Season 10, Episode 8 “The Lie Of The Land”
Directed by Wayne Yip
Written by Toby Whithouse
Starring Peter Capaldi, Pearl Mackie, Matt Lucas, Michelle Gomez BBC America
Air date: June 3, 2017
Ever since the dawn of modern mass media, there has been this concern that media has a meta-textual element designed to mislead the public. Call it subliminal advertising or even the Discordian fnord, but there is always this notion that the newspapers, the TV, the Internet that people so willingly and gleefully consume is actually putting us to sleep somehow. Though it informs us, that very act also allows it to control us. It creates a method for the direct manipulation of the human psyche, and since mass media systems make the replication of controlling information so easy, the many can be controlled by the very few.
This dystopian idea of control through mass media is what Doctor Who examines with Episode 10.8 “The Lie Of The Land.” Having established last week that a new alien species (the Monks) has arrived on Earth that behave something like a shadowy, Illuminati-like group, the gimmick of “The Pyramid At The End Of The World” was the setup for a choice. Bill (Pearl Mackie) must pick the uncertain future of life on Earth with the Monks, or let the Doctor die. She chooses the former, and now we see what life with the Monks looks like.
It is, in short, totalitarianism. Storm troopers burst through doors of homes to accuse people in their living rooms of thought crime. Propaganda, featuring the Doctor, blares through mass media of all kinds. Ugly, monumental art dots the landscape, and not the faux classicism of Nazi-era art either. It is art that is at once both Gothic and Brutalist, revealing in a basic visual that this future rejects the ideals of the past.
This episode is a mess and in a lot of ways. First, the setup of the last two episodes is wasted. After establishing the conspiracy thriller as the dominant theme of the Monks Trilogy, that theme is overly abandoned. The occult cabal controls through the manipulation of existing social mechanisms and norms. It also requires collaboration by those willing to profit by the new order. This is the sort of thing that John Carpenter showed us quite effectively in They Live.
Rather than take that route however, this episode quickly goes for blunt, overt dystopia. The Monks are seen in public and are actively in control. The number of collaborators is reduced from many acting continually out of self interest, to one person cursed by a single choice. Sometimes the inversion of ideas is an effective tool; here I do not believe it pays off.
Worse yet, the story never seems to get completely clear about the Doctor’s role in the new regime. We’re shown propaganda featuring the Doctor, but that only makes sense in one context: Doctor Who as a popular TV show. We trust the Doctor because we are fans of the show. It is completely unclear how the general populace relates to the Doctor within the show. Indeed, the show most often uses the anonymity of the Doctor as a basic trope. So why would the Doctor be an effective propagandist for the new regime? It makes little sense, except to shock Doctor Who fans.
Time is also working against this episode. Showing us anything or anyone interesting in the new future of the Monks would require more time than one episode allows, and this storyline must be wrapped up this week. So, we get a play in four acts. Act One shows us the worst of what the new regime offers. Act Two reintroduces the Doctor and explains what’s been happening since last week. The third Act provides some critical back story, courtesy of Missy. Finally, the last Act provides resolution. There are no extraneous characters to speak of. The Monks themselves are just visual props. Do they even get a line of dialogue this week? It all just rushes by.
The one thing that gives this episode any resonance at all is current events. With the Brexit vote in Britain and the election of Donald Trump in the United States, partisan media played a large role in the election of candidates and parties that seem to reject the internationalist order created after World War II. In its place, there is a tribal form of ethnic and religious nationalism that threatens to further fragment the world and re-enforce divisions of race, class, and belief in a crowded, challenging world.
It is not enough. Beyond supporting the notion that fake news is bad and the importance of free will, this episode doesn’t really delve into anything. Humanity fails when its institutions do not function and are destroyed by the forces of change. None of the issues facing the planet today are really explored in the Monks trilogy, and that causes any political relevance for the episode to quickly evaporate.