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.

Doctor Who: “Before the Flood”

It’s all about paradoxes this season so far. In the opening two-parter, we got the Grandfather Paradox: if you go back in time and kill your own grandfather, how can you have been born and then gone back in time to kill your own grandfather? It was a softer version — if you go back in time and kill Davros before he creates the Daleks, then the Daleks will never have existed and given you a reason to go back in time and kill Davros — but the same principle. This time around it’s the Bootstrap Paradox: if you go back in time and hand Beethoven a modern copy of the sheet music for his Fifth Symphony before he actually wrote it, so that all he has to do is copy it out…who actually wrote it?

If the paradox is slightly less clear this time out (requiring the Doctor to explain it through the fourth wall at the beginning of the episode), well, so is everything else, really. There’s the nagging feeling throughout that something is missing, that there’s a piece or two or three left unexplained and perhaps inexplicable, given the absurdities and impossibilities of time travel. A friend of mine raised the question of why O’Donnell’s ghost doesn’t appear in the future until she’s killed in the past. She’d already been killed years earlier than anyone else, right after the creepily subservient Tivolian, in fact, so why wasn’t her ghost hanging around the base before it was even built? Perhaps the answer is something to do with the technology animating the ghosts, and when it starts to project them, but since this is never quite clarified either (why are ghosts mouthing words a more efficient means of interstellar communication than, say, a radio transmitter?), who knows? Or maybe it’s something to do with our point of view, or the Doctor’s: if changing history through time travel involves slipping between infinite universes that all vary slightly from one another, perhaps we don’t see the new ghost until we slip into the universe where she didn’t stay in the TARDIS but stepped outside instead.

Really, very little of the so-called Fisher King’s plan makes much sense to me either, but it’s tough to concentrate on puzzling it out when his giant wobbly puppet head and cowl are so distracting. At least it’s a practical effect, and an ambitiously designed one. If last week’s classic series motifs were bases under siege and running through corridors, this week’s include endearingly unconvincing monsters and villains that spend a little too much time revealing their plans through monologues rather than shooting first and asking questions later.

One mystery that perplexed me on first viewing made more sense on second; presumably the attempted TARDIS trip that causes Bennett and the Doctor to cross their own timestream is what ends up giving the Doctor time to create his holographic ghost and to prepare a trap for the Fisher King. It does seem a little excessive — though spectacular — to blow up a dam and flood an entire landscape in order to kill a single alien, even a very tall and Gigeresque one.

All that said, this is a surprisingly enjoyable second half. The structure, the characters, and the settings all seem vivid and fresh. There’s something appealing (though a bit random) about the Cold War village as a setting, about having a spacecraft parked incongruously in its midst and two actual aliens wandering around in it. Capaldi’s dialogue seems smoother this time, leaving out the “morning breath” joke. There’s time, since this is a two-parter, to stop and enjoy a few nice character moments, particularly the one where Lunn asks Clara what he should say to comfort her in a miniature reiteration of the Bootstrap Paradox. It’s a classic series story through and through — at root, it’s just an evil alien trying to invade Earth — and yet it doesn’t feel like one, and this time that’s not a bad thing.

So who did script the Doctor’s ghost? Who, for that matter, wrote Beethoven’s Fifth in the Doctor Who universe? These seem like intractable problems, but mainly if we assume (as most of us do every day — I know I do) that we have free will. If a symphony and a plan to vanquish an evil alien warlord are both things that require a brain to actively and deliberately choose to imagine them, then sure, there’s a paradox. But if we imagine that we are all part of and not separate from the universe, that the act of composing is in some way no different than the acts of recognizing, remembering, transcribing, or imitating, then maybe the notes of Beethoven’s Fifth are in a sense already written on that universe. Maybe they get inside our heads like four ideograms on the inside of a spaceship wall, just without a Fisher King to write them. Maybe this isn’t something we’re capable of noticing because we can’t travel in time…but if we could, we might find that every idea we think we’ve created has always been there in our heads, waiting to fall without a guiding hand into a particular shape the way a speck of dust from an exploding, expanding universe fell into the shape of the Earth.

Or maybe I’m just tripping out on that guitar-enhanced theme tune. We’ll probably get the illusion of free will back next week, but let’s hope we keep the guitar in the opening credits.