Having someone looking over your shoulder is bad enough normally, but the opening to The Lie of the Land takes this one step further. It’s chilling. Having the alien Monks take credit for the advancement of the human race, ‘shepherding’ us into civilisation and defending us from the Daleks and Cybermen makes every bit of you yell out in outrage. How dare they? The Doctor flashes up. The Monk’s fictitious history of benevolence and gratitude makes my skin crawl, and it’s the Doctor who is narrating it. Then the worst thing happens. He smiles.
An obvious bit of propaganda, it’s not disturbing that everyone is believing it. That’s the point, as is the inevitable resistance to it because (thank god!) not everyone is alike, and some people aren’t afraid to call it out. The dystopian tones are palpable, with shots drained of colour populated by the usual identical jumpsuits worn by every bystander. What sets this episode apart, however, is the brief flickers that pass over the screen whenever someone dissents, as if the camera itself is glitching under the stress of the Monk’s influence. Exploring the concept of how much good depends upon perception, your spine will tingle as the Monk’s arguments are convincing. Worryingly so.
At last Bill’s mum is given some screen time, as a silent, supportive presence. Although she’s not real, instead conjured out of Bill’s imagination as a sounding-board, she’s Bill’s only dependable companion who remains unaffected by the Monks. Once again the show proves that she’s not just a shallow way to generate some sympathy for Bill. Pearl Mackie talks with the conviction of someone who knows that her mother isn’t really there, yet wills her into existence every time she needs help. She’s her rock; she’s how Bill reflects on what’s been going on. She ties the beginning and end of the episode together, reasserting her constant influence on the Doctor’s companion in a way we might not initially realise.
You never think you’re going to buy into propaganda. We saw it in WW2, with brightly-coloured posters, and now we’re aware of Facebook’s fake news scandal. Yet hearing the Doctor defend the Monks when Bill finally meets up with him makes it clear that it’s not propaganda. The Doctor wasn’t lying in those broadcasts. He’s sided with the Monks. Reminding us that things were slowly getting worse before these alien appears, realising that we were on a dark path in terms of political turmoil makes you consider whether we were about to push the very metaphorical big red button on human existence. Frustrated, the Doctor’s observation that we didn’t learn from history is staggering because he’s right. We didn’t. It’s a masterful act in slowly convincing you that the Monks might be a good thing after all, and you believe that the Doctor thinks they’re right for the job. We need to be saved from ourselves.
Pearl Mackie has this uncanny ability to transition between emotions flawlessly, with each change so natural that you realise how you’d probably react in the same way. Her acting in the scene above with Capaldi perfectly matches how you’ll feel when you watch the scene, going from despair to anger at the Doctor’s hypocrisy. The dawning realisation that the Doctor could be humanity’s greatest enemy for the same reason he’s our saviour is chilling. He’d doom us because he believes it’ll save us. It’s not out of anger that Bill shoots him, either. The sorrow you can see in her eyes tells us that she realises there’s no other option: she knows how dangerous the Doctor could be, and she can’t let him continue. Not that there’s any hesitation. She doesn’t wax lyrical about it though, she just bloody does it. Because Bill doesn’t have time for performances. She’s genuine. Brilliantly, bluntly, genuine.
Look up ‘underestimate’ in the dictionary, and there should be a picture of Bill calling Missy “just a woman”, as well as the withering look Michelle Gomez darts at her. I’d have liked to see her team up with the Doctor (who was acting like he supported the Monks, and survived the gunshot wound, don’t worry) a bit more, as their problem-solving back-and-forth showed how eerily well they work together. Missy’s brand of good is one I can’t wait to see, as it’s slightly puritanical, bordering on the clinical - she thinks nothing of sacrificing Bill for the greater good, whereas the Doctor can’t imagine doing so. Pure goodness as a force might be slightly tyrannical in itself, where an individual is shrugged aside in the face of saving so many in an almost callous manner. Calling the Doctor vain and arrogant to not even consider sacrificing Bill, she raises some distinct questions about how much the Doctor’s self-interest bleeds into his every act. He’s far from selfless, she’s telling us. Maybe she’s gearing up to do something so good it scares even the Doctor. Because that look he gave her when she started remembering the names of everyone she’s killed… I can’t tell whether it was one of realisation or suspicion.