“However bad a situation is, if people think that’s how it’s always been, they’ll put up with it.” Whether by design or not, 21st century Doctor Who has a knack for delivering its most pointed political satire in the run-up to a general election. Going back to 2005, Aliens Of London had the British government infiltrated by the Slitheen. The 2010 election was prefaced by Starship UK in The Beast Below and a RadioTimes cover that put party-coloured Daleks on Westminster Bridge.
Now, as election coverage dominates the airwaves in 2017, we’re offered an vision of an authoritarian parallel Britain in Episode 8, wickedly titled The Lie Of The Land. Writer Toby Whithouse offers up a Orwellian slice of Doctor Who as the third and final part of a trilogy, but unfortunately, it’s not a strong and stable conclusion to the ongoing story.
Starting six months on from Bill’s consent to the occupation of Earth at the end of Episode 7, she’s alone in a world she barely recognises. As far as anyone is concerned, the Monks have been around forever, as a helping hand to humanity. This fallacy is enforced by the Memory Police and upheld by political broadcasts, hosted by none other than the Doctor.
When Bill reunites with Nardole, they undertake a dangerous mission to find out how the Monks have brainwashed the rest of the world, including their Time Lord friend. The standout here is Pearl Mackie. We really like how Matt Lucas’ Nardole has complemented Team TARDIS and there’s little we can say about Peter Capaldi’s brilliant Doctor that we haven’t said already, but Part 3 of this story brings welcome focus back to Bill. We’re not wild about the episode’s script, but it gives her a lot to do, not just keeping the faith in a world the Doctor seems to have written off, but actively taking steps to save it herself. Mackie is marvellous even in a slightly weaker episode.
However interestingly the episode realises its parallel dystopia, cynicism has never been in Doctor Who’s wheelhouse and it almost threatens to drag the episode down. Nardole’s pointed remark about the national psyche in response to a dictatorship (see above) is promising, but the pushback from the Who formula makes this feel very trite. There are two major plot developments that simply don’t come off as they should, and one of them is the climax, not just to this episode but to a three-part story.
Three-parters are comparatively rare in the series nowadays, and the Monks trilogy has been an eclectic experiment on account of its different writers and directors. Although director Wayne Yip (who also did great work on the spin-off series Class) carries the modern thriller tone well, evoking the surveillance state with some jumpy, CCTV-inspired choices, Whithouse’s script feels more detached from what has gone before, and there are some frustrating oversights even outside of the lingering unanswered questions.
The Lie Of The Land is a weak and wobbly conclusion to an ambitious story, in which it’s frankly difficult to get invested. That said, it passes muster when it matters most by focusing on the series’ regulars. There are a number of big missteps here, but Capaldi, Mackie and Lucas form a strong enough core to right the show’s compass.
Additional notes (contains spoilers)
It’s Last Of The Time Lords Redux, y’all! Russell T. Davies’ underrated Season 3 finale had a companion on the run on an occupied Earth, and Bill fills that role here. That episode’s “power of love” ending is usually a poor excuse for television critics to write off Doctor Who, but here, Whithouse walks right slap bang into it.
You can pinpoint the regeneration fake-out as the moment at which the bottom falls out of the stakes in this episode. With the suspense over Capaldi’s impending departure, there might have been an interesting surprise in this, but it’s a cheap decoy that scarcely makes any sense when it’s revealed. The Doctor concedes that it’s “a bit much”, but we only wish Whithouse or Steven Moffat had said the same before they got to the shooting script.
Thinking back to Episode 1, Bill barely even knew what her mother looked like, until the Doctor went back in time and got her some photos as a Christmas present. Since then, she’s obviously gotten closer to an idea of who she was, to the point where she talks to her when she feels lonely. We weren’t fond of the unnecessary narration throughout the episode, but Mackie makes this relationship with the spectre of her mum work well.
*However, this emotional payoff is undercut by the bog-standard, functional use of it in the climax. Bill’s love let the Monks in last week, so it should work to have them defeated by her love too, but Whithouse really goes through the motions. As in Season 7’s The Rings Of Akhaten, the Doctor has a whack at solving the problem with his ego, only for the companion to step in and defeat it with love instead. The Monks promptly vamoose, apparently free to subjugate and manipulate another day.
Missy has been altogether more subdued in this season, apparently taking her pledge to “turn good” in Extremis more seriously than we’d expect. Michelle Gomez still has that manic glee that we know and love, but by the episode’s end, she’s unexpectedly remorseful for her past crimes. It’ll be interesting to see how that squares with another returning guest star towards the season finale.
To end on a positive note, we very much enjoyed how the Doctor correctly diagnoses the two main fixable issues with humanity – “racism” and “talking in the cinema”. Later, the last scene with the Doctor and Bill at the university, where essentially he tells her that he puts up with humanity’s more infuriating traits because he loves his friends, is sweet and it really does land in an episode that’s severely compromised elsewhere.
Photo: BBC / Simon Ridgway