Doctor Who – Series 10, Episode 8: The Lie of the Land – Reviewed

Following up two excellent episodes, The Lie of the Land forms the third part of a loose trilogy: a series of reality-bending, Twilight Zone-esque tales based around the very creepy concept of the psychic invaders referred to as the monks. But while these villains provide a through-line across these episodes, what makes them such a strong triptych is that the three stories themselves are remarkably different. While Extremis was an exercise in highly atmospheric Gothic horror, and The Pyramid at the End of the World was a character-driven psychological thriller, The Lie of the Land is a dystopian alternate reality tale. Conceptually it is pretty brilliant, dropping us into a parallel reality where the monks rule the earth as a fascist state. It uses this premise not only for a great sci-fi story, but for a bit of social commentary as well. Unfortunately its ambitions stretch beyond what is realistically possible in a single 45-minute story, and it at times feels like a double-episode condensed into one. But when it works, it really works – it just leaves us wanting a bit more.

This isn't the first time that Doctor Who has taken us to a fascist alternate-present-day Earth: The Sound of Drums/The Last of the Time Lords and Turn Left did much the same thing, not to mention the Third-Doctor-era classic Inferno from the early-1970s. But it never fails to be a fascinating concept, and at the conceptual level this story may be the most interesting of them all, as it is set not just in an alternate present, but a timeline where all of human history has been altered up until this point. This sort of story, set in a world much like ours, but somehow wrong, brings with it a very creepy sort of unreality that can really get under viewers' skin. Perhaps what makes it so eerie is that it shows us how, under a different set of circumstances, we could easily be living through something like one of the darker parts of history that we now learn about in school, and say “never again.” That is largely the point of this story: while it may be an alternate reality, it draws strong parallels to the current sociopolitical climate around the world. It makes the case that, with the rise of far-right nationalist governments around the world, and the authoritarian attitudes that they bring with them, we may in fact be closer to a fascist present day than we realize. It even goes so far as to hint that that is why the monks chose this moment in time to invade: we were already so close to the precipice of a new wave of fascism and the chaos that comes with it, so they may as well step in and be the fascists for their own gain. This social commentary is the final piece of the puzzle for making this dystopian future very unsettling indeed.

"So that's what's in room 101... a nightmarish amount of paperwork to sort through."

Peter Capaldi handles this sort of dark, intense material very well, and feels very much in his element. It is, however, Pearl Mackie who steals the show, as the episode gives her a more purely dramatic role than she generally gets as the often-funny Bill. She handles the seriousness of this episode excellently, and proves more than ever before that she truly has strong dramatic chops. Both Mackie and Capaldi get excellent dialogue and some great monologues from writer Toby Whithouse, who has penned some of the Steven Moffat era's best scripts, like Under the Lake/Before the Flood and The God Complex. When this episode is at its best, it reminds us why he has consistently made such a strong impression with his scripts (and frankly, why I wish he was going to be the next showrunner instead of Chris Chibnall).

However, I do need to qualify that with “the episode at its best.” This is a somewhat uneven episode, mostly because it is so stuffed with ideas that they don't have enough room to breathe. The story would have made for an absolutely excellent double-episode, as there is more than enough plot to occupy a full 90 minutes, and the world is so fascinating that leaves the audience wanting to explore more of it. But at just 45 minutes it feels overstuffed, like a double-length episode that had to be condensed down to a single due to some sort of constraints in the production. Everything that is here is really good – sometimes even excellent – but it needs more time than the series could give it to realize its full potential.

"Hey, check it out, I'm in Phantasm!"
With that said, The Lie of the Land is still quite an effective episode. Its take on the parallel-present strain of dystopian fiction works quite well, particularly because of how it plays off of our real world's present slip towards fascistic trends in politics. Between that and its uniquely dramatic central performance from Mackie as Bill, this is definitely recommended viewing. It is a shame that it couldn't have been extended to a double-episode, as that would have solved most of the story's problems, and fleshed it out into something truly great. But with only a few episodes left in the Peter Capaldi era, I suppose it didn't have too much extra time to spare.


- Christopher S. Jordan

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