The Lie of the Land

Story No. 295 Truth or Consequences?
Production Code Series 10, episode 8
Dates June 2, 2017

With Peter Capaldi
Written by Toby Whithouse Directed by Wayne Yip
Executive Producers: Steven Moffat, Brian Minchin.

Synopsis: In their benevolence, the monks have always been here.


Betrayal in Dystopia by Niall Jones 29/11/23

Every Doctor Who villain could do with a good PR agent. The Rani could be re-branded as a pioneering scientist, the Slitheen as savvy businesspeople and the Sontarans as brave war heroes. The only ones that ever actually got this help, however, are the Monks, who, in The Lie of the Land, are transformed from a creepy menace intent on conquest into loving guardians of human progress.

In the montage that opens the episode, the Doctor's soothing voice describes them as benevolent beings gently guiding humanity, 'like a parent clapping their hands at their baby's first steps'. According to the film, the Monks have been there for humanity from the beginning, playing a part in all the great advances of civilisation. The clips and images that make up this montage are unnerving but frequently funny, including visions of Leonardo Da Vinci's Vitruvian Man and the Mona Lisa as Monks, as well as an oddly charming shot of a Monk welcoming a mudskipper onto dry land. The scene then cuts to a family watching the film on TV, who are then attacked by a SWAT-like team, and ends by cutting away to the Doctor, with Peter Capaldi pulling an especially evil grin.

These opening scenes highlight everything that is great about The Lie of the Land, but also hint at its shortcomings. In my review of Series 10, submitted to this website in 2018, I attested that there are no weak episodes. While I stand by that statement, there's no denying that The Lie of the Land has its problems.

Chief among these is the decision to have the Doctor appear as the Monks' chief propagandist in the first part of the episode. The collaboration certainly comes as a surprise, but what is truly shocking is his betrayal of Bill, defending the Monks and appearing to turn her over to them. A devastated Bill responds by seizing a soldier's gun and shooting the Doctor, who starts to regenerate. The regeneration is then revealed to be a trick, with Bill its unwitting victim. Bill's horror at what she has just done is met with laughter by the Doctor, Nardole and the rest of the supporting cast, presenting the whole thing as one big joke. Except it isn't. Instead, it's a huge breach of trust by the Doctor done for seemingly little gain. Such a betrayal could work if it had genuine consequences in the series as a whole, but instead it is quickly forgotten and, once Bill has been convinced that the Doctor isn't working with the Monks, their relationship resets to normal. The whole sequence feels as if it was written for its shock value, with the false regeneration being teased in the episode's trailer, rather than for any storytelling reasons.

The other main issue with the episode comes in how it presents the world created by the Monks. The aesthetic is dystopian and vaguely Stalinist, with the presence of 'memory crime' recalling George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. Statues of the Monks proliferate, while framed pictures of them hang on people's walls. Everyone dresses in drab blue overalls and risks being sent to labour camps for defying the regime. The vibe that the story is going for is obvious, but there's little detail as to what life is like under the Monks' rule. Aside from one scene early on, we spend very little time in this world, and no supporting characters are fleshed out in detail, so it never becomes anything other than a generic dystopia. There is also very little experimentation with genre, in contrast to Extremis and The Pyramid at the End of the World.

Despite these flaws, there is much to enjoy in The Lie of the Land. Michelle Gomez is, as always, excellent as Missy, imbuing the character with a kind of bored playfulness, slipping between accents and languages as though trying one on and throwing it away. Despite her desire to turn away from evil, she is unspeakably cruel to Bill. The offhand way in which she tells her that she needs to be braindead in order to defeat the Monks is chilling. In describing how she defeated them on another world by pushing 'a wee girl' into a volcano, she dials up the playfulness, exaggerating her Scottish accent and breaking 'volcano' into two words.

The whole performance seems carefully calculated to upset Bill, the playfulness and theatricality of her delivery at odds with the harshness of her words. This dissonance is at the heart of Missy's character. Missy is constantly performing - literally in this scene, as we first see her playing the piano - taking every chance to show off and never missing the opportunity to make a joke. In this regard, she is not so greatly removed from the Doctor; the key difference is that, for her, the performance is everything. There is no face behind the mask. When she comments that 'back in the day I'd burn a city to the ground to see the pretty shapes the smoke made', what stands out is less her capacity for violence and more the whimsical reason behind it. What interests her is the smoke, not the burning. For Missy, causing havoc is less her aim, more a by-product of her having fun. This hints at an amoral worldview, rather than an explicitly immoral one, allowing for the possibility of redemption.

In telling the Doctor about the Monks, she does at least take a step towards this goal but ultimately rejects his vision of morality as 'vain, arrogant, sentimental'. In the script, she says these words directly to the Doctor whilst in the vault, but, in the episode as broadcast, these words are spoken as a voiceover, while the Doctor and Bill walk in slow-motion through an industrial landscape. This is followed by one of the most gorgeous shots in the history of Doctor Who, as Missy's eyes are superimposed onto a cloudy sky, and she whispers, 'I'm going to be here a long time yet'. This scene is a testament to the skills of director Wayne Yip, who takes a script that is far from writer Toby Whithouse's best and spins it into visual magic. There are other examples of Yip's directorial flair in the episode, such as the scene in which the Doctor and his allies enter the Monks' cathedral, but it's this moment with Missy that really stands out.

The combination of the fantastic and the flawed make The Lie of the Land an odd beast, a far from perfect script that is redeemed by stunning direction and strong acting. I've already mentioned Michelle Gomez, but praise should also go to Pearl Mackie, who puts in a powerhouse of a performance as Bill, perfectly communicating her confusion and horror at finding the Doctor apparently on the Monks' side.

The Lie of the Land might have worked better as the second part of a conventional two-parter, with the first half exploring life under the Monks and ending with the Doctor being captured but Bill escaping. As it is, its failure to do much with its dystopian premise makes for a slightly muted conclusion to a trilogy defined by experimentation with genre.