'Doctor Who's Second Episode With Jodie Whittaker Takes On Toxic Masculinity & A Planet Called Desolation
At the end of the first episode with a brand new Time Lord, the Doctor, Yaz, Ryan, and Graham were left suspended in space, with the Doctor pointing eagerly at something luminous in the distance. And Doctor Who's second episode with Jodie Whittaker in the central role picked up mere moments after, as the spaceship equivalent of an arcade claw plucked Ryan out of the stars. "The Ghost Monument," written by showrunner Chris Chibnall, thrust the new Tardis team into a high-stakes race across a deadly planet — and exemplified the values that have already come to define the Thirteenth Doctor and her companions.
So, on to the recap. Both Ryan (Tosin Cole) and Yaz (Mandip Gill) awake in a medical pod on a spaceship, though the old school friends are divided. Ryan's with Graham (Bradley Walsh) on a ship captained by David Bowie hair double Angstrom (played by Killing Eve's Susan Lynch), while the Doctor and Yaz are attempting to salvage a failing ship piloted by Epzo (Misfits' Shaun Dooley). Both crash land on a sandy alien planet called Desolation, where Epzo and Angstrom make a beeline for a tent in the distance ("What's that?" the Doctor asks. "It's a tent," responds the ever-helpful Epzo.)
Inside the tent, it's revealed that Angstrom and Epzo are the last of 4,000 competitors in an intergalactic race — or the Rally of the Twelve Galaxies, to give it its official title. The winner, competition founder Ilin reveals (he's played by Art Malik, last seen in The Woman In White), will win 3.2 trillion of an alien currency the Doctor does not understand, while the loser will be abandoned on the planet. The endpoint of the race? The mysterious "Ghost Monument" — which, Ilin reveals, is actually the Doctor's missing Tardis.
Angstrom and Epzo set off, followed by the Tardis-less Tardis team, and the perils of the planet begin to reveal themselves. The water, for instance, is filled with flesh-eating microbes, forcing everyone to board a solar-powered boat (diagnosed by Ryan, thanks to his mechanic studies.) There, Graham gently prods Ryan to talk about his nan, Grace, who died in last week's episode. "You talk about this stuff way too much," Ryan says. "You don't talk about it enough," Graham retorts.
A quick editorial interjection: I already love Ryan, and I already love Graham, and I already love the show's sensitive and nuanced approach to grief. It's exciting to see a primetime television show examine traditional codes of masculinity that deny men the ability to talk about their emotions, and demonstrate the impact of such restrictive gender roles. Ryan is clearly struggling with the loss of Grace — as anyone would, given their close bond — but is unable to talk about it, or feels that he shouldn't. It seems likely that the show will continue this narrative thread, rather than limiting Grace's character to a throwaway plot point.
Speaking of codes of masculinity, let's take a look at Epzo, a man who would almost certainly say his favourite film was Fight Club if he had any idea that Earth (and its cinematic output) existed. "We're all alone. It's how we start and end and it's the natural state of all points inbetween," declares Epzo, a trust nobody, every man for himself, cigar-touting embodiment of toxic masculinity, whose life philosophy is based on an extremely unacceptable parenting decision by his mother. She told her 4-year-old son, Epzo reveals, to climb a tree and jump down into her arms — only to step out of the way, letting him break an arm and ankle. Can someone please have a word with this lady?
Delightfully, "The Ghost Monument" punctures Epzo's bravado at every turn. It's pretty cathartic to watch the Doctor grow increasingly exasperated with the wannabe tortured action hero, telling him at one point, "As hard as it is for you to understand, you are not the only lifeform in this universe." Get out of here, Epzo! You are the worst and your cigar isn't that special.
Angstrom, meanwhile, softens throughout the episode, after initially refusing to disclose her trauma to Yaz. Angstrom's home planet is being "systemically cleansed," she reveals, and her family are either in hiding or on the run. Winning the race would enable her to rescue and rehome them — "if they're alive to be rescued," she says. "You're making me miss my family," Yaz responds. "That's quite some achievement, considering my dad drives me bananas and my sister's trying to get me to move out so she can have my bedroom."
Another quick point: so far, we haven't seen as much of Yaz or her backstory as I'd like. Will we meet her dad or her sister? Will we discover what motivated her to become a police officer, or understand a bit more about who she is as a person? Mandip Gill is an instantly likeable, compelling screen presence, and I can't help but feel that she's been a little underused in the first two episodes.
Disembarking the boat, the group make their way into a seemingly deserted building complex, which turns out to be policed by a squad of robot guards. Ryan lives out a brief Call of Duty fantasy, taking down the robots with a gun — only to flee, screaming, when the robots reboot and the gun won't reload. The Doctor subsequently incapacitates the robots with an electromagnetic pulse.
An injured Epzo, meanwhile, continues to be the worst by refusing Angstrom's help, and the Doctor continues to have absolutely zero time for him. "What just happened? he asks her. "What do you care? You don't care about anything," she retorts. Another great moment: Angstrom asks her how she took down the robots, and the Doctor responds, "Did I not mention? I am really smart."
The episode also incorporated Ryan's dyspraxia again, indicating the show's commitment to depicting the condition as more than a throwaway plot point. "Why is it always ladders?" Ryan asked in despair, when forced to quickly descend through a hatch on a hunch of the Doctor's. Yaz waits for Ryan to climb down the ladder; when he thanks her, she responds with, "Always." If this show does anything to damange this lifelong friendship, I swear I will write someone a very strongly-worded letter.
Dyspraxia, or developmental co-ordination disorder (DCD), is described by the NHS as "a common disorder that affects your movement and co-ordination." Showrunner Chris Chibnall told press at a Doctor Who screening that his nephew has the condition, explaining, "It’s a relatively common thing among kids, so I think it’s important to see that heroes come in all shapes and sizes."
And Doctor Who worked with the Dyspraxia Foundation to ensure their representation was accurate, and the charity told Metro, "To have the condition featured on one of the longest running TV shows is truly groundbreaking." Writing in Marie Claire, meanwhile, Jenny Hollander (a former Bustle editor) said that the series premiere was the first time she'd seen her disability depicted on scripted TV, adding, "There's a message here, and it's not subtle: If a key character in a sci-fi classic can have dyspraxia and thrive, then so can the kids who watch Doctor Who and have been diagnosed with the disability."
Back to the plot: the Doctor is determined to figure out what happened to the deserted planet, despite Epzo's objections. "Fix your wound, take one of your heroic naps, and we'll wake you when we leave — if you're lucky," she says. With Epzo out of the way, the Doctor discovers that the planet was poisoned by abducted scientists, forced into work by the Stenza. Yep, that's the blue-faced, malignant Tooth Fairies introduced in episode one, responsible not only for the death of Grace but for that of Angstrom's wife too.
It's the Stenza, Angstrom reveals, that are terrorising her planet; the Stenza who've murdered millions of the population. And according to the message left by the tortured scientists, who attempted to destroy their destructive creations before the Stenza exported them, they're coming back.
A sleeping Epzo is smothered by an animated, bandage-like creature, rescued just in time for the group to flee from the approaching robots Yaz and Ryan spotted on the surveillance cameras. The robots subsequently choke them out of the tunnels by cutting off the air supply, forcing Ryan to climb another ladder. "Can I just say," the Doctor tells him, "you are amazing. Think of what you've gone through to be here, and you're still going. I'm proper impressed." To help Ryan climb, she tells him to focus on what he's learned about acetylene, the gas that awaits them on the surface. "It's lighter than air," he recalls.
Above the tunnel, the group are surrounded by the malevolent bandages, whose insight into the Doctor's past angers the typically unflappable Time Lord. Her escape plan? Epzo's special cigar, which ignites the acetylene in the atmosphere and consumes the bandages in flames. The group crawl to safety, and continue to the finish line — but the Tardis isn't present.
The Doctor convinces Angstrom and Epzo to declare themselves joint victors of the Rally of the Twelve Galaxies, a result Ilin reluctantly accepts thanks to a few threats of violence. And then he transports Angstrom and Epzo off the planet with a single click, leaving the Doctor, Ryan, Yaz, and Graham stranded. For a moment, the Doctor despairs, telling her new friends that she's failed them. Then, a familiar sound: the Tardis materialises, and it's newly done up with a fresh paint job. The new interior, meanwhile, looks like the inside of a sci-fi beehive, equipped with a custard cream dispenser.
It's Yaz, Ryan, and Graham's turn to complete the Doctor Who companion rite of passage: marvelling at the interior expanse of the seemingly modest-sized police box. And then, with a pull of a lever, the Doctor transports the group away from Desolation — and I'm extremely impatient to find out where they're landing next.