The Monks have been with us from the beginning. They shepherded humanity through its formative years, gently guiding and encouraging, like a parent clapping their hands at a baby’s first steps. They have been instrumental in all the advances of technology and culture. They watched proudly as man invented the lightbulb, the telephone, the internet. They were even there to welcome the first men on the Moon. They have defended us, too. Who can forget the time the Monks defeated the Daleks, the Cybermen, the Sontarans? And they have left their imprint in the arts as well. The Monks have found their way into Dickens and the Jason Bourne films… Two species, sharing a history as happily as they share a planet.
The Lie of the Land might have disappointed some with its faux regeneration and love conquers all resolution, but it formed a fitting and rewarding conclusion to the Monks trilogy. It remains to be seen whether or not we’ve heard the last of the aliens known, for now at least, only by their monastic nickname, but I suspect that the absence of a final showdown between the Doctor and the villains of the piece suggests there is more to come. As it stands, apart from their desire to rule through love, we know very little about their motivations or backstory.
The trilogy works however, not because of the aliens, but because of the focus on how human beings cope with a changing worldview. Extremis tapped into to genuine questions about the present: what is real, and could we in fact be living in a simulation? How do we react when the deception is unmasked? The Pyramid at the End of the World moved onto questions about our future: if humans are to cause Armageddon, what if instead of us wiping each other out through war (as we might expect) it is those little chance events and mistakes, like a broken pair of glasses and a hungover lab technician, that trigger the end?
The Lie of the Land takes us from existential concerns about present (Extremis) and future reality (The Pyramid at the End of the World), to genuine doubts about the mediated past. It’s an extreme example of a real dilemma, the clever use of sci-fi tropes to explore how in real life those in power construct narratives to shape beliefs and allegiances. There is a very specific link made between the tactics of the Monks and that of the ancient Roman Empire, who exploited and subjugated other cultures through the fake notions of peace and prosperity (Whithouse could have picked virtually any other empire from any period in human history, for as the Doctor says the human race seems unable to learn from our past). Whithouse is no stranger to using Orwellian themes (The God Complex) in Doctor Who, and this is another example of his knack for making social commentary through the medium.
The episode starts with a Nineteen Eighty-Four-like dystopian world where the majority have bought into the lie of the land, and can’t see the world for what it is, and those who question the truth are subjected to torture and death. The Doctor appears to be part of this mass deception, and by appearing on the TV monitors, Whithouse is able to make clear allusions both to Nineteen Eighty-Four’s newspeak and to contemporary concerns about fake news. To add a delicious extra point of relevance eagle-eyed viewers will have caught a glimpse of Donald Trump among other historical figures, including Mother Theresa, Martin Luther-King and Churchill.
In Doctor Who story is god (The Rings of Akhaten) and this episode does to narrative history what The God Complex does to faith and religious belief. It shows narrative at its worst and best, beginning with the grand stories used to enslave people and ending with Bill’s highly personal and individual imaginary past setting them free. The opening creation narrative as told by the Doctor puts him once again in the role of a Messiah figure (a favourite theme of the new series and of Whithouse in particular), but this time he appears to be an agent for a power other than his own and his manic exaggerated smile makes the audience belief with Bill that it is a ruse, and that he must have a plan.
It’s an extremely clever move then that after the Doctor has finally confirmed Bill’s suspicions his manic grin is still there in several close-ups (e.g. when the prison boat starts moving). The Doctor’s own narratives are flawed, as Missy herself points out. He thinks he can win, but his vanity, arrogance and sentimentality prove his downfall (the three words that Missy calls him out for when she says his concept of goodness is not absolute). The Doctor isn’t simply content with the arrogant notion that his brain is powerful enough to undo the false history of the Monks, his Messiah complex tempts him to consider even correcting history by removing such things as racism. If we cannot learn from our mistakes he reasons that he can make us think we never made them.
This idea that the Doctor is a pretty hopeless saviour figure is a major theme of the Moffat years (Into the Dalek, Hell Bent) and it is a notion that Whithouse has bought into more than most writers (The God Complex, A Town Called Mercy). Ultimately Bill is the saviour figure – and notice that after the Doctor’s opening narration it is Bill who becomes the narrator (with her imagined Mother the audience). The Doctor planting those pictures of her mother was an act of pure sentimentality, but it is Bill’s imagination in using them to shape her life that gives them their power. It’s therefore an unfair oversimplification to write off the ending as a love-conquers-all cop out. It’s an ending that exposes the Doctor’s inadequacies and the power of the broken (Bill). But it also works as a brilliant example of irony. The Monks want to rule through love, but love becomes their downfall.
There are some wonderful observations about how those in charge operate, from the idea that convincing the population that things have always been that way, to the notion that when they realise that their subjects are really the ones with the power their only response is to run. But despite Bill’s victory we are left with the bittersweet observation that rather than learning from history, we create less offensive narratives to cope – in this case the idea that the empty statue plinths were part of a film set.
One of the highlights of series 10 is the brilliant performances of Pearl Mackie as Bill, and here she once again continues to excel, but no fault of the actress the fact that she is still a relatively new companion has caused some issues with her characterisation. Last week she was virtually a slave to the plot with her failure to pick up on the Doctor’s blindness quite unbelievable, and here there are similar issues because their relationship is still young. Would she really have had that much faith in the Doctor already? And would she be prepared to kill him when that faith is undermined? It’s a minor gripe in an otherwise impressive final series for Moffat.
Perhaps surprisingly given his background as a comedian, Whithouse’s previous Doctor Who episodes have been low on humour. Not so this week, with some marvellous one-liners, such as the Doctor calling Missy the “other last of the Time Lords”, or Nardole’s (Nardy) unfaithful imaginary friend. Matt Lucas is delightful again, but the character remains a mystery. We are given another hint about how he has been put together from different body parts which further adds to the confusion about when, how and why, and given his earlier insistence on the Doctor not getting involved with Missy in the vault, it was slightly jarring to see him accept the Doctor’s plan so readily.
We might expect the Doctor’s mission to reform Missy in the vault to be another example of his overly optimistic beliefs in both the Master and himself, but touchingly it would appear that Missy’s isolation has brought a degree of contrition. Michelle Gomez is given the opportunity to show a different side to Missy’s character, a vulnerability that offers superb new storytelling opportunities. It can only be hoped that those tears are genuine, as it sets up an interesting contrast with the Doctor’s denialism when it comes to his own contributions to the fatality index. Gone is the manic grin, replaced by a look of shock. Capaldi brilliantly conveys so much as Missy makes her heartfelt confession – there is a hint of unwelcome scepticism, of wanting to believe it, and of feeling humbled by a degree of emotion that he has denied himself.
Judged as a trilogy, Extremis set up a wonderful premise, the follow-up The Pyramid At The End Of The World was a classic case of a brilliant concept poorly executed, and The Lie of the Land rewarded viewers who stayed with it by bringing all three together with great economy.