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Doctor Who: The Lie of the Land (Review)

The Lie of the Land is a much more conventional episode than Extremis or The Pyramid at the End of the World.

Part of that is undoubtedly down to the fact that it actually has to resolve a massive three-part “event” story, instead of iterating through the invasion of the monks and pushing off the ending to the next episode. While Extremis and The Pyramid at the End of the World could be experimental and playful in their form and structure, The Lie of the Land is very much a standard meat-and-potatoes episode that has to tidy up the pieces so that Mark Gatiss might have a clean slate for Empress of Mars.

Terror vision.

However, even outside of the three-part structure and the experimental nature of the preceding episodes, The Lie of the Land feels like a curiously old-fashioned and straightforward adventure. It is a very conventional “contemporary Earth invasion” story. It is a template that feels very firmly rooted in the history of Doctor Who, but one that feels relatively out of place in the context of the Moffat era as a whole. After all, the last time that the Doctor squared down an alien invasion as the primary plot of an episode, it was the unconventional Power of Three.

The Lie of the Land is the kind of story that was far more common during the Davies era. It is very much of a piece with stories like Aliens of London, World War III, Rise of the Cybermen, The Age of Steel, Doomsday, The Sontaran Stratagem, The Poison Sky, The Stolen Earth and Journey’s End. Indeed, the basic plot of the episode owes a lot to The Last of the Time Lords. It is perhaps telling that The Lie of the Land is credited to writer Toby Whithouse, who is (along with Mark Gatiss) one of the primary holdover writers from the Davies era as a whole.

Old hat.

The Lie of the Land is competently executed, more interested in maintaining forward momentum and hitting big emotional beats than it is with big ideas. Tellingly, the episode adds very little to the mythology or definition of the monks beyond what was suggested in Extremis and The Pyramid at the End of the World. After those two episodes worked hard to make the Monks unique, The Lie of the Land turns them into generic Orwellian bad guys who manipulate history in a fairly simplistic manner.

The Lie of the Land is essentially a broad strokes run-around. While there’s definitely a time and a place for that, and while it certainly makes sense after two bolder and more provocative episodes, there is something faintly disappointing in this.

Information is power.

Steven Moffat’s final season seems to be haunted by the ghost of Russell T. Davies, right down to the fact that the big teaser at the start of the year ended with a surprise appearance from John Simm reprising his role as the Master. More than that, there is a clear sense that Moffat has taken several creative cues from his predecessor in mapping out the season and the characters involved. Most notably, The Pilot introduced Bill in a manner very much in keeping with the tone of the Davies era, with a preoccupation on her social class and her sexuality.

That influence has rippled across the season. The opening trilogy of The Pilot, Smile and Thin Ice marked the first time that Moffat employed the classic Davies era “present, future, past” opening triptych structure since his very first season running Doctor Who. The fixation on Bill’s living situation (and her friends outside the TARDIS) in Knock Knock recalled the way in which Davies entrusted companions with lives beyond the Doctor. It is very clear that Bill has more in common with Rose or Donna than she does with Amy or Clara.

I have heard the chimes at twelve.

The Lie of the Land only reinforces these similarities. The episode draws heavily from the series’ long history of “aliens invade contemporary Britain” narratives, a template firmly established during the Barry Letts era while the Third Doctor was stranded on contemporary Earth. In fact, when Nardole refers to the old prison ships as “Hulks”, it seems almost like a nod to veteran writer Malcolm Hulke, who worked on invasion stories like … and the Silurians, The Sea Devils and Invasion of the Dinosaurs. Those stories would carry over into the Fourth Doctor’s era.

When Russell T. Davies revived Doctor Who for contemporary audiences, he made a point to return to those iconic narratives. Rose was an extended homage to Spearhead from Space, one of the most memorable classic season premieres. During the Davies era, it seemed like the Doctor spent every other week trying to prevent aliens from launching some sinister global takeover. Indeed, it is tempting to look on this as the “blockbuster” era of the series, in terms of its popularity and in terms of its storytelling style.

Cracking an elaborate pyramid scheme.

The Lie of the Land harks back to a very specific alien invasion narrative from the Davies era. The Lie of the Land could almost be seen as a remake of The Last of the Time Lords. Both are classic “The [noun] of the [noun]” titles positioned as the third episode in a trilogy. Both take place in the wake of a successful alien invasion, in which a hostile force has subdued the human race by effectively bullying them into submission through advanced technology. Both stories open with the companion plotting to rescue the Doctor, while both stories also feature the Master.

There are differences, of course. The Master imposed his will on mankind using the Arkangel Network, while the Monks hide the transmitters in statues; although both schemes fail when the Doctor weaponises these transmitters to broadcast the power of love. The Master was the primary antagonist of The Last of the Time Lords, while Missy has a very small role in The Lie of the Land; however, the Monks have a similar moniker and it is worth noting that a popular fan theory suggests that the Master’s first persona was that of the Monk from The Time Meddler.

Play Missy for me.

Writer Toby Whithouse cheekily acknowledges these similarities in dialogue. The Doctor introduces Missy to Bill as “the other Last of the Time Lords”, and the title could be cheekily said to apply to The Lie of the Land. even the resolution of the stories seems vaguely similar. Martha convinces mankind to think of the Doctor, effectively powering him with their hopes and dreams. Bill inverts that dynamic, transmitting her own memories of her mother to the rest of mankind. Both are upbeat endings about the power of love in the face of tyranny.

It is all very straightforward and relative simple, to the point that the political commentary driving the episode feels very shallow and generic. The Monks were a compelling creation in Extremis and The Pyramid at the End of the World, when they modeled the future and sought to conquer mankind through genuine consent. However, The Lie of the Land focuses on the aftermath of this takeover. The Monks seems like a much more generic alien invader than they had seemed in earlier episodes.

We was robed.

They use mankind’s institutional authorities to enforce their will, with soldiers dressed in overtly fascist uniforms and carrying machine guns. They have literal “memory police” who enforce their version of history. They keep the population in line through a combination of propaganda and intimidation. The most interesting thing about the Monks feels like it has been lifted directly from 1984, the way in which they keep the populace subdued through the skilled manipulation of history and memory.

To be fair, there are shades of uniquely Moffat era monsters to be found in this depiction of the Monks. The notion of an alien menace manipulating memory and history has recurred throughout Moffat’s tenure. It obviously resonates with the crack from his first season, but the imagery of the Monks inserting themselves into mankind’s history plays as a canny reversal of the Silence from The Impossible Astronaut and Day of the Moon. While the Silence write themselves out of history, the Monks write themselves in.

Studying his enemy.

There are interesting ideas to explore there, particularly given Moffat’s interest in Doctor Who as a piece of self-aware meta-fiction. Moffat tends to treat history and time travel as narrative manipulations rather than as science-fiction high concepts, the Doctor serving more as a sentient idea than as a lone alien. The Monks can weaponise the narrative of history, an idea that should be more central to the story than it ultimately is. It feels under-explored, treating the Monks’ manipulations as mere propaganda rather than skillful editing.

“Why go the trouble of changing the past?” Bill wonders at one point, reflecting that the Monks have already secured their power. Nardole explains that people are a lot more likely to tolerate oppression if it is presented in continuity. “If people think that’s the way it’s always been, that’s ninety percent of the job done.” It is a clever idea, but one that lacks the bite of episodes like Extremis or The Pyramid at the End of the World. The Monks feel like generic fascists, losing the specificity that Extremis and The Pyramid at the End of the World applied to them.

The much-vaulted vault.

The Lie of the Land makes a few nods to the current wave of right-wing populism that has taken root in the United States and the United Kingdom. The Doctor cheekily refers to the Monks’ headquarters as “fake news central”, while Donald J. Trump himself makes a small appearance in the video montage playing out on the monitors at the top of the control room. However, the episode never deals with anything quite as pointed as looking at the roots of this populism like Extremis did or the reasons for its success like The Pyramid at the End of the World.

There are a few overtly and politically-charged lines during the episode, most notably as Bill tries to break the Doctor out of prison. Bill is heartbroken to discover that the Doctor has seemingly been converted to the cause, that his support of the Monks is not part of a cunning plan to undermine them. The Doctor has some very harsh words for mankind, as he explains why he would side with the Monks. “You’ve stopped moving forward,” he warns Bill. “You’re regressing.” He protests, “You had free will and look at what you did with it.”

Alternative histories.

This argument would certainly work as the emotional and political climax of a trilogy that opened with Extremis and The Pyramid at the End of the World. After all, The Pyramid at the End of the World had been at least ambivalent about democracy as a theory of governance, demonstrating how easily it could be manipulated by sinister forces. The Doctor’s big angry rant at Bill about mankind’s refusal to learn from history and fascism feels like the logical extension of this theme, and it feels like it should build to the crescendo of the three-parter.

However, it is immediately clear that The Lie of the Land does not want to have that sort of political debate. It is very telling that The Lie of the Land never includes any extended conversations between the Doctor (or Bill) and the Monks. The Monks got quite a lot of screentime and dialogue in The Pyramid at the End of the World, ruminating on the “consent” of the governed, but they are reduced to a fairly generic alien menace in The Lie of the Land. The closest the audience gets to a dialogue-driven scene is the Doctor muttering to the mummified broadcaster.

Oh, mummy!

Even the big argument between Bill and the Doctor about human nature and free will turns out to be a massive red herring. The Doctor is simply testing Bill, going to the point of faking his regeneration to prove that she can be trusted. All of that yelling and shouting effectively amounts to nothing, beyond the tension of the scene itself. After the scene builds to its conclusion, with Bill shooting the Doctor, it feels curiously deflated. Even if she didn’t kill the Doctor, Bill should still feel some measure of trauma about shooting her best friend a mentor.

Indeed, it seems strange that the Doctor takes the ruse as far as he does. Given that the Doctor explicitly avoided explaining regeneration to Bill in Knock Knock, and given his refusal to talk about his blindness with her in Oxygen, it seems highly unlikely that Bill even knows what regeneration is. So why go to the hassle of faking it? There are quite a few story beats like that in The Lie of the Land, where it feels like the script aspires towards heightened emotional stakes without any real consideration of how the plot should unfold.

Force fielding the issue.

At one point, the Doctor has an extended conversation with Missy about how best to defeat the Monks. Missy suggests that the best way to vanquish these foes is to kill Bill and sever the connection. It is a fairly harrowing suggestion, one that drives a wedge between the Doctor and Bill, while playing on Bill’s guilt for opening the door to these invaders. However, it only takes the Doctor a few minutes to come up with a suitably clever non-lethal alternative, one that ultimately saves the day once Bill decides to use her brain instead of his.

There is a lot of clumsiness to the resolution of The Lie of the Land, both in terms of theme and execution. In terms of execution, it struggles with the same problem that haunts a lot of Doctor Who invasion narratives, the idea that somehow the status quo has to reassert itself after this horrific crisis. The Last of the Time Lords simply hit the “reset” button with the “paradox machine” to wipe away the suffering. The Lie of the Land just wipes the planet’s memories. But what about the labour camps? What about those killed and tortured? That stuff cannot be reset.

“We don’t have no time for no Monk-y business.”

Similarly, the climax of the episode ends with Bill projecting her memory of her mother into mankind’s collective unconsciousness. However, these memories are largely fabricated and made up. In their own way, they are just as fabricated as the alternate history that the Monks are pedalling. So why are they better? Are they better because they are anchored in “love” rather than just “consent”? Is it okay to fabricate history if it is done for the right reasons? The Lie of the Land would be a better episode if it engaged with these ideas, instead of brushing past them.

Still, the episode moves along quickly enough. Toby Whithouse is very much a reliable set of hands, particular when writing in the style of the Davies era as a whole; his best work on the show remains School Reunion, while A Town Called Mercy stood out against the Moffat era for its retrograde handling of the Doctor as a war criminal and force of nature. It is telling that The Lie of the Land is the only episode of the three-parter on which Moffat does not have a credit. Like Gatiss, Whithouse can be left to his own devices and trusted to deliver a fairly solid script.

Nardole the battle to the strong.

Whithouse is notable as the first writer of the Moffat era, outside of Moffat himself, to write an episode with a major role for Missy. Missy made a number of cameos in eighth season episodes credited to writers other than Moffat, but Whithouse is the first writer to script a really juicy role for Michelle Gomez. The dynamic set up in Extremis and explored in The Lie of the Land is interesting, particularly in the context of Steven Moffat’s larger themes within Doctor Who and the obvious influence of other key creative figures on his writing.

Most obviously, the idea that the Doctor might be able to redeem Missy plays into Moffat’s recurring fascination with the distinction between “great” minds and “good” ones. Under Moffat’s pen, the Doctor has enjoyed an arc that runs roughly parallel to that depicted on Sherlock, the story of a great man who is also trying to be a good one. Moffat has worked hard to restore the moral integrity of the Doctor, something very keenly stressed during the tenure of Matt Smith in episodes like A Good Man Goes to War and The Day of the Doctor.

Master of her own destiny.

The Doctor attempting to rehabilitate Missy fits within that framework. The Doctor has learned how to be a decent person, and so it makes sense for him to try to redeem another individual. Missy is undoubtedly a genius, but one unhindered by morality or decency. Her journey across this final season provides an effective counterpoint to the lessons that the Eleventh Doctor learned and which the Twelfth Doctor has reinforced. In The Sound of Drums, the Master sarcastically dismissed the Doctor as “the man who makes people better.” Perhaps that’s true.

However, it is also an extension of ideas that had been seeded in earlier stories. Most notably, Paul Cornell’s aborted relaunch in The Scream of the Shalka focused on a version of the Doctor who was travelling through the cosmos tethered to a version of the Master who was trapped within the TARDIS. At the end of The Last of the Time Lords, the Doctor suggests that he would be willing to give up travelling in order to stay with the Master. That is precisely the dynamic at play here. The Lie of the Land is as much a sequel to The Last of the Time Lords as a reimagining.

The Doctor sits this one out.

In fact, that might be the most striking aspect of The Lie of the Land. In many ways, it plays like a big Davies-era season finale. In fact, it plays like a very specific Davies-era season finale. However, it is quite pointedly not a Moffat-era season finale. It is the final episode of a mid-season three-parter, and an episode that was not even written by the showrunner himself. This would have been the single most important episode in a season of Doctor Who overseen by Russell T. Davies. In a season overseen by Steven Moffat, it is just business as usual.

There is also a sense that The Lie of the Land illustrates just how awkward a fit these familiar Davies-era plot beats are in the context of the Moffat era. This is not to suggest that one producer is inherently better than another, or that one approach is superior to the other. Instead, it demonstrates the awkwardness of trying to transpose a story and a style favoured by own executive producer to the tenure of another executive producer. It recalls how awkwardly the Barry-Letts-driven serials like Robot and Revenge of the Cybermen felt against the backdrop of the Hinchcliffe era.

Not the gold standard.

Steven Moffat has his own unique style of Doctor Who, and has spent six seasons writing and producing that style of Doctor Who. As such, it makes sense that it would be jarring to just drop an old-school blockbuster alien invasion narrative into the middle of that. The Lie of the Land is an episode that feels very much out of place, both in terms of the two episodes that were leading into it and the entire season around it. It is an episode that feels ill-suited to the show that Doctor Who has been for the past seven years.

The Lie of the Land is a disappointingly conventional conclusion to what had been an ambitious three-parter. However, there is a clear sense that the production team are aware of just how conventional it is. The Lie of the Land might be generously seen as an homage to the Davies era, to the show that Moffat inherited from his direct predecessor. Given this is the tenth season of the revival series, it feels entirely appropriate. It is also worth noting that there are still four episodes of that season remaining.

2 Responses

  1. One detail that I thought was sickeningly great in such a “meh” script (if you don’t think too hard about its implications) was when the Doctor retook his role as lecturer from the Pilot and became the sick propagandist teaching the humans how to think. And Peter Capaldi is really good at it, too. I think that you can sum up Moffat’s contributions to Doctor Who quite nicely by noting that “big epic event episodes” are now just par for the course. With Davies, while all the episodes were huge and fun (when done well, which they for the most part were), there were important and non-important episodes. With Moffat, any episode can be the big one.

    • I had not noticed that, but you’re entirely correct. It’s a nice reversal. It’s just a shame they haven’t done more with the Doctor’s lecturing.

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