacy in the past. Will they pull it off this time?
We will have to wait and see. Time will tell. It usually does.