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Doctor Who Takes on Fake News

There's no escaping it

Kaitlin Thomas

Earlier this season, when Doctor Who took on race and the subject of the Doctor's (Peter Capaldi) dark past in "Thin Ice," I noted that the series is frequently at its best when it explores the triumphs and shortcomings of humanity through the wide lens afforded by its rather expansive nature. I also noted just last week how little interest I have in the show taking on the current political climate, because the show is so frequently my own escape from the heaviness of such things.

So naturally, Saturday's "The Lie of the Land" forced me -- and I suspect at least a few others as well -- to have to reconcile the two ideas, as Bill (Pearl Mackie) was forced to confront the consequences of her decision to hand over control of planet Earth to the Monks in order to save the Doctor's eyesight -- and thus his life -- during last week's episode.

It wasn't really an easy hour of TV to watch in the context of the real world, because Doctor Who was always going to solve its version of events in an hour, while we'd still be attempting to put out our own garbage fire once the credits rolled and the preview for next week's episode aired.

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Still, it makes perfect sense the series would take us down this particular path at a time like this, because when Donald Trump declares war on the fourth estate and shouts "fake news!" at any report that paints him in a bad light or with which he disagrees, and when people struggle to understand how seemingly intelligent men and women in first world countries could willingly vote to be put into metaphorical chains, the only option is to tackle it head on and attempt to offer an explanation.

Within the series, the explanation was easy: Bill did what she did out of love for the Doctor, and because of her role in bringing the Monks to Earth, she was also the person who could sever the the link that allowed them to control the revisionist history they projected to the world. Bill survived her sacrifice -- for now -- but if there's a flaw in the story it's that the solution was too easy. It was too simple. There weren't lingering consequences. This isn't exactly surprising given how many times we've seen the series go down a path like this one; but in light of the real world inspirations behind this particular arc -- and after the strength of previous episodes that featured real, lasting effects for someone's actions -- the simplistic and idealistic hand-waving really stood out this week.

Because when the Doctor told Bill human society was stagnating and that we've not just stopped moving forward but are actually regressing, they weren't just words in a script. The Doctor was giving voice to what some people around the world likely have been feeling lately. And while it's true that the Doctor was merely testing Bill -- complete with the beginnings of a fake regeneration after she shot him -- the truth is, humanity does seem to be regressing a bit. All the progress we thought we'd made over the last century has been revealed to be the greatest con in human history as hatred and bigotry have been made fashionable, or at least acceptable, in the wake of the U.K.'s decision to leave the European Union/since the Electoral College system put Trump in the White House.

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Peter Capaldi and Pearl Mackie, Doctor Who

Simon Ridgway / BBC America

And the Doctor pointed out our shortcomings quite easily and succinctly: "You had free will and look at what you did with it," he said. "Worse than that, you had history. History was saying to you, 'Look I've got some examples of fascism here for you to look at. No? Fundamentalism? No? Oh, OK, you carry on."

Again, the Doctor may have only been testing Bill with this speech, but his commentary on humanity certainly carries a harsh truth: humanity is doomed to never learn from its mistakes if we continue to pretend as if they don't exist or if we don't stand up and fight back against oppressors.

So yes, Doctor Who's solution to the problem was probably too simple in light of what is occurring in our own world. If we want to fix our own broken Earth, we're going to need a lot more than one woman's single, perfect, unblemished and yet totally fabricated memory of her mother to defeat the enemy. But this was par for the course for the Whoniverse, and to be honest, it was wonderful to see Bill take responsibility for her actions and eventually save the day when the Doctor could not. Because in our world, we don't have a Doctor. We don't have that one person to swoop in and save the day. It's just us. We have to be our own heroes.

And so, as we wrap up this too familiar political arc, as much as I'd have liked to have ignored it altogether in favor of escapism, I'm actually grateful Doctor Who has once again forced us to confront our shortcomings. It's not easy to look into the mirror and see humanity's faults displayed so blatantly, but it's also necessary for us to do so.

Doctor Who airs Saturdays at 9/8c on BBC America.