Contains spoilers for episodes aired to date.
With “The Pyramid at the End of the World”, Doctor Who returns to one of its less-familiar genres. It’s a global techno-thriller in which the end of the world is nigh, only nobody knows exactly which one of several dozen apocalyptic scenarios is actually in play. The only group that does are the mysterious Monks introduced in last week’s episode, but who this week step out of the shadows and emerge in the glaring light of day to offer to save humanity – if we ask them to. And for an ill-defined price in return.
On one level – the surface level – this is a gripping, compelling episode with great performances from the regulars (Peter Capaldi, Pearl Mackie and Matt Lucas) that juggles science fiction, real world politics and philosophy in a surprisingly successful and generally nuanced way. It has a simple, linear storyline that makes it accessible to all and which foregrounds the high stakes involved, meaning that you’ll definitely want to hang around to see the outcome – unless you’re aware that this is the second episode of an unofficial three-parter, in which case you’ll already know that it’s a case of waiting to see how the Monks finally obtain the willing and loving consent they need to take over the Earth.
Therein lies just the first of the episode’s many problems. Once you know how the Monks are going to win the game there really is surprisingly little else to keep one’s interest in “Pyramid”. It’s the first episode of Doctor Who in years that I can’t imagine ever needing or wanting to rewatch. Even last week’s “Extremis”, which was essentially a throwaway episode set in an artificial reality, had more multiple viewing appeal than this week’s arguably far more significant story.
Even as I watched it for the first time, I was oddly distracted and restless during the long scenes in which various characters talk about whether they should accept the Monks’ offer or not. It reminded me of the many hours I’d spent in business meetings endlessly discussing the same talking points. The episode does try and add some extra trappings to make up for this – a 5000 year old pyramid appearing out of nowhere is a nice ‘hook’ but ultimately underused and unexplained; the Monks’ powers to capture airplanes, submarines and missiles are some of the more eventful moments – but ultimately there’s a feeling of a simple story being padded out at too great a length mainly so that the cliffhanger arrives on schedule after 45 minutes.
One of the major problems with the scenes set at the pyramid is that the guest characters involved are among the blandest and least developed we’ve seen on the show for an age. The UN Secretary General and the various military commanders from the US, China and Russia have no discernible personalities and even fail as stereotypical representatives of their applicable nations or institutions. The only time they’re ever believably animated is when they become piles of CGI dust. The high fatality count is probably the reason why UNIT is conspicuous by its absence, and it’s a great shame they’re not involved or barely even referenced. As for the rest of the scenes set around the pyramid, they’re beautifully photographed by director Daniel Nettheim (who even manages to make the Monks look believably horrific in full daylight, which is quite a feat – see the Fisher King in “Before the Flood” for when this doesn’t work) but overall the episode suffers from an acute lack of budget. The result is that a small set of extras mill around a dustbowl, in sequences little more than the 21st century equivalent of the classic show’s quarry-set moments from the 1970s and 80s.
More effective by far are the scenes set in the laboratories of Agrofuel Research Operations. Here we do get two proper, fully-rounded and believable guest characters in scientists Erica (Rachel Denning) and Douglas (Tony Gardner). I can’t remember the last time we had multiple scenes in which supporting actors in Doctor Who simply sit around, chatting about their day, their life and their work; and who react pro-actively and largely effectively on their own agency when trouble does break out, even before the Doctor arrives on scene. It was hugely refreshing and by quite some way the best, most effective part of “Pyramid”.
Of course, these two characters are between them responsible for the end of the world. It’s not really their fault, and is presented in a fashion similar to how Casualty’s ‘accident of the week’ unfolds. Overall, the story reminded me of some of the earliest Jon Pertwee outings, in particular “Inferno” in which a well-meaning scientific project goes wrong and destroys the Earth in a parallel universe, with the Doctor learning the lessons in time so that he can return home and save his Earth. In this case, the artificial reality of “Extremis” was the warning for Capaldi’s Doctor and “The Pyramid at the End of the World” heralds the arrival of the forewarned disaster in the ‘real’ world.
The trouble is that the core premise of “Pyramid” is that the Monks’ hyper-realistic simulation has allowed them to determine the events that are about to happen, which are sparked by a simple, careless accident in which Erica’s glasses are smashed; and by Douglas having a raging hangover. In many ways these are examples of aspects of chaos theory – the best known example is how a butterfly’s wings flapping in the southern hemisphere can make the difference as to whether a hurricane forms in the Atlantic or not. But the whole point of chaos theory and of sensitive dependence on initial conditions is that it proves the future is inherently unpredictable no matter how much technology and computing power is thrown at it. Nothing can predict Erica’s glasses being broken, therefore the Monks cannot have foreseen the ensuing deadly crisis. Especially after “Extremis” documented the way in which the Monks’ simulated reality already had provable issues with the whole concept of random events. (By the way, that issue with random numbers in “Extremis” was the most computer illiterate thing I’ve seen in Doctor Who in an age, and still rankles.)
The other problem with the Monks’ plan is that they could not possibly have known about the Doctor’s blindness, which happened off-Earth and was kept a secret from everyone. Unless the Monks have a real-time hotline into everyone’s cerebral cortex, they couldn’t possibly have been aware of this – so how did they include it in their simulation in “Extremis”? I thought at the time it would have been better for the Doctor to have appeared completely fine in that episode as a clue to something being amiss. However the completion of the Monks’ plan in “Pyramid” ultimately relies on the Doctor’s sightlessness, so they really must have known if their plan was ever to have worked. But how?
The climax relies upon putting Bill on the spot and having to make a terrible decision. Unlike Clara in “Kill The Moon” (more of which shortly), Bill gets it wrong. That’s fine – it’s actually refreshing to have a companion who displays human fallibility. Dramatically speaking it’s a very satisfying climax to the story; it’s just a shame that it betrays much of the preceding 45 minutes. It’s clearly established that what the Monks are seeking is consent from someone in power who can agree to their taking over the Earth, rather like a vampire needing to be invited into a house by the occupant – and how lovely is it that Bill is savvy enough to know and cite this bit of lore, showing that she really is exactly like the audience who were thinking precisely the same thing. When it comes to Bill’s turn to make the deal or no deal, she herself points out that she has no power or authority to do so. Even though the Doctor has resumed his “Death in Heaven” role as President of Earth and could arguably be said to hold that sort of authority, there’s no way that it can be assumed that his status is transferable to simply anyone he happens to be travelling with at any given time.
Then there is the question of ‘love’. The Monks need to be loved rather than feared, but Bill quite clearly has no love for them so it’s hard to see how her consent on this basis could possibly satisfy their criteria. And really, if they were after love, they should have come to Earth in the first place looking like cute kittens rather than horrifying decayed corpses. The script dodges this by suggesting that Bill is acting out of (platonic) love for the Doctor – but there has been no sense whatsoever of such a deep emotional bond between them. They’ve been teacher and student, with a duty of care on the part of the Doctor, and Bill certainly getting a kick out of the wonderful experiences he can offer her. But love? No, that was Clara. Or Amy. But not Bill. For the first time these season it feels like the series has lost its grip on the character of the new companion.
It’s not Mackie’s fault – she’s wonderful as always – but it’s another example of a common failing of showrunner Steven Moffat. He’s not actually very good at creating consistent, realistic characters, and relies instead on the performer to make the flawed scripts work. Another such example in “The Pyramid at the End of the World” is the start of the episode in which Bill has a comedy conversation with her new girlfriend in which she talks about her alien friend and her life in an artificial reality in which their date was interrupted by the Pope blundering in. Of course it’s funny – after all, it’s a Moffat script and he does this thing better than anyone else in the world today – but in what reality would that be the sort of conversation that a normal person would start a first date with? It’s purely a set-up for another comic beat, in which this time it’s the UN Secretary General and a full security team who come storming in to interrupt this version of the date. Ha, as they say, ha.
Going further, for the life of me I can see no reason why the United Nations would come to Bill in the first place if they were trying to contact the Doctor. How would they even know about her connection to him? And if they did, how could they fail to also know that he’s been teaching at St Luke’s University for the last 50 years and is regularly available to students during office hours? This entire set-up would have made sense if it was Clara who was still the Doctor’s companion (see for example the start of “The Magician’s Apprentice” in 2015), but not Bill. Not for the first time, Moffat has abandoned the internal logic of an important character in order to score a few cheap laughs.
But Moffat is not the sole writer of “The Pyramid at the End of the World”. The main author of the script is Peter Harness, who previously contributed last season’s “Zygon” two-parter and who also wrote the BBC adaptation of Susanna Clarke’s novel Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. More pertinently he’s also the writer of the 2014 Doctor Who story “Kill The Moon”, and I’d honestly forgotten that it had been him until I started musing over “The Pyramid at the End of the World” and realised that it was in large part a remake (or reboot) of that story – with all the problems that entails.
Like “Pyramid”, “Kill The Moon” was in large part a discussion about an near-impossible decision that ultimately fell to the companion to make. In that episode, Clara chose wisely even if meant overruling the decision of the rest of the planet (sort of like a politician popping up today and saying “Thanks for voting in the referendum, but we’re not going to go ahead with Brexit whatever you say because it’s stupid, and so are you.”) In the case of this week’s episode, Bill chooses poorly. Or maybe not: she’s relying on the concept of ‘where there’s life there’s hope’ and that it’s better to save the Doctor now in order to have him around later, whatever the short-term consequences. Time – or part three of this story – will tell if she was right on that score.
Even so, it’s depressing how almost everyone in this story turns against the Doctor, despite having sought him out in the first place as the only person capable of tackling the situation. Why bother putting him in charge only to then completely ignore what he says just because you’ve had a little fiddle with the Monks’ Wagnerian loom of glowing fronds? It doesn’t say much for the authority of the so-called President of the Earth if everyone turns against him hours after he takes over. Even Trump has lasted more than a hundred days without a general mutiny from his own chain of command.
The general level of unreality and unbelievability in all this – including the moment the Doctor, completely out of character, advocates a display of force to the absolute astonishment of Bill and Nardole – starts to resemble something more akin to ‘dream logic’. And therein lies a possible answer to some of the many problems of “The Pyramid at the End of the World”. Since we’re still in the middle of a three-part story, there’s no way of knowing whether the final instalment will offer an explanation and solution to some of the things in “Extremis” and “The Pyramid at the End of the World” which on the face of it right now are just down to some really sloppy plotting. That said, if we did get to the end of next week’s episode and find out that this latest story was just another level in the Monks’ artificial simulation, I’m not sure that the audience would be too happy. It really would be on a level of silliness of “ignore the whole of this season just like we did in Dallas until Bobby takes a shower”. Still, it wouldn’t be as bad as letting “Pyramid” stand as an uncorrected text.
As you can probably tell, this story really wound me up. I haven’t been quite as annoyed with an episode since “Kill The Moon.” The first half of that story had been wonderfully scary and beautifully made, and the second half thought-provoking if a bit clumsy and slow. By comparison, “The Pyramid at the End of the World” takes the second half of that story and stretches it out to twice the length, while lacking anything like the pulse-pounding first act.
Most of all, what both stories suffer from is an acute lack of any scientific common sense. And it irritates me as much in this story as it did in “Kill The Moon” – only more so, because Harness (and Moffat too) should have learned from the mistakes made in that first story, as Frank Cottrell-Boyce earnestly tried to do with “Smile”. They certainly shouldn’t have made exactly the same mistakes all over again.
An example of this is the set-up at Agrofuel Research Operations. They have an air-tight lab to ensure that there can be no contamination leakage from their GM experiments; but the two otherwise commendably capable scientists manage to breach every scientific procedure in the book and leave airtight doors open to allow world-threatening bacteria to break out. Then once the lab gets locked down for exactly this type of situation, the ventilation system is set to automatically expel the bacteria into the outside air every half an hour. What? What?! In what scientific research facility would that ever be the set-up? It would be like a car manufacturer replacing the airbag with high-explosive on the grounds that the car blowing up would better protect the passengers from the impact of an impending crash, as they would already be in little pieces. Not that the Doctor’s solution is much better – while fire can certainly be one way of killing off bacteria, an explosion that breached the laboratory walls would still allow enough of it to escape outside to have a catastrophic effect. Seriously, there are better ways of writing this stuff that can still achieve the same dramatic outcome, so why not just have do some basic scientific fact-checking or bring in a consultant to make it sound sensible?
As I said above, if it does turn out that “The Pyramid at the End of the World” has just been another simulation which explains all the flaws and discrepancies, then while I would mark down the artificial world’s programmers for a number of poor coding errors I would also be open to reappraising the episode itself more positively. But if the next episode doesn’t retrospectively correct at least some of issues I’ve covered here then I reserve the right to come back and take more marks away from the overall rating, because this really did annoy me to a surprising degree. I’ve been very positive as a whole about season 10 and seen it as confirmation that the show is back to its best and moreover on the right path for the future, so to see such a retrograde step back to some of the biggest problems of the recent past is deeply frustrating to me right now.
Well, here endeth this week’s irritable and doubtless irritating rant. I hope for a more pleasurable outing next week after Toby Whithouse’s “The Lie of the Land”.
Rating: ★ ★ ★
Doctor Who continues on BBC One on Saturday evenings. The first six episodes are available on DVD and Blu-ray from May 29 2017, with the second half of the season following on July 17.