It’s the Second Episode of Doctor Who! The season’s settling into its stride, telling us what kind of thing it’s going to be, bedding down and making itself comfortable. I’m very happy with that.
This week, the Doctor and her new companions get caught up in a massive galaxy-wide trial of strength and endurance. The final challenge for competitors Angstrom and Epzo – one of them fighting for her family, the other for himself – is to cross a planet simply and ominously called Desolation, to find the ethereally-named Ghost Monument; which turns out to be, of course, the Doctor’s own lost TARDIS.
Our Heroes have little choice but to go with Angstrom and Epzo, however much Epzo resents their presence. They all quickly find, in delightfully unsubtle fashion, that they are Stronger Together; that the only way to survive the horrors of Desolation is to pool their various skills and resources, and to learn about the planet and its secrets rather than simply enduring it.
Is it totally on the nose? Yes. Is it also a thing of wonder? Yes, yes, yes.
I’m intrigued by how the galactic obstacle course imagined by this episode recalls Tim Shaw’s ritual hunt in The Woman Who Fell to Earth. Matthew Kilburn makes the link to Ryan’s ill-advised assumption that because he’s an expert at Call of Duty he can deal with several deadly robot snipers simply by shooting at them: competitions that reward individuals acting in isolation are, in Chris Chibnall’s view, toxic and counter-productive. It’s tempting to read in this a response to a prevailing political climate in which isolationism and competition is becoming the norm. It’s also tempting to see it as a corrective to Steven Moffat’s habit of making every single character who is not the Doctor into a puzzle to be solved, another game level to be unlocked.
People are not puzzles. A zero sum game is not a good model for a functioning society.
Unfortunately for an episode that’s so invested in the idea of community and humanity, though, the companions were easily the least interesting people on screen. That’s a shame: these characters and their dynamics are pretty unusual for New Who, and I want to love them, but I’m finding them strangely affectless and flattened, far outshone by the two strong female leads in this episode – Thirteen, of course, who remains a joy to watch, and Angstrom, a queer woman battling incredible odds to reunite her persecuted family (be still my beating heart).
Thirteen and Angstrom made this episode personal, godsdammit. In particular, the scenes in which Thirteen finds her TARDIS again make up for the unconvincing companions approximately ten times over. The Doctor’s relief and love for her ship are palpable, but there’s also a sense that these scenes are for every woman who grew up wanting to fly the TARDIS. All the Trumps and Kavanaughs and idle Twitterers in the world cannot stop us, harhar. Which is in some ways a fantasy, but it’s a delightful one, one which we can curl up in for 45 minutes every Sunday, and, as the late great Terry Pratchett said of fantasy:
You need to believe in things that aren’t true. How else can they become?
For all its flaws and blind spots, this iteration of Doctor Who is shaping up to be a fantasy that’s worth believing in: one in which everyone has something to contribute and everyone is valued and tyrants can be defeated with a snap of the fingers.
Because: how else can these things become?