The best thing about this week's episode of Doctor Who, The Lie of the Land, was regular cast's performance. The standout among them was Pearl Mackie. Bill was again placed at the centre of the story and she gave another excellent performance. At this point surely she has to be considered the best companion of the Moffat era1? She feels like a real person where Amy, Rory and Clara did not. Part of this is down to Moffat creating a character that doesn't seem designed to function primarily in a sitcom, but the casing of Pearl Mackie is just as key in it. She makes more of her opportunities to act (as opposed to just delivering funny lines) than Karen Gillan, Arthur Darvill and Jenna Coleman did.
Peter Capaldi had a probably the best material he's had all series, certainly the best since The Pilot. His affection for Bill was highlighted and played perfectly. His friendship with Missy was explored surprisingly efficiently considering she only appeared in two scenes. The closing scene in which the Doctor was shown casually reading with her3 was an insight into their comfort with each other. Meanwhile his description of her as being almost as clever as him was a nice way to bring out a little pomposity in the Doctor while also underlining that Missy is not only intelligent but a potential threat.
Of course the most interesting thing for the Twelfth Doctor in The Lie of the Land was pretending he'd sided with the enemy. The fairly lengthy scene in which the Doctor and Bill were reunited allowed Capaldi to get back to what his Doctor was known for in his debut season: being unpredictable. As a characteristic it was dropped after that season, probably because it would be hard to sustain that approach indefinitely. Capaldi's Doctor has mellowed across his second and third seasons. But that first season and the scene on the prison ship here demonstrate that Number Twelve works best when his alien nature is emphasised and you can't be sure of how he's going to react to any given situation. It also has the pleasant side effect of contrasting him with the ultimately very reliable Tenth and Eleventh Doctors2, who were always very reliable and predictable in terms of the route they'd take to save the day. The detached and aloof aspect to Capaldi's Doctor side is something I wish had been reduced rather than removed completely.
Maybe the biggest surprise of TLotL was Nardole not being the irritant he has been up to this point. I would still have preferred him not to be involved but Toby Whithouse found a way to make him work, seeming less concerned with giving him things to do so that he was freed up to function as the sidekick he is so clearly intended to be. He also leaned into Nardole's geekish nature more than any other writer has done, keeping him talking for a little longer than is comfortable about tedious matters. In short, Whithouse seemed more at ease with casting Nardole as an full-on nerd than anyone else and it worked well.
The sets, monsters, score, supporting cast, and so on? All fine (although the lighting seemed a little dim in the Missy scenes), I particularly liked the Doctor's white prison room. But then that's to be expected at this point. The team that makes this show has been doing so long enough that a certain base quality in terms of presentation is all but assured.
Finally, this episode can't really be talked about without mentioning oppressive police states and fake news. Obviously the world presented in the show was an exaggerated take on right wing leanings going too far but it should still be taken as the cautionary tale it was intended to be. It's important that real world concerns get reflected in our escapist media because it's all too easy to forget them, or for younger viewers to simply accept them as "the way things have always been" (a particularly on-the-nose warning this episode gave us numerous times). Doctor Who is a very useful vehicle for exploring things like this and it's nice to see it doing so.
Being the closing part of a loose trilogy meant The Lie of the Land was always going to struggle in some respects. It had to wrap things up started across the previous two weeks by other writers and tell a self-contained story of its own in a satisfying manner, with the additional wrinkle of reintroducing Missy. It also had to tell its own self-contained story in a satisfying manner. It managed these things and balanced them well to boot. It didn't excel at anything in particular but it also didn't fall to pieces fifteen minutes in as it could have. Chalk it up as a win, on average.
1 Not that that's saying a great deal.
2 Not that this approach is a problem. It worked very well with Tennant for a couple of reasons: it hadn't been done with a Doctor before and he had his Lonely God and Time Lord Victorious approaches (elements of both being present from his first full episode) approaches that could be implemented for variety. It worked less well for Smith because the approach had become familiar during Tennant's years in the role and Tennant was better at it to boot.
3 "You read? You read on the show?"