There once lived a man named Oedipus Rex
You've probably heard about his odd complex
He got an entry in Freud's index
Cos he loved his mother....
I am a couple of weeks behind with my Who reviews. So I was very tempted to just write:
10:8 The Lie of the Land
Oh, for fucks sake!
…and go on and do the Space 1889 with Ice Warriors one.
But Lie of the Land deserves a little more attention than that. It is a truly terrible story. But never has such a terrible story been constructed of such promising components. The good bits were so good, and the bad bits so appalling that I find myself wondering if there is a very clever point which I am completely missing.
The first eleven minutes are very good indeed. It seems that, as a result of Bill’s ill-judged capitulation, the Monks now rule the earth and everyone believes that they have always done so. This is mostly achieved through Evil Alien Mind Control Rays; but there is also a daily propaganda broadcast, presented by the Doctor, reminding everyone that the Monks are their friends. Even Bill is starting to doubt the facts of history when Nardole turns up, and they go off together to find out what the Doctor’s real motivations are.
Earth-under-the-martians stories have acquired their own grammar in Doctor Who: London always seems to revert to some combination of the blitz and the Cold War. Everyone starts wearing knitwear. There is a Cyberman ghost in every front room or a statue of a Monk on every street corner. The bits which are not Wellsian are Orwellian, right down to vans marked “memory police” and people being arrested for “memory crimes.” The Doctor himself, when he is doing his broadcasts, is obviously intended to evoke Big Brother.
Its all very intense and dramatic and Pearl Mackie pretty much carries it by herself. Dark, fascist future versions of England, grim prison ships, military policemen demanding to see paper, the aliens mostly in the background working through their agents: this is what Doctor Who does best. Oh, it carries me back to that glorious morning in 1972 when the cricket got rained off and they showed Dalek Invasion Earth instead.
The confrontation between Bill and the Doctor is astonishingly good. It seems like poor Bill is having every possible rug pulled out from under every one of her feet. She gave everything to save the Doctor and now he’s become a baddie. He honestly believes that the earth is in need of a jolly good conquering. Capaldi can act a bit and Whithouse can write a bit so he makes out a good case. We honestly believe that Bill honestly believes that the Doctor honestly believes what he's saying.
So she shoots him.
And he regenerates.
This is a proper dramatic moment. This is what New Who was invented for. This feels so much like Doctor Who and is so clearly not the kind of thing that could have ever happened in the 70s. I forgive Moffat everything.
What do you do if your friend turns against everything he believes in? Is it like “You may be a Jihadi, and I may hate that, but you are still my son” or is it more like “If you are now a communist you are no longer the person I fell in love with." It happens in smaller ways, too. “Football is what our friendship was about. If you no longer want to go come to matches with me, I don't know in what sense we can be friends."
Bill concludes that a Doctor who doesn’t believe what the Doctor believes is not the Doctor and executes him, which is pretty high-handed but understandable. This moment has been trailed twice before. The regeneration scene was in the “next season” teaser after the Christmas Special; and the “Bill shooting the Doctor” scene was the last thing in the “Next Time” trailer after last week's episode.
And the solution is...
There is an episode of my beloved Superman Radio Serial (brought to you by the makers of Kellogs Pep) in which a whole series of completely inexplicable events seem to occur. Clark Kent sees Lois Lane on the other side of Metropolis even though she's been at a her desk at the Planet all day; Perry White gives Clark a thousand dollar cheque and then denies all knowledge of it. The solution, in the final episode, is that the whole thing was a prank that Lois and Perry and Jimmy and the police were in on from the beginning. They thought they'd drive Clark to the point of insanity to celebrate his second year working at the Daily Planet. The same kind of thing used to happen quite regularly in Legion of Superheroes: people would pretend to be dead or to have become super-villains in order to give their friend challenging puzzles to solve. It happens quite often in folk tales. "I am not really dead, and I didn't really murder our entire family: it was just a test to see if you truly loved me." "Oh, well, that's all right then." Sherlock Holmes famously allowed Watson to believe he was dead so that Watson would be able to report it convincingly in the Strand Magazine; but Holmes is supposed to be a nasty misanthropic bully. (Most of the time.) The Doctor is meant to be a good guy. Never cruel and never cowardly.
The Doctor has been pretending to go over to the dark side specifically in order to find out if Bill is under the control of the Monks' evil alien mind control rays or not. (The fact that she shoots him proves pretty definitely that she isn't.) Nardole was in on it from the beginning. All the soldiers were in on it. I think even the scary patrol who demanded to see their papers were in on it.
And the whole thing is treated, quite explicitly, as a joke. The Very Dramatic Music which plays when the regeneration nearly happens is replaced by plinky plonky “we’ve just told a joke” music. The Doctor laughs. Nardole laughs. When it turns out that one of the soldiers accidentally loaded his gun with real bullets, rather than blanks, the Doctor treats it as a funny joke at his own expense.
Peter can read out any old shit and make it sound convincing. Pearl can look as if here heart is breaking more or less to order. That's what they teach you at acting school. I dare say either one of them could read out a recipe for scones as if it was a letter describing the death of a loved one. Nardole is completely convincing when he tells Bill that they are going to go looking for the Doctor together, even though he knows it is only a ruse. He says it just as if would have done if it had not been a ruse. Of course he does. Because in both cases, what we had was Matt Lucas, saying the words, as well as he could.
If the script calls on the actors to follow up a really, really dramatic scene with a "ha ha we were only fooling" scene, the actors are going to work just as hard on making us believe it was all a jape as they did on making us believe it was all deadly real.
But its still a horrible trick for a writer to play on an audience. It isn't just this big dramatic scene he's undercut for the sake of a cheap gag: it's every other big dramatic scene he ever writes.
Doctor Who always was a little bit too geeky. Science and boffinary saved the world just a little bit too regularly. Doctor Jon spent just slightly too many episodes locked away in his lab playing with his test tubes. It is a good idea to have told the writers of New Who that it isn't only the power of science which can save the world. Sometimes it is the power of love which does the trick.
But this can be done in two ways: a hard way, and an easy way. The hard way is to come up with a compelling sequence of events in which the characters’ loyalty and commitment to each other is instrumental in foiling the baddies master plan. Think of that episode of Sarah-Jane when Clyde had no idea what Luke was doing, but went along with it anyway because he trusted Luke and knew he would never turn against his mates. Think of every other episode of Sarah-Jane, actually.
The easy way is to write whatever story you were going to write anyway, but have the hero zap the villain with a Love Ray (instead of a Gamma Ray or Kryptonite Ray) in the final scene. I believe that Jack Kirby was once commissioned to draw a soft-porn comic, and came up with a story in which alien women in only slightly more revealing than usual costumes rendered male superheroes helpless by zapping them with their Sex Rays.
I do not say that a story in which you zapped Torybots with Love Beams couldn’t be made to work. Anything could be made to work. Stories in which Noble Sir Jeremy slew the Mighty Brexit Slug with the magical sword of Coalition were once relatively popular. I do say that the winding up the Monk "trilogy" with Little Billy Potts zapping Wicked McWicked the Pyramid Fairy with the Charming Charm of Motherly Love feels more like My Little Pony than Doctor Who.
I honestly wanted to chuck things at the television.
The Monks can only invade planets they have been wholeheartedly and sincerely invited to invade. Last week, Bill wholeheartedly and sincerely asked them to invade earth. It turns out that this set up a psychic link between Bill and the Monks turning her brain into the transmitter for the evil alien mind control rays that have made everybody in the whole wide world believe that the Monks are benevolent rulers.
This crucial piece of information is imparted by Euros Holmes -- I am sorry, by Missy -- half way through the episode. This is an astonishingly slipshod piece of plotting. Surely "This is how you defeat the Monks" should have been the piece of information which Matrix-Doctor sacrificed his existence to transmit to Real-Doctor in In Extremis?
On the other hand, the scenes with Missy are extremely well done. Michel Gomez gets better and better the less she acts; even the camp thing (”awk…ward”) which was so irritating in Death in Heaven is now convincing and disturbing. The philosophical sparring between her and the Doctor is genuinely impressive: the idea that a reformed, benevolent Missy would still not be "good" by the Doctor's standards is worth much exploring. But in a sense, these scene are not really part of the episode we are watching; they are just "seeding" the return of Missy in the season climax.
So: the first plan is to simply kill Bill (which would make a good title for a movie). This won’t work because all the mind controlled people will only gradually realize that the propaganda they heard through the mind control rays wasn’t true.
The second plan is to leave Bill alive but brain dead, because then she’d be transmitting nothing to the other humans, rather than Monkish propaganda. The Doctor is not crazy about this plan. Neither is Bill.
This third Plan is for the Doctor to plug his own superior mind into the Monk’s transmitter, and replace the Ministry of Truth's made up history with his own, honest version. This doesn’t work because the transmitter is too powerful even for the Doctor’s brain.
So the final plan is that Bill plugs herself into the transmitter she is already plugged into in the expectation that it will free the world but render her brain dead except that, quite unexpectedly, her love for her mother gets transmitted to everyone in the entire universe and world, overwriting the Monks’ propaganda.
The on-screen explanation goes like this:
“Oh, you clever, brilliant, ridiculous girl.”
Impossible. You forgot to say impossible.
“Look at that! All the pictures I gave you. I thought I was just being kind, but I was saving the world.”
This is not the kind of blog which generally says things like “Even when the young gay black girl sacrifices her life to save the universe, the old straight white guy will always claim the credit.” It is not even the kind of blog which says “The Doctor always has to be represented as primary world-saver, even when it makes no sense for him to be so.” It’s more the kind of blog which wonders why Bill’s love is specially pure because she has only recently found a box of pictures — why “having a visual image of a dead parent” has world-saving potential, but “cherishing a memory of dead parent without knowing what they looked like” does not.
“Bill, if there's any of you left in there, listen. You have to keep thinking about your mum, the memory you created. Her voice. Her smile.”
It’s the fact that Bill's Mum is an imaginary person which saves the world? The smile being from the photos, the voice being something she only has very distant memories of? Would the voice without the smile not have worked as well? How about the smile without the voice?
“The Monks can't get near it. Fill your mind with it! Push it into every corner. She's filling its mind with one pure, uncorrupted, irresistible image. And it's broadcasting it to the world, because it can't help it. All those years you kept her alive inside you, an isolated subroutine in a living mind.”
A “sub-routine” is one part of a computer program. I suppose an “isolated sub-routine” is part of a computer program which can function without the rest. I suppose the idea is that a mini-program can be copied from one computer to another and that Bill’s idea of her mother is being copied from her mind to everyone else’s mind. We are simultaneously dealing with extreme reductionism (a human mind is a complex computer program and nothing more) and extreme mystical essentialism (you can literally fill your mind/soul with love for just one object.) I also fear that there is a false analogy being drawn between "uncorrupted" (as in, a computer file) and "incorruptible" (as in "the dead shall be raised").
Is the point here that because because Bill never knew her mother, she has made up a mother more perfect than any actual woman could ever be -- that it's "the idea of a perfect mother" that the Monks can't cope with? (A bit like Descartes saying that because I can imagine a perfect God, then the perfect God must exist:? Or possibly nothing like that?)
“She's a window on the world without the Monks. Absolutely loved, absolutely trusted. And that window is opening everywhere. A glimpse of freedom. But a glimpse is all you need. The lie is breaking. Bill's mum just went viral.”
no but no but no but no but this has nothing to do with sub routines or computer or brains its just about how much billie loves her mother and billie presumably loves her mother just as much as practically almost if not everyone than nearly everyone loves their mothers and daddies and absolute best friend evers and puppy dogs and we have seen from the family at the beginning and the man whose son is in the prison camp that people still love their families in this world so how is billie loving her mummy a window into anything at all no no no
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