Truth In Fidelity, Doctor Who: The Monks Trilogy, Reviews, 06/06/2017

Yesterday, I introduced my latest take on why Toby Whithouse is a terrible writer. I think if offers some useful instruction in how to avoid being a shitty writer yourself. Because as soon as you permanently avoid being shitty, you start being good.

Today, I’m getting into the genuinely interesting ideas of the Monks Trilogy. In the light of yesterday’s post, I’ll also get into why and how Toby Whithouse fucks the Monks Trilogy up. Not irreparably, but it’ll require a serious redemptive reading to find the value in it.

The Monks Trilogy is a story of meditations through science-fiction on
the power of truth, lies, and devotion. The most arresting image in its
last episode, "The Lie of the Land" is the Doctor in a spartan
chamber editing, revising, and rejecting countless drafts of reality
for his next propaganda broadcast.
This is my first pass at that redemption. There will definitely be


No Real History Frozen in Time

Let’s unravel this arc. Get suitably epic and conceptual, because that’s the level on which the Monks Trilogy’s theme unfolds. In this, you can actually see how high-concept a villain the Monks truly are, so much so that I think Moffat pushed the limits of Doctor Who yet again.

The Monks Trilogy reveals three visions of truth. There’s the truth of the necronomiconic book Veritas. It reveals that the entire world is a malevolent simulation. You’re an inadequate copy of a real world, ontologically unable to express the real potential for random movement.

That’s what the ordered numbers mean: You’re not just a clone, you’re an inadequate copy. The real you could speak random numbers, as could any real duplicate of you. But we all are iterations. There’s no real difference in the world of The Veritas. Only a deterministic simulation, so all you can do is what you’re programmed to do.

There is no originality, only the initial conditions and the limits of the simulation’s power.

In “The Pyramid at the End of the World,” the Monks flaunt their power to see many possible futures. But those aren’t real timelines. Those are simulations. That’s what I meant last week when I called the Monks fake Time Lords.

The Monks are, in a way, ghostly con-men. All their technology and
power is based on the manipulation of lies – propaganda, false
memories, and simulations. So naturally, they constantly
associate themselves with truth and blast in the loudest possible
voice that their voice is the truth. The only truth that matters.
The Time Lords are the genuine article because when they observe the possibilities of history’s development, they observe real, ongoing history. They aren’t observing parallel universes, because in Doctor Who, parallel universes are just that. They aren’t produced by time travellers changing history. They’re just around.

No, in Doctor Who, there is only one history, and time travellers are always changing it. Well, everyone and everything is always changing history. Time travellers just do it in more complicated ways, which can blow holes in history if they aren’t careful. History is the real process of material existence.

So the Monks claim to know history. But they never actually examine real history, only deterministic simulations of history.

Our leads discover in “Extremis” an existential truth: They are not living organisms, but flickers of energy in one of those threads. One of those flickers sends a message to the Doctor, starting “Pyramids.”

Veritas in Extremis

The second vision of truth is a straightforward kind. The truth of authority. It’s the truth that the cops, oligarchs, kings, and raging alcoholic dads reveal. It’s a truth about your immediate future – You will do as I say!

To get people to do as they say in “The Lie of the Land,” the Monks invent a whole history that humanity generally remembers. They use their telepathic technology to rewrite everyone’s memory of their own and humanity’s history.

A key question for those of us in the wider Eruditorum community
is what Doctor Who can be in the context of the Trump era.
Sarah Dollard's "Thin Ice" offered one vision, and the underlying
ideas of Steven Moffat's Monks Trilogy is another. The two can
go together quite well.
But the Monks always have to keep forcing this history into humanity’s heads. They use the Doctor’s broadcasts, they use their own signals. They use the force of their security squads, labour camps, and secret police. The truth of authority is that you will believe what we tell you to believe, and the truth is what we say is true.

“The Lie of the Land” is about fighting that truth. The Doctor, Bill, Nardole, and the faceless rebel gang straight out of a Terry Nation story aren’t just fighting to reveal another truth. They’re out to destroy the power that the Monks’ truth has over people.

That’s another message of what Doctor Who for the Brexit/Trump era should be. We aren’t in some era of post-truth – we’re in an era where the leaders of some of the world’s most powerful democracies lie to us and order us to believe their lies. The answer isn’t to reveal truths – it’s to break their power to force our belief.

The third kind of truth is ethical truth. The truth of an action that breaks power. In “Extremis,” the Doctor knew the Master would be redeemable if she were to think of anything good about herself or do any good thing without reward of any kind. Here is the moment of truth – veritas in extremis.

She found that potential in herself, in her feelings of friendship for the Doctor. That was enough to save her, and begin the long, strange process of rehabilitating a canonical villain.

“Pyramid” ended with an ethical truth too. Bill submits to the Monks to save the Doctor’s life, as an act of friendship. Just as the Master’s was. So the role of “The Lie of the Land” was to find the ethical truth that would defeat the monks. What friendship would redeem the Earth?

I think what most annoyed me in this episode about Whithouse's
stupendously boring ideas was how he treated the Master. Her
redemption requires the most subtle writing imaginable. Her
remorse is literally the remorse of a deranged god whose killing
sprees have wiped whole civilizations from the heavens. Yet he
writes her utterly dull dialogue about "remembering so many
names" of people she's killed. The Master isn't a tinpot warlord,
she's a cackling destroyer of worlds.
To Be Faithful to a Memory

The Monks are never able to overwrite time, any more than they could manipulate real history. They’re grotesque con-men, talking up their powers to be more than they truly are. Their possible futures were simulations. Their overwritten history is a set of false historical memories broadcast into every living human.

The fundamental lie of the Monks is a memory – the memory of the Monks living side by side with humanity throughout its history. They demand – through their security state and concentration camps – that you’re faithful to this memory. You must define your very identity on their terms, as a submissive child of the Monks.

The ultimate crime on the Monks’ Earth is breaking fidelity to this memory – to declare that the Monks have not, in fact, always been here. This breaking of faith is important, but its power is limited. Only one person screaming that everything we all accept as true is actually a lie is easily shut up.

We lock them away as easily as people in tinfoil hats screaming anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. Some of those people work in the White House.

To shout the truth is not the same as fidelity to it. Shouting only disavows one common sense truth as the lie that it is. It’s only your own disavowal. To genuinely overcome that lie, you need a truth of greater power to replace it.

That’s why the Doctor’s attempt to hijack the central Monk projecting the lying memory of Earth’s false history fails. He’s just throwing his memories of what’s actually happened to Earth into the memory stream. He isn’t faithful to any one of those memories, he isn’t committed to them in any way that defines his personality or identity.

Pearl Mackie's intensity as an actress just barely saves one of
Whithouse's most pathetic failures of unoriginal dialogue from
being totally unwatchable.
Bill finds one memory to redeem the world from the Monks’ lies – the memory of her mother.

This, however, is also a lie. Bill never knew her mother, which is why she’s never able to have a real conversation with her in any of her imagined morning chats. Bill’s imagined mother, at the beginning of the episode, sits silently as a photograph and listens.

Because that's all Bill has of her mother – photographs. And she didn’t even have those until the Doctor arranged their existence in the first episode of the season. No matter how Bill’s mother actually lived, Bill’s own memory of her is a lie.

Yet it’s effective in overwriting the Monks’ false history because it’s a lie. Their own massive, intricately designed lie of a false history has a reference point to every real event in human history. But it has no link to Bill’s own false memory of her mother. The Monks could only edit themselves into truths, not lies.

A Philosophical Story Arc

So the complex symmetries of the Monks trilogy fall into place. In a way, it’s the most intricate abstract narrative Moffat has ever woven into Doctor Who.

An abstract narrative is a story woven into a far-flying anthology whose nature and shape only makes sense when it’s finished. A beautiful sculpture running underneath an otherwise chronological sequence of stories.

River Song’s life was the most intricate and complicated abstract narrative because of how many different parts the whole edifice had, and how different glimpses of that whole shape appeared in disparate places over years. But the Monks trilogy is his most profound, because it’s based in the highest concept Moffat has ever developed.

It's also significant that the Monks appear in the garb of a religious
order. It's an institution whose job is to provide people with
authoritative truth, but which all too often becomes an
authoritarian institution whose job is to enforce their fidelity to
your truth. But the fidelity of chains is no faith at all.
A meditation on the concept of a link between ethics and epistemology – that love is truth.

Genuine truth is revealed in the most extreme situation – Veritas in Extremis. Such a truth isn’t just any old fact. It’s a truth that has such a power for you that you can devote your existence to it in that instance. You can live the whole rest of your life in fidelity to the core idea of that truth.

Facing death, or with the world and your best friend’s life in the balance, or as the last, tenuous anchor to reality and the phantom of a worthwhile life.

Respectively, the Master facing execution, Bill’s submission to the Monks for saving the Doctor, and Bill’s fidelity to the memory of her mother that she created herself. These moments of ethical truth are moments of salvation – for the Master, the Doctor, and humanity respectively.

The Monks, in contrast, are creatures of lies. They create simulations – false, inadequate realities, revealed through a book called VERITAS. Their security service is named TRUTH.

More than the revelation, VERITAS is the lie’s truth – the Monks’ act of lying. TRUTH in “The Lie of the Land” is also the Monks’ act of lying – their punishment of those who speak the truth as liars.

So the arc of the Monks Trilogy is the demonstration of how to give truth power over lies.

The Faith That Makes Itself True

Each truth whose expression has the power of salvation can be the focal point of a wholly new world coming to be, defined by fidelity to that original saving truth.

This concept of fidelity to a memory that provides the core of your
identity has its roots in the philosophy of Alain Badiou, who
described the mechanism of how this fidelity develops in his
Being and Event. He talks about the event, rather than a memory,
but the function is the same.
That truth is the fidelity of the Master to her friendship with the Doctor that saves her life and begins her transformation into something potentially much more interesting than a mad supervillain. That friendship has defined her life since that moment.

Same with Bill’s fidelity to the Doctor that saves his life and defines her devotion to finding him and overthrowing the Monks with him. That’s a fidelity that’s expressed in “Pyramid,” but comes to fruition in “The Lie of the Land.”

Bill has another fidelity as well, to the memory of her mother. But if it’s a false memory, how can it have the same power as a truth? Because it’s the image through which Bill understand that she has potential beyond being a fry cook, that she has the power to study great concepts and sciences, and to voyage to the far reaches of the universe.

Bill’s image of her mother is itself a lie, but its her image of her real ability to overthrow tyrants and save worlds – an image of humanity more dignified than a mere slave. A false image that stands for a deeper truth, a truth to which she devotes her entire life after meeting the Doctor and getting to know his life.

A factual lie can have the same transformative power as a factual truth if it has the power of ethical salvation.

Of Course He Fucks It Up

What does Whithouse make of it all? Bill’s triumph is a generic “power of love” retread from back in “Closing Time” six years ago. That’s only one way in which he utterly misses the ideas about the nature of truth underlying the entire episode.

"Do you now understand the truth?"
"Uh, not really."
How underwhelming.
Here’s another example. When Bill finds the Doctor again, he’s been the editor of The Voice of the Monks propaganda channel for months. Their confrontation is a perfect moment for a conversation about the nature of truth and lies in the service of power.

That would have been the conversation that drives Bill to shoot the Doctor in a fit of rage. Instead, Whithouse writes the Doctor a generic speech about alien invasion as benevolent paternalism and Pearl Mackie is thankfully a good enough actor to make it work through her sheer intensity.

The philosophical density of the Monks Trilogy as a whole is reduced to a crap joke about Bill’s paper on free will being six months late.

But he understands nothing about this complex, difficult, and densely philosophical meditation on the relation of truth and love. He just writes out the plot with a few old clichés.

Maybe such an ambitious story structure was bound to flop the first time out. Let’s not forget that it can be done.

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