“Relax, and do as you’re told. Your future’s taken care of.”
Well, that was strangely anticlimactic. As the end of the so-called ‘Monk trilogy’, Lie of the Land started well, then seemed to just peter out, leaving the viewer none the wiser about many of the questions posed by the previous two parts. Who were the Monks, really? What did they hope to gain from now running the Earth? With that kind of technology, why not just take over by force, and why run when their ruse was revealed?
It started well enough, and much in the mould of the conclusion to earlier three-parter Last of the Time Lords. Having taken over the planet, much as the Master did then, the Monks had instituted a fairly standard issue fascist state, with the help of (as it turned out, brainwashed) human collaborators. More interesting was their Orwellian attempt to shoehorn themselves into the entirety of human history – an attempt being helped, startlingly, by none other than the Doctor himself.
That’s an interesting setup, but what came after didn’t really seem to follow up on it as well as it might. I wonder if, in part, that’s due to the story being concluded by yet another writer. I was surprised to see that, rather than Steven Moffat and/or Peter Harness, this week’s sole scriptwriter was Toby Whithouse. I’d expect the basic story brief was from Moffat, but the lack of an onscreen credit for him suggests that his involvement was more limited than last week.
Now, Toby Whithouse generally writes very good Doctor Who stories, but this one felt atypical – a hazard, I guess, of finishing off a story masterminded and previously written by others. The Monks’ totalitarian dystopia was more than a little reminiscent of the vampire-dominated future glimpsed in series 4 of Whithouse’s own Being Human, so it may also have felt like old ground to him.
Not that there wasn’t some very good stuff here. Pearl Mackie in particular got to shine as Bill faced a situation more disturbing than any yet – her own world ruled by oppressive aliens, and all at her request too. Her tense exchange with the apparently treacherous Doctor was well-written and extremely well-played, Mackie conveying Bill’s faith in the Doctor crumbling so convincingly it felt perfectly believable that she’d try to shoot him.
She also found herself the linch pin of the Monks’ control, with her death apparently the only way to end it. That was an interesting moral dilemma, and Bill’s courage at accepting the responsibility was a moving moment. However, the script seemed to just dodge the issue at the end, as Bill’s hitherto unsuspectedly powerful false memories of her imaginary mum were enough to drown out the Monks’ control, with no death necessary.
Besides being reminiscent of the groan-making messianism of the Doctor in Last of the Time Lords, it was somehow both an unimaginative and overly cerebral conclusion to the story. Rather than either accept the necessity of Bill’s sacrifice or come up with an ingenious alternative, the Doctor chose to charge into the alien base guns blazing only to find that Bill had the power to stop it all where he couldn’t, with no hint of that having been given in the script earlier. That really is a deus ex machina.
It also made for a rather low key conclusion. Break the Monks’ mind control and they’ll just bugger off in their space pyramid to make the best of a bad job? Last week we saw that, however few in number they might be, they have the power to cripple the three most powerful armies on the planet. I’d have expected a little more in the way of trying to hold onto their conquest.
I suppose it was at least setup earlier by Missy’s exposition-spewing, where she revealed that she conveniently knew all about the Monks and their methods, having encountered them before – “you think you’re the only one who has adventures? My life isn’t all about you.” It was nice to see Michelle Gomez again, but Missy too was more low key than usual, her nuttiness replaced by a more thoughtful manner and tone.
That’s in keeping with the Doctor’s apparent intention to rehabilitate her. Gomez played that well too, with that melancholy speech showing her guilt over her many previous victims, a single tear spelling down her cheek. And yet, and yet… This is the Master, after all. It may look like he/she is on a road to redemption, but my inevitable thought was that it was a trick. In one sense, it would be an interesting development to have a repentant, atoning version of the show’s most memorable villain; but in another it would be disappointing to no longer have that villain. I doubt this newfound conscience will last – if it’s real in the first place.
That felt like a more interesting aspect of the story than the main plot, even though Missy was actually only on screen for a couple of scenes. Unsurprisingly, she still managed to dominated the ep, just as Hannibal Lecter dominates Silence of the Lambs despite only being on screen for about twelve minutes of it. Indeed, the scene of her in a force field pen evasively answering the Doctor’s questions with cryptic clues surely must have been inspired by Lecter’s scenes in that movie.
Part of the problem with the main plot was that, as well as failing to answer previously set up questions, it actually left us with some unresolved new ones. If the Monks have erased humanity’s memories of their time in charge, what do people believe has been happening for the past six months? I know the show’s often posited humanity’s willingness to forget as a way to continually present Earth’s scepticism about aliens even in the face of multiple previous invasions; but it’s one thing to write off seeing the Loch Ness Monster in the Thames for a couple of minutes, and quite another to suggest that it would be so easy to wipe the memory of six months of actual alien occupation. At the very least, it’ll leave a huge gap in the memory. The oft-used Reset Button would have been a more plausible conclusion.
And since when did the Doctor have the ability to put on a ‘fake regeneration’? I mean, there’s not really any established reason why he couldn’t, but it felt very much like that moment had been put in just for a bit of misdirection in the season trailers. While I have grown to very much like Capaldi’s Doctor, how much more audacious would it have been if it turned out he really did regenerate – with no foreknowledge from any ‘Next Time’ trailer?
All this may come across as relentlessly negative, but Lie of the Land was a serviceable enough episode, that did what it needed to do well enough. There was plenty here that was good – Missy, Bill, the Doctor’s throwaway remark about fake news, some striking direction from Wayne Yip. But the conclusion of a three part story in a season that’s mostly not put a foot wrong feels like it should have been more than just serviceable. Still, given the number of loose plot threads left dangling here, I wouldn’t be too surprised if this is followed up later – perhaps in the season finale. If that happens, this ep may be worth something of a re-assessment.