The Lie of the Land

This is such a frustrating episode. It’s clearly full of good ideas, as there are several plot threads that start extremely promisingly, only to completely fall apart. The biggest and most egregious misfire is the Doctor working for the Monks. Those scary propaganda broadcasts were brilliant, as was the hugely powerful scene where Bill confronts him and it seems he’s turned full villain.

I’m not usually one to second guess the writing process, but it smacks to me of wanting to do these really cool ideas, but not knowing how to resolve them. It essentially boils down to “haha, only joking”, which immediately ruins the preceding moments by making them meaningless, in exactly the way that Extremis avoided. On a character level, it’s cruel and unnecessary for the Doctor to put Bill through that. How dare he test her loyalty when this whole invasion is only happening because of her love for him.

It was the regeneration element that really rubbed me up the wrong way. It was the most intriguing thing to be teased in the pre-series publicity, and for it to have been a fake seemed like a complete cop-out, plus it sells the forthcoming actual regeneration short by providing a sneak preview. And it’s even more galling because Capaldi and Mackie were so brilliant in that scene, the performances clearly outclassing the material they’re working with.

This is also the case with Missy, as Michelle Gomez continues to be the most unpredictable actor ever to take on the role. Her introduction gives the episode a short in the arm after that shambles, but it’s short-lived. The gang head to the Monks’ temple, where we’re promised mind-bending illusions that end up only manifesting in the most perfunctory of ways, as another great idea falls by the wayside.

The next is the Doctor taking on the Monks in a Morbius-style contest of wills, failing, and Bill taking his place. Her act of sacrifice works, once again, due to Pearl Mackie, but the entire might of the Monks being taken down by her magical dead mum is just fucking silly, conceptually and visually. It’s so underwhelming that it has to be accompanied by a clearly tacked-on Capaldi voiceover, which is at least 80% exposition to compensate for the lack of clarity in the execution. This whole epic trilogy ends with a pathetic whimper.

And I’m not sure it’s ever made clear what the Monks actually get out of this arrangement. They enslave humanity, but to what end? What’s actually in it for them? It all just seems like a massive ballache to me, having to keep an entire population brainwashed for no discernable reason. And that’s to say nothing of the practical implications – transmitting telepathic bullshit is one thing, but they’d also have to confiscate every history book, documentary DVD and newspaper archive in the world, as well as editing the entirety of Wikipedia.

Considering that a quarter of the series is devoted to them, the Monks are incredibly underwhelming when you boil it all down. Such a wasted opportunity to do something truly epic, but instead all the early momentum is lost, and a series that could have been even better than the last is suddenly decidedly not.

RATING: 5

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The Pyramid at the End of the World

Well, in a series that’s so far seen nothing but noticeably short titles, this one comes along and ruins everything. That’s kind of how I feel about the Monk Trilogy in general, which is largely due to my reaction to the following episode, which I’m not particularly looking forward to revisiting tomorrow. This one, however, I recall quite liking on broadcast, but I think my knowledge of what’s to come has put a downer over the whole thing, and made me nitpick at things that I didn’t notice the first time.

The biggest one comes in the climax, which I thought was thrilling and tragic at the time, bringing as it does the culmination of the Doctor’s blindness plot as well as affirming and demonstrating Bill’s love for him. But that was rather undercut when it occurred to me (and no doubt thousands of others before me) that when he was unable to see the numbers on the combination lock and was on the phone to Bill, the whole thing could have been sorted if he’d just made a video call. Even sending a photo of the current configuration of the numbers would have done.

And because I noticed that, it meant that I’m now not sure what I think about Bill asking the Monks for help, and thus being the one to bring about the subjugation of the human race. The Monks begin to annoy me somewhat during this episode. It’s not so much them – they look great and are impressively powerful, and I love the way that their complex simulations basically allow them to unerringly predict the future – it’s more the way that people act around them. One of the key considerations that underpins the decision on whether to accept the Monk’s help is that we don’t know what the Monks want in return. Did nobody think to, you know, ask them?

That part annoyed me even on first watching – I was willing them to just ask the bloody question, for which there were many opportunities – and it slightly ruins the otherwise interesting element of the Monks requiring consent in order to enact their undeclared dastardly plans. That and the fact that, thanks to this project, I’ve realised that pretty similar ideas have previously been used in both Sarah Jane and Class.

Regardless of all of these things, there is plenty to like about this episode. For the record, and to justify the fact that the below rating is way more positive than the blog entry thus far suggests, these include: Bill’s date being ruined becoming a running gag, with the Secretary General of the UN gatecrashing this time; the trick with all the world’s clocks being turned into the Doomsday Clock; world peace being declared and it not making a blind bit of difference; and the Doctor figuring out which lab the Monks are monitoring by turning off the security cameras in hundred of labs and seeing which one gets turned back on.

In fact, the bulk of the episodes is pretty good overall, it’s only in the last third that it starts to fall apart. I liked the clusterfuck of potential catastrophes, and the one strand that was consistently good was the aforementioned lab, in which disaster came about because a pair of glasses got broken, and because Tony Gardner went on the piss. Special shout-out to what is still among the rarest of things to see on British TV – a disabled actor playing a part in which their disability isn’t relevant to the character or the plot.

RATING: 7

Extremis

Insert standard moan about having to review what is clearly the first of a multi-part story here. The Monk Trilogy was initially billed as a three-parter, before being revised to merely a series of “loosely connected” individual stories, but you could even argue that this is the second of a four-parter, given how the events of Oxygen cast such a huge shadow, and the presence of a rare “previously” montage at the start of Extremis. Nevertheless, this episode does at least stand alone from a narrative perspective – kind of like Utopia back in the day – and is in effect a preview of the main Monk story still to come, which is pretty meta considering the nature of the eventual big reveal.

It’s certainly an unusual episode in the sense that nothing actually happens. Not in the pejorative way that could be levelled at certain stories over the years, but on the quite literal level that the only real life, real time events that transpire are that the Doctor receives an email and then tells Bill to go on the pull. It was certainly a bold move to reveal at the end that the preceding 40-odd minutes wasn’t real, but there’s little of the disappointment that you often get with “it was all a dream” endings, because what took place was still important and relevant to the ongoing series arc, and thus worth your emotional investment regardless.

It helps that it’s really bloody good, of course, largely thanks to the quality of performances from all three leads, and a suitably mind-bending Moffat plot. It was another bold move to have the actual current Pope as a guest character, but I suppose the “it wasn’t real” defence mitigates any potential to offend, and even if not, it’d still be worth it for the brilliant gag of him gatecrashing Bill’s date. It’s only a shame that the dead President we see later on isn’t Trump.

(Typing that, it’s just occurred to me how weird it is that my watch-through has brought me to a series that was broadcast during the current administration, considering we were only just into Obama’s second term when I started, and the prospect of that gobshite even considering running for nomination was but a distant nightmare.)

Anyway, as well as the stuff that didn’t actually happen, there was also some stuff that did happen but in the past, with the Doctor is forced to execute Missy in a ceremony overseen by Max from Humans. It was barely a surprise at all that Missy was the one inside the vault, but it’s nice to fill in Nardole’s backstory, and clarify exactly what his relationship with the Doctor is. This new information seems to be the catalyst for Nardole taking a level in badass; with the series now halfway through, he’s becoming far more than just the comic relief, and starting to hint at more nuance and complexity than we’ve previously given him credit for.

Just how long has the Doctor been guarding that vault, though? He vowed to do so for a thousand years, but we don’t know exactly when those flashback scenes took place – it could have been a few weeks ago for all we know. Or has it been so long that the university was built around the vault? How long can Nardole live for? I genuinely can’t remember whether or not the rest of the series answers these questions!

RATING: 8