As the episode opens we find Bill living in London several months after The Monks have taken over. A few brief glimpses of their totalitarian regime give us enough of an understanding that The Monks are still malevolent. I had wondered whether this episode would depict a sort of failed utopia rather than a dystopia. A sort of society where everybody lives in blissful ignorance, but a false peace from which Bill and other characters have to break free. This seemed to be set up in the previous episode, where The Monks can only take over if they are welcomed without an ulterior motive – when someone asks them to take over motivated by love. Instead,The Monks rule in a typical dystopian fashion.
There was a good opportunity here to explore Doctor Who‘s own version of a dystopia, one that I felt the episode missed. There are a few scenes at the very beginning where we see people being hauled off to prison camps for committing “memory crime”, a clear reference to “thought crime” in 1984. But although the entire episode is under the shroud of The Monks’ despotic rule, the episode never delved into detail about it.
Which to me is a bit of a missed opportunity. The entire episode is all about “fake news”. As The Monks implant false memories into humanity’s heads, some members of the population are able to remember the truth: that The Monks are invaders who have only been here for a matter of months.
Perhaps Doctor Who didn’t want to get too explicitly political, but I felt that they should’ve explored the question of fake news and fake memories more. It would’ve been interesting to see Bill and the rest of humanity wrestle with the problem of who to believe, where to find trustworthy sources of information and how to determine who can be believed. Of course another option would’ve been to explore the problem or false memories, and whether or not we can believe our own when science has shown us that they are not very reliable.
To be fair, all of the important points are discussed, it’s just done very briefly. In one scene Bill even asks why The Monks would go to all the trouble of implanting false memories into the minds of their new subjects. Nardole explains that when you make the population believe that this is how things have always been then 90% of the job is already done. The false memories are used to lull the human population into complacency.
This episode seems to be Doctor Who‘s take on 1984, but the problem is that it has the exact opposite narrative structure. The question that follows the main character of 1984, Winston Smith, is “why?”. Winston understands how the country of Oceania is able to control the populace and even rewrite their memories, but he doesn’t understand why it goes through all the trouble. Other than exploring the dystopian society and its effects it has on people who live under it, this is the main question of 1984, one that isn’t answered until it’s final chapter.
But in Lie we understand the “why” almost instantly, just in case we didn’t pick it up Nardole helpfully explains it to us during the second act. Instead, The Doctor has to find out “how” The Monk’s broadcast their false memories in order to stop them.
But frankly, the “how” is a less interesting question than the “why”. Again, I feel like this was a missed opportunity, where Doctor Who could have explored not only the dangers of complacently living under a totalitarian regime and accepting as fact everything that was told to you, but the characters of despots themselves. Perhaps even exploring the behavior of collaborators, members of the oppressed who actually assist the oppressors for private personal gain.
Instead, this quickly turned into a typical Doctor Who action adventure story. Normally I wouldn’t have been so disappointed except there had been such a build up with The Monks as villains that this episode seemed a little flat.
One redeeming quality of this episode is The Doctor’s speech to Bill after she attempts to “rescue” him. The Doctor explains the reasons why he has decided to work with The Monks and help them enslave humanity.
In his speech The Doctor explains to Bill all of the mistakes that humanity has made. How they keep letting despots rule them even though they have history as an example of why this is a terrible thing to do. The Monks may be despots, ones that hold onto their rule with an iron fist, but at least they are benevolent rulers who want to keep humanity alive rather than destroy them completely.
Another part of the speech, where The Doctor explained that even though the Romans killed thousands in their conquest they saved millions from further war and disease really hits home. Because, when you look at the historical perspective, conquering empires like the Romans or the Mongols we’re a net good for their societies. They were cruel, despotic regimes that did terrible things to the people that they conquered, and did more terrible things in order to maintain their rule, but under their rule there was no war, relatively little crime, and advanced amounts of scientific advancement.
This isn’t a good argument for despotism, not in the 21st-century. There are much more efficient ways to re-create the Pax Romana than to conquer everyone in sight. Namely, Democracy. When Bill even asks the doctor about free will he dismisses the notion, reminding her that she had free will and she lets The Monks in.
It was very interesting to see The Doctor explain the reasons why someone might think despotism is preferable to democracy. And, it’s not entirely out of character for him. Remember that the greatest temptation The Doctor had was to use his power to take over the universe, which we saw in Death in Heaven (Series 8 Episode 12). In this episode The Doctor is tempted to use the Cyberman army for good, preventing terrible wars and other acts of evil that he has since been unable to completely prevent. The problem of course is that he would be doing it through force, something that The Doctor knows is wrong.
It seems that this temptation is still too great for The Doctor, as later in Lie he contemplates re-writing human history in order to the race racism and bigotry. This is one of the best character flaws The Doctor house, because when you have a character that is nearly omnipotent the question arises: why doesn’t The Doctor do more to prevent the evil he sees? The answer is that he wants to, and probably could, but won’t because it would remove free will. It’s the age-old problem of the means not justifying the ends. It’s actually a bit of a problem for this episode as The Doctor contemplates ending racism by means of rewriting humanity’s memories. Because this is just the kind of thing that The Monks did, only he would be doing it for good purposes rather than for bad. Of course this is a throwaway line because The Doctor isn’t able to rewrite humanities memories, Bill is.
One scene I haven’t touched on yet is The Doctor’s interaction with Missy. It seems that Missy is trying to kick evil “cold turkey” and is in fact staying in the vault voluntarily. The scenes were a real delight, and frankly I had been hoping for a bit more of Michelle Gomez than we saw.
When we saw Missy in Extremis she had professed her desire to become good, but I never believed it. Frankly I had assumed that it was just something that she was saying in order to spare her life. But it seems that she is really trying to “Go good” in her own way.
I’m not entirely sure that I believe her, this is The Master we are talking about, but either way it’s a very interesting story arc for this character. Either she’ll turn good and help The Doctor (in her own way) or this is an intricate trap that she will spring on The Doctor in the season finale. Either way I’m hooked.
Even if Missy is trying to turn good, she is still cold and uncaring. The Doctor’s version of “good” is naïve and unrealistic, that’s not the type of good that she is ever going to be capable of being.
Missy “explains” to The Doctor that The Monks use Bill as a link to all of humanity. If they kill Bill, it will stop the link. The doctor rechecks this idea and instead comes up with a plan to plug his own mind into the machine broadcasting false memories to humanity.
I’m a bit conflicted about Missy’s scenes in this episode because frankly they aren’t even necessary. Missy helps The Doctor figure the problem out but in the end I feel that he would’ve figured it out on his own. Really the only purpose of the scene was to give us a glimpse of Missy and her supposed reformation. Which if I’m perfectly honest with myself, I am all for. I’ll take any chance I can to see Michelle Gomez as Missy.
At the end of the day this episode wasn’t really about fake news, it was actually a character piece that helped establish Bill’s importance in Doctor Who. Throughout the episode it is explained that in order to stop The Monks Bill is going to have to die. The Doctor does everything he can to prevent this, but in the end Bill uses her own mind to fix the memories of the human race. She sacrifices herself to stop The Monks, except of course that she doesn’t actually sacrifice yourself.
The episode sets up that in order to properly stop The Monks Bill can either die, which would break the link, or they can turn her brain to mush which will prevent The Monks from transmitting the false memories. But when Bill connects herself to the transmitter, somehow she focuses on a memory of her mother which fixes everyone’s memory… because love or something… whatever.
The ending of this episode is really a bit of a mess. And that’s not to say that it’s a bad episode, even though it’s the least enjoyable of the three involving The Monks. I just felt that the ending to this episode was a bit of a letdown, that somehow The Doctor going back in time to take pictures of Bill’s mother allowed her to create a space in her mind that The Monks couldn’t touch which she then broadcasts out to the rest of humanity fixing all of their memories. I feel like everybody should have a memory of Bill’s mother after this, some random woman invading their minds but instead it just erases all memory of The Monks.
That being said, I did enjoy the episode. Although the conclusion of the story arc was not as satisfying as I hoped, this was still a solid episode. Although The Monks fell flat as a villain, they were still a worthy adversary for The Doctor. The premise of having humanity ask The Monks to dominate them, and of altering humanity’s memories so that The Monks appeared to have always been with us were interesting plot points, ones that I wish I had been explored more fully.