This week's Doctor Who saw the Monk trilogy come to its end, as team TARDIS found themselves battling through a dystopian Britain literally being brainwashed by fake news. It's a timely take on our modern world, but "The Lie of the Land" disappointingly threw out its most interesting premise by committing the exact same sin.
The first 15 minutes or so of "The Lie of the Land" are honestly quite amazing. Not since Martha's journey across the Master-ruled Earth in "The Sound of Drums/The Last of the Timelords" has Doctor Who really thrust its companion into a miserable, occupied Earth on their own for a trip through the emotional wringer. But Martha's journey was about hope, about enacting a plan to save the world herself; Bill's journey is about having hope in the Doctor, only to have that hope brutally snuffed out.
The whole premise of the episode is that the Monks have convinced humanity that they have been there helping and guiding Earth for millennia, a false "truth" that allows them to eliminate all dissidents and oppress the world. Worst, the Doctor himself is spreading their propaganda. When Bill (and Nardole, dragged along for the ride) finally gets the break she needs to find the Doctor and free him from the Monks' control, she's gut-punched by the reveal that he is willingly working with them, in one of the darkest moments of Doctor Who this entire season.
It's a scene that, as ever, is sublimely performed by Peter Capaldi and Pearl Mackie — Capaldi's quiet fury as he lambastes Bill and humanity at large as fools that he can no longer tolerate, ignoring their history as fascism is on the rise, and Mackie's incredible, graceful bouncing between grief, despair, anger and determination should make the Doctor and Bill's confrontation go down as one of the best moments of season 10.
That is, until literally seconds after the alarmingly ballsy and shocking moment that a distraught Bill shoots the Doctor (even triggering a regeneration!). This is when all devolves into a "gotcha!" joke, played cruelly on Bill and slightly less cruelly on the audience, who've been teased about this climactic moment for months at this point. But the fact that the Doctor joining forces with the Monks was nothing more than a fake-out to make a great trailer cliffhanger isn't actually what makes the moment so disappointing.
It's the fact that after the show picks itself back up immediately after to get on with the meat of actually defeating the Monks, it does so with a far less interesting take on the timely topics of resistance and fake news than the one it was setting up, culminating in one of Doctor Who's most frustratingly favoured cliffhanger resolutions, done time and time again — a victory with the power of love. The Doctor and Bill's confrontation is a metaphor for the anger many people felt in the wake of the rise of figures like Donald Trump or a movement like Brexit, the hopelessness people felt at the ignorance of what history has taught us about moments like this, and how we're seemingly doomed to repeat the sins of the past.
The fact that even the Doctor can seemingly succumb to such despair, one of the most hopeful and optimistic heroes around, should have been immensely chilling. The fact that Bill, his "normal" human friend, cannot, and takes matters into her own hands rather than placing her fate in the hope of someone else coming to rescue her, should have been an immensely powerful message on resistance. Instead, it's all swept aside as meaning nothing at all, in favour of what is a poor climax to an uneven-at-best trilogy with these rather useless space zombie monks. The rest of "The Lie of the Land" bears little worth actually discussing (outside of some shockingly stellar performances from Capaldi and Mackie once again) simply because it's so thoroughly average in comparison — a vanilla Doctor Who story with sprinklings of references to current politics on top rather than one that actually has something meaningful to say.
That "The Lie of the Land" tops it all off with Bill saving the day by remembering her love for her dead mother — a well the modern era of Doctor Who has truly run dry at this point — to defeat the Monk's brainwashing says it all, really. When the shocking twist of the episode is that you're going to sweep away the original, interesting stuff to do something we've seen time and time again on the show, then maybe the real "fake news" was assuming this trilogy of stories was worth our time in the first place.
Assorted Musings (in Time and Space):
- So what was the deal with the Monks? We never got an explanation of why they were so fascinated with Earth in the first place. Or what they were actually doing, despite the fact they were meant to be the major villain of a three-part story. In the end, they buggered off in their space pyramid (why was it shaped like that, anyway?) leaving us none the wiser.
- I will say at least that one thing that did matter in this trilogy, aside from its general bolstering of Bill and the Doctor's relationship, was all the mysterious stuff regarding Missy's rehabilitation in the vault. Michelle Gomez recently told us not to trust anything out of Missy's mouth, but even with scepticism, the idea of the Master being brought round to at least some semblance of the Doctor's ideals of good and justice is a fascinating premise that I can't wait to see unfold.
- Doctor Who is rarely subtle when it comes to its symbolism, but I kind of loved the sheer obviousness of having one of the last images of the real world we see in the Monk's brainwashing hub, surrounded by the infected memories of the Monks as Bill mind-fights their control, is President Trump's face:
"Fake News central" indeed.