❉ Welcome to Bill’s dystopian nightmare.
“Your future is taken care of.”
I love a good dystopian tale, and The Lie of the Land riffed on some of the best. In the pre-titles sequence alone, the Doctor’s propaganda broadcasts on behalf of the Monks, who inherited Earth last week, alluded to the transmissions of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), with him cast as a Big Brother-style figurehead: his attempt at a reassuring grin down the camera lens and into the title sequence was particularly chilling.
The intro scenes also recalled Terry Gilliam’s cinematic art noveau nightmare Brazil (1985), which begins with a family being arrested, and alluded to Philip K. Dick’s novel The Man in the High Castle (1962), in which an alternative history – where Japan and Germany won the Second World War – is threatened by knowledge of the “true history” being revealed. If The Lie of the Land has its roots in anything it’s this idea, and it’s probably no coincidence that since 2015, a highly successful TV adaptation of the novel has been running on Amazon. Then again, in the age of “fake news” – which the Doctor directly references – a Doctor Who story like this was probably inevitable at some stage.
Into the story proper and Bill is the only one who can remember that the Monks have only been on Earth for six months, not guiding humanity since it crawled out of the ocean, as the Doctor’s broadcasts claim. Modern Doctor Who has done the lone-companion-in-an-alternative timeline story twice before – with Martha Jones in The Last of the Time Lords (2007) and Donna Noble in Turn Left (2008) – so it now seems to be one of the tropes of the series to be revisited when there’s a strong enough idea.
The main reason for The Lie of the Land seems to have been to focus on the regular cast and, as I’ve said in most of the reviews for this season, you couldn’t have a stronger one in Peter Capaldi, Pearl Mackie, Matt Lucas and Michelle Gomez. With no other major cast members, they shone: Lucas was ready with an underplayed reassuring quip and Pearl completely sold Bill’s mixture of confusion, anguish and, when she finally met him again, anger at the Doctor. If any regeneration of the Time Lord could convince the audience that he was acting to against humanity in pursuit of a higher agenda, it was this one. “Whatever it takes, I’m going to save you from yourselves,” he growls, even more ruthlessly pragmatic and distant than the awkward persona of his first series. Seeing Bill lose control and shoot the Doctor was a stunning moment, his apparent regeneration the dramatic highpoint of the episode.
After that, for me the episode seemed to dip in its impact slightly, with the Doctor revealed as really working undercover with a coterie of fellow conspirators at his disposal. Where The Lie of the Land picked up again was in the scenes with Missy, with the big revelation that her time imprisoned in the (bigger on the inside) Vault was “cold turkey from being bad.” As Gomez has recently stated that she’s leaving the series when Capaldi does, this shift in the character was an intriguing one. Stylistically, the scene was a combination of the interrogation scenes from The Silence of the Lambs (1991) and Skyfall (2012) – it now seems de rigeur to talk to villains through glass panels on a podium – but, as ever, Gomez stamped her personality all over it, rolling around seductively on her piano as her information guided the Doctor in the right direction.
As for the denouement, it was another outing for modern Doctor Who’s theme of love conquering all. Bill giving up her life to save the Doctor – killing the psychic “lynchpin”, the Monks’ first point of contact, being apparently the only way to stop them – segued into Bill’s memory of her mum (angelic Rosie Jane), wiping out the mass delusion the world was suffering from as it was “a window on a world without the Monks.”
OK, it made sense, and was rather less sentimental than the use of the same resolution in Fear Her (2006) and Night Terrors (2011). However, like the Doctor’s cheery everything’s-alright-really about-face following his regeneration, it did seem rather predictable.
The performances of the main cast, together with the grim early scenes, are what to tune into The Lie of the Land for.
❉ ‘Doctor Who’ airs on BBC One every Saturday at 7.20pm. Click here for episodes and extra content.
❉ Series 10: Part 1 was released on DVD & Blu-Ray 2 May 2017, with Series 10: Part 2 available on 17 July 2017. Complete Series 10 available on DVD & BD later this year
❉ Robert Fairclough is a film and TV journalist and blogger and a regular contributor to ‘Doctor Who Magazine’ and ‘SFX’. He is the author of books on the iconic TV series ‘The Prisoner’, and co-author (with Mike Kenwood) of definitive guides to the classic TV dramas ‘The Sweeney’ and ‘Callan’. His biography of the actor Ian Carmichael was one of ‘The Independent’s Top 10 Film Books of the Year for 2011.