This writer came home at midnight tonight, fresh from having watched this weekend’s Doctor Who and recording a Blue Box Podcast about it, only to find out about the terror attack in London. It seems strange to be writing about a “children’s” television series when nine people lie dead and the nation is once again in shock at the horror of what our species is capable of doing to itself. But there’s a strange symmetry between the two subjects and one that it is impossible not to notice or remark upon.
There is no way that Steven Moffat, Peter Harness and Toby Whithouse could have known that we’d be heading into a snap General Election, or that the United Kingdom would be reeling under its worst spate of terror attacks for many a year, when they sat down to write this trilogy at the heart of Series Ten sometime last year. And yet, despite the extended story of the Monks being speculative and analogous to perhaps other things, it works almost perfectly as a commentary on the right here and now. The focus of Whithouse’s concluding chapter, the brilliantly titled The Lie of the Land, is continuity. “However bad a situation is,” Nardole tells Bill, “if people think that’s how it’s always been, they’ll put up with it.” The Monks are brainwashing humanity into believing that their particular brand of oppression is the status quo, and people are being executed for Memory Crimes.
It’s obviously inspired by the recent Amazon Originals success, The Man in the High Castle, Philip K. Dick’s story of an alternative history (recently revisited by the BBC themselves as SS-GB) in which the Allies lost World War II and the United States is under the rule of Japan and Germany. Here the revisionist version of history is an imposition, something the Monks themselves have created in order to keep Earth’s population subdued, making The Lie of the Land less of a fantasy, perhaps, than the Dick story which inspired it. A scary thought. It’s also a return to the themes and format of the climactic three episodes of Russell T. Davies’ Series Three, and an improvement upon some of Davies’ logic. But most obviously, it’s one of the very few times (suchlike as The Macra Terror and The Happiness Patrol forerunning it) that Doctor Who has taken the opportunity to imitate Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, the dystopian future fiction designed to circumlocute any possible potential dystopian reality. With the current obsession concerning “Fake News”, terrorist atrocities occurring in the hearts of our two major cities designed to uphold the non-appeasing current government, a paranoid President and an isolationist populace, Orwell’s warning is closer than ever to becoming an actuality. A proximity that Whithouse plays upon in The Lie of the Land.
The central conceit, of course – just as it was last week – is about self-justification. The Monks can’t be “evil”, because we invited their particular form of tyranny. They’re only giving us what we asked for, and we’ve only ourselves to blame. Metaphorically, the idea of stability is more important than its consequences. It’s a shame that, thanks to the One Love concert being held to mark last week’s act of terrorism, the television schedules were juggled such that this week’s Doctor Who will have been seen by fewer people, because the home truths it contains deserve and require being seen by as wide an audience as possible. Still, you can only hold up the mirror, you can’t force people to look in it. And even when they do, like as not they’ll simply think, “they were just like filming something here or something.”
The Lie of the Land wasn’t perfect Doctor Who. It was dystopia on a budget, but mostly successfully conveyed, albeit the entire episode was stuffed full of a small number of very lengthy scenes. And the soppy RTD-like ending was probably too schmaltzy, too stuffed with exposition and too RTD. It did, however, add up to make perfect sense, the Monks’ lie being exposed by a single image that was outside of the view of the world they imposed upon it. The “reset” that allows the series to continue onwards in something resembling our own universe was also brilliant, an extrapolation of both the themes of the story and the sci-fi that was used to convey them. This was deceptively very clever stuff. It even included a line of dialogue explaining how the few who spread the terror maintain in illusion of being a majority, a line that shouldn’t be lost on those condemning a faith for the contradictory actions of the tiniest fraction of its membership.
The biggest issue was perhaps the Monks themselves, like the Silence and the Weeping Angels defined by their mode of operation but less specific in their manifestation, and less purposeful in their intentions. They look scary enough, and the vagueness of their characterisation actually helps in keeping them remote and enigmatic. Helps make it easier to impose an analogy upon them, perhaps. But the lack of definition also meant the threat never seemed to achieve its full impact, as if the problems humanity were undergoing were as much of their own making as they were an imposition of the Monks’. Ah but of course, that was the point.
The fake regeneration was perhaps a trailer moment too far, although Bill’s trial of solidarity was again a reflection of one of the themes of The Man in the High Castle and justified in its inclusion. And as brilliant as Capaldi and Lucas – and an understated, genuine and repentant Gomez – undoubtedly were, this was Pearl Mackie’s episode and she absolutely owned every last second of it. Her performance this series never ceases to increase in potency and authenticity, and during the moments when the narrative wavered in its forward momentum, she was enough to keep the viewer glued to the storytelling.
The attacks in Manchester and London appear to have been targeted at the young, those less likely or capable of visiting the polling stations, yet those most in need of change, and to engender a sense of outrage among those older and more likely to take a hard line. Because terrorism is an act of self-fulfilment; the response to an atrocity is the cause of the atrocity itself. It’s a bit of a shock to see Doctor Who, a programme written months in advance of its broadcast, addressing this head-on in the last days before a crucial snap election that asks a single, basic question: continuity, or change? And just as much as Moffat, Harness and Whithouse should be commended on their foresight and the vitality of their message, we really need to take a good long look at ourselves and ask why such a message is either necessary or even remotely relevant.
And then do something about that.
DR. WHO SERIES 10, EPISODE 8: “THE LIE OF THE LAND” / DIRECTOR: DANIEL NETTHEIM / WRITER: TOBY WHITHOUSE / STARRING: PETER CAPALDI, PEARL MACKIE, MATT LUCAS, MICHELLE GOMEZ / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW ON I-PLAYER (AIRED 3RD JUNE)