‘Doctor Who’ Gets Orwellian in Episode 8: ‘The Lie of the Land’
Last week, I talked about the structure of a three-parter and the difficult job of the middle episode in sustaining the pace. This week, the final part needed to land its message and deliver a suitably big pay-off after all the build up. So how did it measure up?
“History was saying, ‘Look, I’ve got some examples of fascism for you to look at. No? Fundamentalism? No? OK, you carry on.’”
With all the subtlety of a sledgehammer, the plot with the Monks went full 1984 with its Orwellian ‘Memory Crimes’, labour camps and revisionist history designed to keep people in their place. Instead of Big Brother, the Monks were portrayed as parent figures, but there was a similar creation of oppression dressed up as kind, authoritative benevolence. There were echoes of the Stasi with the Doctor’s video messages encouraging people to report on their families, friends and neighbours.
“Humanity’s doomed to never learn from its mistakes. It’s really quite annoying.”
But there were more modern nods as well. In the opening ‘promo’ package, there were knowing references to ‘Fake News’; these were clear enough to make the Doctor’s explicit reference to ‘Fake News Central’ in the pyramid somewhat clunky and overdone. When Missy revealed that there was straightforward if unpalatable fix for the problem, was I the only one making Kill Bill jokes?
There were other moments that could either be seen as loving tributes or shamelessly derivative, depending on your point of view. The Monks started to give off more than a slight whiff of Dementors, in the styling certainly, but also in the way they were filmed, and the way that proximity to them affects human beings. The ‘save the day by beaming out a psychic message’ leaned heavily on Professor X’s use of Cerebro. And Nardole did his own version of Spock’s signature move, but I was much more forgiving of that, because it was Nardole and it was funny.
The Monks’ plot didn’t really do it for me; fortunately, everything else did. The Doctor’s bazinga plot was a cheap trick but it was so well done that I forgave him too. The regeneration fake-out was purely there to troll the audience though; it added nothing to tricking Bill as she had no idea what that was all about anyway.
Pearl Mackie absolutely sold this episode. Doctor Who has a long history of the sacrificial lamb, and Bill’s decision to sacrifice herself was beautifully played. I’ll admit to getting something in my eye when the Doctor realised that the “pure incorruptible image” of her mum had the potential to break the psychic link. Yes, this was pure cheese, but let’s enjoy that for a moment. Last week, Bill’s love for the Doctor gave the world to the Monks. It was fitting that her love was also the key to saving the world again.
After all their generations of planning and watching, was it a bit anti-climactic that the Monks just ran away? Perhaps we haven’t seen the last of them yet…
The questions about free will raised by last week weren’t exactly answered. (They were addressed somewhat in the Doctor’s trick, but hey, that was a trick, so it doesn’t really count…) The episode’s message in terms of free will was cemented for me by the Doctor’s line: “I thought I was just being kind, but I was saving the world.” I talked about some parallels with Angel last week, and this was in a similar vein. Do you remember Angel’s epiphany? “If nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do.” We never know which choices and actions are going to be the important ones. We would go mad if we tried to figure that out. All that we can do is make the kindest choices we can in any given moment. Who knows what a random act of kindness might achieve one day? Bill’s essay might be late, but I’m sure it will be a good one.
And in a neat segue to another one of the Doctor’s kind decisions, what a joy it was to see Missy again. She’s been in that vault for a long time, taking an extended time out so that she could think about what she’s done and to see if she can be good. She wanted to be, last time we saw her. (Well, at least she said so.) This is what Ten wanted to do with John Simm’s Master - to take him on as a project and look after him. Missy’s showing some progress in her quest. She is there because she chooses to be, another member of the free will club, but she seems to want some points for this decision. Or at least some recognition.
“I once built a gun out of leaves. Do you think I couldn’t get through a door if I wanted to?”
It may be bravado, but the intent is important. If all that matters is what we do, then she is doing the right thing. She will help, though she half-heartedly makes some demands in exchange, and her solution is suitably ruthless.
“Like it or not, I just saved the world because I want to change. Your version of good is not absolute. It’s vain, arrogant, sentimental. If you’re waiting for me to become all that, I’m going to be here for a long time.”
At the end of the episode, she is showing remorse for her crimes. The Doctor says it’s a good sign, and I agree. The ability to recognise one’s mistakes and show regret for what one has done is a necessary sign of a more complex moral character. It’s a key signifier in Aristotle’s definition of a tragic hero (he called it anagnorisis, meaning a tragic realisation) and so it lifts Missy from supervillain to potential tragic hero. Both archetypes do terrible things; a tragic hero regrets their actions. It’s the difference between Macbeth and Richard III, Othello and Iago, Faith and the Mayor, Darth Maul and Darth Vader…
I don’t think we should be complacent about Missy’s potential turnaround; Michelle Gomez has likened Missy’s arc to the story of the Frog and the Scorpion, so let’s not get too excited…
Here’s a throwaway detail that made me laugh this week: the Doctor has a Man Drawer in the TARDIS!
Next week: Ice Warriors on Mars versus British soldiers from the 19th Century. Was Mark Gatiss drunk when he came up with that one?
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