Doctor Who #990: The Lie of the Land

"How lucky Earth is to have an ally as powerful, and tender, as the Monks."
TECHNICAL SPECS: First aired Jun.3 2017.

IN THIS ONE... The Monks rewrite history and Bill is the key to restoring it.

REVIEW: What the heck happened? After much build-up, the final episode of this three-parter is a near-total misfire, made all the more disappointing for my contention that Toby Whithouse should have been next in line for Doctor Who showrunner. The Lie of the Land consistently fails to make good on the set-up's promises, at times irritatingly so. The worst of it is the off-model Doctor acting like a total prick. For 6 months, he's been a "prisoner" of the Monks, playing along and helping them reinforce their thought control on the population. Six months for the Doctor to get out of this situation (he doesn't), to use his position to subvert the Monks' intentions (he doesn't), to figure out how they control the population (he doesn't). And when he's ready to move, he has Nardole get Bill, and then runs her through a loyalty test that seems both needless and cruel, and is entirely designed to make the audience believe he's gone bad. It ends with Bill shooting him and that's when he knows she's passed the test, while by the Doctor's values, this would be an extreme fail for a companion. It doesn't even feel warranted when she does it. And the fake regeneration? Simply not playing fair with the audience, as this got some play in the series trailers, and Bill doesn't even KNOW about regeneration. It's pointless in-story and makes you resent the Doctor, a feeling made worse by the amount of time spent on this sequence. It's preceded by a ridiculous "show your pass" bit that's meant to troll Nardole in a similar way (that is to say, fake out the audience), and the appearance of a Monk who promptly disappears from the narrative. It's followed by the Doctor laughing his head off as he rams a prison ship into a quay, at which point you may well wonder if we're still in a virtual reality (sure doesn't help that the screen keeps "fritzing" like it did in Extremis - a confusing effect to use for the Monks' thought control).

Looking at the story in terms of character growth, the Doctor's portrayal gets even worse. While Bill's guilt over her deal with the Monks is front and center and leads her to sacrifice herself (imagine if either character had died, as they seemed about to, at the 8-episode mark; imagine how shocking and amazing this would have been, even I want neither to go). But the Doctor never admits playing a part by hiding his blindness. He takes Bill to see Missy, and there lies another broken promise, because while Gomez provides her most restrained and effective performances in the role, it's really just expository conversation the Doctor would usually have had with himself. The one bit that should have paid off is her calling him out on his arrogance (what she called his selfish version of "good"), but it doesn't. In the climax, he's so sure that the Monks' computer wouldn't stand a chance against his mind, and then he takes credit for Bill's mum saving the world. He's learned nothing. Where's K'anpo when you need him. Having Missy work through her guilt in the coda is a better use for both characters, but any fan of Whithouse's Being Human will recognize Missy's speech as shade of what vampires in withdrawal would typically say.

And does anyone really understand that ending? It's not spelled out entirely, but my take is that Bill created an image of her mother she used to reinforce her memories of the true history of the world, and by projecting that mnemonic aid to everyone on Earth, it broke the Monks' hold. But despite the Doctor essentially narrating the entire sequence (and Bill explaining the plot a number of times to her mum and the troopers), it's not really clear, and plays as a "love will save the world" beat that, at least first-run, elicits confused ambivalence. Glad to see they paid off Bill's mum, but it's not a comprehensible pay-off. While we're on the topic of plot holes, I might also ask just what the Monks' agenda was. I guess they never got passed the "squelch dissent" phase of the plan, but what's the point of asking obedience if you're not going to ask anyone to do anything? The way Nardole is saved from the previous episode's cliffhanger is glib. We might have liked to see Erika working with the Doctor in this episode or something. Just more disappointments to throw on the pile.

Now, very often, a weaker episode can be saved if it has something to say and revels in its theme. Not so here. On the surface, this is about fake news and how people can be controlled by being made to believe propaganda. But adding mind control to the formula undoes any message The Lie of the Land might otherwise have had. The problem with fake news and our current culture of entrenched partisan alternative facts is that people are WILLING to believe anything, not COERCED into believing anything. The real drama lies in the collaborators who let themselves believe out of laziness, selfishness or fear. That the incident is immediately forgotten and forgiven undermines the whole point of the story.

So what DOES save the episode? Chiefly, Pearl Mackie's performance, which is intense and dramatic. The Monks' powers are cool, like the lightning that turns into solid shields. There's some strength in the dystopia created even if it doesn't stand up to scrutiny. Like I said, Missy's good (I love her delivery of "Awkwaaaaard", for example). And who doesn't like the Doctor's kind words at the end, telling Bill he puts up with humanity because one out of every 7 billion is someone like her. And is that enough to make this episode watchable? Maybe, but I might still prefer to believe the past three episodes have all been a Monk simulation, which ultimately made them decide not to invade Earth.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium-Low - Too ambitious for its own good, perhaps, the Swiss-cheese plot plays fair neither with its characters nor the audience.


Anonymous said...

"And who doesn't like the Doctor's kind words at the end, telling Bill he puts up with humanity because one out of every 7 billion is someone like her."

Me! The Doctor's deal since RTD has been that EVERY human has potential, not just Bill. Now every last person having potential is probably a stretch, but I'd say it steers closer to the truth than saying n-1 of us aren't worth it.

Also, Martha and Donna are still kicking around somewhere; did the Doctor just say they aren't worth it? Jesus Doctor, you can be a jerk to your exes.

Here's a much better version of this episode, where Rick Sanchez ends the alien domination of earth. And yes Rick is a misanthropic asshole, but that's by design and not a quirk of bad writing:

Brendoon said...

And even though the monks were fully evil they seemed to be an excuse (in this episode) to bring out the old, old message that "anyone in authority is bad, we need to bring 'em down so we can do anything we like, at any cost."
About 5-10 years back I was a rabid supporter of that view but the message now seems way out of date. (Writer must be in his 30's I'm guessing, not had his "mid-life" and learned the lessons of his next decade.)

Free will is enormously important, but even in the Doctor's universe it comes in second place to consideration for others and working together for the best: Trump and May are NOT intergalactic monks no matter what we think of them.

Anonymous said...

"anyone in authority is bad, we need to bring 'em down so we can do anything we like, at any cost."

Eventually, one internalizes a few things:

1) there are a lot of people who abuse their power, but

2) there are also a lot of people trying to use power constructively (within the limits of their power) but it's impossible to please everyone, so

3) it's important to learn the difference between the two when differentiating between friend and foe.

One reason I'm not down with anti-establishment politics is, I get to asking myself, "how would I solve these problems if I were in power?" Very often, I am forced to concede that I would not be able to do any better than the people currently in office. It's not enough to scream "nnnnrrrgggggghhh I DON'T CARE HOW YOU DO IT, JUST DO IT!!!"

And, there's no virtue in campaigning on "those other politicians aren't giving you what you deserve!" when you have no ability to deliver either. See #2 and #3 above.


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