I’m slightly cranky at The Ghost Monument for taking an idea for a Doctor Who story that I’ve always wanted to see, and being a version of it which isn’t quite as good as I’d envisioned. That’s probably the most unfair attitude you can take to an episode of Doctor Who – “It wasn’t as good as the imaginary version I’ve harboured for years and years! Call the Daily Mail! Set up a hashtag!” – but there you go.
In my head, a grand space race was an epic backdrop for a Doctor Who story. A kind of Wacky Races meets Hitchhiker’s Guide. A host of racers, in exotic latex masks and cut price spaceships. The Doctor pressed into service to drive one of the ships. Lots of heart thumping races across deserts, around satellites, through ancient ruined cities. With each leg survived, the stakes only get higher as competitors are peeled off one by one. C’mon, you’d watch that, right?
The Ghost Monument teases us by seeming initially that it’s going to be a race story told on a similarly epic scale. After all, it does kick off with that impressive sequence of the spaceship crashlanding almost on top of Ryan (Tosin Cole) and Graham (Bradley Walsh) on location in South Africa. But then it transpires that we’re joining the race at a late stage when most of the competitors have already bumped each other into the flightpaths of comets, or what have you. Only two are left, gritty and determined Angstrom (Susan Lynch) and gritty and determined Epzo (Shaun Dooley). Which goes to show that while the budget will stretch to shooting on the other side of the planet, they just can’t take that many actors along for the ride.
So my dream story of a mad miscellany of aliens and their hovercrafts racing around a planet has become, before my eyes, a story of a couple of humanoids taking a long and sandy walk. With the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) and her buddies in tow, so there’s that to keep us engaged. But even if I forgive The Ghost Monument for not being the madcap rollercoaster ride of my dreams, there’s still one fairly major trick it has missed.
Early on in the episode, our adventurers come across the organiser of this race. It’s enigmatic, holographic Ilin (Art Malik) and he lounges around in a tent of plot exposition. In it, he explains that the race will be won when one of them reaches the fabled “ghost monument”. When he brings up a nifty special effect of it, the Doctor recognises it as her recently lost TARDIS. From there on in, she commits to tagging along with Angstrom and Epzo to get to her ship and return her friends to Earth.
But here’s the thing… the TARDIS should surely be the prize, not just the finish line. What if the TARDIS were the thing Angstrom and Epzo were so desperate to win? That would transform the Doctor and her friends from mere fellow travellers on this trek, but to genuine competitors. And given that we’ve seen that without the TARDIS, its crew are highly vulnerable to a. asphyxiating in the depths of space and b. never getting home again, they have every reason to compete for this prize with every last breath. Surely this should have been the dramatic driver in the story – not that the Doctor had merely to reach her lifeline home, but that she had to fight for it as well.
But then, The Ghost Monument has more business with Angstrom and Epzo than making them mere competition for the Doctor. They’re there to emphasise and give us contrasting perspectives on one of Series 11’s recurring themes: the importance of family.
Not for nothing do our new TARDIS quartet describe itself as a “fam”. They are, for each other, substitutes for their own broken or dysfunctional families. Ryan and Graham, both recently bereaved, are trying to reconcile their own familial relationship. Yaz (Mandip Gill) hints at a family life which she finds suffocating and maddening. And the Doctor seems, in this new incarnation, to need more than just a pretty girl and a grumpy butler by her side. She seems keen – as all of this new bunch of fellow travellers do – to form an unofficial family amongst them. And throughout series 11, we’ll see families and familial relationships of all kinds thrown at us: the home life of Rosa Parks, family secrets in Demons of the Punjab, a man contemplating childbirth and parenthood in The Tsuranga Conundrum, feuding family members in that story as well as The Witchfinders, and a family in turmoil in It Takes You Away. Not to mention the tricky family dynamics that both Yaz and Ryan have to navigate throughout the series.
Both our competitors in The Ghost Monument use family as motivation for racing. Angstrom is driven by her need to win the cash prize and lift her family out of persecution and poverty. If this series’ message about the importance of family needed a moment of overt emphasis, it is surely here when Angstrom looks straight at Yaz and implores her to not take her family for granted. Epzo, the cynical, hard-bitten type, recounts the (it must be said, fairly cliched) story of his mother tricking her young son into trusting her, only to trick him into trusting no-one. It’s no surprise when the Doctor tells him flatly, “your Mum was wrong. We’re stronger together.”
She’s shown to be right, of course. The story requires Angstrom to save Epzo, and Epzo’s self-igniting cigar to save the day; acts of teamwork which justify a dead heat in the race. As for the Doctor, when it appears that the race has ended without her retrieving the TARDIS, she needs her newfound family to reignite her hope and ensure that she can indeed coax that errant ghost monument back into being. So we can all tick that box marked, “thematic consistency”.
But beyond this, why does Doctor Who in 2018 want to reinforce the importance of family? On one hand, perhaps it’s just trying to differentiate itself from recent TARDIS teams, which have strived to show various combinations of unlikely mates mucking around together through time and space. Or maybe it’s trying to recall family-like combinations of classic Who, like the very first TARDIS team or the ersatz families of seasons 18 and 19.
However, my bet is on an attempt to reflect the audience base of what could be the world’s most famous “family” show. Not just that there’s someone in the cast for every demographic to latch onto, but that as families watch the show together, they are seeing themselves reflected back at them. That at least saves me from thinking it’s some low level propaganda about traditional family values, which would be um… tricky, to say the least.
So given the emphasis placed on family, perhaps the TARDIS shouldn’t have been the prize after all. Perhaps it should have been something essential to saving the life of one of our new found “fam.” An antidote, a pardon or a rescue in the nick of time. Or one of the fam themselves. For all their importance, Series 11 steadfastly refused to put one of our crew on the line. I think the show will get there though. And when it does, the Doctor will really have something worth racing for.
LINK TO The Brain of Morbius: both set on worlds which were once the home to great civilisations, now gone.
NEXT TIME: We’re wanted in Turmezistan immediately, to contemplate The Pyramid at the End of the World. Is it OK if I get an Uber?