“Where must we go, we who wander this wasteland, in search of our better selves?”
(Mad Max – Fury Road)
It’s a word, it’s an emotion, it’s an (absolutely wonderful) Bernice Summerfield audioplay by David O’Mahony. But, most importantly, it’s a key part of “The Ghost Monument”. Not just as far as themes go – but simply on an aesthetic level.
We’ve thrown some comparisons between Who and theatre before – a half-improvised, brilliantly messy performance that never ends. But that rather implies, in its own way, a form of absence – theatre as a medium is defined by absence just as much as by action. The viewers, from a wooden stage and some curtains, and a more-or-less elaborate backdrop, make up the antechamber of a palace, and from there, a whole empire; the off-stage happenings and the pauses in the trembling voice of an actor carry just as much weight as cues and gestures. The full is only defined through and against the empty, the light against the dark.
And with Who’s specific brand of storytelling, that becomes even truer. The show looks at a truly infinite universe: a boundless bundle of interwoven timelines, realities and fictions, where everything that ever was conceived, and everything that hasn’t been, exist in some form or another, or even several different ones. It can’t ever be cohesive, because it’s, quite frankly, too big – much like you can’t connect several pictures into an ensemble when you’re looking at them too closely. Which is why absence is its realm and dominion – Doctor Who thrives in the incomplete. In suggestion. That doesn’t mean the show ought to give up on presenting a coherent narrative, but whatever path it takes should be one that is surrounded by an array of various doors. Steven Moffat might have gotten a reputation for big and convoluted arcs, but he always chooses to leave them just unfinished enough to excite the viewer’s imagination – what happened to Bill after she ran off with Heather? What happened to Clara and Me, in their TARDIS? How exactly did Amy and Rory spend their days in New York?
The viewer, much like in theatre, is called upon, asked to fill in the blank, to use their imagination to fill in the gaps and maybe turn that story into something grander and more beautiful. It’s a form of art in itself, really – just look at a Faction Paradox scribe doing some canon-welding, and you feel like you’re chilling in Ithaca watching Penelope doing her weaving. It’s a great feeling, this communal sharing of broken bits and pieces of story – all the more in a Cinema Sins world, where a lot of people, when seeing the frame of the story wobbling a bit, will go “DING! Plot hole!”. And it’s not just a recent thing either – the extreme popularity of the Hinchcliffe era makes a lot more sense when you consider how its images, incrusted on the retinas of all the nation’s children, would have grown and developed on their own, beyond the mere and sometimes a bit drab confines of its TV realm.
Who, really, is good television turned into great television by the sheer strength of its viewers’ hivemind.
Which is why “The Ghost Monument” ends up working, really. It’s a script that’s full of holes, there’s no denying it, and, if you’re interested in doing a purely technical assessment of its strength and weaknesses, it’s probably going to end up on the sloppier side of things. But, for all that Chibnall’s vision might claim to be inspired by the new era of Netflix science-fiction, it shows none of the overpolished, tepid gleam of that kind of original content – it’s still unquestionably Who in its ability to intrigue, to pique the curiosity in front of half-built semantic structures and worldbuilding details. It’s flawed, but there’s a humanity, a vulnerability, and, yes, a unique form of beauty in these flaws.
And the narrative knows that, to an extent. The story has been compared a lot to the early Hartnell sci-fi adventures – adventurers on a hostile planet, trying desperately to survive in front of environmental and alien dangers. That was my immediate reaction, too – and to be honest, there are plenty of call-backs, intentional or not: the TARDIS’ biscuit dispenser feels a lot like an updated food machine; and water which dissolves human flesh is pretty much a direct nod to Terry Nation’s “Keys of Marinus” (with, sadly, much less gimp suits). But there’s not that much survival, when you get down to it – the threats the Doctor and her friends encounter are disposed of almost immediately, which is logical, really: she is, after all, a very different character from Hartnell, more on the “lonely God” spectrum than the “eccentric scientist” one, and the shape of the narrative is altered accordingly. Still, while you can see this as a flaw of the dramatic construction, the alternative plot structure it offers is compelling in its own right: less survival, and more exploration. People walking in ruins, talking to each other, witnessing the lone and level sands, stretching far away.
Of course, the thing they actually explore is rather vague. It’s “Desolation”. A world without a culture, without an identity. That’s not realistic – you can’t annihilate a civilization like that, and we should know, people have tried. But it makes symbolical sense, or emotional one, if nothing else: if there’s an aesthetic constant to Chibnall’s era so far, it’s emptiness. This is different from the Sheffield Gothic of the opener in looks, but the end result is rather the same: a world that has been deprived of its identity, of its basic physical constants even, considering the orbit shift. A world alienated – by petty abusers. By weapon trade, by capitalism. A world where meaning has collapsed. Its inhabitants nothing than shreds of cloth in the wind, or substance-less orientalist holograms – “Remnants”, remains, but of what? They highlight, in a weird way, a shape – but a shape without substance, reduced to function, as sentry and assassins. There’s an interesting visual thread, between their cloth-like appearance and the hoods of the sniper bots: the motif of a veil, hanging above the story. Connecting to mourning, but also to the idea of an unseen truth or menace lurking below the surface, waiting to be unveiled, waiting for re-vel-ation. A basilisk, maybe, if such Sandiferian locutions are admitted here – the idea of a world where even the Weird fiction of Doctor Who isn’t enough to re-enchant things. A world too broken to fix. A world where even the TARDIS loses its reality and corporality, becoming nothing more than a ghost of its former self, a flickering blur of blue under three suns (which themselves, if they are a bit of a reference to Star Wars, nod to the most “used future” parts of that universe: fields of sand where slaves labour under capitalist rule).
… Not that this has any connection with current events …
Of course, that’s not what happens. Because characters crave meaning – and, much like the audience, when confronted with the void, they fill it with their own stories, their own narratives. That void is not just the one of the planet, of course, but also something much more personal, loss seeping into their being: Grace’s death, Angstrom’s wife, and so on. For some, it means jumping head first into the capitalist fantasy of being a self-sufficient man needing no one else, and able to climb the social ladder, through blood, sweat and tears, all the way up to material commodities like fancy cigars that cost half a person’s life to make. But it can also be remembering loved ones. Or trying to make reality fit the rules of a video game. It’s only just coping, but what can you do but fill the nothingness with whatever you can find? The narrative might have holes, but they suggest something vulnerable, and human. And that’s where the real meaning is, in the end.
That’s what the idea of the TARDIS as a monument comes in. It’s not an entirely new parallel – it happened once, in “Dark Water’s” very first moments: where Clara, the girl in the blue box, talks to Danny, who’s standing near a monument to the fallen. The ideas are there, but they’re separated, presented in a shot/countershot way. Chibnall, here, reunites them. It’s one-upping series 10’s “the TARDIS is a safe space” take – not just a place of respite, but also of remembrance. It guarantees the characters a way back home, and in doing so, make their experiences real, make their past real – make it so that their emotions are not empty ponderings floating about a desert planet. And with a real past, a past you can “honour”, to quote Thirteen’s words in the opener, you can build a future. The TARDIS and its crew remember the words of the scientists the Stenza annihilated, and therefore, they guarantee that those will also have an existence, under some form, somewhere. When the universe loses meaning, what is there to do but go past the “gateway to everything that ever was, or ever can be”? That’s where the magic is. That’s where reality is – and it shines all the more brightly in contrast with the depth of the absence that surrounds it.
Which speaks to who Thirteen is, really. Of all the new series’ Doctors, she is the one that’s the least identified, so far, with a metatextual construct – not a “the last of her kind” archetype, not a flawed genius searching self-improvement. Just a traveller, with concrete solutions for concrete problems – the way she handles Ryan’s desire to go all shooty on the robot guards is very telling, emphasising less the moral issues of the situation (they have, after all, a right to defend themselves, and god knows a white woman lecturing a black man on gun ownership would have felt iffy), but rather how unpractical that kind of solution really is. Not “don’t go there” but “use a better class of weapon and don’t rush in”. She is there, she is real, and she’s about to hand concrete and immediate advice – all Presence to better contrast with the emptiness. A woman of action, who carries with her all the joy and delight (the biscuits! her look when she sees the TARDIS!) missing from our capitalist hellscape. Someone who’s going to teach us how to craft a new & improved reality.
Who cares if all our cities lie in dust? We’ll build better ones.