Doctor Who: “The Lie of the Land”

At this point it really does feel as though the Monks have always been here, so I’m looking forward to something new next week, even if it’s the Mark Gatiss episode. Fortunately, I’m one of probably few people who felt they went out on a relatively high note.

“The Lie of the Land” needs us to believe in an entire world oppressed by thought police, where life is fine as long as one accepts the titular lie that the Monks have been at humanity’s side throughout time, helping us through our evolutionary path, our greatest inventions, and our biggest achievements. It does this through anecdote (fascist thugs kicking down the door) and montage (the Doctor’s voice over a series of Forrest-Gump-like insertions of the Monks into photos from human history). It’s a little brief, but in 2017 we’re not only watching The Man in the High Castle and The Handmaid’s Tale but we’ve seen examples of fascist alternate presents in Doctor Who already (notably “The Last of the Time Lords” and “Turn Left,” probably fresher in most people’s memories than “Inferno”), so maybe this is all that’s required. It’s interesting how “The Lie of the Land” does for the Monks and human history what “The Name of the Doctor” did for Clara and the Doctor’s history, making her seem a little more intrusive in hindsight, but I digress.

From the setup we move into the first big set piece of the episode: Bill and Nardole tracking down the Doctor. There’s a bit of a cheapness to the fact that the episode’s big hook — the Doctor appearing to side with the Monks — is an overly elaborate charade, but the case he makes is surprisingly, perhaps chillingly plausible. Less plausible is the fake regeneration — Bill has no idea what it is, because if she had, she would have worried less about rescuing him in the previous episode, and there hasn’t been time for the Doctor to explain it in the meantime. It happens purely for the sake of a dramatic trailer tease. But the rest of it is pretty terrific: Capaldi and Mackie are once again among the best actors this show’s ever seen, and the words are on par with all but the best of this Doctor’s speeches. On first viewing, everything happens quickly enough that it looks as though Bill pulls a gun and shoots the Doctor out of shock and betrayal, but a second viewing confirms that she expresses a practical reason: she realizes that if the Doctor’s on the side of the Monks then humanity really is doomed, and the only obvious moral course of action is to kill him and give the world a fighting chance. She’s also had six months of listening to him broadcast these same views, and though she presumably figures the broadcasts are a ruse, there must be part of her that’s thought about what she might have to do if they aren’t.

And from the companion being obliged to kill the Doctor we move to the Doctor obliged to kill the companion: the second set piece, finally entering the Vault to see Missy imprisoned in a setup inevitably reminiscent of The Silence of the Lambs and the final episode of this last season of Sherlock. If putting Capaldi and Mackie in a room together and letting them play off one another is a brilliant move, adding Michelle Gomez is even better. The conversation is taut and layered, given that Missy is ostensibly in prison to be rehabilitated (having promised to “turn good”) and tensions run high between her and the Doctor…and Bill, who meets another of the Doctor’s kind for the first time and within moments discovers that she’s as blasé about murder as Bill isn’t. It’s a marvelous scene, right down to the way Missy says the word “volcano,” and it ends with the discovery we knew was coming: the easiest way to break the Monks’ hold is to kill Bill.

From here it’s on to the last and least effective set piece: the Doctor and company invading the pyramid in order to disrupt the Monks’ broadcast at its source. Whether you’re impressed by the solution, in which Bill is able to succeed where the Doctor fails because of her adoption of her mother as an imaginary friend, depends on whether you’re the sort of person who’s been impressed by all the other times in new Who when the power of love proves sufficient to dash the plans of even the most omnipotent villains. For me, at this point, it didn’t matter much since the Monks had never been a remotely believable threat to begin with. Had they stopped running simulations by this point, such that they couldn’t have guessed the Doctor and Bill would elude their influence? How is it that a race of beings who can teleport into a fighter jet or stop a missile in mid-air can’t defend the entrance to their pyramid from a handful of humans with machine guns? Why do they even need to post guards at all, if they have the power to heal the blind remotely and instantaneously and can presumably reverse the process anytime they like? What were they even getting out of the deal in the first place — just obedience? As antagonists, the monks never made any sense in any of their appearances, but “Extremis” and “Pyramid” were able to borrow against the promise that this would be the episode in which all would be explained. It’s not entirely this episode’s fault that it couldn’t pull the same trick, and that nothing was explained.

As a metaphor for forces we’re told have always been with us, helping us, demanding nothing but obedience, though, the Monks do stand in quite well for certain strains of religion, particularly the “fundamentalism” the Doctor refers to. The “fascism” part is obvious, and the two often go hand in hand, both demanding a big lie to keep the population in line. I have to wonder about the people who were horrified that Bill is driven to shoot the Doctor, and then is laughed at when it turns out to be a way of confirming her incorruptibility (fair enough, a short serious apology from the Doctor could have helped a lot to defuse that scene). Were they similarly horrified last week when she made the opposite move, saving the life of one man by dooming billions to tyranny? For six months, real people were really executed because she chose the well-being of her friend over the well-being of the entire planet. I’m not inclined to condemn either of Bill’s decisions, but putting the interests of our friends above the well-being of humanity is how fascism begins.

4 comments

  1. Chris · June 5

    I think there are a bunch of contextual reasons behind showing a stronger emotional reaction to what was done to Bill here than to what she did last week.

    For one thing, the fact that the latter was so obviously a piece of contrived plot machinery to enable Harness to get to the end-point he had been laboriously trudging towards all episode, without having managed to come up with a route that made any sense, and so much a component of the inept thematic device of “pure consent” running through the episode. It was such a transparently plot/concept-driven structural thing, and in such an incoherent structure, as to deflect from engaging with it on the level of human behaviour springing from any notional character psychology.

    Then there’s the fact (tying into your point about the other episodes benefiting from having this one as a presumed alibi for their gaps) that it was a cliffhanger, deferring the fallout to the next episode, when it might be supposed the story would itself deal with Bill’s culpability. In the event it didn’t really, but no one knew that at the time, and judgement could be reserved on where the story was going with it. (Then there was so much to complain about right here in this episode itself that going back over the problems of the previous one that were heightened by it probably wasn’t high on most people’s priority list.) Here everyone knew that this was all there was and could judge it without reservation.

    There’s also the matter of the authorial position on the character’s behaviour. Even given the absence of follow-up due to the cliffhanger, what Bill did last week was clearly intended to be morally wrong and pragmatically catastrophic, with the Doctor as a moral authority within the story explicitly pleading with her not to do it. There was no sense that her action was being endorsed or even condoned, so there was no major complaint to be made on that front against the story or the writer, at least pending the final installment. By contrast, the Doctor’s deception here was presented as no big deal, and indeed as a big practical joke.

    And on both the authorial level and that of character, I think the hilarity really does make an immense difference. Bill’s sell-out was presented as agonising for her (just as the Doctor’s treatment of Ace was in Curse of Fenric, the most obvious precedent for what the Doctor does to Bill here). There’s always a degree of sympathy available for a character who is torn like that, who feels compelled to do something awful while hating every moment of it, no matter how profoundly reprehensible their actual decisions. (Some allowance could also be made in this case for Bill’s faith, however irresponsible, short-sighted and dubiously-founded, that the Doctor could sort it all out.) It’s vastly more horrifying and alienating when a character is so psychopathic as to regard awful actions as a jolly jape, not to mention when the text actually agrees with them.

    Finally, while I don’t know how representative this is of the people you’re referring to, for me the Doctor’s treatment of Bill was just the icing on the big stinking shit-cake of his collusion with the invaders, and his equally casual lack of remorse for that. While its impact on the situation was smaller, on a moral level that sustained, calculated, callous and completely knowing participation in the horrors actually going on around him was vastly less forgivable than Bill’s single act of moral cowardice inspired by desperation, ignorance of the exact consequences, and ill-advised gambling on the Doctor’s world-saving abilities. When you’re already completely appalled by the propaganda stuff, going after his cruelty to Bill as well is just a matter of adding another item to the charge sheet while you’re there.

    Whew, that was a long one.

    P.S.: I liked “volcano”, but for me the closest thing to a justification for this episode’s existence was “wee girl”.

    • encyclops · June 5

      As I said, I agree there should at least have been a serious moment between the two of them. A couple of lines would have gone a long way, even something like “I’m sorry, Bill. I’m not laughing at you. I’m just happy to have you back.” But of course here we get that “alien” Doctor we’re all supposedly craving, leading into that seriously weird moment where he cackles like a maniac on the prow of the boat. I guess we’re meant to assume he’s gone a little stir-crazy sitting in a prison ship for six months pretending to collaborate.

      Speaking of the collaboration: the episode is very sketchy when it comes to explaining why he’d ever do that, but what I think I got was that the Monks were watching him and holding him prisoner, and he was obliged to pretend to cooperate for as long as he had guards around him who were loyal. Moreover, we’re told that life under the Monks is fine as long as you don’t question their omnipresence in human history, so encouraging people to believe the lie was probably the only means the Doctor had of minimizing casualties while he formulated some kind of plan and recruited allies. Here again, the episode needed to make this a lot more clear, give us some sense that he hated what he had to do at least, but I think the threads of an explanation are there. It doesn’t help that the Monks are all-powerful when it’s convenient and idiots most of the time, so getting any coherent sense of the threat they pose and the choices they restrict is impossible.

      I’d agree that both choices on Bill’s part are entirely forgivable, even sensible. And I think you’re right that “wee girl” was even better.

  2. Chris · June 5

    On a related topic, privileging the wellbeing of one of his friends, or that of a single specimen of charismatic megafauna (gigafauna? terafauna? petafauna?) over that of large numbers of common-or-garden earthlings seems to be an established trait of the Twelfth Doctor, and of Capaldi-Who as a creative enterprise, what with Kill the Moon, Thin Ice, and season 9 in general. Compare and contrast with the Eleventh in The Beast Below.

    • encyclops · June 5

      Don’t get me started on “Kill the Moon.” 🙂 Whithouse’s take on the Doctor is especially weird much of the time all by itself. I’d almost successfully blocked out “A Town Called Mercy,” in which he pulls a gun on an alien like it’s nothing and there’s all that endless arguing over whether the Doctor is a war criminal too.