In last episode’s review, we said we were going to need a bigger “Previously…” section, and the way that Episode 7, The Pyramid At The End Of The World, addresses that need is just as inventive and unorthodox as the rest of it. While Extremis served as an experimental prologue for a showdown with the mysterious Monks, writers Peter Harness and Steven Moffat don’t let the format lie for this follow-up, either.
If Extremis took its lead from The Da Vinci Code, then this is more in line with sci-fi Oscar contender Arrival. When international forces surround a 5,000 year old pyramid that has appeared overnight, the Doctor is called in by the UN to parlay between the Earth’s armies and the alien inhabitants of the object.
Having simulated all of human history, the Monks have chosen their moment to invade carefully, but rather than take the Earth by force, they insist that their data shows humanity will consent to their invasion. As the doomsday clock jumps to three minutes to midnight, a blind Doctor must face up to all-seeing enemies and stave off the end of the world.
The result is exceptionally tense and as politically loaded as you expect from Harness, a writer whose track record includes Kill The Moon and the lauded Zygon two-parter from last season. This is where the prelude in Extremis really pays off, allowing the episode to get going very quickly and ramping up the stakes from the pre-titles sequence onwards. It’s more clearly a team effort with Moffat than The Zygon Inversion (their last collaboration), with plenty of twists and fiendish high calibre twists.
Season 10’s single-part stories have tended to give us monsters who are misunderstood or malfunctioning, a favourite trope of Moffat’s going back to his 2005 debut on the show, The Empty Child. What this three-parter gives us in the Monks, (brilliantly voiced by The Archers’ Tim Bentinck) is a more villainous new creation, and their M.O. is as unique as it is creepy.
The exploration of characters’ inner lives has been especially welcome this season and here, it manifests itself in a funny reprise of Bill’s love life being sabotaged, and, more pressingly, in a side plot involving guest stars Rachel Denning and Tony Gardner. But likewise, the way in which the episode uses all three leads – Capaldi, Mackie and Lucas – throughout the action is really rewarding; their dynamic has really evolved since Nardole became a regular traveller.
The Pyramid At The End Of The World is a consummate thriller in the centre of what’s shaping up to be a really unusual trilogy. Like Extremis, it almost feels self contained, which means that it’s a little guilty of using Doctor Who’s easy, lateral solutions to the big issues it raises, but it’s all the more compelling for raising them in the first place, and for leaving big questions to be answered in the concluding part, which gets a spoilery “Next Time” trailer at the very end of the credits.
Additional notes (contains spoilers)
– “Love is consent.” That’s a really loaded statement, and one that gives the Monks an extra creep factor. Having got to know Earth better than anyone who has ever invaded it, they’ve surmised that you can exploit love to just about any end, dismissing self-preservation and strategy as traits for which they have no use. They essentially want to get into an abusive relationship with mankind, and the diversion of a great big pyramid in a potential war zone further plays on their cynicism about their prey.
– “You can have the world – just make him see again.” The Doctor might struggle to beat this enemy even at the peak of his powers, and Capaldi continues to rise to the challenge of playing his vulnerability. By the concept of consent, Harness and Moffat invert the dilemma in the former’s Kill The Moon and this season’s Thin Ice, by having the bad guys place the decision to surrender in humanity’s hands, rather than the Doctor. He’s having none of it, but Mackie is magnificent in her deliberations as Bill. So, while the Doctor regains his sight, he loses the Earth.
– The way in which the subplot with the fateful biochemical experiment is woven through the episode is especially good, with Erica (Denning) and Douglas (Gardner) serving as rich, characterful portraits of ordinary people on the precipice of a massive mistake. Erica’s broken glasses, Douglas’ hangover and that errant decimal point form a bigger threat than the nuclear stand-off by the pyramid, and the way in which the Monks use humanity’s own fragility against them is particularly nasty.
– It’s unsurprising that the BBC has edited the episode in light of recent events in the news. We saw the uncut version and feel it was sensible to cut the references to terrorism, though we would have guessed that the Doctor almost blowing himself up to stop the threat would be more problematic. This episode is more about uncertainty and paranoia than Doctor Who usually is at its best, but either way, it’s an excellent bit of tele-fantasy.