★★ After two weeks of build-up, this loose trilogy, the mid-series Monks marathon, hobbles to an end. The truth of The Lie of the Land is that it’s disappointingly uneven; there are interesting contours and notable features but it tends towards flat. Watching it unfold, I empathise with the brainwashed masses it depicts, living half-lives, clad in drab turquoise, sucking up the big lie, struggling to remember the recent past.
It’s not so much the storyline (often playful and inventive) or the performances (the leads are knockout as per) or even the direction (adequate). It’s more the general tone (spirit-sappingly funereal), the structure (all over the place) and the lack of threat.
The invasion has happened and almost no one is aware or bothered. The odd rebel committing a “memory crime” is given a “swift and painless” death to the cheers on onlookers. So far, so Orwell. The Monks have conquered the world and, as Bill says, “gone to the trouble of changing the past”. It’s not just fake news they’re peddling, it’s fake history. They appear in cave paintings, doctored stills of Churchill and Einstein; they’ve erected statues all over the globe, and planted a pyramid base in the City of London.
But what are the Monks actually doing? It’s as if subjugation of our planet is all they desire. I was expecting more development, more depth, a revelation. But no, the Monks are just a small band of zombies and rather dull rewriters of history.
The Lie of the Land is notable for two particularly lengthy and jarring scenes. The first is the almighty hoodwink the Doctor pulls against Bill, making her believe he’s really on side with the Monks, testing whether she’s been brainwashed. Lasting more than seven minutes, it’s a dreadful scene.
It presents the Doctor, Bill and Nardole in a very poor light. It’s blocked awkwardly. The actors look uncomfortable. There’s wash of burble-musak – one of my bêtes noires – failing to breathe life into it. Moreover, it’s horribly misjudged to show Bill turning a gun on the Doctor and firing not once but four times. We’ve seen nothing that would push her to such an extreme act. It cannot be rationalised or condoned.
The Doctor then stumbles into a fake regeneration, but for whose benefit? Bill and the soldiers in the room would not know what’s going on. The Monks? Only Nardole perhaps, to whom he says, “Regeneration too much?” Frankly, yes. It’s purely to tease the TV viewer – and maybe please the BBC bods making season trailers.
The second sequence that jars is when the Doctor and Bill go out of their way to visit Missy. It exists in its own bubble. Quite superfluous. The Doctor could easily have come to the same conclusion without consulting his arch-frenemy – “the only person I know almost as smart as me… the other Last of the Time Lords”. That isn’t to say this digression isn’t hugely enjoyable. Any Missy tickles me, and Michelle Gomez plays this interlude with relish – the woman’s in her own warped sitcom.
Unsurprisingly, her vault is relatively homely, much larger on the inside and how one might envisage her Tardis. I’m genuinely intrigued by the Missy/Vault season arc. We know it will tie up somehow with the return of John Simm’s Master. But why is the Doctor detaining her? We begin to see that this could be the longest psychotherapy session in history. Her anguish at the end appears genuine – but she is the master of deviousness.
A lovely touch is that the story broadens Bill’s conversations with her long-dead mum. They have a mug of tea together as Bill opens her heart, a nifty shortcut to bring us up to speed on the past six months. She continues to speak to her mum throughout the episode, and then of course there’s the ace pay-off when Bill’s “memories” of imaginary times with her mum cannot be overwritten by the Monks. As the Doctor cries: “Bill’s mum, you’ve just gone viral!”
The Lie of the Land leaves a sweet-and-sour taste. Peter Capaldi’s Doctor is the scariest thing in it. He wavers between downright nasty (his propaganda-spouting for the Monks; his appalling treatment of Bill) and at best disconcerting (his demented excitement when his boat is ramming the dock). He’s world-weary – specifically, Earth-weary. You can almost believe he’s working for the dark side, so great is his disenchantment with the human race.
When the crisis is over, the Monks have departed and everyone’s memories have been reset, he observes coldly, “Humanity is doomed never to learn from its mistakes.” Bill asks why he puts up with us. He smiles benignly and offers: “In amongst seven billion there’s someone like you. That’s why I put up with the rest of them.” At last a glimmer of light.
I hope we all have someone like that in our short lives. That is the truth of the land.