The so-called “Monks Trilogy” comes to an end with this episode, written by Toby Whithouse and directed by Wayne Yip. This episode of Doctor Who starts off strong, with a bleak and tense predicament that seems hopeless and some nice thematic underpinnings about a society ruled by the sci-fi equivalent of fake news. However, its strengths ultimately don’t overcome some narrative weaknesses and a story that is resolved in an overly familiar way and easy way.
The episode opens six months after Bill’s fateful decision to make a bargain with the Monks to save the Doctor’s sight. As a result, the Monks have re-written all of humanity’s memories of history, so that everyone believes that the Monks have always been present, guiding and shaping humanity as supposedly beneficent guardians. In truth, humanity is ruthlessly oppressed, and the chief propagandist for the Monks’ regime is the Doctor himself. Can Bill and Nardole succeed in reaching the Doctor? And is he simply playing for time before sprinting into action, or has he really working with the Minks in their control of Earth?
It’s really hard to review this episode, and indeed to point out where its flaws begin, without spoiling things, but I’m gong to try. The episode contains, as most of this season has so far, some great performances for the series’ leads, with Peter Capaldi and Pearl Mackie delivering what by now are customary stellar turns. Matt Lucas keeps doing what he does best with Nardole, which is being hilarious and oddly sweet, while Michelle Gomez retunes as Missy and does her customary Missy thing, albeit with a new wrinkle to her character involving a quest for redemption that should provide the actress with lots of opportunities to deepen and grow her character.
Additionally, I enjoyed Wayne Yip’s direction of the episode, which features some strong sequences including a standout scene of the Doctor’s allies storming a Monk sanctuary armed that is very well done. Yip shows the offensive powers of the Monks in a novel and visually interesting way, while the whole scene is entered around a secondary character and the methods the good guys use to block out the brainwashing powers of the Monks. It’s a top notch sequence, and proof that this recent season of Doctor who continues to encourage directors to be visually inventive. It’s certainly the most formidable the Monks ever seem, and they won’t appear so again afterwards.
But “The Lie of the Land”, while it features a strong examination of the nature of truth vs propaganda, in the end it plays into some of the biggest tropes and narrative shortcuts of Doctor Who, and therefore isn’t anywhere near as satisfying or coherent as it wants to be. The altered dystopian reality that features strongly in the beginning of the story is, of course, familiar to any Doctor Who fan who has seen such episodes as “The Last of the Time Lords” or “Turn Left”, but that didn’t quite bother me so much. Though I do think other episodes committed to the idea more strongly.
And the question of whether the Doctor has turned collaborator or not is interesting, though I felt that the scene that resolves that issue featured the episode going for the easiest, least interesting and actually most callous option. I know the Doctor Who trope that the Doctor always has a plan is well-established, as is his ability to manipulate even those closest to him, but the Doctor’s “trick” on Bill is pretty cruel actually. I think I would have been okay with it if hadn’t all been treated as a funny, funny prank, but the Doctor never even apologizes for what he puts his friend through, and I found it off-putting, really. It was mean, and not in the way earlier Twelfth Doctor stories showed him being mean and knew they were doing so, it felt like the show didn’t know the Doctor was being cruel here.
After that scene, the episode turns into your standard Doctor Who story, where the Doctor runs around being brilliant and saves the day. And I still think the Monks are a fairly vague and bland threat, and their threat level is depicted with wildly varying effectiveness. They appear to be able to zap any opponents into oblivion one second, then turn and run and the first sign of opposition the next. They have conquered many planets through their chosen tactics, but also don’t seem to ever have more than a tenuous grasp on things. In the end, they’re not engaging enough to be interesting, nor formidable enough to be scary.
The resolution of the story, which involves input from Missy (albeit of a kind that is difficult to trust given the source), improvisation from the Doctor, and an act of nobility from Bill, should have resonated more than it winds up doing. It is interesting that Bill’s version of “fake news” sort of winds up saving the day, and Mackie’s commitment to the character and the concept almost pull it off, but the whole thing does embrace the “power of love” Doctor Who resolution, a well the show has gone to more than once but in more effective ways.
If this had been just your standard Doctor Who episode, then it would have been okay to merely be middling and familiar, but as the conclusion of a series of episodes that boasted a new and overwhelming threat, it comes off as a somewhat frustrating missed opportunity, mitigated by a strong first half and good performances. 7/10