The Monk Trilogy concludes with an explosive episode that pits the Doctor, Bill, and Nardole against their most insidious foe yet. High stakes. Clever sci-fi. Missy. This should be one of the best episodes of Series 10. Is it?
The Quick & Spoiler-Free Verdict
Actually, this story is a very mixed bag along the lines of “Hell Bent.” There's a lot of great stuff, and some very, very annoying moments. You'll probably enjoy it, but don't set your expectations too high.
The Monk mythology is examined in greater depth this week, adding still more layers to a clever monster. I'm very satisfied with this element of the trilogy. It's hard to make an enemy interesting and formidable enough to fuel three hours of Doctor Who, but Steven Moffat has succeeded in that regard. The Monks do not insult the viewer's intelligence. The discussions between the Doctor and Missy on how to defeat them made for great scenes, providing smart sci-fi concepts instead of simplistic tropes.
And speaking of Missy…wow. Michelle Gomez did an absolutely phenomenal job this week, building on the more vulnerable side to the Master that we saw in “Extremis.” Props should also be given to Toby Whithouse's writing of the character (as well as whatever Steven Moffat contributed). We've never gotten this much development for the Master before. The persona of Missy elevates the character from a simple, mustache-twirling (or goatee-twirling) villain to an actual person; albeit a psychopathic one. Also, I liked the mention of the Master having adventures that didn't involve the Doctor. It makes a ton of sense–and, even more importantly, it leaves the door open for that Big Finish Missy audio series I've heard rumors about.
Gomez wasn't the only great actress in this episode, however–Pearl Mackie delivered her best performance yet. She ran the full gamut of emotions with aplomb. The scene in which she shot the Doctor was particularly impressive…
…which is why it was SO UTTERLY INFURIATING that the whole thing turned out to be a massive fake-out. Come ON, Moffat. A fake regeneration? Been there, done that, bought the T-shirt. I was really hoping we wouldn't see that plot device used again. Not to mention the complete lack of emotional payoff. Capaldi is great at comedy, and I'll admit that I laughed at the follow-up to the “regeneration,” but I didn't want comedy here. I wanted that perfectly-acted scene between Capaldi and Mackie to MEAN something. In the end, half the episode was wasted on it, calling into question whether this really needed to be a full trilogy.
The frequent injections of recent political trends were also frustrating. I don't watch Doctor Who for politics. I didn't need to hear the Doctor make a joke about fake news or see photos of current political figures right in the middle of a pivotal, heartbreaking scene. This isn't about whether I agree with the episode's politics or not; I accepted a long time ago that I rarely ever do align with the show's stance on such things. But if I wanted to grapple with those subjects, I'd watch the news, not Doctor Who.
The final resolution of the Monk conflict is open for criticism as well, but I actually didn't have much of a problem with it. Yes, we've had a lot of alien foes get defeated by love in one way or another, and I'm not really a fan of that concept overall. However, like it or not, that's an intrinsic part of Doctor Who. The theme of human goodness, strength of character, and love for one another being victorious over evil is woven into the show's DNA. I'm used to it. I don't expect the deeper, less maudlin plot twists of, say, 12 Monkeys from Doctor Who. (BTW, I have not had a chance to watch Season 3 yet, so if you post spoilers in the comments I will be very, very cross.) Ultimately, I did find this particular use of the trope rewarding, even if so much of the episode was not.
The Final Word
“The Lie of the Land” is in a frustrating state of limbo between brilliance and failure, like so many episodes of Steven Moffat's tenure (though, granted, he didn't actually write this one). I'd gladly watch it again, and not just because of the Missy scenes–there's still a lot to like here. But frankly, I don't think it bodes well for the rest of the season. It reminded me too much of previous mis-steps in the show's plotting. I don't want to see Series 10 go out on the same sour note that Series 8 and 9 did. Here's hoping that the finale will still deliver on this season's initial promise.