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After last week’s truly horrendous outing, Doctor Who gets back on track and wraps up the Monk trilogy with a solid and unexpectedly pointed episode. SPOILER WARNING – important plot points from this and previous episodes will be discussed in detail.
“The Lie of the Land” begins with Earth firmly under the control of the Monks. Even though they’ve only been around for six months, everyone is under the impression that they’ve always been here and have ruled over humanity since the very beginning. The Doctor is MIA, only appearing in Monk-sanctioned propaganda broadcasts, seemingly working to further their agenda. Bill is on her own and struggling to retain her memories of the world before the Monks.
It’s a clever setup that allows Doctor Who to tackle what is unfortunately a very topical subject – fake news. The notion that if you repeat a lie often enough it becomes the truth is quite literal in “The Lie of the Land” – the Monks are broadcasting a signal worldwide that brainwashes the population, rewriting their memory so that they accept the propaganda. There’s even a reference to, of all things, “The Idiot’s Lantern,” when we see a crowd gathering near a Magpie Electrical store to watch broadcasts.
As part of the episode’s gigantic red herring that The Doctor has actually allied himself with the Monks, Twelve berates humanity for never learning from its mistakes and it’s almost impossible not to see this as a denouncement of certain current political landscapes. Much like “Oxygen” and its heavy-handed take-down of capitalism, “The Lie of the Land” has an edge to it that makes the story feel more engaging and relevant.
Speaking of the red herring, it was mostly very well handled. It takes it far enough that you’re almost willing to buy into the lie. Admittedly, this would probably have worked a lot better earlier in the Capaldi era, where Twelve was a far more ambiguous character, but it still plays nicely here. Even if you don’t believe it for a second, you could see how Bill might. That being said, the decision to play wacky music when The Doctor reveals it was all a ruse was a big mistake – it’s incredibly jarring to hear a goofy background track right after an incredibly tense confrontation.
Pearl Mackie captures Bill’s shock and pain brilliantly. It’s great to see the character back in the spotlight after mostly sidelining her in the previous episodes. The fact that she was the one that invited the monks to take over the Earth plays into the plot of “The Lie of the Land” a great deal, pushing both The Doctor and Bill into making some very tough choices.
The idea that the Monks need one person’s “pure” consent to gain a foothold and take over is brought up again briefly and it’s just as nonsensical here as it was in the last episode. It’s impossible for any request for help to not have an agenda or ulterior motive. You’re asking for something you want or need!
Michelle Gomez returns as Missy, as The Doctor turns to her for help. “Extremis” set up that Missy was going to try and redeem herself and “The Lie of the Land” builds on that idea. She’s certainly more restrained than in previous appearances, while still retaining some of her quirky callousness. Her cold pragmatism contrasts with The Doctor’s sentimentality nicely, and by the end of the episode, we see Missy begin to reel from the emotional weight of all her past evil deeds. It’s a very interesting direction for the character.
“The Lie of the Land” is also quite impressive visually. There’s a stark, minimalist feel to the sets, costumes, and locations that fits the premise of the Monks’ totalitarian grip over the world. The room where the brainwashing transmission originates from is particularly impressive, with its giant triangular screens and upside down pyramid. The Doctor’s latest costume change is also pretty great.
There are a few minor hiccups. The Doctor makes an off-hand remark about rewriting human history so that racism and people that talk in the cinema never happen, which even as a joke is alarming and probably merited at least some kind of response from another character. After all, The Doctor deciding he knows what’s best for humanity has usually turned out pretty badly for everyone involved, so it’s a bit disconcerting to see him joke about it.
The end of the episode also has everyone forget the Monks were ever there, which feels like a cheat, especially since it’s meant to reflect how we never learn from our mistakes. Wouldn’t it have been far more effective for humanity to remember what happened, but fail to learn from it? If everyone forgot, it’s hardly fair to blame them for not learning their lesson.
Overall though, “The Lie of the Land” is a huge improvement over “The Pyramid at the End of the World” and a solid episode in its own right. Gripping, as well as unexpectedly, perhaps even a little uncomfortably relevant, it makes the most out of a cool idea and pushes its characters into new and exciting territory.