My oh my… where to begin here?
So Pyramid at the End of the World was nothing to write home about, but it set up the playing field for a really interesting conclusion: an Earth with a warped history, tackling the very notions of knowledge, memory and truth. Bill would face the consequences of her actions, with the Doctor, seemingly, having given in and joined the Monks to create propoganda. This easily had the ingredients to not just be a classic, but a critical episode for Bill’s development and progression as a character.
Furthermore, Toby Whithouse has returned to scripting duties, and he’s had a pretty solid track record. So then, why am I left feeling so middling about this episode and, as a byproduct, this little trilogy? Because the episode is a huge cop-out: in lieu of some high stakes dystopic drama that gets under the skin of our companion and pushes her values to breaking point, we get that for, maybe, the first fifteen minutes, and then it becomes another ‘stop the invader’ story, with the Doctor completely as himself, firing off quips and plans like no tomorrow.
This cheapens the narrative greatly, as it weakens the dramatic stakes, now that the Doctor is in play and never was anything other. Whithouse wastes an incredibly unsettling scenario, which he does such a solid job of setting up, just for a lazy fakeout to then go through a predictable formula and keep Bill from doing anything too daring or different. Plus, Missy’s much touted return feels redundant, as well as distracting setup for something later on in the series, as the Doctor could’ve easily figured out the same conclusion about the Monks’ power over memory during his imprisonment.
Despite my criticisms of the narrative, however, the performances still continue being strong, with Pearl Mackie getting some really solid emotional content as Bill deals with recalling her mother, as well as the temporary loss of the Doctor. Capaldi also gets some fine moments in the opening when he pretends to be a willing servant, and sells the almost Big Brother-esque opening narration of the compromised history. It’s surprisingly creepy. Lucas gets in a few funny quips, and Michelle Gomez is as darkly amusing as ever to watch, but this is mainly a two hander.
The episode looks and sounds as good as the others. Wayne Yip’s grim colour palette and slight tweaks to everyday cities and buildings create a credible dystopia for aliens who haven’t been here long, while the set of the Monks’ control room hits the sweet spot between futuristically elegant yet also a little antiquated with the triangular dome-screens. Hardly an original vision, in fact it feels like a slightly upmarket version of what Classic Who would’ve done, but a well realized one, and the Monks’ makeup still looks good though they don’t get to do as much this time.
The Lie of the Land, fittingly, proves to be something of a dramatic fib, promising much more than it delivers. It’s technically profficient, adequately paced and has some interesting ideas, but what felt like the makings of one of Doctor Who’s darkest, bleakest and most cerebral stories, a true throwback to Moffat’s glory days, instead feel like a paint-by-numbers invasion tale that has been many times before, as well as considerably better. Here’s hoping Mark Gatiss’ unapologetic fanboyism for early pulp sci-fi brings the series back to form in The Empress of Mars.
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