Last week left us wondering what life under the Monks — yeah, that’s their official name for now — would be like. This week we learned that, like all great dystopian societies ruled by evil overlords, it’s filled with rewritten history, wholesale propaganda, and of course, memory police. It’s a place where owning a box of comic books or even remembering the Monks have only been on Earth for six months (instead of from 1975) is a serious offense.
Amid all this is Bill. She’s been searching for both Nardole and the Doctor (who’s been part of the Monk’s broadcasts) for months to no avail. Luckily she’s got some emotional, if not physical, support from her birth mother, whose spirit she still talks to, as we’ve seen in previous episodes. Not that she has to look for too long: As it turns out, Nardole tracks her down!
“Nardie” has been looking for the Doctor as well, but with more luck. He’s tracked him down to this ship where he’s being held captive. So after a hearty round of well-deserved hugs, both companions hop onto a supply ship and sneak on board, eager to rescue the Doctor from the Monk’s clutches. Only it seems he doesn’t want to be saved. He even calls his guards and the Monks and sets them on Bill. Upset at his betrayal, and for struggling through the Monks’ attempts to mentally control her for months, Bill draws a gun and shoots the Doctor.
And just like that, he reveals that this whole thing was an act to see if she was under the control of the Monks. The Doctor’s been working on rescuing and deprogramming people one by one. His entire retinue of guards is free from the Monks’ control. Now reunited, Bill and the Doctor go to consult “the one person almost as smart as me”: Missy.
The “Mistress,” it seems, is attempting to turn over a new leaf — with the Doctor’s help, of course. As a result, she confirms the Doctor’s theory that the Monks are controlling the world’s population through their memory and perception centers. She also tells him that he will have to kill, or render brain-dead, the person who formed the psychic link with the Monks in the first place. The Doctor expressly states that this is not an option. Missy points out that this is her saving the world because she wants to.
Later, with Nardole and the rest of the rebels, Bill calls out the Doctor about know this was the solution. This is why he never sought her out earlier. He argues that he wanted her back by his side because it is the safest place in the world. However, the Doctor is able to come up with a plan. He’s going to plug his brain into the device transmitting the memories of the Monks through Bill’s psychic link. That should definitely override everything and fix the situation. He also decides it’s a great opportunity to rid the world of “racism and people who talk in the cinema.”
So, armed with headphones and tapes with Bill reiterating the truth about the Monks, they head into the Monks’ headquarters in the center of London — but not before the Doctor points out that there are only 12 Monks controlling the whole world. Their secret to global domination? Those massive statues of themselves they put up all over the world in every part of every city. It’s funny because its both a practical plan and also Evil Dictator 101. As lame as their name kind of is, these villains are both smart and efficient.
However, like all great plans, things go south quickly. They get into a skirmish with the Monks that is very reminiscent of Mockingjay Part 2. Alan, one of the guards, takes a bullet to his Walkman. Now inundated with the Monks’ propaganda, he holds a gun up to the Doctor’s head… But resident bad-arse Nardole takes him out with a well-executed Torovian Neck Pinch.
Once inside the main room where the device is, the Doctor hooks himself up to the device, or rather, what appears to be a Monk’s open brain. In any case, it doesn’t quite work as easily as he expected. Even his megamind isn’t strong enough to withstand the Monks’ device fighting back. When he wakes up, he’s all tied up and Bill is bidding him and Nardole goodbye…
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Despite his protests, Bill hooks herself up. It doesn’t take long until her own memories start getting corrupted… until she starts thinking of her mother. Turns out, Bill keeping her alive in her mind all these years has created a window to a world without the Monks, so that memory can’t be corrupted. Slowly, that begins to be transmitted into the world. And, as the Doctor notes, this glimpse of freedom is all you need. People start rebelling. And just like that, the Monks literally rush into their pyramid and take off.
Later on, the Doctor tells Bill that people like her are what make saving the earth so worth it. Also her 3,000-word paper on “the mechanics of free will” is due — like she didn’t just earn her paper by saving the whole world. But she’s not the only one with homework: The final scene reveals Missy in the Vault, the Doctor by her side, and tears streaming down her face. She’s remembering all the people she’s responsible for killing and their names. No one warned her about this. The Doctor sympathizes but tells her this is a step in the right direction.
We’ve been speculating about what’s inside the Vault and who Bill’s mother is, and this episode touches on both. It was Missy all along, only she’s attempting to turn over a new leaf, and Bill isn’t special after all (or so it seems for now). I’m intrigued by Missy’s attempts to be good. It gives her a different kind of motivation than she’s had in the past, and allows her to be shaped by recent events — not to mention it gives Gomez and Capaldi a new dynamic to play in their characters’ relationship. However, there is the matter of her “previous” or “other” adventures and how she met the Monks then. Could she know their true form? Could she be working with them as part of a long con? That’s probably what’s going to happen. But I’m enjoying Missy’s remorse for now.
As for Bill’s mum, I’m a little relieved by the first sort-of reveal. I like the idea of Bill being a regular girl because it reiterates the role of the companion as a surrogate for the audience. She is meant to represent us, and so far, she’s succeeding. I do quite like the fact that it was her memories of her mother and love for her that saved the day. I wonder if it was so effective because it was as pure as what Bill felt for the Doctor, the very thing that made her a worthy person to accept the Monks’ offer without dying. (I suspect it’s why the Doctor’s attempt failed.) Having said all that, I still suspect that there has to be a little more to how we’ve been introduced to Bill’s relationship with her mother and the way she interacts with her imagining of her. Nardole pointed out that there was something not entirely normal about the whole thing, but that may have been just because it was the thing that eventually saved the day. In any case, I still want Bill to meet her mother in some way. Also, I appreciate that she hasn’t pulled a Rose yet and gone back in time to see her. Though that’s probably because she’s very science fiction savvy.
One thing I did notice this week though is that the stakes for this season have always gotten a lot more steeper — at least for me — when it turns out that Bill (and sometimes Nardole) is in grave danger. This, of course, stems from the fact that we know the Doctor can’t ever truly be in that much danger, and that he’s clever enough to think his way out. His companions have never been so lucky: Over the years we’ve seen all kinds of fates befall them. That’s what makes me hope that Bill and Nardole a) don’t get separated in case this shapes up to be their last season too b) both of them stick around for the next Doctor.
I do wonder what it meant for Bill to be able to shoot the Doctor so easily (and repeatedly at that) when it came down to it. Sure, she was technically trying to save the world, and the whole thing was a test on the Doctor and Nardole’s part, but it was definitely a cruel one as seen in how she reacted. Mackie, for her part, sold every inch of the emotional arc in that scene. It also offered us yet another fake-out in terms of the Doctor’s future regeneration — though I wonder if that had any effect on Bill, because I don’t think she quite knows what it even means for the Doctor to regenerate yet.
One thing that was impressive about this episode was how well it was able to maintain and manage the whole dystopian vibe, at different times evoking 1984, The Handmaid’s Tale, and even the Mockingjay Part 2 with that sequence in the pyramid. In doing so we got some interesting ruminations on the kinds of power structures that keep these kinds of systems in place, especially when memory and perception get involved. Nardole and the Doctor even comment on it at different points (“However bad a situation is, if people think that’s how it’s always been, they put up with it. It’s 90% of the job done.” / “History was saying to you, ‘I have some examples of fascism to look at. No? Fundamentalism? Oh okay. You carry on.'”).
Any Who, next week is another standalone adventure, this one penned by Mark Gatiss and featuring the Ice Warriors, which should be nothing short of cool cool cool.