In the second episode of this season Doctor Who, our heroes travel across an insanely hostile planet to retrieve the TARDIS…and it’s all a bit bland, really.
Transported into open space at the end of the previous episode, the Doctor and her three companions are picked up by the finalists in an interstellar version of The Amazing Race. These racers are tasked by an incredibly wealthy hologram to make their way across the hostile deserts of a planet named Desolation to reach what the now-extinct inhabitants of the planet called the Ghost Monument, a strange object that appears once every thousand years and then promptly disappears again. It turns out that the Ghost Monument is the wayward TARDIS, phasing in and out of reality, so our heroes will be along for the ride.
And when I say hostile, I mean hostile. The water is full of flesh-eating microbes, the ground is full of acetylene, there are killer robots everywhere, and by night flying strips of cloth try to suffocate you. The prospect of a race across a death-trap world, with fabulous wealth for the winner and death to the lower should be a recipe for an exciting romp. Instead, it’s mostly kind of dull. The race itself has no tension to it, with the contestants forbidden from interfering with or harming each other. A fair amount of attention is paid to the racer’s dynamics, with the paranoid Epzo and the feisty but good-hearted Angstrom butting heads at every turn, but it feels deeply predictable, and ultimately doesn’t go much of anywhere. It feels like it’s there primarily to serve as fodder for cheap moralizing that doesn’t connect to much of anything (apart from Angstrom’s backstory, which I’ll get to in a moment).
That leaves only the hazards of the planet itself to carry the plot of the episode. Unfortunately, they’re a bit tepid. The environmental hazards aren’t conveyed effectively, so all we have to go on are some robots with laser rifles, and swarms of ridiculous-looking floating cloth things. Neither comes across as particularly threatening or particularly inspired from a design standpoint. Actually, the floating cloth are downright comical.
Overall, this isn’t a terrible episode, but there’s very little to it. I didn’t hate it, but I doubt I’ll ever bother to watch it again.
We get our first look at the new TARDIS interior design, and it looks pretty dang good! Dark and atmospheric, with large crystal outgrowths. It’s not my absolute favourite TARDIS interior (that prize goes to the look borne by the last year of Matt Smith’s tenure and all of Capaldi’s) but I do quite like it. Also, it comes with snacks, which is a bonus!
One of the episode’s opening scenes, with Yaz and the Doctor on Epzo’s ship, is actually shot in a very interesting way. There’s a lot of moderately long takes, and the scene is shot from Yazmin’s perspective, with the Doctor running about in the background. I quite like how this scene looks. It reminds me a little bit of a scene from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode The Circle, in which people keep walking into Kira’s quarters while she’s trying to pack, leading to an increasingly chaotic six-way conversation. That’s a good thing, to be clear; I love that scene.
This is a weird one, because it’s not so much something wrong with this episode as it is retroactively something wrong with last episode, but: I’m not down for the Stenza (or however it’s spelled) as arc villains. I thought the villain of last episode was Fine, if not particularly original; so he’s an off-brand Ice Warrior, whatever, it’s fine. But that was judging him as a one-off monster of the week, never to be seen again unless he proves surprisingly popular. In this episode, it becomes clear that the Stenza going to be a whole Thing this season; the planet Desolation is so wildly hostile because of weapons research they forced scientists to perform there, and Angstrom’s whole backstory is that the Stenza are going on a gigantic campaign of planetary cleansing. There’s a different standard of care there and frankly, Toothface McPredator is just not cutting it.
The ‘Sniperbots’ are the laziest monster design in modern who history. It’s impossible to feel threatened by them; they hardly even move on camera. Meanwhile, the floating cloth things just look ridiculous.
At one point the show comes to a screeching halt so that the ridiculous cloth banner monsters can do some sort of mental reading on the Doctor and then spout a bunch of portentous arc words at us. The Timeless Child! Okay, sure, I guess. Hey, isn’t this exact thing one of the things people hated about Moffatt’s tenure as show runner?
Other than that one scene at the beginning of the episode, the visual production of this episode still looks like garbage. The camera shakes like mad whenever it’s in motion, no matter how sedate the walking pace the characters are setting, and the use of focus is still baffling. There’s one shot where Graham, in the background, says something, and then the Doctor, in the foreground turns away from him and faces Ryan, off-screen, and commands him: “Put the gun down, Ryan.” But because the shot began with the focus on Graham, so she’s saying this line while completely out of focus. There’s just a blurry mess in the foreground speaking. During conversations, as well, the camera often gets shoved so close into Whittaker’s face that the scene feels claustrophobic for no reason.
The next episode preview is by far the most frightening thing about the episode. I have no idea why Chibnall and his writing team thought The Doctor Meets Rosa Parks And Aliens Are There Too would be a good idea for an episode, but I can’t even conceive of how this next episode could be anything but a tone-deaf catastrophe.