I was sixteen when I first read 1984. It was one of those books that stays with you: a fable of hellish bleakness, in which there are no real winners, and where there are far worse things than death. In late summer 1994 (ten years after Orwell’s narrative had failed to come to pass) such a dystopian nightmare still seemed like a distant reality. It was only a few short years later that we found ourselves looking at echo chambers, fake news and always-on technology that monitored our every move, and wondered how reality had caught up with fiction without any of us actually noticing.
Nearly six decades after the publication of Orwell’s magnum opus, Ben Elton had a go. His version was called Blind Faith, and was similarly bleak, although it ended at the gallows, rather than a cafe. It was clunky, shallow, zeitgeisty and overstated its themes, but it was oddly prophetic, and I wonder if Elton still thinks of it fondly, or perhaps regards it with the same casual dismissal that John Lennon had when it came to his early Beatles songs. And I wonder, too, if time will judge Toby Whithouse’s series 10 offering with kindness or with cynicism – something that foreshadows a likely reality, or one of those right-on attempts at being topical without actually saying anything.
‘The Lie of the Land’ picks up some time after ‘The Pyramid at the End of the World’ left off, with a withdrawn, isolated Bill going through teabags far faster than any person living alone actually should do, given that she spends most of her free time having imaginary conversations with a woman she can scarcely remember. It sounds like the plot of a Talking Heads narrative, and indeed that’s almost how the episode starts, although it isn’t long before we abandon melancholy for intrigue. There is an element of humanity in this week’s story, but it is first and foremost a conspiratorial thriller, and Whithouse wears it like a badge of honour. This is a story in which you can trust no one, Mr Mulder.
Certain stylistic things grate. It’s largely down to the fact that dystopian narratives are generally aimed at an older audience – but this is Doctor Who, and consequently there is a need to explain everything. ‘The Lie of the Land’ is, to all intents and purposes, the Blade Runner of New Who, its voiceover cloying and unnecessary (it should be obvious that spot checks are frequent and dangerous in a totalitarian police state, without Bill having to give us the details). It is only in the final reel that its purpose becomes apparent, Bill’s mother becoming not just a convenient expository sounding board but also a crucial plot device: the whole thing is very Rings of Akhaten with the same wind machine they used in ‘The Pilot’ but you can, at least, understand why we’ve had to put up with half an hour of interior monologue.
The voiceover isn’t the only thing that jars: the structure is off, somehow, as if this were a very good two-part story crammed into forty-two minutes, because the Monks had taken up two episodes already and they couldn’t stretch to another. The society Whithouse creates is frightening and oppressive and reasonably convincing, and there frankly isn’t enough of it: fascist police states are encapsulated in single, cliche-driven boot-in-the-door scenes (first they came for the communists, and I did not speak out), where non-conformists are dragged away in full view of disapproving neighbours. How much more might we have benefited from a more comprehensive overview of those who rejected the Monks’ programming? The resistance movement, and the laughing men behind the guns that served under the Doctor? The figureheads in charge, kowtowing to the will of the Monks, struggling to remember a time when they succeeded or failed purely on the whims of political ambition? Even the Monks themselves, who linger in the background this week, motives untapped, barely uttering a word? How much better, indeed, might the story have been had it begun with the planet under a state of siege, with flashbacks to key moments from the Pyramid episode and all the ephemeral dialogue from last week scattered to the ashes and replaced with something a little more substantial?
Perhaps that’s too much to ask for, and places too much demand on an audience that already struggles with the narratives that are thrown its way. If there is one recurring sin that New Who commits it is that of needless exposition, but a glance through the questions that come up on social media show that the audience is often not as smart as it likes to think it is. And we’re not talking about the kids here; we’re talking about grownups who should know better or who at least ought to read more. Just the briefest of glances through any DW forum in the days that follow an episode is enough to make a grown man weep. At one extreme you have the conspiracy theorists who notice everything and analyse everything – something I outwardly parody on this site – and at the other extreme the people who genuinely cannot understand why the Eleventh Doctor was able to regenerate. I don’t for a moment believe that Who writers have the time to actually read any of this, but if there are accusations that New Who occasionally dumbs down, we might say that this occurs simply because on many levels its audience actively demands it.
Even the supposedly smart people have a go. “It’s horribly misjudged to show Bill turning a gun on the Doctor,” writes Patrick Mulkern in the Radio Times, “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.” Actually, it can. That we do not get to see her suffering does not mean that said suffering has not taken place. The very fact that this is not something Bill would typically do does not, in itself, mean that it cannot be condoned, or that indeed that it would never happen: it simply means that there is a narrative gap that the audience must fill on its own. Is that such a dreadful ask? Or are we now at the stage where even professional reviewers need to be drip-fed?
There is an awful lot of decent material this week, even if it isn’t always used as effectively as it might be. The opening montage, which openly parodies Forrest Gump, is nothing short of marvellous, particularly with the addition of Capaldi’s soothing voiceover, bookended by the most sinister of grins. Capaldi, indeed, is absolutely the best thing about this week, whether he’s comforting a suddenly remorseful Missy or – in the episode’s high point – explaining his apparent change of heart to an incredulous Bill with such fortitude that for a second you’re almost prepared to believe it. Unfortunately it’s a that scene concludes with a mildly ridiculous denouement, and a quite unnecessary regeneration from the Doctor – “A bit much?” he quips, mostly through the fourth wall, and thus confirming that the whole thing was more about deceiving the audience than it was about winding up Bill.
(As an aside, the version of the episode that Emily and I watched this week was really very different. We usually get something that’s close to final – although it sometimes has a time stamp, a watermark or the odd bit of dialogue that gets polished or removed entirely before the final broadcast. The preview version of ‘Lie of the Land’ was, we were informed, not quite finished, and was still awaiting a few key effects, notably during the regeneration, which was missing its trademark sparkly dust. We knew what was supposed to be there because we’d seen it in the trailer, but having a CGI-free Capaldi stand in that chamber, stretch out his arms to look at effects that hadn’t yet been added and then shout “YAAAAAAAAHHHHH!!!” really was quite disconcerting, in an amusing sort of way.)
On the upside, the Doctor can see again, which makes certain things much easier for Nardole – although he’s largely reduced to hesitant glances and screaming like a girl when Bill threatens him with a dining chair. Mackie is typically marvellous, but we knew she would be, because she always is. The supporting characters are (sadly) once more ephemeral, consisting largely of Martyred Woman, Police State Nazi and Brainwashed Soldier: it is left to Gomez to provide what remains of the episode’s substance, which consists of sitting on a piano and crying over her victims. “You didn’t tell me about this bit,” she accuses the Doctor, in what appears to be a moment of genuine regret. It is most likely a ruse, because (as we have learned) we can no more trust Missy than we can the man who created her.
And perhaps that’s the lesson we take from this week’s story. As the Doctor and Bill share a coffee by an abandoned plinth – in a scene that smacks of the Moral Messages that would suffix every single episode of Masters of the Universe – we’re no closer to really knowing the truth about what we’ve seen, or why it’s happened, or why the Doctor had to put Bill through the wringer with quite so much vehemence. What’s left is a sea of fragments knitted into an enjoyable, if not entirely coherent whole. There is a monster who gives up too easily, and a story that raises more questions than it answers, but not in an open-ended, satisfying sort of way – rather (as I’ve already said) a brilliant two-part story shoehorned into a decent single installment. Still. ‘Decent’ is fine, even if we’re back in highs and lows territory this week – and even if, as we watch the Doctor stroll back to the Vault, we’re still not entirely sure what’s going on or who we can trust. The shortest distance between two points is usually a straight line, but that’s not the route that Moffat tends to take, and it’s hard to take anything at face value. Instead I’m reminded of Commissioner Gordon, watching Batman and Robin swoop off into the distance on the final page of the Knightsend saga, with its tales of false identity and duplicity and eventual redemption – as the Commissioner’s deputy assures him that, if nothing else, at least they can be sure that Batman is back.
“Really?” the Commissioner replies. “After all that’s happened, how can we be sure of anything?”