Let’s start with the mid-episode twist, i.e. the point where any hope that Toby Whithouse was going to do anything other than Whithouse all over the damn floor died. At this precise moment, a ton of threads that have been going on for a while are converging. Most immediately, we’re doing the trailered regeneration. We’re also at the climax of the trailered “the Doctor has joined the monks and Bill stands against him” plot, which is the hook this episode was previewed on since the initial Radio Times summaries. And, of course, we’re at the halfway point of the climax of the ballyhooed “Monk Trilogy,” resolving fully three weeks of storytelling. What do we get, then? A scene in which a room full of people literally cracks up that we fell for any of it.
It’s not, obviously, that I mind narrative substitution. I mean, I coined the phrase and all. But the substitution has to actually mean something instead of just being an empty placeholder. The point of narrative substitution is that the second narrative critiques the first one. It’s not just chucking out a plot because you’re bored with it and laughing at the audience for being so naive as to think you might actually have something to say.
And I mean, it’s not as though the Doctor apparently being with the bad guys that have brainwashed the world was a hugely interesting plot as opposed to a hackneyed genre TV standard, but it was something. For a brief moment, just after we learned Missy was in it, it even looked like it might tip into interesting. Bill and Missy teaming up to fight the Doctor? That’s a story worth telling. But even the hackneyed standard of “evil Doctor” would have been something. Hell, even a 1984 knockoff so banal it can’t be bothered to do more than substitute “memory crime” for “thoughtcrime” would have been something. A world whose history has been completely reshaped by the Monks could have been at least interesting. And the script clearly knows that, with its aggressively on-point lines about historical warnings of fascism and fake news. But the one scene that grapples with any of this consists of the Doctor spouting obviously wrong defenses of totalitarian order and Bill making non sequitur replies cribbed from fifty-four years of liberal moralizing in Doctor Who. It doesn’t even try - Bill’s defense of free will is literally just “you made me write a paper about it.”
But OK. At least the episode we’re substituting is Missy. Even Toby Whithouse can’t fuck up “team up with Missy to save the world,” can he? Ha. Of course he can! Sure, Moffat can’t have expected Whithouse to do anything interesting with “Missy tries to turn good,” not least because even Moffat can’t possibly be going to do anything other than the obvious “but she fails” with the concept because the odds of him breaking the concept of the Master in his last year on the program are nil. And the last scene, in which Missy goes through the contentless “oh woe I feel remorse” story beat confirms that Toby Whithouse is exactly not who you go to for interesting takes on morality.
But for me the real stunner is wasting Missy on pointing out to the Doctor the single most obvious genre-standard way to defeat the Monks possible, namely killing Bill. (OK, leaving her brain dead, which is at least a mildly macabre twist, but still.) The idea that somehow everybody had to resort to asking Missy for help in order to get to a conclusion that Pete Tyler could figure out on his own is… well, I mean, it’s what you’d expect at this point: stupid, lazy, and banal. (And if Missy knew about the Monks, are we thus meant to believe the Doctor, after saying he needed her help at the end of Extremis, failed to actually talk to her and get this information?) Its moral weight is Missy making Gordon Tipple eyes while complaining that it’s sentimental for the Doctor not to want to kill Bill. It’s tempting to suggest that this half-assed trolley problem is so boring even Toby Whithouse knows better than to write it, but honestly, at this point it’s hard to give him that much credit.
No, instead it’s time to blow the monks up with love. Which is a charming joke when positioned at the end of a Gareth Roberts story about Craig Owens. As the resolution for a three episode arc, however, it’s… oh, fuck it. Why even bother pointing it out? Let’s just note that it consists of a single image of a woman we’ve never seen deliver a single line of dialogue appearing again and again over some technobabble. Or better yet, let’s note that the actual focus of the scene where Bill’s love for her mother saves the world is the Doctor, who gets to carp about how he saved the world by giving her all those photos while his hero music plays.
And again, just like this could have been any number of stories that it briefly flirted with being, you can absolutely do a story about how Bill’s love for her mother saves the world. But you have to actually have the story be about that. You can’t just use Bill’s imaginary conversations to do the exposition at the beginning and then pretend this constitutes emotional investment. Actually show us the conversations, with the actress playing her mother getting to reply and ask questions. Frame the story as Bill telling her mother what happened after the fact. Do something that makes this woman who’s supposedly so inspiring that the entire human race rises up and overthrows its oppressors actually feel like anything more than an empty signifier of “emotional investment.”
Instead we get a story that literally has contempt for the audience. It’s Pip and Jane Baker without the terrible dialogue. Although “Caliente. That’s Spanish for hot.” frankly wouldn’t be out of place in a Pip and Jane script. So hey, let’s give Toby Whithouse credit - at least he went out of his way to make us glad Chris Chibnall beat him out for showrunner by reminding us of the only other time Chris Chibnall has come off well in a comparison.