The opening montage of “The Lie of the Land,” presented as an alternate-history lesson narrated by the Doctor, is disturbingly effective. The Monks have insinuated themselves into our memories to the point that humanity believes they’ve been guiding and helping us since we first wiggled out of the oceans and sprouted legs. The video is intercut with imagery of an average family broken apart by fascist troops who haul off the mother for spreading subversive propaganda. A horrified Bill observes the proceedings, seemingly one of the few who’s awake. Monuments to the Monks decorate the landscape of the planet. The grinning Doctor looking directly at the camera, which closes out the sequence, makes for a queasy stomach.
The Doctor: “So relax. Do as you’re told. Your future is taken care of.”
It’s been six months since the Monks took over, and Bill is living a life of seeming solitude. (Where’s her foster mother?) There’s a clear struggle between knowing the truth and accepting the lie, and seemingly the easiest way for her to keep her head straight is to have imaginary conversations with her deceased mother, as her “father” is currently displaying dubious morality. Despite all of the videos the Doctor recorded that appear to prove otherwise, she hangs on to the belief that he’s got a plan and will save the planet.
Enter Nardole, quite literally, through Bill’s front door. The reunion is the first pleasant moment in the episode and Nardole has found the Doctor, who’s a prisoner on a boat off the coast of Scotland. Food supplies go to the boat every six weeks and of course that’s how they’re getting to him. The entire plan is so straightforward and tidy and clean and Lucas’s performance so chipper and without gravitas. It’s the first real display of dodgy storytelling.
Once onboard, the duo find themselves face to face with a Monk, who gives them each a thorough once over before moving on, and it’s here where I must jump ahead in the narrative. It’s revealed later on that Bill is the lynchpin of the Monk’s hold over the planet, which in hindsight makes one wonder why this Monk didn’t recognize Bill. Further, why did the Monks ever let Bill out of their custody in the first place? They hold the Doctor prisoner, but the individual key to their takeover of the planet wanders aimlessly around out in the world? Bill was even with the Monks when it all went down, unlike the Doctor, who was in the lab with his TARDIS. How was he captured? These questions go frustratingly unanswered.
The Doctor: “Human society is … stagnating. You’ve stopped moving forward. In fact, you’re regressing.”
Face to face with the Doctor, Bill and her tutor/father have an intense, philosophical debate about free will versus the potential value of enslavement by a more capable species. The Doctor’s criticisms of humanity arguably echo much of what we’ve become today. It’s strong material and some of the best work both actors have done all season. He pushes Bill so far into believing that he’s a pawn of the Monks that she breaks, grabs a weapon from a nearby soldier’s holster, aims it at the Doctor, and fires several times. The dramatic moment leads directly into the regeneration scene that’s been endlessly speculated upon for the past two months, and it’s all a big fake out because of course it is. It’s a fake out for the viewer and a fake out within the narrative. The Doctor was testing Bill to see if she’d turned (after she sold out the entire planet to save you?!), and Nardole was in on it the entire time (which to some degree explains his earlier attitude).
At this point, events start feeling either convoluted or convenient and I’m unsure which is the more apt description. Though the Doctor and Nardole have spent the past six months planning, recruiting, and deprogramming, a crucial element is still needed. The Monks spot check the boat, yes? They never saw through or were witness to any of this? After everything they learned about the Doctor in the simulation and in the real world, they don’t keep cameras on him at all times? Or better yet, locked up? Yes, the Doctor commandeering a boat to crash onto the mainland — maniacally laughing all the way — is a thrilling gag, but didn’t the Monks demonstrate the ability to remove a plane from the sky and a submarine from depths of the sea? They control the planet, yet the Monks feel wholly absent from these proceedings.
Bill: “It’s just a woman. The way you and Nardole have been carrying on, I thought you had some kind of monster in here or something.”
The aforementioned crucial element? That’d be Missy, residing in her vault. Seems she has battled the Monks before (again, convenient) and knows all about how they maintain control via signals from the giant Monk statues erected across the globe. She also knows how to stop them, which includes killing Bill, the “lynchpin” of the Monk mass hypnotism. The complicated mythology Missy lays out about the lynchpin adds little to the story line but gives Michelle Gomez ample time to chew dialogue, at which she excels. It also allows Missy to spar with the Doctor about the nature of goodness, which is a high point of the episode. Once they’ve both departed, watching these two actors play off one another will be sorely missed.
The mission is to break into Monk HQ in London (the pyramid from last week’s episode has been moved) and have the Doctor beam out the true history of the world so as to undermine the Monks’ power. The raid on the pyramid is met with Monk resistance (finally), as they can now shoot lightning bolts from their fingers. Nice trick, but shouldn’t they be able to wave bullets away? Seems not, and they’re easily taken down. Why just last week, they could restore the eyesight of a blind man. The fearsome, godlike powers they possessed have seemingly disappeared.
Inside the sanctum from which their power emanates is a vast collage of ever-changing world history — a mish-mash with Monks spliced in willy-nilly. In the center of the room is a solitary Super Monk from whom the lie spreads. The Doctor grasps its cranium and begins erasing them from Earth’s history, but it fights back by making the Monks even more prominent (we know this thanks to the ever-shifting video collage) and knocking the Doctor unconscious. When he comes to, Bill announces her intention to sacrifice herself for the greater good. At first the process is too strong for Bill, but images of her mother — from the very photographs the Doctor went back in time and took (in the “The Pilot”) — give her the strength needed to assert control. Why are no Monks swarming the room, swooping in and attempting to put a stop to all of this? The lie breaks across the land, and instead the Monks flee the planet with their shrouds tucked between their nasty rotting legs.
The Doctor: “The Monks have erased themselves. Humanity is doomed to never learn from their mistakes.”
Bill: “Well, I guess that’s part of our charm!”
The epilogue moment between a teary-eyed, remorseful Missy and a sympathetic Doctor feels like setup as well as revelation. She’s learning the cost of villainy, almost as if by necessity, and it isn’t easy. Missy, want to learn to be good? Let me introduce you to Benjamin Horne. Guy lives in a little town called Twin Peaks …
Ultimately, “The Lie of the Land” is a disappointing conclusion to what was an otherwise killer story line. It feels like an early draft of a script, compartmentalized into little sections, a number of which work well but fail to gel as a whole. It’s more average Doctor Who than bad, which may be an even greater crime because it just didn’t work hard enough. Oh well, two out of three ain’t bad, right?
Odds and Ends
• Ace Bits: The “truth” logo plastered everywhere is a nice callback to the Veritas; the soldier who forgot to switch out his ammo; the Doctor’s suggestion that he fix things like “racism and people who talk in cinemas”; that final chat between the Doctor and Bill.
• Naff bits: Why would the Doctor waste regeneration energy when he’s never even explained that process to Bill?; seems like the image of Bill’s mother would take on its own significance among the populace of Earth, but I guess not.
• I’m getting recapper’s whiplash from where I come down on Matt Lucas and Nardole. There are times he’s as in it as any Who companion has ever been and others where he feels like he stepped in from, well, from a sketch-comedy series, a comparison so obvious I almost didn’t make it.