2017 Series Episode 8 - tx 03/06/17. Written by Toby Whithouse. Directed by Wayne Che Yip. Episode reviewed by Roger Jones.
Being the third instalment of a trilogy, shared by three writers puts a huge weight on the Lie of the Land and Toby Whithouse. The trailer already had speculation that this was a retread of `Last of the Timelords` or `Turn Left`, fuelling the over-familiar and wearisome accusations of creative bankruptcy. So how did they do? Pretty well thinks Roger Jones, who of his own free will, shares his thoughts, which are the Truth.....
First of all, we should be clear what this story was not. It was not `The Last of the Timelords`. While the companion seems to be set up as the one voice of freedom fighting against the new regime, that trope is swiftly inverted, where it is the Doctor that is actually building the resistance. Admittedly there is a 'psychic link' element in common, this is not used to create miraculous superpowers through faith - it is simply a more familiar trope, a mechanism used to suppress the world with a design flaw that is used against it. In other ways it is also very different, showing smaller, more personal rebellions, echoing its themes of individual free will.
A more useful comparison might be made in the opening acts to `Turn Left` in its evocation of a fascist, dystopian future, where people are easily turned against each other. Interestingly, that also had the underlying theme of individual free will.
Secondly, this is not another 'love conquers all' story. This is a story about the strength of individual imagination and free will. It happens that the 'subroutine' in Bill's mind that crowded out the Monk's programming was about her Mother - but it could equally have been about, say, a fictive time travelling alien so strongly imagined they seemed real (hard to credit I know!); the key was the link required the conviction to be pure.
The main strengths of this episode where in the acting, the sound design and the direction. Peter Capaldi continues to shine, and uses his 'Invasion of Time' moment to show what a creepily splendid villain he can be. His TV broadcast used his gaunt features and splendid overbite to full effect. His acting 'turns on a dime' - his flip from quisling to jester, his sudden bursts of joy when he seizes on a plan, his despair when he thinks Bill is about to be lost - marvellous. His chemistry with Pearl Mackey is terrific - are we really only going to get one series of this? What a shame.
And Pearl as Bill manages to carry potentially mawkish seems with her (imagined) mother with real conviction, as she does the emotional roller coaster of her rescue, disenchantment and reconnection with the Doctor and her brave determination to atone for opening the door to invasion. Even the underused Matt Lucas as Nardole shows some of his humorous acting chops.
The sound design in the episode was particularly good, most notably the disconnect between the voiceover through the firefight in the Pyramid. This emphasised the disorientation of the participants caused by the false reality broadcasts, also supported by the nice visual glitches throughout the episode.
The person with the biggest challenge was the writer. Unlike a stand-alone story, this had to justify the lead-in over several episodes. The writing was generally strong, with a leavening of humour (fake news central indeed!). The conversation with Bill's mother and extensive use of voiceovers felt unnatural at first (show, don't tell), but all played into the resolution - the constructed version of her dead mother was so continuous, present and pure for Bill, it was the perfect key to break the Monks' psychic link, just as her selfless desire to help the Doctor was the perfect key to establish it. If I were to criticise the writing it is in the resolution - it was wordy, but the mechanics of it were still not so clearly explained. Moffat also deserves credit for some of the more effective parts of the script. In particular, the long portrait of the Capaldi Doctor as detached in his view of how humanity is best served played incredibly well for the scene where the Doctor had apparently turned to help the Monks. Finally, whichever of the two of them came up with the line "In amongst the 7 billion, there's someone like you ... that's why I put up with the rest of them." has provided the words for countless weddings to come.
So did the episode make a good conclusion to the Monks trilogy? Generally yes, but I felt the weight of the three was very much with the first, `Extremis`. In effect that was a prequel, followed by a two-parter. As a resolution to that two parter, it had an admirable increase in the pace and action. More to the point, it has moved the characters on - and in particular has moved on the relationship between the Doctor and Missy, which is clearly setting up the end of the series. With the Doctor putting Missy through an apparent 'cold turkey' treatment for her addiction to wickedness, it is intriguing to speculate how genuine her conversion or remorse is. It is easy to imagine this is simply a trick - but some genuine transformation might be more interesting, and her more ruthless and unsentimental approach to 'doing good' might make for interesting stories, and echoed the 'quisling' Doctor's apparent plan to save humanity by cooperating with the Monks.