I feel sorry for the middle episode of a three-parter. It has none of the exposition of the first part, and none of the resolution of the third part. All it can do is try valiantly to sustain the pace and the interest — and its only weapon is The Twist. So how did this episode measure up?
‘Middling’ is my answer. It felt like a fairly typical middle episode. As if to underline that, it had none of the Missy of the first part, and none of the Missy that we can expect to see in the third part. But it did have some twists. It also had some teachable moments: numeracy skills! Health and safety in the lab! Oh, and some massive philosophical questions about consent and the cost of world peace.
So put your safety goggles on, check the decimal point a couple of times to be on the safe side, and let’s get into episode 7.
Firstly, I’d like to propose a cold-open formula for the rest of the series. Last week, we had the Pope interrupting Bill’s date, and this week it was the UN guy. Can this run and run, please? Every week, Bill tries to have a date with Penny. Someone ridiculously off-putting arrives, totally killing the mood. Penny freaks out and scarpers. Bill sighs, and mutters ‘oh boy’ under her breath, then ROLL CREDITS.
After last week’s Matrix-y escapades, I was expecting a full-on invasion of the corpsey monk people, but what we got instead was actually a Doctor Who equivalent of the Jasmine plot line from Angel: a decomposing ancient figure, with mystical foresight, who governs based on a warped idea of love that actually means total enslavement. Defying her/them means victory for free will, but potentially the end of the world (or world peace in Jasmine’s case). In both, we are asked: what will you sacrifice for something that is good on paper? What is your free will worth? Will it be a hollow victory? Does it change what we think of as right and wrong?
For all the Monks’ preparation and rehearsal, it’s an accident that may cause the end of the world, and thus grant them their opportunity. Or rather, a series of accidents, the little (apparently) insignificant moments that add up to something bigger. This episode could have been named ‘Hungover Scientist Causes Apocalypse Because Erica’s Glasses Got Broken’, but that would have sounded a bit odd.
And so, TWIST, the invasion isn’t an invasion at all; it’s a rescue mission with small print. OK, it’s more accurate to call it a ransom demand. I’m sure they could help if they were merely benevolent. But this is an opportunity to be invited, to give the world the great gift of their presence. Here, have a present. What could go wrong? Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes, indeed.
But, TWIST, dictators cannot rule by fear alone; they require more from their subjects than that. Ah, the consent of the governed. A long-established principle, taken to its extreme here. The Monks don’t just want consent. They want love.
It is not enough to be given power, or to take it; it is not enough for their opponents to admit defeat, surrender, and live to fight another day. The Monks must rule the hearts as well as the minds. They must be loved by all, the most popular leaders ever. It is not enough to submit; you must fall to your knees with a smile of joy. Look on my works, ye mighty, and love me.
Love is what they need. Consent based on fear or strategic calculation doesn’t count. Partly, it’s because consent is only valid when it’s freely given, of course. I understand that the Monks don’t just want the appearance of compliance, but why the absolute insistence on consent here? Is it just an insidious need to control people utterly? Or is there a metaphysical reason? Can their power only be called upon under those circumstances? Either way, consent is needed; like vampires, they must be invited in. Can their invitation be rescinded? We don’t know.
Seeing them in their pyramid, examining the threads of all that might ever be, there were definitely echoes of the Fates from Greek mythology, except that it was unclear how much of an impact the Monks have on the threads. Are they merely observers, who have spotted their moment to take over? If so, why rehearse with the simulations? Why not just wait? Are they playing the odds and predicting rather than just observing? Or are they nudging these events into being? If so, then by influencing, controlling or BEING Fate, the issue of free will comes further under scrutiny. Are there any gaps in the Monks’ knowledge and influence? Where are the moments of choice actually chosen? If they are written and seen in advance, is their predictability akin to pre-destination? Are actions freely chosen, or chosen from a menu?
The Monks could turn out to be a formidable foe. But as you can see from all the questions, I’m finding them philosophically interesting rather than entertaining to watch. And I found myself drifting away from the show to ponder these big questions, which was when I realised my two TV beats were at an intersection. All this discussion of consent, and the importance of free will amidst desperate measures to counter a global crisis, made me think of The Handmaid’s Tale again. The red robes didn’t help.
As is so often the case on Doctor Who, it all came down to love. But instead of love saving the day, TWIST: love gave the world away. In a choice between the Doctor and the world, Bill chose the Doctor. He gets his sight back — just in time to be haunted by what he is about to see. Bill was the only one whose consent was ‘pure’; as such, her heart was both a strength and a weakness. The contrast between Bill and Clara has never looked so stark. Both companions will sacrifice themselves for others, and apparently make that decision quickly. But Clara did this out of well-meaning bravado, whereas Bill acted out of a pure, selfless love. Clara’s decision was self-destructive; Bill’s will save the world, albeit for a high price. Clara dared the world to kill her; she challenged her enemies, exuding a ‘go on, then’ attitude with her teacher eyes. Clara would have made the same decision as Bill, but I suspect her consent would not have been ‘pure’. Bill will be due a scolding from the Doctor, but I think she made the wrong decision for the right reasons, rather than the right decision for the wrong reasons, which is perhaps how it might have played out with Clara.
There was a lot going on in this episode. The Doctor is President of the Earth again! Doomsday clocks! A pyramid appearing from nowhere! A truce between three superpowers in the middle of a war zone! A special tractor beam thing! But the big questions felt more important, probably because this is a middle episode, and we have to wait another week for the answers…
Next week: It’s Missy versus the Monks!