Welcome to DoWntime’s not-too-regular column, Assessing Stress. That’s where we assess … stress. Or more accurately, talk and debate about the newest episodes to hit the television screen, the new releases from Big Finish, and all these good things.
And we managed to get the band back together again! Yay us! Scarves came back from the Sahara, and he has started his own religion now, I think, but he managed to come back from us and we had a lovely time meditating together in the astral plane, chatting with the spirit of John Nathan-Turner and all those good things.
Also, we dragged a guest with us! James Kirkland, from Canada, Whovian, and independant writer/director, say hello everyone!
Spoilers follow, obviously.
1) General Thoughts
TIBERE: Well, that was … Frustrating. Not outright terrible, not irredeemable, but definitely frustrating. Rough, rough storytelling and some deep, annoying issues. And in all honesty, I have a much higher tolerance for Toby Whithouse than most people here (even if, let’s be clear, I’m not chill with the whole transphobia package and he should make some major, major apologies before being even considered as a potential writer for upcoming Who) – as much as he always writes the same story, he definitely has a distinct identity as an author, which I tend to respect a bit. But he’s just … Not the one you want for that story, really. He doesn’t have the politics, he doesn’t have the relevance, he doesn’t have the nuance. The set-up for the story is stellar, and there are some genuinely fantastic scenes here and there, but as a whole, it’s very schizoid story, that’s stuck between the writing doing one thing and the story naturally wanting to develop itself in an entirely different direction.
SCARVES: Yeah, it’s definitely left me with mixed feelings, as has every Toby Whithouse story since the (genuinely excellent) “The God Complex”. Which is a shame, because I had high hopes for this episode, in spite of the writer. It’s marred, as many of Whithouse’s scripts post 2012 have been, by a sense that Whithouse hasn’t quite realised that the show has moved on since the Davies era – havig the Doctor call himself and Missy “The Last of the Time Lords” post “Day of the Doctor” being the most striking examples. They’ve been back for five years, Toby! And it’s marred, to a lesser degree, by the problems that nagged at me in “Before the Flood”, a sense that the episode really lacks its convictions in the story it wants to tell – it tries to be a character piece for Bill, for example, and the episode seems to be set up as Bill’s big story for the season, just as “Turn Left” is for Donna, “Father’s Day” is for Rose, or “Amy’s Choice” is for Amy, but it feels like a half hearted attempt at that sort of story. It feels similarly half hearted in its attempts to resolve the Monk plot, or when it ducks out of doing anything much with the Doctor’s fakeout heel turn, which could have been pushed into interesting places. Still plenty of nice moments – Bill and Nardole get some great scenes, I loved the Doctor’s evil laugh, and my word it’s beautifully directed. But a mixed up mess, I think.
SCRIBBLES: It’s a very odd episode that strikes me as a potentially troubled production. There’s a lot to love here. Whithouse does manage some good political zingers, and the building off the seeds of Bill’s imaginary mum was beautiful. And there’s some great satire … somewhere … with the Monks. But gosh, was that wonky, structurally. Everyone else worked wonders, though, I must say. Murray Gold’s finest so far this year, Pearl Mackie continually finding new ways to steal the screen even from Peter Capaldi at his finest, Wayne Yip continuing to remind me why “Detained” and “The Metaphysical Engine, or What Quill Did“ are the best Class episodes. There’s a lot to like here. Just also a lot that’s frustrating.
TIBERE: Oh, yeah, Yip is on fire. As usual, really – but I think you clearly see that Whithouse is just not as good as Moffat (or, indeed, as Patrick Ness), when it comes to writing for the director. Yip does really good stuff here, but it doesn’t really have that weird, experimental edge his Class stuff had. Bar the Missy-eyes shot, which is absolutely gorgeous and ripe with meaning.
SCRIBBLES: Oh, certainly. It sort of brings to mind just how much power of “The God Complex” came from Hurran, too, which also went wild and experimental with the style in a way that added tremendous value, though that script was more structured than this. If nothing else, Moffat’s really gotten the best stable of directors in Doctor Who history. Yip, Talalay, Hurran, there’s some amazing behind the camera talent going on, aided by some wonderful cinematographers and editors.
TIBERE: Don’t forget Paul Whilmshurst! I adore the guy. I do think “The God Complex” is a genuinely fantastic script, though. Not without some iffy elements, but it’s really, well, the apex of Whithouse’s specific brand of Who. In one way, there really is no need for more Whithouse after “The God Complex” – he has already executed this formula perfectly once and has only came up with weaker imitations since. And, while I did enjoy parts of “Lie of the Land”, if there’s one thing that’s clear when you come out of it, it’s that Whithouse just doesn’t have anything new to say. And that’s a problem, especially when the series at large and that trilogy in particular have a lot to talk about …
SCRIBBLES: If anything, that’s really the problem, yeah. He’s been talking for years in his episodes about a specific character beat for the Doctor, and the show’s moved past that, a good long way. So wrapping up a wild, experimental political trilogy with him does show that. The “last of the Time Lords” line particularly tipped its hand; it’s just an episode for a past era that doesn’t fit now. It’s less glaring a mess than, say, “Before the Flood“, but the touches of brilliance in this make it more frustrating, compared to how easy “Before the Flood” is to brush off.
TIBERE: Really, “Before the Flood” is a bog-standard script where the most compelling bits feel like they were added almost as an afterthought – like the opening pre-credits scene. Here, he actively tries to engage with richer material, but he doesn’t succeed. I don’t think he could have – that’s just not what he’s about. This is a script you want to give to Sarah Dollard or Jamie Mathieson – new, energetic writers with an acute political eye. Not to him. So, even though it could have been worse, it’s basically the screenwriting equivalent of giving a horse a pair of trousers.
SCARVES: God, I wish Sarah Dollard had been writing Bill’s big character piece. She’d have been fantastic at that. And when she revisits Davies era themes, she’s visibly writing as someone whose fandom was largely formed in that era, and has new takes on what that era had to say. It’s part of why she did such a good job with “Thin Ice“, but also why she could have been really great for this story.
JAMES: It’s strange in that if the episode were restructured, it could well have worked better. By, say, building up to a final confrontation with the “Evil Doctor” and having Missy and the leader Monk as first-half elements, it would have worked better in a more structured fashion. But the episode did have strong elements. It just was so scattershot.
2) First Act: the Dystopia
SCRIBBLES: A lot’s been said about how the character beat was undermined for Bill by it all being a test, with a smattering of people who are just mad that it means the Doctor collaborated with a totalitarian regime for six months, which, fair enough, that is uncomfortable as hell to consider. But honestly, that’s not even my biggest issue. The beat for Bill doesn’t feel earned, shooting him. The music and the acting sell it, barely, but it’s a huge ask to make the audience invest so much in a dystopia after a quick montage, that Bill would do that to the Doctor over a world we don’t really ever see enough to feel is a reality. I personally feel like the script would have been better waving off this act entirely, really, or amping it up and using shooting the Doctor as the climax. But as is, it’s just bizarre in every way.
JAMES: Like I said, this should have been either moved or better built upon. The Doctor testing Bill to make sure she’s not part of the program? Fine, that makes sense. But why was it done in such a specific way? If he had gained so much influence on the Prison Ship, one should think that there’d be any number of other ways to somehow get this test set up. And why would the Doctor, who was there for Bill’s speech on death/killing in “Thin Ice“, think that she would be willing to gun him down? There are a few too many questions about the how and why that this circumstance raised.
TIBERE: Really, the first half of the script, on its own, is fine. And the second half, on its own, is just fine too. But together? It’s a weird Frankenstein monster of a story, awkwardly sewn together. There are plot holes in this, you could drive the Titanic through them – for instance, if the Doctor has control of his prison boat, why is there a Monk hanging around (and moreover, a Monk that leaves Bill and Nardy do their thing)? Like, I’m not the biggest fan of Peter Harness, but I really liked last week’s episode because it felt dangerous, it felt like it was pushing the show into a place of uncertainty, of hesitation – there is a powerful doubt that’s thrown over the show and the characters, a great weight to Bill’s decision to give the world up. And this episode keeps that ambiguity up nicely, for a while – the Doctor as an agent of the Monks, now that is one fantastic premise. And there’s some great potential here – the Doctor’s power, hard as he may try to deny it, comes from a place of paternalistic, traditionalist authority – that’s what Harness’ “Kill the Moon” is all about. So, setting up the Monks as the darkest, most controlling aspects of the Doctor is not a bad screenwriting move – and really, if you look at this pre-opening credits montage, the Doctor even says in his news broadcast that humanity should “do as it is told”, echoing his series 8 catchphrase. Yes, it echoes a lot previous Whithouse stories and his old “dark mirror of the Doctor” trope, but the previous stories gave him enough material to anchor the angst of the characters in much more interesting places than usual. But here, the story makes a complete 180° at the midpoint – and it stops being about putting the characters in new, challenging places. The Monks stop being these ominous creatures that are like an embodiment of modern times coming to corrupt the show; the Doctor takes back the control of the narrative, and in a way, that completely destroys what the previous stories were trying to achieve. We’re reassured, we know he’s in control, that there’s nothing to fear – Whithouse accepts to deal with the political themes of the story, but he deals with them as a fun hypothetical scenario, as another “invasion of the week”, not as a corrosive reflection of our current reality. Which is basically what series 10 aimed to do since the get-go. I guess, though, that this is why I’m not too mad about the whole “collaborating-with-the-oppressors” thing: because in the diegesis Whithouse builds, it doesn’t matter, the Doctor is in control and there’s no real danger. There’s no bite and no power to the dystopia, it’s not actually dangerous people, it’s all part of a plot by the Doctor, and part of the plot of the episode! It’s bad writing, but the fact it’s bad limits how offensive it is. If that makes sense.
SCARVES: I really don’t feel like this episode built out its dystopia in enough depth – there were interesting concepts at play, such as the monks only having been in power for six months, but keeping humanity under control by creating a false history where humanity remembers them existing for all of Earth’s history, but they were never really made to feel convincing in the world the story builds. For example, they try, but never really succeed to, portray what it’s like for characters to struggle to hold onto their true memories – Bill says she struggles to separate the truth from the monks’ alternative history, the soldier is reconditioned by the monks when his headset is broken in the temple, but those moments never make me feel what it’s like for those characters. I don’t think Who needs great worldbuilding, but this specific episode certainly did – you need to feel the overpowering nature of a crushing totalitarian dystopia, just as, for example, “Gridlock” shone because it makes you feel for the life of the characters stuck for years going in circles on an endless motorway.
TIBERE: It’s more Whithouse writing about the archetype of dystopia rather than coming up with his own brand, yeah. The framing is important here, I feel – like, you get a lot of direct, not very interesting or compelling nods to 1984; the uniforms everybody’s wearing, for starters – which just kind of says “welp, we’re in a dystopia” – it’s a easy signifier, but there’s not much in the way of content behind that. And there’s a story beat that I think just really reveals well the perspective from which Whithouse is writing his story. Like, this pre-credits sequence – look at who exactly are the victims of the Memory Police. It’s a perfect little family – white, mother, father, two children (one is not accounted for, but you can see her on the photo). It’s using a cliché to signify familiarity with the audience, instead of trying to convey real-world violence against marginalized groups. There’s a giant dissonance in the intentions behind the story.
SCRIBBLES: And it’s a good idea, too. The Monks aren’t just invaders, they’re the myth of history. The myth that history is a linear thing constantly progressing and evolving in progress, rather than random chaos in which we try to be better. And they insert themselves at every purported step forward in history, as that arc. Hell, their whole modus operandi is that. We see in their ship in “Pyramid” that the projection of “Extremis” consists of literal timelines, little strands hanging down that they hold and manipulate into a path that benefits them. When instead, history is totally random. I loved the little line from Missy, that if the person who put them in power dies before reproducing, they just write it off. Of course the chaotic randomness of existence would really be the way to crush such a construction.
TIBERE: They are really “fake”, in a way. They assume the guise of human beings, but actually don’t do a very good job of imitating them, since they resemble corpses, and their spaceship is literally a copy of Earth history. They are an illusion, in a way, and rule thanks to illusion – and through the fake narrative of positivist thought you just pointed out, Scribby. The way hold power through the repetition of a pattern – their image, inserted everywhere in human history, is a pretty cool concept, I’ll admit. It echoes a lot what series 9 did with Osgood – political ideology as a meme, a preconceived form, a pattern you can repeat over and over again.
SCRIBBLES: That reminds me of another favorite bit about the Monks: that there aren’t actually that many of them, they just create that illusion. It’s pretty hilarious and clever how whimpy they are as conquerors and enslavers of humanity, and you get the sense that’s the point. They’re opportunists. Hell, they’re politicians. Ruling people and making them accept just because people think that’s the way it’s always been.
SCARVES: And yet, I don’t think that works as well here as it has with, say, the Mire, as much of, say, “Pyramid” relied on portraying the monks as scarily all powerful and all knowing. “The Girl Who Died” sells the Mire as the empty rhetoric of toxic masculinity posing as badass warriors before a resolution where they’re scared by an in universe bad Doctor Who effect. This episode is the closing chapter in the big mid season trilogy where the stakes are considerably heightened, and their portrayal in this episode comes across, to me, as just being inconsistent with what we’d seen up until now, instead of the logical ending for them after they had been unmasked by Bill.
TIBERE: I think there needed to be more of a justification to their final lack of power, really. They don’t articulate what the Monks are and what the reach of their influence is clearly enough, so the resolution to that arc ends up feeling vague and lacking punch. And I’m not necessarily saying they needed to explain what the Monks are – I can absolutely enjoy mystery – ; but I would have loved to see the sort of symbolical lexicon that hangs around them expanded upon, and tied with the themes and plot of the episode.
SCARVES: That said, I do think the episode lines up nicely with season ten’s ongoing political thread,of establishing the position of Doctor Who in a post Trump and Post Brexit world, critiquing “fake news” and politicians rewriting history to suit their own needs. And it tied into the themes of rebellion against oppresive regimes that have run through this season, in “Thin Ice“, “Oxygen” and “Extremis” in particular – this was less satisying and probably more confused than those episodes in its attempts to be political, but it fits more naturally into the themes of the season than, for example, fridging O’Donnell in the most contrived way possible in a season that otherwise has a clear and defined thread of subverting that trope.
TIBERE: Well, I’m not sure I entirely agree with you here. It feels a little confused in its targets, really; like, sure, the Trump administration has invented past events – Bowling Green Massacre and all – but the way Whithouse frames it, with the iconic images of the past being suddenly changed, echoes a lot more the Soviet and Stalin’s manipulation of pictures, I feel. I don’t think the writer really manages to express these concerns in a way that’s relevant and linked to the present. It’s artificial, it’s like our pal Toby is just ticking a little box – “okay, I’ve name-dropped fake news”!
SCRIBBLES: I think the fake news stuff indeed feels utterly toothless. Hell, the “alternative facts” line was probably added in post, given the way it uses a shot of Capaldi from behind, a usual practice for adding dialogue after the fact. And what’s more, I have a theory for why it feels utterly thematically muddled. I’m going to suggest something about this episode that’s been niggling me for a bit, and I’ll be curious what you make of it, because I’m not entirely sure of it myself. But, well, doesn’t this episode feel entirely misdirected if it’s supposed to be a Trump satire? What about the Monks rings true for that? What if that’s not what this was going for at all? I’m starting to wonder if this story, like some other political television has in the wake of the election, expected different results. I know I heard South Park was totally screwed over for their arc plotting by the results, and I wonder if that’s the case here. Think. The Monks, a creature that need a loving vote to get them in, a pure request by a marginalized person, Bill. Who are seen on the screens at pride parades and women’s rights marches, endorsing themselves as a driving force behind a liberal historiography of human progress, using the illusion of history as a constantly improving line and that they are the way things have always been to hold power. That sounds more appropriate satire for a moderately progressive political dynasty courting approval of the people like the Clintons than it does for Donald Trump. And that’s a far better point given the parallels between the Monk and the Doctor, too. Because the Doctor’s far more like a liberal politician, President of the World and the Zygon speech and all, than he is in any way resembling Trump. I wonder if there was a brilliant story in this judged for entirely the wrong world. Which would be ironic, given the Monk’s own failure was at predicting lines of history, which would be the same thing that the writers did if true.
TIBERE: It’s a genuinely compelling interpretation. It’s certainly possible – “Extremis” was written back when the elections result were still in the air, so it’s not crazy to assume the rest of the trilogy was at least outlined back then. I think that’s probably a case of “write what you know” – I don’t think Whithouse can truly make a satire of Trump land, because he’s not the “target” of Trump’s specific brand of populist politics, he’s not attacked by it. And he’s not a supporter of him either, really, so he comes at it from an angle of basically having no idea of what that guy is about. Whereas centre politics that are more than a little bit problematic, now that I assume is something he knows a lot better. That’s probably what Whithouse’s vision of politics is, broadly speaking, so I’m just going to assume that he was on auto-pilot and just wrote a story that reflected that.
3) Second Act: the Power of Love
SCRIBBLES: This half of the episode was far more my cup of tea. Because it comes down to a war of ideological portrayals of history, really, doesn’t it? And everything with Bill shines so, so well. While on the one hand we already know Bill isn’t leaving, emotionally it really sells the idea that she means it, and invokes some great departures, like “Face the Raven” or “Forest of the Dead“, in which the Doctor could only watch helpless while the companion makes her choice. Bill’s strength here is beautiful, and I love how, being her, she still gets one last quip in.
SCARVES: It didn’t work so well for me, sadly. I liked getting what was probably the most Bill centric story of the season since “The Pilot”, because, well, Bill’s great, and Pearl Mackie getting centre stage is always a win. But it feels half hearted here, as I said earlier – once the fake out regeneration happens, Bill does become second fiddle to the Doctor for a while, and even the conclusion, where she saves the world, doesn’t manage to actually make Bill the focus of the scene.
TIBERE: I did mention the way the Monks were treated as this sort of meme, of recurring pattern – the resolution works nicely, really, considering that what Bill does is literally contaminating the system with another recurring pattern: the image of her mother, repeated and multiplied, over and over again. The world is saved by a sort of almost religious image of a black woman looking at them with love. Now that is one hell of a cool beat.
SCRIBBLES: To me, it’s also crucial that both she and the Monks’ version of history are fake. One could call it competing stories, or competing narratives of history. One built out of political maneuvering for power, one built out of the love of a black queer woman, and the latter being far more powerful than the former is a good message. I almost wish the events on the screens changed to match to history specific to Bill’s identity: Stonewall, Black Panthers, that kind of thing, that’d be amazing. The sides of history of exploitation and human injustice that get erased from history, that’s what Bill should help shine a light on in Doctor Who. In a better, stronger, more measured episode, that’d be what we’d see, I think.
TIBERE: I don’t think Whithouse has enough interest or care in black or queer history to really craft a really compelling narrative around it, sadly. Really, the fact the Bill is black and queer seems almost secondary in the proceedings – because the dictatorship of the Monks is so ill-defined, there is precious little room for her to really affirm her identity against something, to define herself against that regime. This is a compelling but flawed bit- like, the echo to “The Pilot” and to her mum’s photos (which, conveniently, are also, in a way, a fabrication, a fake, something the Doctor came up with, plucked out of history) is nice and all, but having the Doctor specifically point it out with “I thought I was being kind, but I was saving the world!” … Thankfully, Pearl Mackie carries that scene from beginning to end. That resolution really, really touched me.
SCARVES: Plus, that line ends up being the Doctor taking the credit for Bill saving the day. Like I said, I don’t think Whithouse manages to commit to keeping a story companion centric.
SCRIBBLES: Ugh, yeah. I can see why people found the Doctor insufferable in this episode. It should have been Bill’s moment, and each half builds itself around a massive choice for Bill … and then undercuts it with the Doctor hopping out and saying, it was me all along, yay me. Whithouse has always showcased a tendency to be more interested in the Doctor’s angst than the companion’s, to the detriment of stories like “Before the Flood” that’d be far stronger if Clara and the Doctor switched parts, but here, it really undermines Bill, because unlike Clara, she hasn’t gotten so many moments yet.
SCARVES: Absolutely, just keep the scene focussed on Bill, her expressions, maybe make use of the device of her narration to her mother – you don’t need the Doctor giving the technobabble explanation over the top.
TIBERE: Really, this episode should be about Bill, but relapses in Doctor-ish stuff virtually all the time. Bill makes the choice to save the world – she realizes the Doctor cannot do everything, that she has to take matters in her own hands and act. Which is good! But it also makes the episode, indirectly, a big critique of the Doctor’s hero complex and need to constantly affirm himself, which just seems like a really irrelevant thing to do at this point? “The Pilot” and “Thin Ice” have shown us that he has evolved, and changed, and grown – he is giving Bill freedom to act and make her own decision, he respects her and cares for her. It just shows how unfit Whithouse is with writing that kind of material. I mean, yes, you can read the ending of “Pyramid” as a sort of critique of the Doctor, granted – but both Bill and the Doctor, then, are undone by their deep, almost delusional care for each other. It’s a lot more fresh and compelling than what we end up with here.
SCRIBBLES: Even Missy, really, gets used as mostly a prop for the Doctor’s angst, I think. Michelle Gomez assumes control of the material because she’s Michelle Gomez, but really, she’s just there to tell the Doctor to kill Bill and make him mope a bit when she says his morals aren’t perfect. Which is frustrating. What this episode, and indeed this trilogy, clearly wants to be is a big moment for Bill, bolstered by Missy’s choice to be good as the b-plot. Whereas, instead, in giving this finale to Whithouse, it becomes mostly about Twelve. We’ve gotten enough character study of Twelve. We don’t need that. We do, however, need the material for Bill and Missy, which is really the driving force of this year of Doctor Who and I think pretty clearly intended as the core of this trilogy as a turning point. It’s fundamentally frustrating.
SCARVES: Yeah, Missy is mostly there for the sake of exposition and a generic “regret at all the people I’ve killed” scene at the end of the episode. Which is a waste, really – pushing the “Missy teams up with team TARDIS to help beat the Monks” could have been great – have the episode’s events lead to her regret at the end of story, and you’ve got a really interesting thread for the character. Instead, the final scene is a mostly unconnected coda. That said, Michelle Gomez continues to be a win – I saw an excellent tumblr post that point just how neat Missy’s progression has been – in season eight, she wants to reestablish her friendship with the Doctor, so she tries to bring him down to her level – in series nine, she works with Clara to save his life, but still maintains her evil streak, and in series ten, she makes a seemingly genuine attempt to turn good in order to continue rebuilding their friendship. And while it’s clearly not going to last, she genuinely seems to be trying, which is interesting. It seems more likely that her inevitable turn back to evil will be her being tempted back than this being some “long game” plan – which is nice – an extended exploration of the master attempting to turn good should be a lot of fun.
JAMES: Which makes one wonder if things will come down to a battle between Missy and the Doctor’s views of “good”. Twelve is a pragmatist, to be sure. But I doubt even he would chuck a girl into a volcano to defeat a threat. One also must wonder just how genuine she is being in the end. And if the Doctor really buys it.
SCRIBBLES: But within this episode, the table setting for that sort of development and confrontation was very poor, I would say. “Extremis” was strong because, even though Missy was out of the action, everything about it was built around reflecting her character moment with the Doctor’s in a really poignant way, all told through a mastery of structure. Whereas this just sort of sticks her to the side and says that’s a thing instead of really pushing on it as the dramatic core like it should be. She only really gets two scenes, one for exposition and one as a closing teaser, which really makes her feel inessential. I think it’s telling just how uninvested the episode is in the big moment of opening the vault and Bill meeting Missy, just a door to open and a person to consult. It feels mundane and ordinary when it should feel like the dramatic core.
TIBERE: I do think her criticisms of Twelve come the closest to a genuinely interesting critique of Twelve, and there’s definitely room for that. I mean, contrasting the Doctor and the Master’s vision of “goodness”, and vision of resistance in face of the oppression, that could give way to some genuinely great material. You could almost read the scene as a dialog between a liberal wanting to keep the moral high ground and a revolutionary ready to all the sacrifices. It wouldn’t take much to push that scene into full-on “Class” territory, with Missy as the Miss Quill.
SCRIBBLES: Which, it must be said, would work a bit better if we really ever got a sense of that from Missy before. Though certainly chaotic and self-driven, revolutionary isn’t really the angle they’ve ever channeled for her before. It’d be one thing if this episode saw her in action outside the Vault, revolting against the dystopia of the Monks in her own gleefully chaotic way. But we don’t get that. Hell, they could have even indulged in a montage of Missy liberating an alien world there to give us more of a sense of that. How fun and effective would that be, actually seeing Missy murder her way through one oppressor, probably just to try to insert herself into power next?
TIBERE: I don’t exactly see her as a revolutionary, no – I think the possible “good” version of Missy, which she is trying to reach, would be, or would at least have some of those characteristics. The way she is at the moment, she’s more a pure force of unabashed chaos whose actions might just happen to have positive results once in a while.
SCRIBBLES: Which would be excellent, if the episode really did give us a sense of that, I think, and showed us how she is now in action. It is afraid to commit to examining anyone except the Doctor’s generic angst #5994920, and it grates.
TIBERE: The elements to make a really good story are all there, but Whithouse doesn’t manage to make them cohere into a form that’s really compelling and interesting. He just half-bakes most of them and does his usual spiel. Still, there’s enough stuff to like, but oh what a story it might have been.
SCRIBBLES: Absolutely. One wishes that Moffat had the time and emotional energy after Pyramid to rewrite this, really. Because there’s so much to love about this trilogy, and I think it was still very worth doing, but oh, how frustrating it is to end it like this instead of ending it like the story it’s clearly got inside, about Bill and about Missy.
JAMES: Although most certainly unintentional, I quite liked that Missy questioning the Doctor’s morality kinda tied back to her plot in Series 8. If she sees the Doctor’s view of “good” as inherently flawed, it makes sense that she thought giving him unlimited power would corrupt him into a “lawful evil” tyrant who would dish out his morality on the universe wherever he saw perceived wrongs.
SCRIBBLES: On a different note, given how the Monks are built on oppression, how great is it that their tech literally involves what looks to be a dead Monk wired into the system? It’s not a beat that’s dwelt on at all, but it’s gloriously, gloriously unsettling. And it adds a nice unity when Bill places her hands on it, she herself also being made into a transmitter like that and being a person marginalized by our society.
TIBERE: Even though they are not used to their full potential, their aesthetics are stellar. It’s perfect Who syncretism: a mix of Catholic imagery, ancient-world elements, zombie movie make-up, and sci-fi extravaganza. They’re a cool creation. And I definitely agree with your reading of that Bill beat – a better episode could have done something fascinating stuff with it. In a way, it’s almost accepting alienation, no? Your thoughts are no longer your own, there’s a chance you might end up completely robbed of them and of all independance, but, by doing that, you can tear down the system from the inside. Not necessarily saying that’s the way to go politically speaking, but it’s interesting. Really, there’s always this alienation subtext as far as the Monks are concerned – first with the consent, and a whole sexual element hanging around it (unless it’s a really lame joke about them literally fucking the world up …), and then, of course, with the way they imprint themselves into your bloodline and anchor their reign in the literal flesh of the people they rule over. Which of course poses the question: isn’t basing their empire on a gay woman having children a bit risky? Were they planning to take her to a sperm bank eventually? Food for thought …
JAMES: Speaking of the Monks, did anyone else find it odd how they borrowed from the Silence with their lightning attacks?
TIBERE: I see two possibilities. One: it’s a comment on their sort of un-reality, they’re like this sort of weird collage that integrates all the history of the world, and of Who, so it’s a deliberate echo. Two: the screenwriter/director got lazy. Pick one.
SCRIBBLES: I thought it was fine. Doctor Who monster trivia has never been the most interesting aspect of the show to me, and this episode dispenses with the fight as a stylish montage, Time of the Doctor style, where the content of the battle is far less the point as where it leads to. It’s even got a voice over, like there. I prefer it that way, really. Character is this show’s strong point, not action, and though Wayne Yip does an amazing job of showcasing the action, seriously amazing, it’s not ever gonna be the focus of this story, and so a bit of zappy lightning looking cool works fine for me.
JAMES: One would think lightning attacks are pretty easy to render at this point. Perhaps the script said “they fight” and they figured “eh, Davros and the Silence did it”.
SCARVES: Yeah, the lightning abilities felt like another example to the monks not really connecting up to what we’d seen of them up to this point. Another way the episode failed to cohere and ended up only glancing over some genuinely interesting concepts and ideas.
JAMES: Then again, it’s curious how they only utilized their lightning and shield powers within the Pyramid. And, when people rose up against them on the streets, they were powerless. Almost as if they only have powers within their own dominion. Which would explain why their way of ruling is through manipulation and lies as they are powerless outside.
TIBERE: Yeah, they don’t seem to be able to do much outside of their ship. Which is a pyramid, so, maybe we can try and sexual interpretation and see that as a phallic symbol? I don’t know, I’m just desperately trying to fill the holes here. Pun not intended. They’ll be great as Big Finish monsters, though – there’s much to be expanded upon here. Have them pop in “Classic Doctors, New Monsters Volume 14” or something.
JAMES: Slightly aside, and speaking of Big Finish, Missy talking about her own adventures seemed like a massive neon sign going “YOU GOT THAT, FOLKS?”. Which, I’m sure most would agree, would be brilliant.
SCRIBBLES: I would love to see how pitiful and bureaucratic the world of the Monks is, like you suggest Big Finish could do, Tibere. I picture them running a bank of low-risk world invasion investment or something. We never even really get an idea of why they take over worlds, so that makes them something extremely exciting as an element to expand on. Really, that’s the saving grace of “The Lie of the Land.” It’s not good. It squanders a lot of its ideas in a weirdly structured mess and undermines its most crucial character moments in the most frustrating way. But there’s something enigmatic and compelling there, bubbling underneath the surface. It’s easily the weakest of the trilogy, but it suggests a lot of future ground for storytelling, if only in the expanded universe, and that does excite me. In the meantime, I hope they don’t let a swallowed beat like this keep Bill down. My biggest fear is that this was intended as the big Bill story so the finale can be the big Missy story, which would be horrible, given just how little this episode really succeeded as the big Bill story.
4) The trilogy in perspective: characters and themes
SCARVES: Well, the trilogy gave us the best episode of the season in “Extremis”, so it was worth it for that alone. Compared to the “loose multi part stories” of series nine, this is considerably weaker than Clara’s departure trilogy, and the mid season Ashildr two parter, not coming together as well as those stories do. But “Extremis” still works beautifully on its own terms, and “Pyramid” is far from spoiled by a weak conclusion, although a strong follow up here would have made it much more satisfying. There’s an interesting theme of surveillance, and the clash of the ancient world and the modern, running through the story, and it’s nice to see the season continuing to engage with real world politics, even though “Lie of the Land” gave us the most disappointing example of such an engagement so far this season. Overall glad they tried it, loved the start, wish they could have brought it all together a little better at the end.
TIBERE: I am so, so glad that this was an ensemble of three loosely-connected stories, I must say. “Lie of the Land” is a very, very flawed story, but as the last part of a straightforward three-parter, with two full weeks of set-up, it would be truly wretched. That way, it doesn’t exactly taint the two previous, very good episodes.
SCRIBBLES: I would agree on that point. That is, really, the nice thing about the unconnected linked stories approach, pioneered with the Ashildr two-parter and the Clara finale trilogy. It means a damp squib doesn’t hurt the other stories, and gives each episode a place to have its own identity and be something special. Not all of them can be quite as good as that series 9 ending, a blaze of three glorious episodes that are probably my favorite Doctor Who thing ever. But it means, if things go wrong, it doesn’t make the good parts feel any lesser, the way a weak back half to a two-parter normally would. Thus, episodes like “The Girl Who Died” or “Extremis” can still be utter classics on their own terms, even if the other installments don’t quite land. And I prefer that greatly.
JAMES: While I appreciate the approach of allowing each writer to tell a story that is connected by a particular thread, I do feel this trilogy would have benefitted by either A: being a more thoroughly connected three-parter, thus allowing for a more cohesive vision or B: being more akin to Raven/Heaven/Hell and having it gone Moffat/Harness/Moffat, thus giving one person more control over the story.
SCRIBBLES: I do agree the greatest creative mistake in this was having the concluding piece in the hands of someone other than Moffat. A misfire in the middle would have been far more palatable, really. But an ending that doesn’t land is a huge shame, and one that feels disconnected from the other elements of the story is even more grating.
JAMES: One wonders what would have happened if Whithouse had handled Pyramid and Harness/Moffat had tackled Lie…
TIBERE: Oh, I think there are plenty of writers that could have done that story well. But Whithouse? That was possibly the worst possible choice for that story. Still, even if the experiment didn’t entirely pay off, I’m really glad they did it, and there’s a lot to like here, in the size and scope and ambition of the storytelling. It also gave Matt Lucas a lot more to do, and I’m pretty happy with that – he’s a talented guy, and Nardole is a lovely character that occupies a very interesting bit of storytelling space.
SCARVES: Phil Sandifer suggested taking Whithouse out of the equation and making the story following “Extremis” a Peter Harness two parter, and I think that would have resulted in a much more complete overall story. Though as I suggested above, Dollard would have been great at the Bill centric conclusion to the season’s big experimental political story.
JAMES: Considering I thought Pyramid was quite brilliant, I think that would have worked well. The political stuff seemed more with Harness’ wheelhouse than Whithouse (and I quite like most of Whithouse’s stories).
SCRIBBLES: It certainly made this run feel more weighty, didn’t it? And that was the goal. To make the middle of the series and transition to the back half feel bigger and more exciting. Even if the payoff didn’t land, it felt like Doctor Who was doing something that meant more than an episode like “Knock Knock.” And that does make it feel like a better series, I think.
TIBERE: Definitely. I do love the way it handles the arc, too – it “solves” the initial mystery of the Vault, it carries its own mini-arc with the Monks, and it teases what will probably be at the heart of the finale – the question of Missy’s redemption. It’s a very good bit of series-wide planning and structure; which makes the shortcomings of the narrative all the more annoying.
SCRIBBLES: Absolutely: In terms of structure and carrying threads, this three-parter was perfect. Even if it swallows some of the beats, it does complicate Bill nicely, I love that the Doctor even called her out for restoring his sight as something rather problematic in this episode. It pushes Missy into the equation, too, and sets up what the plot of this series will really be, while resolving the question of the Vault before it got too old and frustrating. “The Lie of the Land” didn’t judge how to deliver its material quite right. But within the larger structure of series 10, it was judged perfectly right. This could very well be the best structured series of Doctor Who ever.
5) Final thoughts
JAMES: The way I see it, this trilogy was a target placed several hundred feet away. Moffat fired at it with a sniper rifle and nailed the bullseye with three precise hits. Harness used a machine gun and hit mostly near the center with several more shots. Whithouse fired with a minigun and hit the target more times than any others, but it was all over the place and not often near the center. I think there were some very interesting things, and sometimes even brilliant things in this story. But it felt so disjointed and, at its worst, at odds with what came before. But there were some particularly great character moments, for my money. Bill and Missy certainly had some strong moments throughout. But, as someone who very much liked Whithouse’s other contributions to Twelve’s tenure, he mostly missed the mark with Twelve himself. Now, Capaldi sold the material because he’s brilliant, but it felt very disconnected from the rest of series 10 Twelve.
TIBERE: Really, I think “Lie of the Land” is a good test to see how you judge a Who story. I’m notoriously on the “if it’s trying and does something at least vaguely interesting, I’m mostly onboard” side, and that’s no exception – I can push away a lot of the bad stuff if there’s enough good, or at least compelling bits. And yeah, this story has enough of those. But even though I did kind of enjoy it, that doesn’t mean it’s good, and that doesn’t mean we’ve got to give Whithouse credit. This episode’s good sides come from the fact it’s from a very good series of Who with really strong overall plotting and thematic focus, come from Bill and Missy and Nardole, come from the casting – they don’t come from the writing. As I said at the beginning – it’s a conflict between a great story that wants to be told, and a writer that doesn’t want to tell it. The result is still compelling despite that tension, or perhaps precisely because of it, but it’s not what I’d call a glaring storytelling success, and it’s probably the first real faux-pas of series 10. “Knock Knock” is still, I think, my least favourite episode of the run, but “Knock Knock” was explainable – yeah, sometimes Who is entitled to rest a bit and just do one dull monster runaround. I don’t like it, but I accept it, it’s how the thing works. This could have been a lot better, and honestly, it kind of should have.
SCARVES: I’ve got to admit, this episode lowered my (still very positive) thoughts on a season that had, up to this point, been incredibly consistent, and had even started to be excellent with “Oxygen” and “Extremis”. This one slightly wobbly episode didn’t quite satisfy in wrapping up a key segment of the season, however, which lowers my overall impression of the run even as, episode for episode, this has been an excellent run, up with the best of New Who, with three episodes I’d happily call classics, two others that are excellent, two solid and safe early season episodes, this week’s flawed but not irredeemable offering, and none that it seems fair to call outright bad. Still, I remain hopeful – next week looks set to be one of Mark Gatiss’s more enjoyable episodes, and the last three episodes have the potential to bring this season to an incredibly satisfying conclusion. So consider me momentarily frustrated, but still excited for the rest of the season.
SCRIBBLES: My main takeaway is, there’s good bits, which I love, and there’s bad bits, which are frustrating but give me so many ideas for where new stories could go. It’s frustrating and I hope its roughness doesn’t hang over the remaining four episodes, but on the whole, I can’t hate it. There’s good things and wasted potential, which in the end feels like an exciting base to me. I just hope this is the last rough patch we’ll be seeing this year. If this is the price we pay for Extremis and for Bill becoming a more flawed and conflicted person, I’ll pay it gladly. Plus, more Missy is always worth it, even when it’s not her best material.
JAMES: It is quite abundantly clear that this trilogy was laying the groundwork for what is to come with Missy. But seeing this as a stepping stone forward for Bill’s journey is also logical. There are many interesting things that could well be born from her character progession going forward. I will say that if Bill’s character development really builds off of this experience in the coming weeks, it may cause me to re-evaluate the worth of this episode in the long haul.
SCRIBBLES: I expect it will, and that is what I’m most enthusiastic about. Judging by how this episode, for example, paid off threads set up in “The Pilot” with the photos and her talking to her imaginary mum, I think it’s safe to presume that the finale will in turn build off this episode. There’s a sense to this series really of every episode being aware of its place among the others, I think likely a product of Moffat getting more time to plan it all out. Hell, we even got a nice little nod to “Thin Ice” in this, which just in general makes this run feel more coherent and lived in, as something that really knows how to fit together into a whole. And that means I think we’re likely to see payoff on the big character moments of an episode like this. It’s sort of like how series 8 was serialized with character arcs. That seems to me the way the show is going, and if so, I am tremendously excited to see what it does with every character involved.