Contains spoilers for episodes aired to date.
Something that’s surprised me about season 10 – but which I haven’t wanted to keep labouring repeatedly every week – is just how political this run of Doctor Who stories has been. Of course, the show had its activist periods in the classic era of the show thanks to writers and producers such as Malcolm Hulke, Barry Letts, Robert Holmes and Robert Banks Stewart, but generally speaking the 21st century incarnation has shied away from being too obviously message-led. It’s what made the 2015 Zygon two parters (overtly about immigration and terrorism) so shocking at the time.
But this year’s stories have seemed increasingly issue-led. It started softly enough with “Smile” in which people were not allowed to be unhappy, on pain of death. Then we had Sarah Dollard’s restrained and nuanced critique of capitalism and slavery in “Thin Ice”, which – after an innocuous haunted house hiatus – fed directly into Jamie Mathieson’s far more vitriolic “Oxygen” which covered similar ground albeit with the volume turned up to 11. But the political aspect really got into gear with the Monk Trilogy that started with Steven Moffat’s “Extremis”, in which – amid sharp meditations about life, death, faith and truth – there was the suggestion that something has gone very wrong with today’s world at a deep conceptual level. It echoed real modern angst fuelled by the fact that even experts, pundits and opinion polls can no longer understand or predict the world around them. After that “The Pyramid at the End of the World” from Moffat and Peter Harness provided a clear study on the meditation of power – of how ruling by fear and oppression is inefficient if you can obtain consent and thereby rule by some form of love or at least gratitude for preventing global apocalypse. And now the latest episode, “The Lie of the Land”, brings in the current phenomenon of “fake news” and links it with the propaganda and newsspeak envisaged by George Orwell in 1984 to illustrate how fragile concepts like free will and democracy are under such malign influences. It’s something we’re seeing play out on newspaper front pages and on social media every day.
This occurred to me while I was watching “The Lie of the Land” on Saturday, and I couldn’t help but think this was borderline stuff for the BBC to be showing just five days before a general election. Not that it’s the show’s fault: after all, series 10 was written, filmed and even initially scheduled before there was any possibility of a general election happening before 2020. It just goes to show how warped and twisted reality has got these days when it comes up with plot twists that no sane writer of fiction would even think of trying to get away with. As it turns out, the timely qualities of the current affairs issues woven into the most recent episodes of Doctor Who are some of the strongest aspects of stories like “The Pyramid at the End of the World” and “The Lie of the Land”.
The first 15 minutes or so of “The Lie of the Land” (a fabulous title, by the way) are top notch – both thought-provoking and dramatically gripping as we get a glimpse into the new dystopian reality created by the Monks. There are elements of other oppressive alternate reality stories such as Fatherland, SS-GB and The Man in the High Castle, and I wanted to know more about this twisted world. The wartime resistance analogy continues as Bill (Pearl Mackie) and Nardole (Matt Lucas) mount a rescue operation to free the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) from the clutches of the Monks – only to find that he wasn’t their prisoner at all but rather their willing accomplice instead. He’s seemingly fed up once and for all by the mistakes humanity has made down the centuries, and has finally come to the conclusion that Earth is in fact far better off under the Monks’ ‘benevolent’ dictatorship than left to its own devices to crash and burn.
This is all great stuff, reminiscent of the best of the show’s previous forays into nightmare alternate realities such as “Last of the Time Lords” and “Turn Left”. But unfortunately, from the moment of the Doctor’s ‘regeneration’ onwards, the story drops the ball and falls flat on its face. Dismissing the electric confrontation between the Doctor and Bill as “just a test” is barely half a dissatisfying step away from “it was all a dream” or “merely a computer simulation.” Not only that, but I didn’t swallow it for a minute. It felt like writer Toby Whithouse (of Being Human and The Game fame) had come up with these terrific opening scenes and then faltered when trying to write his way out of it by coming up with any logical explanation and continuation.
Perhaps the most egregious error of this moment of the episode is the sight of a Doctor Who companion taking a firearm and shooting an unarmed person in the back. It’s surely the most anti-Who moment in the show for a decade, let alone the way the Doctor then enthusiastically praises her for it. It’s as bizarrely out of character as the moment the Doctor approved a show of violent force in “The Pyramid at the End of the World.” Then there’s the ‘regeneration’ itself, which makes no sense: how does he do it, for one thing? And moreover why, given that no one present would know what a regeneration looked like? Only Nardole could possibly even have any idea what was happening, the Doctor having explicitly withheld the information from Bill earlier in the season. How any of this could possibly have helped ‘test’ Bill’s loyalty is utterly perplexing. The entire sequence felt like it had been shoe-horned in to give the BBC network controllers 30 seconds of catnip footage to put into all of their season preview trailers; the fact that it’s a cold, cruel and cynical trick to play on loyal fans appears not to have occurred to anyone.
Even so, these complaints would have been mere asides if the episode had continued at the same level on which it had started. Unfortunately that wasn’t to be. Instead of building on what went before, the entire dystopian set-up is essentially forgotten about for the remaining half hour. On top of that there’s a strange unreality about what follows, which is frequently more of an exaggerated black comedy satire at odds with the serious high tension of the start. How else to explain the bizarre sight of the Doctor cackling maniacally as he rams a huge prison ship into a harbour, seemingly heedless of who might get hurt or killed in the process?
In this, just as was the case in “Pyramid”, there’s a sense of ‘dream logic’ to the whole thing. It’s exemplified by the way that all the Doctor has to do is refer to going somewhere, and then he’s magically there. One mention of the vault and the next shot cuts to the group having successfully made their way to St Luke’s University despite the Monks supposedly being on the look-out for them. The same thing happens a few minutes later when they have no trouble finding a hideaway just metres away from the Monks’ curiously unguarded central headquarters. As far as totalitarian regimes go, the Monks really aren’t up to scratch when it comes to actually being totalitarian. You’d have thought that they’d at least have run a few of their impressive simulations to check what would happen post-invasion just to make sure the wheels weren’t going to come off their occupation, but apparently not.
The climax is another example of the show’s current ethos of “love conquers all”. This mawkish approach in the modern show is usually ascribed to previous show runner Russell T Davies, but in fact RTD’s stories actually usually went down the path of “love hurts”. The idea that the power of love is all you need to overcome alien armies is something that’s come much more to the fore under Steven Moffat. Specifically, the climax of “The Lie of the Land” is a beat-for-beat replay of what happened at the end of 2013’s The Rings of Akhaten” in that the Doctor gives it his best shot but fails, and it’s his companion’s love for an unknown dead mother that proves the trump card in achieving success. While not as abject as the overly exploitative resolution to “Closing Time”, this is likely to have a good section of the fan base rolling their eyes with the sheer hokeyness of it all.
For the record, I’m slightly more on board with it than might be expected. That’s because the references to Bill’s mother have been carefully seeded through the previous episodes, and the way that the Monks require pure love as the basis of consent for their invasion was also properly foreshadowed. As a result it makes for a dramatically satisfying if somewhat underwhelming conclusion to the story. I’m still surprised that we didn’t end up with the whole thing proving to have been the next level of the Monks’ simulation from “Extremis”, with the Doctor popping up to tell the Monks that this proves any invasion scenario is ultimately bound to fail eventually for precisely this sort of human indomitablity, which would cause the Monks to give up and go away before actually attempting anything in the ‘real’ world. In fact I’m surprised that the resolution didn’t involve the Doctor fighting fire with fire, by creating an artificial reality for Bill involving an idyllic alternative life with her mother which would cut the psychic link that the Monks relied upon to manipulate the earth. It would have been far more effective to show Bill actually living a life with her mother only to snatch her way from it at the end, rather than settling for merely sharing her photo album with the world via the Monks’ version of Facebook. As a whole, breaking into the Monks’ Fox News broadcast centre to interrupt the fake news was a limp way to finish; and the fact that the next morning no one remembers six months of alien occupation pushes the point too far.
Overall, it shows that the Monks Trilogy has been an interesting but deeply flawed experience. On the plus side, getting three very different writers to create three fundamentally different stories has ensured continued variety and many impressive individual moments. On the downside it seems that no one was present to connect the dots, and so the overall effect is fragmented and disorganised, with uneven tone and a disappointing lack of clarity in direction and purpose. The aforementioned Russell T Davies would have made the whole thing cohere – but equally, he would have done so by strictly imposing his trademark style and tropes over the whole thing rather than letting the individual writers go their own way. There are pros and cons to both approaches, and my only conclusion is that Davies and Moffat are very different showrunners and writers with their own strengths and weaknesses, for better and for worse.
But let’s not end on too much of a downer. There was still some excellent stuff in “The Lie of the Land”, with Pearl Mackie getting some of her strongest material yet, in the opening quarter hour and then as the truth of her situation as the fulcrum of the Monks’ invasion hits her. To say that this was her best performance to date is intended as high praise indeed, given how good she’s been from the moment she first arrived on our screens on “The Pilot”. And while they felt like they had been parachuted in from a different episode entirely, the scenes in the vault were also top notch and Michelle Gomez is captivatingly good as a seemingly repentant Missy who still doesn’t quite understand what it means to be ‘reformed’ – and still not quite managing to convince us that her days of villainy are truly behind her. And of course Peter Capaldi was excellent, finding another dozen or so different ways of playing the Doctor each of which were delivered with the same skill and aplomb as all the others. He certainly doesn’t look like an actor anywhere close to running out of energy, ideas or imagination in the role, that’s for sure.
There was some nice direction from Wayne Yip, who made the Monks look deeply unnerving as they walked the streets of London in the open. He also had some fun filming the incursion into the Monks’ base which used Matrix-like slow motion which froze bolts of three dimensional lightning in mid-air. That said, it was a little surprising that the Monks had suddenly gained such a generic superpower; and their ability to cloud people’s minds as to how many of them there were and even as to whether they really existed just once again emphasised how much of a respray of the Silents they had become. Certainly the lack of discernible character or motivation for any of the Monks made them one of the less effective monsters of recent Doctor Who, with the absence of a defined menace proving detrimental to the trilogy as a whole. Of course the underlying premise of all three stories is that “mankind is its own worst enemy” but that’s a hard concept to satisfyingly dramatise in an action show like Doctor Who.
The upshot is that “The Lie of the Land” didn’t annoy me anywhere near as much as last week’s story, which as you’ll recall had me going on a bit of a rant. I guess you could sum it up with the old adage “I’m not angry, I’m just very disappointed.” As a whole, the Monks Trilogy just never really worked for me and has rather stalled the enthusiastic momentum that had built up with the really strong opening five episodes of the series. I’m hoping things get back on course next week with “Empress of Mars” but I confess to a degree of trepidation given that it’s written by Mark Gatiss, who has been responsible for some really great episodes in the past (“The Crimson Horror” is a favourite, and also “Sleep No More” believe it or not) but also episodes that I couldn’t stand (“Robot of Sherwood”, “The Idiot’s Lantern”). Obviously I’m hoping for one of the former variety – fingers crossed!
Rating: ★ ★ ★ 1/2
Doctor Who continues on BBC One on Saturday evenings. The first six episodes are now available on DVD and Blu-ray, with the second half of the season following on July 17 2017