[About the 2017 Doctor Who episode Lie of the Land, S10E8, by Toby Whithouse]
Consider, for a minute: what is The Lie of the Land doing, as a title?
Of course, it’s a play on words between the phrase’s duel meanings of “the way things are” and “the misinformation across the world,” in a story explicitly all about that misinformation, but the wording is also specific and singular: The Lie of the land. Misinformation is many, it’s firehosing and dead-cat-ing and telling enough contradictory mistruths that reality itself becomes impossible to parse. So what is that one big lie in the title?
Some context: The Monk Trilogy slap-bang in the middle of series 10 of Doctor Who is a weird bit of TV in general; a three-part story where each part was written by a different writer, directed by a different director, and generally deals with pretty distinct chunks of story. The three weren’t even originally conceived as interconnected, but rather stitched together in the process of scripting, and general consensus is that the seams show. Having to land the third part of an unplanned trilogy would be a rough enough position for any episode to be in, even if it weren’t dealing with the subject matter of the rise and fall of world fascism.
In short, the trilogy is trying to juggle a lot of balls, and success in juggling all comes down to being able to catch that third one.
So, at the outset of this Part Three, a sinister race of all-powerful, all-knowing corpse-faced space-monks have taken over the world. They simulated its entire history to find the moment humanity wipes itself out of its own accord, and then stepped heroically in, coerced consent from representatives of the planet, including political leaders, foot soldiers, and students and used that consent — sincerely thankful, pure of heart, out of love — to pivot control over the world.
I want to focus on Lie of the Land specifically here, but this is a big idea introduced in the previous part, and it often gets misinterpreted. People assume that alien invaders requiring ‘consent’ to rule is a quirk of their Cosmic Monk Rules in the way that Cosmic Monk People tend to have rules, but they say in the episode itself that this isn’t the case:
MONK: We must be wanted. We must be loved. To rule through fear is inefficient.
DOCTOR: Of course. Fear is temporary. Love is slavery.
They obviously could rule by force, but ruling ‘by love’ is just simply and coldly more efficient. It’s just cheaper for them to convince the public the need protecting. Just look at the real world: institutions that rule through love last. Not, to be absolutely clear, by doing anything worth loving, but by coercing love through fear. There’s more than a shade of Adam Curtis’s Power of Nightmares here, in which he argues that politics in the 21st century has come through such a paradigm shift, where now there’s no promise of a better future, just any future at all; they protect us from a scary change by stopping history in its tracks and promising to never let things change again.
In the previous episode, Bill’s consent, specifically, is coerced out of her idealistic stubbornness about losing the Doctor, an almost fantastical parental figure. She’s just a student, but that gives her all the power the Monks need seize control, specifically through her relationship with him. It’s a stronger coalition than the strategic consent of bureaucrats, because here, the episode says out-loud, is consent not just out of fear, but out of a genuine and adoring love for a protecting figure of authority.
So here we pick up, the lie of the land is being broadcast from every TV screen in the world, the Doctor is talking direct-to-camera like this Doctor does, telling everybody watching that, not only are the Monks on our side, but that they always have been. The imagery’s not subtle, but that clearly wasn’t a concern on anybody’s radar: this is the exact public imagination of 1984, down to the own-brand Memory Police vans and propaganda branded with the official seal of TRUTH with “the Ministry of…” more than implied.
And the Doctor is Big Brother. The mechanical and even moral fuzziness of how this happened, which I’ll try to untangle in a moment, is far and away secondary in the episode to the power of the image. ‘The Doctor as Big Brother’ is just too potent and intuitive an image not to include; speaking directly to the audience out of the TV, a commentator out of antiquity and aristocracy, almost held-hostage by an institution that has him broadcast to the nation regularly that nothing needs to fundamentally change, and that the people in power are fundamentally good, that they represent you, and that they have always done so.
The episode opens with this False History, in which the Monks are badly photoshopped into famous moments and images, with the badness of the photoshop lending to the point, like an inverted reflection of the famous Stalin redactions, where the obviousness of the edit is as much the point as the edit itself. The mixing of Real History with Who History is especially fun, showing Einstein and Cyberman invasions alongside one another, blurring the lines between fact and fiction for the audience at home; the ideal use of Doctor Who’s incoherent continuity of alien invasions, playing on that incoherence to make its point.
Ironically, the aired episode contains a number of subtle omissions from the script. The lines snipped out, mostly in the edit bay, rather than during filming, based on the signs from what’s left behind, focus more on the redaction and manipulation of stories, art and entertainment, and their absence hurts, I think, the themes that the story is most interested in:
There’s heavy emphasis on art, especially trashy art, sustaining through corruption: Only Fools and Horses, Westlife, comic books. Throughout the episode are these overt, often cringy references to Pop Culture in a way that feels as if it’s trying to capture the mood of the show precisely from that one Eastenders scene a decade ago in Army of Ghosts (a story referenced explicitly in the notes of the script). And it makes sense as a reference point given that this kind of Big Alien Invasion plot is a format of Doctor Who native to the 2000s, and rarely seen since, as if wiped from history. The idea of Who’s world as one with an unflinching Status Quo, habit of falling into old patterns, and inability to make genuine progress is an idea which is referenced directly in dialogue.
DOCTOR: You see? The Monks have erased themselves. Humanity’s doomed to never learn from its mistakes.
BILL: Well, I guess that’s part of our charm.
DOCTOR: No, it’s really quite annoying.
Another script-to-screen edit which, I think, diminishes the story.
The first half of the episode is about Bill, picking up 6 months after the last episode: one woman trying to hold on to her own mind and keep history straight in her head, with the help of her imagined vision of her mother, who she never knew, but with whom she’s constructed a fantasy relationship more magic than the real-life relationship she has with her two alien friends. A coping mechanism, basically. Developed to survive her casually homophobic home life, now being used to fight back alien propaganda.
She sees the Doctor doing propaganda on TV and doesn’t believe it, especially after she gave the world to save him, in her idealism. But when she finds him, she finds him an apparently obedient and willing face for the regime, insistent that he has turned. And he puts up a hell of an argument in defence of the Monks.
Because the Monks are a natural extension of the Doctor, really, aren’t they? Just one episode ago, in the part before this, he took the emergency powers of World President because the world couldn’t fend for itself. Both their ships are a magically materialising anachronistic, nationalistic icon of a lost time, inherently a symbol of aristocracy and power, out of which ancient men step out and tell us they’re here to save the day, if only we consent. The Doctor uses his authority to daddy humanity away from the brink, all the time. As he says: “someone has to stop us”. Whether or not the words are lies, his actions betray that he means it.
When he’s cheerleading the fascists, he’s obviously not right, he’s not even telling the truth, but the angle the script takes plays it entirely as if he is, in some small way, authentic, here. Every lie reveals a little more of the ground you stand on. Watch the conversation again, if you haven’t recently:
The twist in this scene throws people off — the way he reveals the lie, with laughing and comedy music, makes it all feel like a joke. And it is. It’s quite funny. — but I think to do any close reading on this scene, which takes up an unwieldly 8 minutes of screen time, or the twist within it, which reframes and undermines the whole episode so far, needs to approach the sequence holistically.
The sheer excess of this scene, the how far it goes, on both sides of the twist, is clearly important. Very deliberately, Bill offers the Doctor a coded escape, and the Doctor rejects it. It’s a brutal manipulation of Bill, taking the stabilisers off her bike. And while we’re definitely meant to sympathise with Bill’s anger at the cruelty, there’s something quietly radical about the Doctor not just demanding and coercing disobedience out of a companion, but expecting, planning for, and requiring as a bare minimum actual violent resistance from Bill.
The natural, straight-line ‘arc’ for Bill’s character following the end of Pyramid would be to learn that her idealistic attachment to the Doctor, and by proxy her mother, was a mistake. That her expectations of his perfection cost them the planet, and that she needs to be more realistic in this capital-g, capital-r Gritty Realism world of the Monks. And the Doctor is trying to force that arc on her.
Here, he is trying to frame his pretend authoritarian-turn as a reflection of Bill’s stubborn idealism in not letting the Doctor die at the end of the last episode. “I’m doing this to save you,” he says (or doesn’t say, because it’s another cut line), implying very strongly “like you did all this to save me.” He’s facilitated the Monks like she did. “Look how wrong you were.”
This is the same kind of faith-breaking exercise as in The God Complex, also by Whithouse, where the Doctor tells Amy to grow up and dumps her back home, as if he knows what kind of story her life is supposed to be. It has roots more foundationally in 1989’s Curse of Fenric, a story which was clearly a great influence on Whithouse.
By undermining what’s come before, then, the episode exactly reinforces the very characterisation that the Doctor was ‘putting on’. Again and again, the episode draws comparison between the Monks and the Doctor, who at one point suggests using their exact mechanism of propaganda to fiddle with Earth’s history himself. He’s made the planet reliant on him in exactly the way the Monks have. So much of what he says in that whopper of a scene just reads as basically honest; the kind of exaggerated irony that conceals an authentically held set of beliefs. And through him, the episode makes an emotive argument for that kind of hard utilitarian strong man. He’s not strictly wrong when he says ‘better the Monks than Daleks’. The show itself has certainly entertained the idea that humanity needs someone like the Doctor to protect it from itself.
This mid-series mini-arc about a mini-era of picture-book fascism on Earth is itself framed in the context of real fascism, with jumbled references to Donald Trump specifically, and liberal use of the ‘Fake News newspeak’ more generally, throughout. There’s a real misanthropy to ending on the idea that humanity is barrelling directly towards its next flirtation with fascism. We’re trapped in this one kind of story, the Doctor says, and we’re doomed to repeat. But he’s wrong.
As the Monks used projections of the future to coerce Bill into consenting to their control, we learn that their power is held in place, as we’ve seen, by a mind control beam that isn’t a mind control beam. Well it is. It’s a beam that controls minds. But not really any different from the beam your TV signal or twitter feed travels down to reach you. It’s amped up, just slightly, from how how things work in the real world, but when the Doctor describes the Monks’ broadcasting centre as “fake news central” he’s not being pithily allegorical, that’s just actually what it is. There’s no metaphor here. It’s a material story about materially existing fascism that happens to have alien Monks in.
The Pyramid in the Centre of Town is like Broadcasting House. It turns out that the statues that stand on the streets of the world are transmitters of that propaganda, which is a realisation played with real emphasis, but never actually factors into the plot. It’s a very deliberate, very obvious way of just shouting at the audience that statues are propaganda, because of course they are. Statues are the definition of fake history, stood like an honest artefact of the past, but invariably representing an individual who died long before its erecting. They, quite literally, project power. False people who stand guard over the way things are.
The effect of propaganda is summed up and literalised in one tiny little exchange as the Doctor’s small army plan their attack:
So to round on that first question, then, the two meanings in the title are one meaning. Tidier. The lie of the land is a lie about the lie of the land; it’s misinformation about the playing field.
It’s the fake-news that there’s more of them than there are of us. It’s the projection of a majority where none exists.
That is, the episode says, ultimately the point of propaganda. To outnumbered the many with the few. To make the public reliant on those in power, as if they had always been there.
The pyramid itself, which the Doctor leads and actual armed militia (a point people tend to pass over, but while boilerplate for most sci-fi is radical for Revival Who, even just in its aesthetic) to take, through force, the strategic stronghold of a national broadcasting building (the evocation of actual coups and revolutions bold and broad as day) is a very particular image. It’s an ancient symbol of the Great Old World that appeared overnight, like the conservative promise to return to the Good Old Days that never existed, while also drawing on the myth of the pyramids being built by aliens, as if humanity couldn’t do it themselves.
Breaching the “cathedral” as the pyramid is called in the script, connecting together these ideas of faith and fact, the insurgents are protected from the Monks’ propaganda by Bill’s voice in their ears, telling them The Facts of true history, as is the Doctor’s plan. But the moment that’s cut off, the protection disappears, and they become once again convinced by the Monks. The soldier to whom this happens doesn’t forget the facts he’s been told, he’s simply been convinced that they’re not the True Truth, in exact inversion of the effect of Bill’s voice in his ear.
By the same faltering logic, the Doctor’s plan, once inside “the eye of the storm” that is the main command room, is to plug himself into the machine and restore a ‘true’ history. And, as should be obvious, it totally fails. By trying to replace their False Facts with True Facts he plainly and simply loses the battle of resources. He thought that he was a strong enough strongman to take down their propaganda with the power of his massive brain, but as is obvious to anyone who doesn’t buy their own hype, that was never gonna work.
The Truth is only half the job. It’s shaky, and unreliable, and uninspiring. And your truth, as an individual without resources, or even as the head of a rag-tag insurgency, is never going to project as strongly as the truth of the people with all the stuff. Even if you could prove it was More True. Which you probably can’t. The Doctor’s trying to win a war with facts and logic. But, as becomes obvious, the truth isn’t enough.
So they use a lie, instead.
But when Bill plugs herself into the machine, she inherently changes the conversation. She forgets The Facts of how history happened, and replaces them with a story. A little bit of idealism. A queer woman’s imaginary mum, and an internal support system in the face of a terrible world.
It is the very idealism, the very faith in a fantastical parental figure who couldn’t possibly live up to expectations, that saves the day. The actual physical, existing, material Doctor failed, but the idea of him, the principles of his that Bill is using against him, and the idea of Bill’s mum, is a story untouched and untouchable by whatever the truth happens to be at the time. The action of the Doctor’s that saves the day, by the way, is his having used time travel to get Bill a good Christmas present. Giving Bill a little bit of a story to hold on to. A story good enough to guide her through the darkest times.
The Doctor tried to break her faith, but the fact it remained, the exact rejection of his attempt to teach her something, saves them. As in the finale, it’s an assertion of identity in the face of its erasure that defines Bill’s story. People talk about Lie wrapping up her arc, but it does no such thing. It has all the aesthetics of her having Learnt A Big Lesson as you might expect, but when it comes down to it, Bill’s kindness and idealism and self-assertion saved the world from international fascism.
Or, if you prefer, Bill learnt not to compromise on the ideals she aspires to, like the Doctor does. And she gets one step closer to becoming an idea entirely. Like her mum before her. A life made from tears, held together by the sheer expression of her own identity, flying off to somewhere the Doctor just can’t go.
If humanity is bound to repeat itself, then we can do better than humanity.
If you enjoyed this at all and want to piss off transphobes (like Whithouse, probably), please donate what you can spare to my friend’s transition fund, linked here.
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