The overthrow of totalitarian dictatorships is very much the Doctor’s bread and butter. As often as he’s repelled alien invasions over the past five and a half decades, he’s landed in a world dominated by some despot and their secret police, taken a look around, and then brought about regime change in time to be home for tea. As such, the figure of George Orwell and his Big Brother looms large over much of Doctor Who. But “The Lie of the Land” is the most direct, and specific homage of Nineteen Eighty-Four in the show’s history. It’s also possibly the smartest.
Six months on from Bill’s selling out the world for the price of the Doctor’s life, a gigantic pyramid sits in London, slogans proclaiming ‘Truth’ outside it, as it pumps out the exact opposite – an epic rewriting of history to serve a supposedly benevolent and ever-present ruling class. Which is exactly, pyramid and all, the description and purpose of Minitrue – the Ministry of Truth – in Nineteen Eighty-Four. It’s appropriate, or depressing, depending on your point of view, that Orwell’s seventy year old warning to the future about the dangers of propaganda and the ability of people to ‘doublethink’ (accepting completely false facts as true, while simultaneously understanding them to be false) chimes so perfectly with the current ‘post truth’ world where ‘fake news’ is accepted as absolutely fact by many and politicians openly talk about reality and scientific facts as if they’re multiple choice.
The climax of “The Monk Trilogy” (a three parter? Three one parters? A one parter followed by a two parter? Not even the writers can agree) gives surprisingly little time or depth to the Truth Monks themselves. They depart our screens at episode’s end as mysterious and unknowable as when they first popped up in “Extremis.” We don’t even know what they really look like – their rotted corpse form being established as simply their best attempt at looking human. In a way that sits very neatly with the episode’s allusions. The most important thing about Big Brother was that he almost certainly didn’t really exist, and perhaps may have never existed at all. He was simply the icon of the Party, a focal point for the maniacal loyalty of the populace. As Inner Party member O’Brien explains, even the elite of the Party have given up any sense of individuality or personal power – their fanatical devotion and debasement to Big Brother, even as they know he doesn’t exist, isn’t a pretence for the benefit of their underlings. Because a leadership without ego, is a leadership which can never overstep and never be broken. The Monks mirror this by being simultaneously omnipresent and faceless. They’re not the type of villain you have a chat with, but a unfeeling an unindividual system.
If you throw some loose change in his hat he’ll, well, he’ll burn you to death with lightning
So it’s with excellent timing, and smart writing, that long time Who scripter Toby Whithouse brings Missy forward for her most screen time yet this season. The scene of the Doctor, Bill and Nardole entering the Vault for some Hannibal Lector style quid pro quo bargaining for information is electric and gives the episode a much needed voice in opposition to the Doctor’s. Missy (Michelle Gomez), it turns out, is trying to reform and this attempt seems to be somewhat genuine (as she points out, she could certainly break out if she truly put her mind to it) but her previous dealings with the Monk illustrates how far she needs to go. The Doctor and his oldest friend’s moral debate harks back to the Pertwee/Delgado days rather than more recent days of evil for evil’s own sake. Missy insists lobotomizing the person who first consented to the Monks is the only way to break the invaders’ grip on the minds of the human race (“AWK-Ward,” she notes when Bill identifies herself as just that person) but the Doctor insists there must be another way. From Missy’s point of view, the Doctor’s morality is “vain, arrogant, sentimental” and insists that her version of good will be as ruthless and swift as her evil. Whithouse writes these kinds of dialogues between adversaries with competing points of view incredibly well (remember Ten and Mr. Finch in “School Reunion”) so it’s nice to see he hasn’t lost his touch. It’s also an element possibly pointing the way to a new type of conflict between the two when Missy inevitably escapes later in the season, it promises fireworks.
Once the closest of enemies, now in conflict over the best way to save the world
This battle of moral philosophies also neatly mirrors scenes earlier in the episode when Bill and Nardole breach a different cell to confront a different Time Lord for a similar discussion about brutality for the sake of the ‘greater good.’ Having smuggled themselves to the Doctor’s floating prison, from which he makes televised propaganda speeches on behalf of the Truth Monks they seek to rescue him – only to be told that he’s right where he wants to be, and that his loyalty is to the Monks. It’s a shocking and discomforting scene. As viewers, we know there’s a twist. The Doctor is pretending. Or he’s not, but Bill will get through to him and awaken his real self. But Whithouse has great fun giving us every key moment a more formulaic writer would use to pivot the reveal around, only to shut us down and double down on the Doctor having gone bad. Of course, it is a trick – if an elaborate and somewhat cruel one (“Was the regeneration too much?” asks the Doctor after faking his latest death for Bill’s benefit) but the sting of the Doctor’s words endure. Having claimed to have thrown in his lot with the Monks because the human race have mucked up the world enough and can’t be trusted with free will any more. (“Free will’s your whole thing! You made me write three thousand words on free will!” protests Bill in another one of the episode’s deep well of great lines, before the Doctor uses the fact that she never actually turned that assignment in as further proof of humankind’s fecklessness.)
The Doctor’s betrayal of her, himself and the entire human race drives Bill to extreme measures
Yet, long con or not, the Doctor’s speech about the pre-eminence of the greater good has some of his real attitude in it. The Monks may have rewritten all of Earth’s history to place themselves alongside Da Vinci, Einstein and the Spice Girls, but they’ve been here for real for six months. Six months of the Doctor encouraging people to inform on their friends and family, and denouncing ‘memory criminals’ (those few who insist on the true history) . Real people really rounded up and put in real labour camps for months on the Doctor’s say so. Some, almost certainly, dead due to the Doctor’s broadcasts. All because the Doctor needed the Monks to trust them as part of his wide plan to save the Earth. It’s not dwelled on by the script but it’s startlingly dark stuff for our hero to be wrapped up in.
Peter Capaldi is on fire again this week, playing a Doctor pushed to the edge
And this week, the Doctor does seem particularly… unhinged. His hair is wilder than ever, and his wide, rictus grin at inappropriate moments suggest that if he hasn’t actually lost his marbles, it’s certainly been a while since he last carried out an inventory of them. If the quartet of episodes in this arc – the Monk Trilogy and the preceding “Oxygen” have been about the Doctor’s hubris being punished and his confidence flagging, he seems almost more out of control than ever he was now. Possibly the lesson to take from all this is that its boredom and mundanity that destroy the Doctor’s balance. After fifty years at St. Luke’s he went to Chasm Forge and took reckless, stupid, unnecessary risks to create danger and the thrill it brought. But stick him in a genuine global Armageddon in progress and, with enough lethal danger for anybody already in place, and his mad genius is perfectly at home.
Whether by accident or design, “The Lie of the Land” also places the Doctor in a re-run of one of his worst, and in some ways most recent, tragedies. He spends this week in the same heavily distressed mourning frock coat we first see him in immediately after River left him to go to her death in the Library. At the climax, he’s knocked out and awakens to find himself tied up and his companion about to plug herself into a hugely powerful living computer to save a world, even though she knows it will burn out her brain. It’s River dying all over again, right in front of his eyes again. If the Doctor’s barely hanging on to his last nerve these days, there’s a reason for it.
The final coda riffs on the same logic Doctor Who has used countless times in recent years to wave away the consequences of planetwide invasions – people don’t want to remember, so they choose not to. But like so much of the episode, the world today casts this in a more dispiriting parallel. Isn’t it something, Bill ponders, that at least now the human race will know what it’s capable of and know exactly what ‘benevolent’ autocratic states look like and how to resist and overcome if they find themselves slipping into one. The Doctor snorts at her naivety. And so, sadly, must we.
[Five TARDISes Out of Five]
Doctor Who airs on Saturdays. On BBC One in the UK on at 7.20pm GMT, in the US on BBC America at 9pm EST, in Canada on Space at 9pm EST. In Australia it airs on ABC on Sundays at 7.42pm.
This episode is due out on DVD and Blu Ray on May 29th
By: Peter Nolan