Doctor Who: 10-07 “The Pyramid At The End Of The World” Review
Reviewed by Ryan Monty.
(This review continues spoilers. Read on if that doesn’t bother you!)
Last week, Extremis saw The Doctor, Bill and Nardole attempting to uncover the secrets of the Veritas, an ancient text that compelled those who read it to commit suicide; with the Pope himself requesting The Doctor to read it and attempt to figure it out- except The Doctor was blind. That episode revealed itself by its climax as belonging to that old friend of stories- “it was all a dream”, taking place in a simulation by would-be invaders and new enemies the Monks. But this time, in The Pyramid at the End of the World, the dangers are very real- and The Doctor is still blind.
The episode begins with an inventive twist on the “Previously” segment at the beginning, this time told through Bill to her friend Penny as they enjoy another date (a nod of the head to the Beeb for allowing a normal date between two black women on prime-time Saturday TV). It brings to life the ridiculousness of The Doctor’s world through the lens of the real as this series has continued to do since The Pilot, one of its great successes, and soon enough their date is crashed-again-this time by the UN Secretary General. From there we’re flying thousands of miles across the world to Turmezistan, the fictional country introduced in last series’ Zygon two-parter, where a 5000-year-old pyramid lies. The only problem is, it wasn’t there yesterday.
Writer Peter Harness’ scripts have had a mixed reaction amongst the Doctor Who fanbase to say the least. While personally I found his Series 8 offering, Kill the Moon, to be a riveting piece of drama with one of Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman’s finest performances, many were less taken by the supposed allegories within the episode and the questionably fantastical science (but this is Doctor Who, after all- there must be some suspension of disbelief). His Series 9 offerings, The Zygon Invasion and The Zygon Inversion, were better received (in no short thanks to the now legendary anti-war monologue by Peter Capaldi, even if that moment was written by Steven Moffat), but still have their share of detractors for the parallels to extremism. The Pyramid at the End of the World is his newest offering, co-written with Moffat that, despite acting as the middle part to the “Monk trilogy” still contains a lot to chew over, including the nature of consent, and plenty of politics at play. The Monks have placed their pyramid at a key strategic position where the armies of America, China and Russia meet at a dangerous flashpoint.
Naturally this episode deals mostly around the reaction to the Monks- why they’re here, what they want, and all the relevant questions- and it all feels strikingly similar in the best way possible to last year’s hit science fiction film Arrival. In that sense, Pearl Mackie takes the Amy Adams mould, with her being the individual to take the eventual action that hands Earth to the Monks- an altogether more devastating decision than should-be-Oscar-winner Amy Adams made in Arrival. The military here are only thinly sketched characters, however it works. Because the easy thing Harness and Moffat could have done is to play up thinly veiled racial tension, instead showing a wonderful solidarity between the nation’s armies in the face of the situation, in a moment where the leaders of each of the armies shake hands and Peter Capaldi’s famously anti-war Doctor stands back and watches admirably (well, listens admirably).
In fact, this episode belongs to Peter Capaldi, despite now expected fantastic shifts by Pearl Mackie and Matt Lucas, his Doctor shifting through every conceivable emotion as the episode develops. Although saying this episode was a one-hander would be doing a disservice to Capaldi’s superb foil as the episode draws slowly to a close- Rachel Denning’s scientist Erica. The Pyramid at the End of the World unveils itself after the titles roll with The Doctor “meditating” again, playing his guitar as he ruminates on how every life is already crawling towards death, the decisions leading to the end already underway. This foreshadows Denning’s role as Erica- indeed part of the two-person team who are at the root of the end of the world. You see, the world isn’t going to end because of World War Three here, rather because Erica accidentally had her reading glasses smashed, and her lab partner (Tony Gardner’s great Douglas) got drunk the night before, leading to them creating a destructive bacterium that will wipe out all life on earth within a year- at least, according to the Monks calculations. The smallest details and machinations are what will lead to the end of everything. Denning is a service to this episode, just as resourceful at The Doctor, impressing him so much that she ends up being yet another (presumably one-off) character that The Doctor takes a shine to as a prospective traveller. The two are dynamite together and carry the episode to its crushing conclusion. It’s worth noting as well that Erica is a shorter than average character, and it isn’t brought to attention- she’s just a brilliant scientist and that’s all The Doctor cares about.
The most important facet to me of The Pyramid at the End of the World is that while it is a direct sequel to the proceeding episode Extremis, it feels more like a spiritual successor to Jamie Mathieson’s Oxygen. That’s because this episode is again all about The Doctor’s over-confidence and self-destructive hubris. He and Erica fly through the episode’s conclusion, rapidly constructing a resolution for their life-threatening problem, The Doctor on top form throwing out some of his most memorable quips in a while (“your insurance premiums are going to go through the roof. In fact, everything’s going to go through the roof, because I’m going to BLOW UP THE LAB” he says with madcap glee), but in the end, it’s all for nought, because the only thing stopping The Doctor from saving the world is he can’t read a keypad. It makes one of his other quips (“saving the world with my eyes shut!”) more crushing.
This final denouement of the episode is where one of the strongest assets of Extremis continues, with Bill, as representative of The Doctor, turning out to be the one who ultimately gives the Monks their consent to take over the world, based on her faith that she believes that The Doctor will get her world back. It’s one of the more desperate endings in Who, with Peter Capaldi’s slowly building desperation, Pearl Mackie’s beautifully played fearful confidence in making her decision and the epically building score for the episode by Murray Gold building to a defeated crescendo where The Doctor gets his sight back as part of Bill’s deal but must face up to the Monks being victorious. It’s an ending that brings back more than a few memories of The Sound of Drums from Series 3, with the world about to be irreparably changed, especially with Bill seeming to embark on a Martha-esque mission against a (seemingly) despotic tyrant Time Lord in next week’s instalment. The Monks mysterious aura is built on in this episode and they continue to be highly unnerving, all unnatural movements and out of sync voices- and their tactics are fascinating to watch, plucking away submarines and aircraft that were attacking them. It’s interesting that the Monks never actually attack anyone- only those who dare cross their idea of consent, in which they did forewarn- instead playing a passive role and forcing humanity to choose them as their saviours. They’ve conquered the world and we asked them to. Their confidence is superbly unsettling.
It’s absolutely one of the most well played out endings in Who history, The Doctor defeated despite his bluster being on overdrive, defeated by something so simple, something we ourselves are affected by- blindness. It has a fantastic ring to it, and the way it plays out is fitting to how it does- The Doctor regains his sight, but he’s immediately invited by the Monks to “see their world”. As a middle instalment, there would always be a fear that The Pyramid at the End of the World would drag its feet, but it balances the military set aspects and science lab scenes aptly, with the sense of creeping dread in the laboratory adding expertly to the tension slowly being built at Turmezistan. It comes to something when The Doctor’s agency is taken away completely in not one, but two aspects- not being in the actual place the danger is at first, and to then be defeated by the simplest of ailments- his blindness- which he could’ve easily prevented if he had just told Bill, or more pressingly Erica, that he was. Make no mistake- “Monk world” is on The Doctor’s back. Did Bill make the right choice trusting him to get her world back? Time will tell.
The Pyramid at the End of the World works as well as a middle part in a trilogy can, setting up the final instalment brilliantly and providing some uniquely inevitable dread to proceedings as the episode progresses and leading to one of the most memorable defeatist endings Doctor Who has ever done. Next week can’t come soon enough!
NB: It certainly seems Bill’s choice was a poor one given The Doctor has joined the Monks but there’s obviously something more going on here. Misdirection has been the hallmark descriptive word for this trilogy and it seems that’s going to increase tenfold for next week’s 1984 looking The Lie of the Land.