The Lie of the Land is something of a reversal from last week’s The Pyramid at the End of the Earth; while that episode was really global in reach and ambition, and thus followed the Doctor, this one’s much more tightly focused on individual experience, and is therefore Bill’s story.
It begins six months after Pyramid ended. The monks have taken over the Earth, and are keeping humanity under control by feeding them psychic alternative facts: a rewritten version of history in which the monks have always been there, shepherding and guiding. As the Doctor explains, people are much more likely to accept things as they are if they think it’s always been that way. Resisting the monks’ lies, remembering the truth, is a “memory crime” that gets people summarily sent to labour camps.
One of the monks’ key propagandists, for reasons that are never explained, is the Doctor. Nardole and Bill go on a rescue mission to the prison ship he’s broadcasting from, and together the ka-tet (with the questionable help of Missy) work to bring down the monks.
First, the good. We see a significantly more grown-up Bill in Lie of the Land than we did in Pyramid: six months resisting a psychic dictatorship has turned her into a fighter. She’s prepared to do what needs to be done; in that respect she reminded me quite strongly of Martha Jones in The Last of the Time Lords (a resemblance I’m sure is deliberate, given Missy’s presence in this season). More generally, England under the dominion of the monks feels suitably if obviously dystopian: the subdued colour palette, the Orwellian “Truth” insignia that represents the monks’ suppression of true memories, the opening shots of a mother being taken away for memory crimes. The claustrophobic domestic focus of these scenes works much better than those huge golden monk statues do to convey oppression.
I also loved Michelle Gomez’s performance as Missy in this episode: she only has a few scenes but she completely steals them from the Doctor and from Bill, irreverent and self-possessed. The Doctor elaborates on the reasons she’s being held in the Vault: “going cold turkey from being bad”. And when she reveals that the monks’ stranglehold on humanity can only be broken by Bill’s untimely death – making the Doctor very angry, accusing her of not trying hard enough to reform – she’s given a fantastic speech which points out the limitations of the Doctor’s morality, and defends her own. It’s not often the Doctor gets taken down a peg or two, and it’s important, I think, that we see that his decisions are fallible, that he doesn’t always know best. And, come to think of it, wouldn’t Missy make a great travelling companion for the Doctor? Like Romana, but more so.
Unfortunately, there are also holes in this episode you could fly the Valiant through. Why, for instance, was the Doctor broadcasting propaganda for the monks in the first place? Why did he pretend to regenerate on the prison ship when Bill doesn’t even know that’s a thing he can do? (Can Time Lords even stop regeneration like that? Because it’s always seemed like a fairly irreversible – uncontrollable – process.) Could twelve monks in London really have held the entire planet, even with mind control? Would they really have missed the fact (in countless years of invasion) that if the lynchpin dies unnaturally their psychic oppression fails? What happened in that lost time between Bill’s consent and the beginning of the oppression? And why didn’t Bill die when she drove the monks out?
There’s also a “topical” angle going on here – the Doctor explicitly refers to the monks’ lies as “fake news” – but I’m not sure that it’s actually doing anything substantial. Is comparing the alternative facts of the likes of Sean Spicer to a psychic alternative history cooked up by alien overlords with fascist overtones really that helpful? No; although the very fact that the episode is registering unease at the West’s slow drift to the right is interesting, making the authors of fascism so obviously, ineluctably alien obscures the causes of that drift, locating them outside of our own actions and social systems.
Still, The Lie of the Land is a better episode than I was expecting, and there are definitely things to like about it.
Next week: steampunk Ice Warriors!