The Ghost Monument is essentially a quest narrative, something that, like its close relative, the chase narrative, was relatively common in the original series (particularly in the Hartnell and McCoy eras), but not really seen in the revived version. Perhaps there is a need for spectacle in the quest that previous showrunners were worried they would not be able to provide. Doctor Who always struggles to provide spectacle, but on a quest there have to be a whole series of terrifying obstacles to overcome because so much of the story is based on the overcoming of external danger. It is no wonder that previous showrunners preferred character drama or invasions of Earth that had an attention-grabbing, spectacular moment, but then zoomed in on the responses of a handful of people. In many ways, that must have seemed easier than providing a planetful of danger like The Keys of Marinus.
To be honest, they may have had a point. The quest here is relatively small scale, or at rather we only see its closing stages, once most of the obstacles have been overcome and most of the competitors are out of the race. There is not really enough danger or enough different environments or even enough set pieces to seem like a big and epic quest. That’s even before factoring in that the narrative stops earlier than expected to introduce the new TARDIS set. To be honest, I was left wanting more danger and excitement and more villainous villains. I do wonder why it was established early on that violence was against the rules and would be penalised. The selfish Epzo learning that cooperation was better than competition was perhaps inevitable, but should have been after he tried to use underhand methods to win. And Ilin gave in far too easily.
That said, this was not a bad episode, just a slightly underwhelming one. It was worth trying something new even if it didn’t quite work. The new regulars are developing nicely, although Yaz was left somewhat underused and so I still worry that there is not enough room for three companions in hour long stories. The guest characters were more off-the-shelf, though, the selfish adventurer and the war orphan trying to save her family. The episode did benefit from having a bit more banter than the previous one, although the less humorous style seems to be the big change at the scripting level from the immediately previous versions of the show. That, combined with the larger TARDIS crew and more vulnerable Doctor, less able to get out of danger with a convenient plot device (sonic screwdriver, psychic paper) from her pocket give these episodes the air of seasons eighteen and nineteen, which also reduced the Doctor’s abilities while increasing the number of passengers in the TARDIS, especially when combined with a production policy that seems determined to put the money spent on screen (not a criticism). It’s early days yet, though, and certainly this feels much more accessible to non-fan audiences than those seasons. And it was nice to see the TARDIS being restored to a position of a truly alien awe-inspiring artefact, here having become part of a culture.