Last week’s season opener of Doctor Who ended with the new Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) and her three new companions, Yas (Mandip Gill), Ryan (Tosin Cole) and Graham (Bradley Walsh), floating in space. This week’s episode, “The Ghost Monument,” opens moments later as our heroes wake in spaceships that have scooped them up.
Ryan and Graham have been scooped by a female-appearing humanoid alien named Angstrom (Susan Lynch), who refuses to tell them anything, insists she never saw anyone floating about except them and keeps referring to Ryan as “Bonus.” The Doctor and Yas have been scooped by a male-appearing humanoid alien named Epzo (Shaun Dooley), who is similarly reluctant to bring his passengers into his confidence. The difference between the two apparent saviors is that Epzo’s ship is in extreme distress, and The Doctor has some radical ideas about how to save it.
Complicating both ships’ missions is the fact that the planet they’re each trying to reach is out of its orbit and isn’t where they expected to find it. Angstrom spots it visually and makes a neat landing in a sandy desert under three shining suns. Epzo winds up letting The Doctor take control of his ship, jettisoning the back half of it in order to ensure a safe (crash) landing. Ryan and Graham are just beginning to follow Angstrom into the alien desert, sure their friends are dead, when Epzo’s ship comes barreling at them and discharges a healthy Doctor and Yas.
Having our friends reunited is great, but Epzo and Angstrom are still refusing to clue them in on what’s happening. It’s clear that they know each other and are rivals, but they’re essentially ignoring The Doctor’s efforts to glean details.
When the group arrives at a tent, they enter and discover a lavish hologram interior and a hologram host within, Ilin (Art Malik). Ilin greets Epzo and Angstrom and gives them some supplies and directions towards their target on this planet. At last, The Doctor finds someone who will (begrudgingly) give her answers.
Ilin is the founder of The Rally of the 12 Galaxies. Of 4000 original entrants in this epic, interplanetary amazing race, Epzo and Angstrom are the only two remaining. They’re competing for a ride home from this final planet and 3.2 trillion krin. (Which is enough money for the winner and his/her clan to live on comfortably for the rest of their lives.) Both competitors scooped up the people they found floating in the star field because they believed them to be some kind of bonus in the race, but Ilin is firm that they are not.
The final challenge is for Epzo and Angstrom to make their way across this barren and toxic planet to a landmark called The Ghost Monument. They are each given a device that will help them zero in on their destination, they’re warned not to touch or drink the water and not to travel by night, they’re reminded that killing each other would result in instant disqualification and then they’re sent off on the last leg of their grueling journey.
After the competitors leave the tent, The Doctor talks Ilin into giving her more information about The Ghost Monument. If he isn’t going to allow her and her friends to leave with the victor, and he isn’t going to help them escape the hostile planet, which is called Desolation, she insists that he give them enough information to allow them a chance at saving themselves.
He explains that The Ghost Monument appears in the same place every 1000 rotations of the planet. As he talks, he conjures another hologram to show his visitors what it looks like, and of course it is the TARDIS. Once he’s given them this breadcrumb to follow, both Ilin and the tent disappear and our heroes set out after Epzo and Angstrom.
The Doctor is pretty sure that the TARDIS is unstable in a way that’s disallowing it to materialize. She’s relieved to know that she successfully transported herself to its location– or at least where it would have been if the planet hadn’t been out of orbit. She’s sure she’ll be able to keep her new friends alive until they get to her ship and she can take them home.
The Doctor and crew catch up to Epzo and Angstrom as they reach the ship that will take them across the water they’ve been instructed not to drink or touch. The Doctor reads the lovely looking sea with her sonic screwdriver and identifies the danger as myriad flesh-eating microbes that the water is practically alive with.
Epzo is unwilling to share his ride with anyone, but the Doctor convinces him with the help of some paralyzing Venutian martial arts and a promise that she and her team can get the disabled ship’s motor working. Her success with him helps win over Angstrom, who starts treating The Doctor and company like allies.
Ryan and Graham take a look at the alien motor, and Ryan recognizes that what Graham’s been tinkering with is likely a solar-powered battery and that it must not be getting power properly. The Doctor concurs, and together they quickly sort out the power supply.
Once everyone’s on board, they get to know each other a bit as they travel to some perilous ruins. The Doctor is disconcerted by the beautiful planet being so completely uninhabited and suspects something catastrophic has happened there. Epzo is unmoved, caring only for himself and his prize. He unsettles the crew with a tale of his mother teaching him that he can’t trust anyone by deliberately failing to catch him when he jumped out of a tree at her command when he was four. The Doctor tells him that they’re stronger together, which he shrugs off before effortlessly falling asleep.
While Epzo snoozes, Angstrom reveals that her home planet is being systematically “cleansed” and that her family are all on the run or in hiding– if they’re alive at all. When she wins the competition, her plan for the money is to find and rescue everyone she loves. Yas is moved by Angstrom’s urging her not to ever take her family for granted. (Ryan still seems dug in on holding Graham at arm’s length.)
When they reach the ruins, the competitors speed forward into what looks like a desert-claimed husk of a strip mall. The Doctor leads her team in more slowly, using her sonic to scan for signs of life and clues about what’s wrong with the planet. It doesn’t take long for one of the competitors to step through a laser tripwire, activating a legion of armed robot guards.
Epzo is the only one to be hit by a robot’s blast in the ensuing chaos. The Doctor and her friends run zig-zags until they find shelter, where The Doctor discovers a disabled robot she can scan and learn from. Ryan believes his years of Call of Duty have prepared him to fight fire with fire, so he grabs the inert robot’s gun and runs out of their safe haven against The Doctor’s wishes. He is successful at taking out a number of guards, but only temporarily. When they come back online, they’re more aggressive than before, and he barely makes it back to their shelter… which turns out to be a firing range.
The Doctor *just* has time to hide them all behind pillars before a swarm of robot guards descends on them. She drags the body of her found robot with her, demonstrating to her new companions how brains are mightier than bullets when she finds the power within the robot to set off an electromagnetic pulse that knocks out all of the guards for about five minutes.
In the time available, they reconnect with Epzo and Angstrom and move through a series of locked doors inside the ruins until they find a hatch that leads to a room full of grim answers. Ryan has to work hard to descend the ladder in the hatch that leads to the room and a network of tunnels, and Yas waits patiently for him at its base. The others go on to explore, except Epzo, who goes to nap. Darkness has fallen aboveground, so they need to figure out how to survive the night or keep moving underground.
The Doctor discovers writing on the floor in a large chamber, saying that the planet was destroyed by scientists who were forced to create innumerable weapons by the Stenza before being killed by their captors. The Doctor isn’t the only one to recognize the name of the race of warriors last week’s toothsome villain belonged to: the Stenza are the ones committing genocide on Angstrom’s planet. When Graham says that they’re the ones responsible for him losing his wife, Angstrom replies that the same is true for her.
Their moment of bonding over their shared pain is interrupted when Epzo starts making loud, muffled cries. He’s been awakened from his nap by a piece of sentient cloth that has wrapped itself around him like a boa constrictor. The Doctor cuts it off, and Ryan recognizes it as being identical to the remnants of fabric they noticed scattered about the planet’s surface during their daytime travels. This creature is why it isn’t safe to move at night.
Thanks to having found the scientists’ former domain underground, The Doctor has been able to access a map of the planet and sync it with Angstrom’s tracking device. They figure that they can significantly reduce the travel distance to The Ghost Monument by staying underground, and they set off together in the direction of the TARDIS.
As they do, the robot guards find them and shut off all life support systems underground, forcing them up to the surface via another ladder to a field full of acetylene. Ryan performs admirably with a second balance-heavy task under pressure, helped in part by The Doctor recommending that he distract himself by trying to remember the properties of acetylene.
Once aboveground, they’re immediately surrounded by flying pieces of sentient cloth that speak to them, uncovering and preying on their fears. The lead remnant zeroes in on a piece of The Doctor’s past that she cannot see in her own memories, calling her “the timeless child,” and definitely pushing a button for her. As the cloth has been speaking, though, she’s encouraged the others to dig into the soft sand they’re standing in and had Ryan share the acetylene facts he’s remembered– that the gas is lighter than air, smells like garlic and is extremely flammable.
The Doctor signals to Graham to steal the self-lighting cigar Epzo has been carrying with him to smoke when he wins the Rally. He does and tosses it to The Doctor who throws it into the air, orders everyone to drop into the grooves they’ve dug and snaps her fingers. The cigar lights itself, and the remnants are engulfed in a cloud of flame that hovers high enough above the ground that everyone is able to army-crawl to safety.
As dawn breaks, the troupe reaches the place where The Ghost Monument should be. They find Ilin’s tent there, but no TARDIS. Angstrom moves forward to claim her prize, asserting to Epzo that he would have died without her help. He counters that she would have died without his cigar. The Doctor intervenes and suggests a tie.
It takes some convincing (a serious threat from Epzo) for Ilin to agree to a first-ever tie at the last-ever Rally, but he does. He congratulates his winners, then blinks them off planet as Angstrom begs him to save their new friends.
Left behind, The Doctor has a crisis of faith and apologizes to her companions for having failed them. Her TARDIS is not there, and she will not be able to get them home safely. While she falls apart a little, the others come together. They insist that everything will be fine and they’ll figure something out. The Doctor is cheered, and she looks as though she’s ready to start problem solving when the familiar swooshes of the TARDIS become audible.
She’s able to stabilize the ship as it appears and disappears, bringing it fully to land. She runs to it, overjoyed to be reunited and admiring of the little upgrades she can already see on the outside. She apologizes to the ship for having lost her key, and it graciously opens the door for her.
Her friends are in disbelief that this small, old police box is her ship. She invites them inside, then precedes them to see what state it’s in after her last explosive moments with it. Inside it is completely reborn: graphic elements calling back to previous TARDIS interiors and crystalline pillars that give the ship a more organic look than it usually has. She loves it.
The companions enter and have their “bigger on the inside” moment, although not saying that verbatim. They’re awed by her space (and time!) ship, and she tells them to “start believing” as she sets the controls for Earth. (And is rewarded with a cookie from the ship.)
Last week we kicked off a new Doctor Who after-show on Twitch, called AnyWho. When we discussed whether, or how, the Stenza would show up again this season, I was skeptical that they necessarily would. Color me surprised when they emerged as a likely Big Bad right away!