|This is not actually a screenshot of the episode, but a candid photograph of Peter Capaldi shortly after recieving the script.|
It’s June 3rd, 2017. “Despacito” isn’t going anywhere, but Captain Ska and Jonas Blue are newly in the top ten, while Ed Sheeran, DJ Khaled, and Clean Bandit continue their runs. In news, the US government announces its intention to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement, and Arsenal eats Chelsea to win the FA Cup. While on the day this episode airs, Reality Winner is arrested for leaking information about Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential election to journalists, and a few hours after it airs, a terrorist attack on London Bridge kills eight people.
On television, meanwhile, we have The Lie of the Land. This is a story that fits smoothly into an important tradition of Doctor Who stories, along with things like The Celestial Toymaker, The Dominators, The Monster of Peladon, Warriors of the Deep, Planet of the Dead, or Nightmare in Silver. Which is to say, fundamentally lazy fuckups at the tail end of otherwise good eras. There are a number of ways to get to this sort of story—Nightmare in Silver, in particular, is bad in ways that are difficult to relate to any generally applicable principle beyond, perhaps, the all too often realized “Cybermen don’t work as a sole villain.” But all of them are united by a sense of creative exhaustion—a feeling that the people in charge are just too tired to put in the effort they might ordinarily to make a bad script into a vaguely acceptable one.
It is interesting, then, how often what goes wrong for these stories includes the political. The Celestial Toymaker, The Dominators, and The Monster of Peladon are to be sure bad for a lot of reasons, but their politics are both undeniably among them and are all weirdly egregious in their awfulness. The other three are less ostentatiously bad in their politics, although Warriors of the Deep certainly has its problems, and I could just have easily decided Journey to the Center of the TARDIS, with its deeply questionable decision to make its team of bumbling thieves all black, was the Matt Smith example of this particular phenomenon. But The Lie of the Land is a despondent return to the early days of Doctor Who, in which the show does not just throw out any poory thought out piece of tedious garbage but a offers a politically noxious poorly thought out piece of tedious garbage.
The production timeline makes it clear that Whithouse was writing this in response to the rising threat of fascism that Trump represented, doubly so given that it had the Doctor namecheck fascism in his otherwise largely incoherent monologue pretending he really had sided with the monks. But, to make an obvious point, there’s nothing especially fascist about the monks. They’re not a populist and far-right authoritarian program. The mass movement that is in point of fact a central aspect of fascism is utterly absent. So is any sense of xenophobia or racism. Or the deep commitment to a toxically masculine cult of power and virility.
Indeed, ideologically speaking they’re not anything at all: in one of the most bewilderingly stupid decisions in an episode full of bewilderingly stupid decisions, the Monks do not utter a single word and thus do not provide themselves with any clear political content whatsoever. They are just faceless alien conquerers who take over planets and control everybody’s mind for sport. Although even that’s overstating it, in that it implies that there’s some sort of indication the Monks take pleasure in their conquests. Instead they’re a contentless marker—a banal other who have taken over the world and have no traits beyond the fact that they have done so.
In practice this means that Whithouse writes it as Stalinism. But this is pop culture Stalinism as opposed to something rooted in an even cursory and simplified sense of Stalinism as an actual historical phenomenon. The obvious marker here—one Whithouse tossed around in pitching the story—is 1984. But this is Orwell like Extremis is simulationism—a bunch of key markers like state propaganda that aggressively rewrites history and secret police dragging people off to labor camps for acts of disloyalty all joined together in a way that’s aware enough not to miss the point, but still fundamentally far from getting it, as that would once again involve a political engagement that goes beyond “totalitarianism sure seems bad, doesn’t it?”
In a sense this is good, in that this sort of comprehensively attenuated conception of fascism is so utterly comic book villain that it avoids the most obvious political fuckup that you could make, which is in some way endorsing or romanticizing fascism. Alt-right Doctor Who, for all that the show is naturally geared to resist that impulse, would ultimately be frighteningly easy to make, in the way that fascism is always frighteningly easy to make out of liberalism, and The Lie of the Land goes nowhere near that disaster. But where it goes instead—a power of love ending in which Bill’s memory of her mother provides “a glimpse of freedom” that instantly shatters the hold of the Monks because apparently “a glimpse is all you need”—is desperately unsatisfying in its own right. The most obvious irony—that Bill’s memory of her mother is explicitly imagined and thus “her voice, her smile” are in fact just as much a constructed lie as the Monks’ false history of humanity—is simply ignored. And so we get an appalling notion that the nuclear family is sufficient to stop authoritarianism, which is I’m sure amazing news for all the trans people in the United States who have just lost their right to health care.
But even this constitutes too much actual political engagement for Toby Whithouse, who caps the whole thing off with a shitty “Bill’s mum, you just went viral”… I’d use the word joke here, but that seems like overstating the case. Then he goes on to have the Doctor shout insults at a young woman for her appearance by way of emphasizing that humanity is incapable of learning from its mistakes and will never recognize that “they can overthrow dictators and stuff, they just have to band together.” And then we’re done, having apparently decided that the real magic was all the condescending things we said about the young people who were the most consistently anti-Trump and Brexit voters along the way.
If it sounds like I am angry it’s because I am. The Lie of the Land is a genuinely contemptible piece of television of the sort that I generally just walk away from in disgust, but given my fundamental love of and investment in Doctor Who am instead forced to spend two thousand words analyzing. But since I’ve apparently finally broken the seal and let out the condescending bitchiness, we may as well stop to describe the larger context of soul-deadeningly incompetent storytelling into which these gruesomely glib politics are embedded.
The worst problem with The Lie of the Land is basically the entire first half, which may well be the most jaw-droppingly cynical and condescending opening section of a Doctor Who episode ever. The entire thing, including the whole of the episode’s promotion, hinges on the idea that the Doctor is working for the Monks. For the opening stretch, Bill is the sole POV character, with the episode working towards her confrontation with the Doctor. And when she finally gets there, it appears that the worst is true: he really has fallen under their influence. Their confrontation goes poorly, Bill grabs one of the guards’ guns, and she shoots the Doctor, who begins to regenerate, a sequence showed in numerous trailers for the season. And then all of this turns out to be a feint. The Doctor did the entire thing in order to test whether Bill was under the Monks’ control. It’s certainly not a problem to offer a story that’s about something very different than what’s marketed; Moffat does it all the time. But Moffat offers new stories that serve as critiques of and comments upon the stories he rejects. This is something very different—a marketed premise that’s thrown away with nothing more than a “ha ha only kidding,” in which the Doctor, Nardole, and a room full of men laugh at a woman of color and the audience for ever believing the story in the first place. There’s no commentary here—just a cynical ploy to create an episode hook without having to follow through on its consequences like some Mort Weisinger-era Superman comic.
And the resulting plot doesn’t even make sense. Why does the Doctor pretend to side with the Monks instead of just getting on with saving the world? He doesn’t gather any useful intelligence or advantage. He never uses their trust for anything. He just dicks around for six months letting people get sent to labor camps so that the BBC can cut a good trailer. Nor is it terribly clear why the Monks are using the Doctor for all their propaganda videos instead of, you know, Oprah Winfrey or Barack Obama or someone people have already heard of and trust. It’s a completely pointless fake-out that accomplishes nothing within the story.
And from there things just sort of putter around being similarly pointless. Having put Missy on the mantle in Extremis, she has to be used for a Hannibal-derived “get information from the enemy” sequence here, but when he’s given the opportunity to play substantially with one of the shiniest and most delicious toys in 2017 Doctor Who all Whithouse can think to have her do is say random words in Spanish and offer an entirely useless piece of information that Whithouse can’t even be bothered to make use of in the hackneyed and glib conclusion.
It is difficult to really frame or express how utterly fucking wretched all of this is. It’s not even interesting in its shittiness. It’s just plot points that don’t join up with each other leading towards a resolution that doesn’t actually have anything to say. It’s just bad, embarrassing garbage. Which is, of course, the way of end of era turkeys. This is what Doctor Who looks like when people aren’t trying.
Well. Sort of. Because there is one very significant way in which The Lie of the Land differs from most of its fellow end of era fuckups, which are generally not just poorly written stories but poorly made ones. Sometimes this is because otherwise reliable directorial hands like Lennie Mayne or Morris Barry come up short (or are sabotaged by their producers, as with Pennant Roberts); other times it’s because they feature untried directors who don’t work out like Bill Sellars or Stephen Woolfenden. But none of those things are what happens with The Lie of the Land, which, in spite of its crushingly pointless script, is given absolutely stunning direction by Wayne Yip. Yip has one of the strangest directoral careers in Doctor Who: he directs this, The Empress of Mars, and Chibnall’s New Year’s special Resolution alongside a pair of Class episodes. It’s one of the least impressive swaths of episodes ever handed to a director, but with the exception of “The Metaphysical Engine, or What Quill Did,” where he was given a script wildly more ambitious than the budget could handle, he’s always acquitted himself with grace. (And even there, the episode has tons of scenes that punch way above their weight.) His direction moves through the settings with meticulous care, making everything feel like an actual place with a spatial logic. And he fills the episode with delightful touches, making the opening montage suitably unsettling and ominous while also relishing the humor of it, and, perhaps most notably, throwing in the delicious TV Movie shoutout of superimposing Michelle Gomez’s eyes over a scene.
It’s a pity that this, like too many of his contributions to Doctor Who, is still a steaming piece of shit that should never have been made. But as we’ve noted, these sorts of fuckups are common and hard to be too distressed by the existence of beyond the basic irritation of having to sit through a piece of lazy hackery that lacks a firm handle on the idea of being about something. At least this one looks good.