Yet You Fail Me Again! Doctor Who: The Lie of the Land, Reviews, 05/06/2017

So let me begin with a simple point. “The Lie of the Land” is a pretty terrible episode of Doctor Who. Phil Sandifer has written in just the right amount of detail a bunch of reasons why it’s terrible, which I wholeheartedly agree with.

This shot of the Doctor and friends lined up looking down a corridor
has been a running gag on Doctor Who since its earliest years. This
shot is from the official publicity photos of "The Lie of the Land,"
but it's such a dully simplistic story, it may as well have been.
Actually it couldn't have been in the actual episode, because we
can only do those shots ironically now, and Toby Whithouse can't
figure out how to write irony. Or anything complex.
They aren't my reasons, though. I agree with them, and think they’re quite right. But I think there are other reasons why “The Lie of the Land” is terrible, which I hope can at least take to a more interesting train of thinking than banging your head against the table.

Is it really worth warning you of spoilers for such a mediocre story? I suppose I should out of politeness. But I’m not going to make a big stink of it. Not today, anyway.

Purely and Only Utility

You see, I think Toby Whithouse’s main problem as a writer is that he doesn’t know how to do anything subtly. He can’t suggest. He can’t develop an evocative image. He can’t write dialogue with deeper, implicit meanings.

He only writes words that move the plot. They’re the kind of scripts you might be able to get away with in Patrick Troughton’s middle year, when the producers thought all the show was about was humans in some sci-fi base under siege from evil monsters.

I think that’s really Whithouse’s core problem, in terms of the craft of writing. Though I think Sandifer has written much more profound essays examining the many dimensions of his flaws. I thank him for that, because now I don’t have to.

Because I only want to focus on his problem as a writing craftsperson at the micro-level of his dialogue. Sandifer called Whithouse’s bomb of a big-budget showcase series The Game his failed audition piece to take over from Steven Moffat as Doctor Who’s central creative producer. He failed when he produced such a clichéd, conceptually empty, ripoff of a spy thriller.

Whithouse is one of the longest-running veterans of the writers'
stable in 21st century Doctor Who. I've come to think that today,
it amounts to something of a pity commission.
But there’s another, smaller audition that Whithouse failed as well. “Under the Lake” and “Before the Flood,” the worst story in Peter Capaldi’s second season, back in 2015. I wouldn’t be surprised if this story turns out to be an audition of whether he’ll ever write in Doctor Who again.

One Man’s Undeserved Prominence

Remember, Toby Whithouse is one of the longest-running veteran writers of contemporary Doctor Who. His first story was “School Reunion,” more than a decade ago. He wrote regularly in the Moffat era, but his stories in the Matt Smith years were always quite unremarkable.

“Vampires in Venice” was an ordinary monster runaround plot with barely dimensional supporting characters and terribly generic post Time War villains of a sort Russell T Davies got much more interesting mileage from.

It was only a good episode because it was the first time we saw the team of Smith’s Doctor with both Amy and Rory through a whole story. Even the beloved “School Reunion” was similar – a low-rent world-conquering monster plot enlivened more than it deserved by brilliant performances from all four leads. We only thought he was good because the actors made his stories much more interesting than his scripts.

“The God Complex” and “A Town Called Mercy” were terribly generic ‘brooding male protagonist’ stories, which mistook a central male character’s feeling conflicted about his moral compromises for an entire story’s worth of drama. Matt Smith and Karen Gillan tried to make these stories more than what they were, but it was too much for them.

The biggest challenge Whithouse had in this episode was his most
subtle one. In the scene with the Doctor, Bill, and the Master, he
had to write the Master as someone who could still think as
ruthlessly as a supervillain, but who was developing a sort of
conscience. He came very close here, but bombed the last, most
important moment she had in the entire Monks trilogy. More
on that sedentary cock-up tomorrow.
Early Whithouse Doctor Who plots were vintage for 40 years before they were written. The best he could do in his middle period was muster some Frank Miller inspired male brooding. It’s just plain boring.

Can You Force a Seed to Blossom?

“Under the Lake” / “Before the Flood” were different. Steven Moffat gave him a brief with a genuinely fascinating idea in it. A magic word that turns your mind into a signal amplifier on death.

Riff on the moral terror of murder to defile the corpse! The visual effects department has promised to make the ghosts as horrifying as possible, with skull-like empty eyes. It could be a fascinating and cerebral engagement with the macabre!

Whithouse bombed the job pathetically. He wrote a generic evil monster story that ignored everything most interesting about the narrative, and reduced the entire guest cast to generic base-under-siege fodder. That was a throwback to the worst of the Troughton years – Whithouse’s original Doctor Who plot comfort zone – with a squishy character moment of unspoken love as stalking behaviour.

But with “The Lie of the Land,” Moffat gave Whithouse one more chance. Maybe he was being kind. Maybe he couldn’t get anyone else because the other good ones were already on Chris Chibnall’s team working on their head-start scripts for 2018.

Whithouse was given a corker. 1) “The Lie of the Land” concludes the Monks trilogy, a multi-level metafictional arc. 2) That metafiction narrative was a complex and subtle meditation on how truth and knowledge destabilize the world we accept as real.

I genuinely think Steven Moffat’s brief consisted of giving Whithouse a literal scene-by-scene walkthrough of the story, a full treatment, just as it appeared on screen. Only the dialogue and general movements like “Bill takes a sip of coffee” were up to Whithouse.

He still fucks up. I’ll say how tomorrow, because it will create a post much too long.

No comments:

Post a Comment