An article by William Shaw first published in The Tides of Time number 41, June 2018
Continued from Part One: Listen!
The Lie of the Land has precisely one brilliant idea. To find it, we need to examine its source material. In the first chapter of Nineteen Eighty-Four, we are told that:
The telescreen received and transmitted simultaneously. Any sound that Winston made, above the level of a very low whisper, would be picked up by it, moreover, so long as he remained within the field of vision which the metal plaque commanded, he could be seen as well as heard. There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to.
So to recap, Big Brother is a character who, while perhaps not literally everywhere at once, can very easily be anywhere at any time, and who gets there via the medium of television. Once this is borne in mind, the brilliance of The Lie of the Land‘s initial conceit is thrown into sharp relief. For all the shit Toby Whithouse gets, much of it deserved, the observation that Doctor Who is interchangeable with Big Brother is outright genius.
(That Russell T Davies had already made his own version of the same basic observation in Bad Wolf is, depending on your view, either the greatest tragedy of Toby Whithouse or the perfect encapsulation of his style).
It’s all the more fitting that it should fall in this Storyteller Doctor’s final season, emblematic of an anxiety underlying this self-conscious narrative approach. If the Doctor is now, not only the hero, but also the narrator of the show, who is to stop him abusing his power? The whole episode feels like a narrative breaking point; the Doctor is now able to switch off his own death, and he laughs maniacally as he ploughs the hulk into the docks. The episode’s climax leans into this hard, with the Doctor boasting about his own cleverness (and over his own theme music) as Bill does the actual labour of saving the day. If Journey’s End is the point where the Tenth Doctor’s hubris finally goes too far, The Lie of the Land is where the Twelfth Doctor’s ability to control the narrative finally tips over into vice.
Because this anxiety is present in Capaldi’s Doctor from his very first episode; how does one become a storyteller without also becoming dictatorial?