Sunday, June 4, 2017

In Which I Review Doctor Who (10x8)

In this week's episode, and conclusion to the Monk trilogy, "The Lie of the Land," the Doctor Who writers sought to create a world where authoritarians rulers are in absolute power; where there's a constant flow of misinformation, lies disguised as truths, false slogans and empty promises. It's also a world where any action against this state of lies and decay is swiftly and severely punished by the state under the guise of being "for the good of all." So, in other words, it's 2016/2017 and someone like Bill Potts needs to unplug Donald Trump/Nigel Farage/Boris Johnson from the memory-beacon chair so that we can get back to the business of living. Like many episodes so far this year, this week's escapade wants to sit in a hyper dramatized reality of the current worldly situation and, using science fiction as its lens, figure out how the human race can fight back against tyrants, fascists, and speechless Monks of all shapes, sizes, and colors. All you need is love, apparently. Grab on to your favorite memory of you mother and let's go!

To be perfectly honest, this episode only really works for about the first twenty minutes. Everything that comes after is rushed, overly sentimental, and a bit too easy breezy to be a satisfying narrative and conclusion to a three week story. In reality, banding together to topple a dictator, or any sort of fascist regime, is easier said than done and the characters in Doctor Who are helped not only by a Savior-God with two hearts and massive brain but also by some science mumbo-jumbo. To its credit, Doctor Who knows this and telegraphs as much with the Doctor acknowledging that even with the Monks gone, humans still don't learn from their mistakes while exercising free will. In the series of scenes following Bill's rescue (that is not really a rescue) of the Doctor, everything flows too well for a world that is as complicated as the opening narrative and fly by scenes showed. There are no Monks lurking around corners, they don't have sophisticated enough technology to find the erstwhile Bill and Doctor; the zombie creatures reduced to the all too mundane "looking around" in spite of their awe inspiring computer and whiz-bangs that can brainwash an entire planet into thinking that they've been there since the dawn of time. For an episode that really draws heavily from George Orwell's "1984" the writers of this week's episode missed the mark on really getting into the world they set up and examining just how dangerous it can be. The scenes at the beginning were a great way to at least open that particular door and let us as viewers get a foot inside, but Memory Police, constant broadcasting of telepathy designed to subdue and constant vigilance for any Monk naysayers do not go away simply because the Doctor is out and about, no longer confined in his prison. Empty London streets without the ever present eye are not part of this society but to include them would complicate the narrative real estate Moffat and team are working with at a meager 44 minutes. In other words, what I'm really trying to say, is that this trilogy could have worked better if it were a few more episodes. And I honestly believe I would have enjoyed seeing an episode or two of Bill fighting against the Monks, recruiting strangers to her cause because the first 20 minutes of this week's episode were very strong with a well built world, a certain seat-gripping tension, and a reality that strikes a certain chord in anyone living through 2017. The messages of fighting back against false information (or, you know, alternative facts), toppling the lies those in power create isn't a subtle one, but it's a necessary one.

Instead, though, the episode pulls out one of the more annoying TV tropes: the ruse to test loyalty. The performance of the ruse itself was the best part of the episode because--and I think I'm going to say this every week until his regeneration--Peter Capaldi is a world class actor. He brings a wonderful anger to the role that his predecessors only got to hint at in previous incarnations. The basic premise of the ruse is great: what happens when the sworn protector of the planet is fed up with fixing humanity's mistakes? It's not something we or the show have dealt with a whole lot in recent memory but after everything this little blue marble has put the Doctor through, one scared human goes and sells the planet, its people, and its history to a bunch of telepathic Trumps? Yeah, I think I'd have a hard time being forgiving too. It's like the Doctor yells at Bill, "you had free will. And look what you did with it." Given all the political undercurrents in this season, it's not hard to imagine any sort of divine figure looking at the current state of the world and saying the same. But the problem comes in the denouement when Bill, sick to her stomach at what the Doctor has become, fires a gun into his heart(s). It turns out this is all a test meant to see if Bill really was on the side of free will and humanity. I won't pause long to consider the mythological significance of the Doctor using up some of his regeneration energy (you're on number twelve, dude! maybe don't waste it) but this is where the episode went from great to just okay and, to be honest, it's a shame because it highlights something that I always think needs remembered: even the Doctor is corruptible if you anger and frustrate him enough. It would have been a nice reminder that the Doctor sits comfortably in every aspect of the Savior archetype with awe inspiring majesty and awe inspiring wrath. I don't want to linger on a missed narrative opportunity too long because while the path not taken would have been more rewarding, there is one aspect of the path taken that hits a lot of right notes: Bill. She is turning out to be one of the best companions the show has had in its regenerated run because she's just so human. She's exactly like us; she's not a mystery first and a person second because Bill is all human, all person. It's true that the hyper sentimentalized ending of Bill thinking about her mother and this being the end of the Monks reign was super treacly, the height of which usually only comes at Christmas, but it does feel emotionally satisfying at least as far as Bill's character journey is concerned. Her mother has been a side character since Bill's introduction; a vital part of Bill is that she lost her mother at a young age and that has always haunted her until the Doctor gave her some peace with a box of photos. Since then, we've seen Bill "talk" to her mom, hang up pictures of her mother in her new house, and think of her before losing all her oxygen in the far reaches of space. Even if I roll my eyes at the idea that memories of a mother would topple "fake news central" it feels right for Bill. And in the end, this is as much her story as it is the Doctor's.

Miscellaneous Notes on The Lie of the Land 

--I talked about the Monks being the Doctor through a mirror, darkly, last week and that idea is carried over in the Monks rewriting human history to include them (and not him) defeating the Daleks, the Cybermen, and the Weeping Angels.

--"However bad it is, if people think that's the way it has always been, they put up with it."

--If there's a third thread in this trilogy of episodes, it's Missy's rehabilitation, something that got very little attention thus far but takes a decent sized step forward this week with her 1) explaining how to stop the Monks and 2) thinking about all her past victims. However, we only have four weeks of episodes left and I'm worried that Missy's progress is going to be rushed here at the end.

--Missy wants gifts to aid against the Monks and they include "new boots, a particle accelerator, a 3-D printer, and a pony."

--Missy is "the other last of the Time Lords."

--So how much of Bill's story was inspired by Martha Jones's season three story? It's hard to say because Martha did everything I said I wish the show had Bill do like spending time tracking down sympathizers, converting them, and getting in and out of the most dangerous places in the world. Bill doesn't face that sort of hardship and in the end the Doctor wasn't really held captive by the Monks. But, Martha only plays one part and it's the Doctor who beats back the Master whereas Bill has to offer herself up as a sacrifice to rid the world of the Monks. There's a quasi-positive but also quasi-negative feminist streak in both of these and I'm not sure how to parse it quite yet.

--I'm slightly confused by the ending. Humans don't remember the Monks (either consciously or subconsciously forgetting the past six months) but those six months did happen and we saw that people did die. Either the public executions were fake to curtail rebellion or this is another example of the writers making everything too easy.

--"You're version of good is not absolute. It's vain, arrogant, and sentimental."

--Why does the Doctor put up with humanity? Because in seven billion people, there's at least one person like Bill.

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