There’s a line in this week’s Doctor Who, “The Lie of the Land”, that made me smile. It was a smile in recognition that the series, in its 1970s heyday, was equally unafraid to slip in subtexts about the politics of the times. “The Monks have got him on one of the old prison boats. Hulks, they used to call them,” Nardole (Matt Lucas) explains to the distraught Bill (Pearl Mackie) as she scrabbles for news of The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) in the midst of a totalitarian nightmare. Hulks — Hulkes — Malcolm Hulke was the connection fired off in my brain.
Mac, as he was known, had a penchant for including what Terrance Dicks described as “a streak of anti-authoritarianism” into the stories he wrote for Doctor Who. Mac himself once declared that it was “a very political show. Remember what politics refers to, it refers to relationships between groups of people. It doesn’t necessarily mean left or right”. From “The Silurians” to “Invasion of the Dinosaurs”, Mac explored establishment conspiracies, racism, xenophobia, environmentalism, colonialism, and the dangers of dogma and ideology.
Turning to “The Lie of the Land”, it seems this tradition is still being carried forward in the new era’s own engagement with political ideas. It very much reminded me of “The Last of the Time Lords” and “Turn Left”, where the consequences of Bill’s decision — to give her consent to The Monks’ invasion of the Earth, in exchange for restoring The Doctor’s sight — mirror Martha and Donna’s own personal journey through alternate timelines where darkness descended on the history of the human race. Bill’s one of few who have free will within a police state that, reflecting our own battles with dogma in ‘post-truth’ times, culls individuals for their memory crimes (certainly a nod to George Orwell’s own dystopian concept of thought crime in 1984’s state of Oceania), for seeing beyond the propaganda that insists The Monks have been humanity’s benevolent saviours since the dawn of time.
This is neither a conquest to drain the Earth of its resources and kill its population, nor one to turn them into warriors for the cause. The motivations of The Monks seem much more abstract if we’re looking for a specific reason for why the monsters in Doctor Who do the things they do. Here, it’s simply an ideological war of occupation, and one where all are enslaved within a rewritten history. It’s also a whopping big metaphor suggesting human progress is continually hampered by our ability to never learn from our mistakes.
Here, that mistake is to remain complacent while fascism knocks on the door and we consent to let it in. There’s also a subtext about treating the narratives you believe in just as sceptically as those you find yourself in conflict with. As well as the overall arc about The Monks and their use of Bill’s consent to subvert the truth about the world, using that striking Truth logo with its SS ‘victory, victory’ branding to pump out “fake news” from its pyramid of power in central London, there’s a far stronger story in “The Lie of the Land”. It’s Bill’s belief in The Doctor after exchanging her consent for restoring his eyesight and her faith in that other paternal figure, her mother.
“The Lie of the Land”, like “The Last of the Time Lords” and “Turn Left”, is very much a companion’s perspective of the aftermath. It borrows their voiceover framing devices and point of view for much of the story. It’s a dark fairy tale told by Bill to the living memory of her mum. The episode says, if we’re to find an essential truth to fight the corrosive effects of ideology, we might need to turn to personal memories and experiences to rebut the mantra to “relax and do as you’re told” because “your future has been taken care of.” Relax or the memory police will come knocking at your door and cart you off to a labour camp (presumably to help build the ever present Monk statues) for contravening the Memory Crimes Act of 1975. The statues broadcasting the lies of the land are a similar idea to the Archangel network of satellites installed by The Master that controlled the minds of Earth’s population in “The Sound of Drums” and “The Last of the Time Lords”.
The Doctor, from all appearances the one-man propaganda arm of The Monks, is alive and supposedly interned in an old prison ship, according to Nardole, and Bill sets off to rescue him “because I know he has a plan.” I like that the test she uses on Nardole to prove he remembers their previous encounters is to refer back to the “shuk-shuk” noises that doors on spaceships are supposed to make, previously debated in “Oxygen”. Pearl Mackie is front and centre in the episode and she’s brilliant throughout. Like us, she wonders what the modus operandi is behind an invasion that changes the history of the planet. Nardole’s answer is chillingly relevant: “However bad a situation is, if people think that’s how it’s always been, they’ll put up with it. That’s 90% of the job done.”
What’s equally intriguing is the premise that maybe, just possibly, The Doctor has joined The Monks and now believes humanity’s alternate history is the best thing since sliced bread. As Nardole and Bill make their way to him on a supply ship it seems anything’s possible when, in voiceover, Bill tells us the captain’s son is serving 10 years in a labour camp for possession of comics. Shades of the censorship battles with the Comics Code and the notion comics were used as vehicles for subversive ideas add some flavour to the worldview. There’s a very creepy scene when one of The Monks arrives on board the boat during a security check that underlines their menace, but beyond this they are cast as ‘benevolent’ dictators whose power rests in convincing the population to blindly support them.
The story pivots on the scene where Bill’s finally reunited with The Doctor. It seemed highly unlikely that Steven Moffat and Toby Whithouse would dare to take us down the route of showing the consequences of The Doctor working with The Monks, but this scene becomes loaded with expectation. The point the narrative flips over and, by doing so, pulls its punches, is therefore inevitable. That it comes with a scene of Bill shooting The Doctor to prove her point about free will, after a terrifyingly convincing moment where The Doctor actually does seem to believe that “human society is stagnating” and The Monks can halt this regression, is startling. Imagine if the story had carried on in that vein.
However, free will is just a 3,000 word essay, and the episode must have its cake and eat it with a faux regeneration, as tantalisingly promoted in the Series 10 trailer this year. Again, Pearl Mackie absolutely sells that scene where she questions The Doctor about free will, and is left slack jawed by his chilling answer, “you had free will and look what you did with it! Worse than that, you had history. History was saying to you, ‘Look, I’ve got some examples of fascism for you to look at! No? Fundamentalism? No? Oh, okay, you carry on.’” That’s the central story of our times and it would have been interesting to spend a whole episode seeing how a libertarian like The Doctor could become radicalised in this way, and blame his companion for making her own mind up in a crisis just “to do what you thought was best.”
Bill doubts his rhetoric and sets out to test him about the events in “Thin Ice”, and even at this point The Doctor maintains his stance. It’s a taut scene between Capaldi and Mackie, and Bill’s shock that he’s “actually doing this” is palpable. She stands up for herself and proves to The Doctor that she had faith in him, didn’t fall for the lies and fought against The Monks “for you!” As an example of her resolve and free will it’s pretty powerful. Imagine if her gunning down of The Doctor had been the cliffhanger to last week’s episode.
However, in the end, all the potential energy is sapped out of the proposal that The Doctor has definitely gone rogue on humanity and helped The Monks bring about “peace and order”. There’s also a disregard for the true consequences of pulling a gun and shooting The Doctor. It’s a wonder that not all his companions are basket cases by now, as we so rarely get to see the effects an action like this has on someone like Bill. With a clap of his hands and a cry of “good girl!”, much guffawing from his gun-toting recruits, and Bill directing her justified anger at Nardole rather than The Doctor, the tension all but evaporates. Whithouse swerves from the road and ploughs on with an episode that focuses on Bill’s relationship with her non-corporeal mother, the memory “sub routine” that’s the key to thwarting The Monks.
The Doctor engages the help of Missy (Michelle Gomez), for it is she locked away in the vault, and they fathom that The Monks are using “some idiot” as the consensual psychic link to direct their brainwashing propaganda to the masses via the idols they’ve built all around the world. This ties into Moffat’s continuing tropes about memory, sight, and perception, but it also posits Bill as the “idiot” who has to die to force The Monks to pack up and go. “Awkward”, as Missy puts it, but The Doctor berates her for suggesting this solution as indicative that Missy hasn’t changed, despite her incarceration. A bored and frustrated Missy is “going cold turkey for being bad” and claims to have saved the world, but it feels like there’s a more sinister game playing out with the redefining of good and evil beneath those crocodile tears she sheds in the episode’s coda. She’s coming through that vault door when whatever humiliation she has planned for The Doctor reaches fruition.
Considering The Monks spent a great deal of their time running simulations of their invasion of the Earth, that included versions of The Doctor and Bill, they’re really slipshod in their approach to security. It all seems terribly easy to get into their base, and for The Doctor to plug himself into their network. In a satisfying riff on how previous companions have saved the day after The Doctor has initially failed, it’s Bill’s simulation of her mum as a memory, fuelled by The Doctor’s original attempt to be kind to her by kickstarting the process in “The Pilot”, that triumphs over The Monks and their fake news broadcasts. Learning to live with the loss of a parent is a very human and personal experience, as “a window on the world without The Monks”, in response to their ruthless and efficient tyranny.
Overall, it’s been a somewhat flawed trilogy of episodes, with “The Pyramid at the End of the World” offering a rather weak setup for this stronger conclusion. “The Lie of the Land” offers an exceptional performance from Pearl Mackie and some fascinating parallels to our ‘post-truth’ world. The episode has a quite simplistic message that “humans have learned they can overthrow dictators and stuff” but The Doctor’s having none of it and claims “humanity is doomed to never learn from its mistakes.” Or something.
The warning signs of fascism, based on those determined by Umberto Eco (whose book The Name of the Rose was the springboard for the opening episode of the trilogy, “Extremis”) are certainly alluded to in “The Lie of the Land”. Newspeak, disagreement as treason and selective populism are themes in the episode that bounce around today’s echo chamber of social media as we consider whether the forthcoming election and its associated media bombardment will truly reflect “the will of the people”.