In recent weeks, my Doctor Who posts have trended away from "reviewing," and expanded into larger discussions on the various threads and themes of the Steven Moffat era. (As my regular readers know, this sort of mission-creep is not unusual for me; it may, in fact, be my actual, secret mission.) But this week, as I'm feeling a bit harried and hurried, I want to narrow-in on the episode and provide an actual review of "The Lie of the Land."
I didn't care for it.
In Stephen King's Misery, author Paul Sheldon remembers a game he played at summer camp called "Can You?" It was a collaborative storytelling game, in which one child would tell part of a story about adventurer Careless Corrigan, always ending on a cliffhanger that left the hero stuck in some impossible situation: surrounded by hungry lions, perhaps, or sunk up to his waist in quicksand. Then the counsellor would turn to another child and say "Can You?", and click a stopwatch: this poor kid would then have 10 seconds to pick up the story, and come up with some plausible way for hapless Corrigan to escape his seemingly inevitable doom. After each desperate installment, the camp counsellor would turn to the group and say "Did he?" And the group would decide, by vote, whether the second storyteller had succeeded in resolving the previous cliffhanger fairly, or whether they had cheated according to the unspoken laws of good narrative.
I am not saying that's how Steven Moffat's writers' room operates normally, but it has sure felt to me like someone was playing a long game of "Can You?" over the last few episodes, beginning with the Doctor losing his sight in "Oxygen." Peter Mathieson wrote "Oxygen," Moffat himself wrote "Extremis," Peter Harness and Moffat co-wrote "The Pyramid at the End of the World," and then it was poor Toby Whithouse's turn for "The Lie of the Land." Whithouse is usually a pretty solid storyteller, but here it feels like he was given about 10 seconds on the stopwatch to get Careless Timelorrigan out of the absurdly complicated quicksand in which the previous storytellers had left him.
And "did he?" No, sadly, he didn't. (Thanks for playing, Toby, but you're out of this round. Help yourself to some juice and crackers.)
Though it's a watchable episode with a few decent moments—and thus nowhere near as disastrous as narrative trainwrecks like "Death in Heaven"—"The Lie of the Land" is kind of a mess. It rather wastes all the dramatic tension built up by the previous parts of this story, and it doesn't do much of anything to develop—let alone resolve—the themes that had been introduced. Most frustratingly—on a basic storytelling level—it just doesn't make a lick of sense.
"It's alright, because I know he has a plan."
Last week, I talked—among other things—about how Moffat is fond of deconstructing the deification of the Doctor. (Try saying that three times fast.) From that perspective, I suppose we can see what the Doctor puts Bill through this week as another example of his need to strip his companions of their all-trusting faith in him and make sure they are thinking for themselves. (Whithouse, after all, is also the author of the Season Six episode "The God Complex," which put Amy Pond through a thematically similar wringer.)
In the propaganda broadcast that opens the episode, the Doctor says, "Relax, and do what you're told. You're future is taken care of." Bill—though she is certain that the Doctor has not really joined the Monks—is basically following this advice: her faith in the Doctor is so strong that she's not fighting back against them herself, but just trying to hold on until he makes his move. "It's alright," she narrates to her mother. "Because I know he has a plan."
So this first half of "The Lie of the Land" might just barely pass the smell-test if we're breaking down its message. (I've argued that this story is largely about religion—or at least blind faith in a higher authority—so Bill being forced to symbolically slay her authority figure fits in with that. And the Doctor's points about free-will, and how humans are prone to ignore the history lessons of fascism and fundamentalism, are always timely.)
But it makes absolutely no sense on a plot level. "The Monks are using...something to control the population," the Doctor explains lamely. "Now, they don't trust me yet, not completely, and I had to just check that you weren't under the influence, and testing me." Leaving aside the fact that the Doctor has apparently been successfully "deprogramming" other random people for half a year before getting around to Bill, the trauma he puts her through here seems both cruel and uncharacteristic, and it's glossed over far too easily. (Has the Doctor ever wanted one of his companions to become a murderer before, under any circumstances? And yet, Bill's willingness to do so here means she somehow passes the test.)
I think this scene most offends me because it so blatantly wasn't designed for Bill at all: it was designed for us, and so Moffat could put a phony regeneration scene in his trailer for the series. "Regeneration a bit too much?" he asks Nardole, after the charade has been played out. YES, it was too much, Doctor: Bill doesn't even know about regeneration, let alone what it looks like. And why—once she'd pulled the trigger—was it necessary to fake an elaborate death scene anyway, except to traumatize her further? It wasn't for her: it was a cheap and transparent ploy to pull the wool over the eyes of the television audience, which should be far beneath this show.
"We could have snuck back in. But, the Doctor being the Doctor..."
And let's talk about the plan itself. The Doctor has spent six months coming up with this? It's a bad plan: in fact, it's barely a plan at all.
Really, what has his time spend collaborating with the Monks accomplished? At the end of his six-month-long meditation he doesn't really have any plan to defeat them, and he isn't any closer to understanding how they are controlling the population of Earth. (He needs to talk to Missy for that, and getting back to her seems to have been the full extent of his plan.)
Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that it took him six months to deprogram and recruit all the guards on the prison hulk where he is being held. But perhaps these recruits—who end up serving as soldiers to fight the Monks—would not have been necessary if the Doctor had not abandoned subtlety completely and driven his commandeered prison ship straight into London with horns ablazing. "We could have snuck back in," Bill points out, which is just Whithouse clumsily hanging a lantern on a glaring problem with the story.
Why make a big, noisy, full-frontal assault on the hub of the Monks' brainwashing operation, which seems pathetically easy to sneak into anyway? Why hand the humans you've recruited guns, and then subject them to the more powerful brainwashing signals radiating from this hub? Why lead them into battle against a ridiculously powerful opponent, guaranteed to get several of them killed? ("We don't sacrifice people," the Doctor says to Missy—but he does.) Again, the only explanation for this absurdity is that someone decided it made better television than being smart, sneaky, and surreptitious.
"All I can say is that we are lucky it was a benevolent race like the Monks."
Fortunately for the Doctor and his crappy plan, the Monks have been completely neutered since last we saw them.
One of the problems with building up a totally unstoppable, all-powerful opponent is that you then have to come up with something really clever to defeat them. No one came up with anything halfway clever enough here, so Whithouse just conveniently disempowers the Monks. Last week they were omniscient—able to predict even biological accidents down to the nearest second—and damn near omnipotent: they could teleport into planes, summon submarines from the sea, and disintegrate people with a gesture. This week, they seem to be a dozen guys with silly robes, shock buzzers, and a bizarre open-door policy on their headquarters. (If defeating them was as easy as walking in and shooting them, how did we end up here in the first place?)
And why, exactly, are they here? We are never provided any explanation for why the Monks went to so much trouble to take over the Earth in this elaborate way. They've run countless simulations, made a ridiculous show of force, and rewritten human history, and for what? To establish a generic police state that forbids the ownership of comic books? What is their purpose? What is their plan? What do they get out of this? Are they using the human population for slave labor? (To do what?) Are they strip-mining the Earth of its resources? Are they collecting taxes so that they can afford to buy facial moisturizer in bulk? We don't know, and neither—apparently—does anyone who was involved in producing this story. (Their entire plan—whatever it is—relies on a "psychic lynchpin," which is passed on through the bloodline. If the lynchpin dies, or doesn't happen to procreate, the Monks apparently just bugger off and "chalk it up to experience." What?)
Look, I appreciate the metaphor of "fake news" that this episode purports to tackle, and a few other clever things that extend the metaphor to comment on religion and totalitarianism. It is a smart observation, for example, that the ubiquitous, quasi-sacred iconography of the Monks—the statues they put up in every square—turns out to be an important part of their brainwashing technique. (Moffat really wants us to distrust statuary, doesn't he?) And I like how the Monks have—like every other religion—written themselves into the creation myth of humanity. (Relative to the scope of humanity's history—to say nothing of geological terms—the major religions of the Earth have been here about six months. And yet, like the Monks, they sell a narrative in which they've been guiding us ever since we crawled out of the primordial soup.)
So there were smart—even important—ideas at work here. But they end up being underdeveloped, and the execution in literal, storytelling-terms is laughably bad. Confronted with the strangely catatonic Monk wired into the Fake News communications hub—let's call him the Anchorman—why does it occur to no one to just unplug him? (Or—since we're being so casually and uncharacteristically violent—to just shoot him in the head?) Why is Bill's memory of her mother the one thing that "goes viral" and defeats their evil scheme? (I think there's a hint that—because those memories, provided by the Doctor's time-stolen photos, were somehow outside the normal continuity, they were "incorruptible" and thus immune to the Monks' meddling. But it isn't really explained, and—even if it were—I still don't think it would make enough sense. It's yet another phony moment manufactured for emotional impact, not from any internal logic. By comparison, the Doctor being resurrected by the combined prayers of humanity being channeled through a psychic network in "The Last of the Time Lords" looks both clever and earned.)
See, I don't like picking apart an episode in this way, and I'm normally more than willing to suspend disbelief as Doctor Who demands. But this one just didn't work on any level, and it was all too typical of the Moffat era's penchant for writing gigantic narrative and thematic checks that the show ends up being unable to cash. I had very much been enjoying Season Ten's move towards simpler, self-contained stories in its first half, but this multi-part story in the middle of the season has turned out to be a misfire of diminishing returns.
Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits
- It's an indicator of my mood that I didn't discuss the only bits of this episode that did work: the parts with Missy. Michelle Gomez continues to be a delight in this role: she nails the cruelty of the Master in explaining how Bill will have to die—"Awk-ward"—and she gets a few insightful digs in at the Doctor about his limited and self-righteous notion of what "goodness" has to look like. ("I just saved this world because I want to change," she says. "Your version of good is not absolute. It's vain, arrogant, sentimental. But if you're waiting for me to become all that, I'm going to be here for a long time yet.") And then, right at the end, we get a genuinely emotional moment in which we find her grappling with the memory of all the bad she's done. ("I keep remembering all the people I killed," she says. "I didn't even know I knew their names," she says. I'm pretty sure this scene is borrowed from Angel or Spike somewhere in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but it works.)
- Speaking of Michelle Gomez: she is supposedly leaving after this season, regenerating back into John Simm. If that's true, I'll be sorry to see her go. (I never loved Simm's Master.) But here's my crazy, wildly implausible theory of the week: how awesome would it be if Capaldi's Doctor regenerated into Michelle Gomez? We know there is sometimes special meaning in the faces the Doctor "chooses," and her mini-redemption arc could feed into his next regeneration. Plus, it's a surprise the show could actually pull off, since Gomez is already on set and thus somewhat rumor-immune. (No, I don't think this will really happen, but it would be much fun.)
- Everyone on the planet conveniently forgetting the six months they lived under the rule of the Monks was the final cherry on this crap sundae. The necessity for that kind of awkward, RTD-worthy retconning is a sign that your story is fatally ill-conceived.
- And, next week, we have a Mark Gatiss story to look forward to. At least it's guaranteed to be a self-contained story. (In fact, based on Gatiss's track record, I'd go so far as to predict that it will be utterly inconsequential.) But, somehow, I doubt it's going to improve my spirits any.
NEXT: Episode 10x09 - "The Empress of Mars"
PREVIOUS: Episode 10x07 - "The Pyramid at the End of the World"
Read all my Doctor Who reviews here.