Tag: Doctor Who

Doctor Who Review: The Doctor Falls

So: on Sunday I visited the Barbican’s exhibition “Into the Unknown: A Journey through Science Fiction” (which is excellent, by the by, and produced a few fangirl moments for me). One of the things the exhibition makes abundantly clear is the extent to which science fiction is a genre rooted, problematically, in colonialism: its roots are in Jules Verne-y tales of imperial adventure, in which Western gentleman scientists visit the unexplored corners of, say, Darkest Africa, and find dinosaurs and strange monsters to be conquered or exploited for the good of Queen and Country.

We can situate Doctor Who in this tradition, too. (Oddly, the exhibition skips almost entirely over Doctor Who, possibly because it doesn’t quite know what to do with it.) The Doctor is a white, straight man, usually old, who flies about the universe in a 1960s police box which these days symbolises Britishness.

That is, he may be canonically a Time Lord, and thus country-less; but in spirit he is definitely British. He flies around the universe, sight-seeing, exploring, boldly going, ands generally sorting out other people’s problems for them. He’s much too civilised to fight, and avoids doing so by outwitting his enemies using his technological superiority. He also Knows Best, most of the time. He is, in other words, a manifestation of a particular fantasy of British superiority over everyone else, ever.

(Rule Britannia! Britannia rules the waves.)

There’s often more to Doctor Who than that, of course, but that’s the basic template. Or a basic template, at any rate.

I’m interested in making this overt, in relation to The Doctor Falls, because I think that Steven Moffat’s finale to the Twelfth Doctor’s escapades and his own involvement with Doctor Who is engaged in deconstructing a lot of what makes the show what it is.

For instance: isn’t it interesting that this final episode takes place on a colony ship? And not just any colony ship, either: it’s a ship that’s become stuck (outside a black hole) before it even managed to pick up its colonists; the colonialist project, mankind’s conquering of space, frozen and stagnated before it’s begun. Not only that, either: because the colonists begin to turn on themselves, enhanced human Cybermen fighting “normal” humans (and look how those humans are constructed as American pioneers, which is to say colonialists, in dress, architecture and outlook) in a spectacular self-destruct which the Doctor sees as inevitable in any human society. (Wherever there are humans, there will eventually be Cybermen.) That’s a self-destruct of the show’s underlying ideology of colonialist exploration, of technological superiority, of progress. Even the Doctor is cut off from his TARDIS, the mode of transport that defines who and what he is.

This ideological dissolution of the show’s Whoishness is compounded in other, smaller but not less significant ways. Look at the Doctor’s refusal to regenerate at the end of the episode: another kind of stagnation that undoes the very essence of what the Doctor is, a palimpsest of personalities made up of hundreds of often contradictory episodes. (The show has the man’s name on it, after all.) Look at the Missy/Master side-plot: Moffat squanders the narrative potential generated by the Master’s appearance at the end of World Enough and Time by having the Doctor foil his plan almost immediately, so that the Master is reduced to purposeless, sterile evil, destroying his future self to prevent her standing with the Doctor. The parallel with the ending to The Last of the Time Lords only accentuates how the mighty is fallen: from a plot that stretched to the end of the universe and back in that episode to petty, self-involved irrelevance that destroys its own future.

And, finally, look at the dissolution of the little ka-tet that has formed the core of this season of Doctor Who. Nardole is left behind on the dying colony ship, fighting a war he cannot win. (I wonder if Moffat actually realises that this is what the Doctor has done by taking the TARDIS to Antarctica? Even if Nardole and the colonists make it eventually to the bridge, they will be unable to leave.) And Bill, pointedly and significantly, leaves the Doctor behind; escapes into a new relationship and a new mode of being which is anti-colonial, insomuch as it specifically excludes the paradigm of the white straight male explorer. This step into the future is pretty much the only note of hope in the entire episode. Having comprehensively dismantled the ideological framework of the show, Moffat gestures at what might come next – something very different, something that breaks Doctor Who and remakes it again.

There’s been a lot of speculation in the wake of World Enough and Time and The Doctor Falls that the next Doctor might be female; and plenty of ambivalence as to what that might mean for the show. It’s clear, I think, from this episode that a female Doctor would represent a symbolic end for Doctor Who – that is, an end to the colonialist and misogynistic ideological structures on which it’s implicitly built.

But would it, as Andrew Rilstone asserts, mean that the future could only ever be female, lest a male replacement seem to imply that a female Doctor is inferior?

I think it depends on what incoming showrunner Chris Chibnall does with Moffat’s deconstruction of Doctor Who. I think, from here – from that image of Bill and Heather stepping into the sky together – it’s possible to imagine a reconstruction of the show, with a woman at its centre, that’s inclusive enough, that’s anti-colonial enough, that it opens a way for the Doctor to be any gender, or none, without the implication that any of them are inferior; a reconstruction that exists outside the need for such logics. It’s also possible to imagine Doctor Who continuing much as it always has done: with a female Doctor who cannot help but be compared to her male predecessors.

It remains to be seen, then, what the ultimate “meaning” of Moffat’s deconstruction of Doctor Who will come to be – whether it creates a new future for the show or just represents a creator at the end of his tenure wrecking things for his successor.

Class Review: Brave-ish Heart

It’s always difficult to talk about Class episode-by-episode, because it’s so much less a monster-of-the-week show than Doctor Who is. Unlike its parent show, its individual episodes all feel like they make up part of a coherent whole; which makes it tricky to identify the work they’re doing individually.

Still. Brave-ish Heart is another charming episode – if just a little overburdened with the teenage earnestness the series has so far managed to leaven with its ironising self-awareness. Having crossed into the realm of the Shadow Kin, April, supported by her love interest Ram, attempts to defeat Corakinus once and for all; while, back on Earth, Dorothea Ames (Coal Hill’s new headmistress, you’ll remember) tries to manipulate Charlie into using the Cabinet of Souls to destroy the flesh-eating petals menacing the planet – a course of action which Charlie believes will end all chance of resurrecting his people.

It’s complicated being a teenager.

In all seriousness, that’s exactly Class‘ project: rendering the emotional lives of its teenage protagonists as literal struggles against literal dragons. Certainly, the symbolism of April’s story couldn’t be more overt: the land of the Shadow Kin is a (sorry) shadow-realm in which April can act out, and thus resolve, her feelings about her father’s controlling influence over her life and her emotions.

It’s perhaps troubling that, in Class as in many YA narratives of its type, this struggle is transmuted into a specifically violent one – although it’s hard to think what other metaphor the show might use. But April’s violence is at least treated ambiguously: there’s a fine line, the episode seems to be saying, between righteous anger and toxic rage; between defeating your enemy and killing them. I’m not sure that ambiguity completely addresses the fact that dealing with your issues through violence – even metaphorical violence – is pretty unhealthy, but it’s more than a lot of narratives of this type are doing.

Charlie’s storyline, meanwhile, is more nuanced, and a better example of what makes Class really stand out. It uses a science fictional conceit – flesh-eating petals – to talk about issues of genocide and revenge, Big Themes that are nicely juxtaposed with April’s personal struggles. Charlie’s seen the murder of his people: will he use his weapon of mass destruction to take revenge on the race who did it (who also happen to be the Shadow Kin, obviously) – thereby dooming humanity to death-by-petal – or to save another race? It’s not a storyline that works through metaphor; it’s a discussion that can literally only work in science fiction (or conceivably fantasy).

As I’ve said before, I think what’s at the heart of what makes Class work is the fact that it switches between metaphorical and literal modes of science fiction. It recognises the potential SF has to encode emotional truth, but it can also use its SFnal conceits as if they’re real. This flexible approach, I think, allows the show to address some of the emotional issues that the genre at large tends to skate over. Although individual storylines can be a bit hit-and-miss (as I said above, April’s fight with Corakinus is just a little too over-dramatic), the series as a whole has a heft to it, as a result, that Doctor Who never quite manages.

Doctor Who Review: World Enough and Time

This review contains spoilers.

Well, this is a disappointing note on which to end – or, rather, to begin to end – Peter Capaldi’s tenure as the Doctor, and a tenth season which has been markedly better than previous ones.

World Enough and Time is a Moffat episode through and through: I can’t think of a better metaphor for his superficial, sleight-of-hand storytelling than the way that a brilliantly well-judged cliffhanger and two stonking performances from Michelle Gomez and John Simm mask a plot that doesn’t work, some irritatingly show-offy metafictional dialogue and, to round it all off, a dollop of old-fashioned, abusive sexism.

Let’s dive right in, shall we?

The premise: the Doctor, in his infinite wisdom, has decided to set Missy a test. He’s “grazed through” some spacey-wacey distress calls, picked “a good one” and sent her out, with the grudging support of Bill and Nardole, to deal with it, just as the Doctor would do.

The distress call has come from a four-hundred-mile-long colony ship caught in the gravitational well of a black hole. It’s reversing – very, very slowly. That’s not the reason for the distress call, as we find out from the distressed blue janitor who pops up to provide some exposition. The ship, it turns out, is brand new, straight from the shipyards, and is on its way to pick up some colonists. (See also Smile, the second episode of this season, in which, you’ll remember, the robot-city had yet to be populated by the human diaspora.) Two days ago, half of its skeleton crew disappeared to the other end of the ship – the end furthest from the black hole – to, um, engage the reverse thrusters or something. They never came back. Instead, hundreds of new life forms appeared on board the ship: monsters attached to IVs who killed the rest of the crew – except the janitor.

At this point, the janitor shoots Bill, hoping to stop the creatures. The Doctor leaps out of his TARDIS, having given Missy all of five minutes to manage the task he’s set her, only to see Bill being whisked off by the IV monsters to be “fixed”. The Doctor takes up the expository thread, revealing that the unimaginable gravitational energies of the black hole are doing weird things with time: time is running faster at the other end of the ship, away from the black hole, than it is at the end nearest to the black hole.

So, the Doctor concludes, the hundreds of new life signs that have appeared on the ship’s monitors are, in fact, the skeleton crew’s descendants!

Moffat is relying on us all to be too dazzled and confused by the idea that time runs differently near to a black hole (which sounds weird enough to be true, though I’ve no idea if it actually is) to notice that this explanation makes no sense whatsoever.

Think about it from the point of view of the crew who go to the other end of the ship. They obviously managed to engage the reverse thrusters, because the ship is, in fact, reversing. So, what? They get the ship reversing, and then, knowing that it’s still in trouble, they don’t contact their colleagues, or send someone to the top of the ship? They just, what, start having sex? And then completely forget what they were there for in the first place? Presumably driving a colony ship is an important job. Presumably you have to prove that you are responsible and professional before you’re allowed to do it. Logically, all that should have happened with the time difference is that the crew returned in an unfeasibly short amount of time – say, ten minutes to the people nearest the black hole, with the travellers having spent eight hours or so in their frame of reference at the other end of the ship – and, having worked out the issue, everyone stayed together at the top of the ship until it all got sorted out.

I have many more questions about the plot, but I don’t want to spend the rest of the night writing this. Let’s talk about sexism instead.

There are two women in World Enough and Time, both regular characters, both notionally “strong” – going by their backstories and their overt characterisation. The episode passes the Bechdel test. Missy’s supposed to be in charge of the whole party, backed up by a team (Bill and Nardole) that is 50% female.

But this is a Moffat episode. So of course everything goes horribly wrong on Missy’s watch (and it’s her fault – well, her past self’s fault – even though she can’t remember that), and of course the Doctor doesn’t even give her a chance to make it right. Missy spends the rest of the episode following the Doctor around. She can’t even remember the rather vital piece of information that she’s been on this ship before, in a previous incarnation; no, she has to be reminded of this fact by a man (albeit a man who’s also her own past self).

But it’s Bill who really draws the short straw. Stuck down at the wrong end of the ship, she passes years trapped in a grimy hospital with a weirdly 1950s aesthetic, her agency circumscribed by a mysterious male doctor and a male comedy Russian. Oh, and by the Doctor himself, who has planted a message in her subconscious: “Wait for me.”

We’re supposed to read the Doctor’s behaviour as cod-romantic (not real romantic, obviously, because, as the season has been at pains to remind us several times an episode, Bill is gay). At the very least, it’s supposed to be – sweet, I suppose. Caring. Nice.

It’s not. It’s creepy. It’s an invasion of privacy. (Her actual subconscious, remember.) It’s controlling. I’m put in mind again of the Doctor from Knock Knock, the Doctor who refused to leave Bill’s home, even though she asked him to in a way that made it clear she was drawing boundaries.

And it’s ultimately fatal. Bill spends years waiting for the Doctor. She becomes, in fact, another Girl Who Waited; another woman throwing her life away, passive, for a man with so much more in his life. Then she gets turned into a Cyberman (Cyberwoman?); for that’s what the IV monsters are; early Cybermen. The Doctor finds her, and is horrified; her robotic line is, “I waited”. But look at that scene. The reveal, the Doctor’s reaction, the single manipulative tear trickling from CyberBill’s eye. We already know what’s happened to Bill; it’s been teased in the trailers, and the mysterious 1950s doctor has shown her, and us, something that’s obviously that handle across the top of the Cybermen’s heads. This isn’t about Bill, who’s been operated on without her consent and doomed to a life of pain. This is about the Doctor, and how it affects him. This is the literal definition of fridging.

THIS IS EXACTLY WHAT HAPPENED LAST SEASON, BY THE WAY.

(Also, if this is the end of Pearl Mackie’s Doctor Who career, it is a sad waste of an interesting character.)

The last thing I wanted to touch on was the metafictional play Moffat’s going for early in the episode, when Missy is essentially filling the role of the Doctor. “I’m Doctor Who,” she says, making fans across the country wince in unison. And when Bill protests – “He’s called the Doctor, so” – she explains:

He says, I’m the Doctor, and they say, Doctor who? See, I’m cutting to the chase, baby. I’m streamlining. I’m saving us actual minutes.

This is Moffat explaining a fifty-year-old joke to us – a joke that a) is the whole point of the show’s title, and b) got stretched almost to breaking point during Matt Smith’s Doctorship.

I get the impression that this is supposed to be clever. And, to be fair, we’ve seen the idea of Missy as metafictional narrator before, in The Witch’s Familiar; but in that episode it was there to do something interesting with the idea of Doctor Who, and the idea of Missy as transgressive and anarchic. Here, it feels like just a smug wink at the camera; though, of course, this episode is only half of the season’s final story, and next week’s episode might expand the metafiction somewhat.

It’s solely because of the Master and Missy that I’m actually quite excited to watch next week’s episode. As I said at the beginning of this post, John Simm and Michelle Gomez are absolutely the redeeming features of World Enough and Time: the Master/Missy is an infinitely more interesting character than Capaldi’s dour, abusive Doctor, and, despite everything, I can’t wait to see what they get up to on Saturday.

Doctor Who Review: The Eaters of Light

I’m really not sure about The Eaters of Light.

On the one hand: what a fantastic name – a name to go along with a fantastic symbolic set-up.

On the other hand: I think it has to muddle its moral world somewhat to get to that set-up.

It’s the second century AD. The Doctor and Bill have rocked up in Scotland to settle an argument about what really happened to the Ninth Legion of the Roman Empire (which, to save you a trip to Wikipedia the Font of All Knowledge, disappears from surviving Roman records round about 120 AD). The Doctor thinks they were destroyed by the Pictish army. Bill believes they escaped. They separate, and tramp off in search of clues for their respective hypotheses. This is, as we know, always a good idea in a mysterious historical time period.

After a deal of mild peril and a foray into local folklore, it transpires that the Ninth were destroyed by the titular Eaters of Light: interdimensional locusts, as the Doctor dubs them, clustering Lovecraftianly at cracks in space-time, ready to come into our world and eat the sun. For three generations a local tribe of Picts have held the interdimensional gate against the Eaters, using a temporal trick of the gate to extend their lifespans – a couple of seconds within the mound that houses the gate amounts to a couple of days outside it. But the current gatekeeper, a young woman named Kar, has let one of them through, to destroy the army colonising her country. This, obviously, is A Bad Thing, and the Doctor comes up with a cunning plan to lure the creature back to its dimension.

There is one excellent scene which I would like to commend to your attention before I start complaining. Temporarily trapped with some deserters who are all that remain of the Ninth Legion, Bill comes out to Cornelius, the Roman soldier who’s obviously interested in her In That Way. “This is probably just a really difficult idea,” she says. “I don’t like men…Just women.” “Ah! You’re like Vitus, then!” Cornelius chirps, unperturbed. “He only likes men!” Cornelius himself is (what we would think of as) bisexual: “I’m just ordinary. You know, I like men and women.”

I just want you to think about that for a minute.

This is a prime time, popular science fiction show.

This is a show that spent last season punishing its strong women and blithely ignoring its vaguely racist undertones.

This is a show whose first episode this season made the lesbian love interest a literal possessive alien.

Not only is it now giving secondary characters non-heteronormative sexualities for non-plot reasons, it’s also doing the conceptual work to recognise that our sexual norms are culturally specific; further, that our assumptions about historic sexual norms basically erase non-normative people from history. (I don’t know enough to say whether Romans really thought bisexuality the norm, but it doesn’t seem hugely unlikely.)

And it’s doing all this in a two-minute throwaway scene that has nothing to do with the plot.

This is brilliant.

Unfortunately, the episode doesn’t extend that conceptual work to the bits that actually are plot-relevant. As I wrote at the beginning of this post, the episode knows where it wants to get to: the Ninth Legion and the Keeper of the Gate, Romans and Picts, fighting the Eaters of Light, together, forever. Music under the hill, for those to hear as will listen. The crows, remembering down the centuries: “Kar! Kar!” Very Celtic. Very pretty. Very mythic. It’s just that, to get there, it has to do some painful-looking moral contortions.

The Eaters of Light picks up the theme of desertion from last week’s episode, Empress of Mars. Here, at least, Bill says to the Roman soldiers what we instinctively felt she should also have said to Captain Godsacre last week:

You’re not cowards. You’re scared. Scared is fine. Scared is human.

But, you know, I think that sentiment would probably have meant more if the soldiers of the Ninth hadn’t redeemed their desertion, narratively speaking, by sacrificing their lives in an eternal fight against monsters from the Dungeon Dimensions; just as Captain Godsacre redeemed his past desertion by laying down his life in the service of a warrior race. So The Eaters of Light has the same problem as Empress of Mars: it co-opts the ideological structures of colonialism, invisibly, to make martial endeavour and sacrifice the “right” atonement for deserting the colonial project.

And, speaking of colonialism: the Doctor’s treatment of Kar, the Keeper of the Gate, struck me as deeply patronising and unsympathetic. Here is a woman – hardly more than a child, actually, but still – who has lost many of her people and much of her land to the Romans. Sure, she did release an interdimensional locust on the unsuspecting Earth – but then the Romans sent an army of five thousand to kill some Scottish farmers, as Bill puts it. The point being: none of the Ninth Legion ever get the kind of condescension and scorn the Doctor unleashes on Kar, who is, after all, de facto leader of her people. And the Ninth Legion are colonisers. Ultimately, the best answer the Doctor has for colonialism is “you’re all behaving like children, get over it,” which would seem to apportion blame equally to colonisers and colonised. This is, self-evidently, stupid.

The most egregious contortion the episode makes, though, is when the assembled cast start to discuss who’s going to guard the gate from now on. The Doctor points out that he is functionally immortal, compared to puny human lifespans; he can literally guard the gate forever.

Now, the moment he points this out the episode has written itself into a corner. Because, according to the logic of the story, this is actually the most sensible and the most moral course to take. The universe will be protected from the Eaters of Light for eternity, and the Picts won’t have to sacrifice themselves, generation after generation, any more, which is really what the Doctor is about. But the Doctor obviously can’t go and stand in a Scottish cairn for the rest of his eternity, because for one thing the BBC still has lots of perfectly good money to make from him.

The episode can only get itself out of this corner by making one of its characters do something, well, out of character. And because the Doctor is the Doctor and therefore an untouchable moral authority, it’s Bill who’s made to do the same thing she did at the end of The Pyramid at the End of the World: to whit, sacrifice a world – a universe, in this case – for love of the Doctor.

To put it another way: this smart, empathetic, deeply morally engaged character thinks the Doctor, after ten episodes, is literally worth more than the universe.

“This isn’t your fight,” she says to him, weakly, ignoring the fact that the whole point of Doctor Who is him getting involved in fights that aren’t his. And when she says “this isn’t your fight”, what she’s actually saying is: it’s these people’s destiny to sacrifice themselves. Let them die in a strange universe – despite the fact that you could defend the universe better than they could.

I’m sure this wasn’t the intended effect. I think this was hasty writing designed to bring about a specific ending, an undoubtedly resonant combination of symbols. That doesn’t change the fact that the episode fundamentally weakens Bill’s moral authority as the Doctor’s companion, as well as our perception of the Doctor’s moral judgement. It doesn’t work. And that’s a shame.

Doctor Who Review: Empress of Mars

First reactions to popular media can tell us a lot about what the work is trying to do, and also, if we can look beyond them, whether it succeeds.

Which is a pretentious way of saying: I liked Empress of Mars. In fact, my first thought after the closing credits was: “That worked!”

This episode is the much-anticipated One With The Ice Warriors. Briefly: when present-day NASA discovers that someone has written “God Save The Queen” on Mars, despite the fact that to their knowledge no human has been there yet, the Doctor and Bill go back to 1888 to investigate. They discover that an Ice Warrior awaking on Earth has persuaded a unit of the British Army – which, in true colonialist style, has called him Friday and made him a kind of pet servant – to travel to Mars in an Ice Warrior rocket, under the pretence that there are unfathomable riches there. In fact, Friday has returned to Mars to wake his Empress from a five-thousand-year sleep. This is, unsurprisingly, bad news for the British Army, who haven’t yet worked out how to get back to Earth, and moreover are disinclined to back down, having claimed Mars for Queen Victoria.

In other words, Empress of Mars is old-school Who, to go with its old-school monsters: a scenario with more than a whiff of the ridiculous about it; an old-fashioned science fantasy mystery; a stand-off in which the Doctor must intercede to avoid violence. It’s neatly plotted, with a finely-adjusted mix of sentimentalism and plausibility. It has characters we can root for, or at least understand, on various sides of the conflict. It works.

We should be cautious, when something works as well as this does; because a lot of narratives that feel like they just work at a fundamental level feel like that because they’re based on familiar, nostalgic narrative structures. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing; just something we need to be aware of in encountering these texts; because it means that popular media can lie to us quite efficiently, looking superficially benign, neutral, even progressive, when in fact the assumptions of the underlying structure are deeply suspect.

So: Mark Gatiss* has given us an episode that feels very  Victorian, ideologically as well as aesthetically and thematically. It’s tempting to make comparisons with Thin Ice, the other historical episode of the season; but Thin Ice  did not actually feel very Regency, and was moreover actually aware of the unfairnesses inherent in the class system in a way that Empress of Mars emphatically is not. The emotional meat of Gatiss’ story is the power struggle between commanding officer Colonel Godsacre, a sensible man who nevertheless turns out to have been a deserter, and the technically loyal but hotheaded Captain Catchlove. Godsacre is outed as a deserter, and Catchlove takes control; it surprises no-one that Godsacre turns out to save the day.

It’s a predictable story, but then most Doctor Who episodes are when it comes down to it. What’s interesting about Empress of Mars is the way that it makes Doctor Who – a show that’s usually deeply mistrustful of traditional authority, especially military authority – co-opt the colonialist military values of the late Victorian period. The superior officer turns out to be morally superior, while the lower ranks are busy endangering the unit by trying to steal gems from the Ice Queen’s hive: officers are intrinsically worthy of command, soldiers intrinsically need to be commanded. Moreover, the episode is pointedly silent on the issue of Godsacre’s previous desertion, and in fact rewards him for symbolically undoing it – offering his life to the Ice Queen for the sake of his men in a gesture which turns out to be the key to the whole situation. By its silence, the episode supports the Victorian concept of desertion as a capital crime – a concept unquestioned even by Bill, who has developed over the course of this season into the progressive voice of the twenty-first century. Note: we have no details of exactly what Godsacre did. Did his troops die for his cowardice? Presumably the episode would have mentioned it if he had. And yet we’re supposed to make a moral judgement of him based only on the label “deserter” – a moral judgement that’s specifically Victorian.

I don’t think this necessarily has to spoil the episode for us. It is, after all, a non-trivial achievement to write something that so thoroughly enacts the mores of the time period it’s about; and it is a very well-structured episode of Doctor Who. But this season in particular seems to be feeling its way towards a more progressive vision for the show than I think we’ve seen yet in Moffat’s run, and I think it’s worth looking closely at where that works well, and where that throws up structural inconsistencies.

Next week: more historical high jinks, in what looks like Roman Britain. Hurrah!

*I just looked up the writer of the episode, and it surprises me that it’s Gatiss; his episodes are usually not so…coherent.

Doctor Who Review: The Lie of the Land

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!

Doctor Who Review: The Pyramid at the End of the World

The Pyramid at the End of the World (written by Peter Harness and Steven Moffat) presents us with two moral dilemmas.

Its premise is that the monks from Extremis, having modelled all of human history, land in a disputed area of Turmezistan (you remember, the fictional country from The Zygon Invasion) to show humanity a vision of a nightmarish future: one year from now, all life on Earth is gone. They offer humanity (represented by the Doctor, Bill, Nardole, the Secretary General of the UN and officers from the Chinese, American and Russian armies) a choice: the monks can stop this disaster, but only if the people of Earth consent to the monks’ rule.

The first moral dilemma, then, is: what’s more important, humanity’s future or humanity’s freedom?

In the episode’s closing minutes, though, Harness and Moffat present us with a second dilemma. In an effort to stop the Earth being destroyed without the intervention of the monks, the Doctor is blowing up a laboratory which has accidentally engineered highly dangerous super-enzymes. Being blind (although his blindness seems conveniently selective), he can’t see the combination lock to get out of the room where the bomb is, and he admits this to Bill over the radio.

So the second moral dilemma is this: what’s more important, the Doctor’s future or humanity’s freedom?

The problem is that only one of these dilemmas is a genuinely interesting moral choice. The second one is, by any reasonable moral standard, not. Bill’s decision to save the Doctor’s life, dooming seven billion humans to enslavement, is not only moronically stupid – especially given the Doctor’s express wishes not to be saved – it also turns her into a carbon copy of Clara Oswald, a woman for whom the Doctor was literally the most important person in the universe. Bill’s only known the Doctor for six episodes, at least one of which she’s spent arguing with him, and now she’s claiming to love him?

What’s frustrating about this is that someone at the BBC has clearly been making a massive effort this series to make sure minorities are represented on Doctor Who, from the black and Asian people in the Regency-set Thin Ice to the lady scientist with dwarfism in this episode. But stupid, sexist writing like this – writing that keeps presenting women as incompetent, impulsive and totally centred on the one man in their lives (even when they’re not even straight, ffs) – lets it all down.

The other problem with the episode, which makes it all unravel when you start thinking about it as a moral dilemma, is one of definition. For instance: what the monks’ rule will mean for the people of Earth never gets adequately explored. The Doctor points this out as a reason not to make the deal with them: humanity should retain its sovereignty. But the Doctor is at this point President of the World, as per Death in Heaven. How would the monks’ rule – their “protection”, as they put it initially – be any different from the Doctor’s stewardship of the Earth?

The episode gets similarly muddled with its idea of consent. The monks are demanding that whoever makes the bargain on behalf of humanity consents “purely” to their rule – out of love, not fear or strategy, because ruling through love is more efficient than ruling through fear. (This feels uncomfortably like a metaphor for sexual consent, but I’m not exactly sure if it’s meant to be, or what the point is if it is.) In fact, they disintegrate both the UN Secretary General and the three officers precisely because their consent is not pure, not out of love.

Bill’s consent is out of love – but it’s love for the Doctor, not for the monks. And it’s clear that she’s consenting on the basis that the Doctor can probably rescue humanity. So how is her consent different from the strategic consent of the others? Presumably they consented out of love as well as fear – love for humanity? The monks’ demand for consent makes a sickening, superficial kind of sense, but it’s a stupid way to invade a planet in practice, because who’s going to love someone who makes them choose between freedom and survival?

That’s how the episode feels to me: shoehorned to fit yet another Love Conquers All plotline that defines love narrowly and exclusively. Doctor Who is not soap opera: it works much, much better when the Doctor’s just a raggedy man in a blue box being clever and helping where he can. Not being bloody President of the World and partaking in sickeningly sentimental plots.