For most of its 45-minute running time, “The Pyramid At The End Of The World” is fine. Not much more than that, admittedly, but there’s nothing wrong with fine. But it’s perhaps telling that the most inventive, most powerful moments of tonight’s episode come when it’s drafting off of the stories before and after it. The opening comes up with a fun way to recap what happened in “Extremis,” intercutting the standard “Previously” clips with Bill’s once again ill-fated attempt at going on a date with Penny. Given almost none of last week’s episode actually happened to the real versions of the Doctor and Bill, it makes sense to offer a little extra context on just how much tonight’s characters know about what happened in the simulation. That it’s punctuated by a bunch of soldiers and the Secretary General of the United Nations showing up to ruin another intimate moment is just a lovely bonus. If Doctor Who manages to run this joke back one more time in next week’s alternate timeline, I don’t even know what I’ll do.
Once the episode proper starts, though… well, again, it’s fine. This is a Peter Harness episode (albeit sharing a co-writing credit with Steven Moffat, like “The Zygon Inversion”), so politics are to be expected from the “Kill The Moon” and Zygon two-parter scribe. Certainly all the pieces are there for it: The American, Russian, and Chinese armies sit at the brink of war, the Monks keep using loaded terms like “power” and “consent,” the story ultimately revolves around the dangers of bioengineering. But there’s never that big crescendo moment when Harness—for better or worse, though I’ve consistently found it on the “better” side of the ledger—throws caution to the wind and has the story confront an issue head-on. There’s no equivalent here to Clara, Courtney, and Lundvik deciding what to do about the hatching moon, or the Doctor pleading the case against war, which is still my favorite thing Peter Capaldi—maybe any Doctor—has done in the role. And look, I realize not every viewer pays attention to episode writers like I do or recognizes the significance when Harness’ name pops up, so it’s not that this episode had to have a moment specifically like his previous efforts to be successful.
It’s just that, until that ending—my goodness, that beautiful, perfect ending, don’t worry, we’ll get there—there’s not much substance to all the pyramid-related scenes. The episode is fairly upfront about the fact that everything going on in Turmezistan is a decoy for the real story unfolding at Agrofuels Research Operations, with the Doctor’s opening monologue in the TARDIS indicating that somehow, someway, Erika’s broken reading glasses and Douglas’ hangover are going to unleash something terrible. There’s a tradeoff to that choice: While every scene in the lab picks up a sense of building, slowly ratcheted dread and doom, there’s little momentum to what’s going on back at the pyramid. None of the guest characters are memorable or compelling in the way a lot of this season’s one-off characters have been. A lot of my issues with this episode recall similar setup episodes like “Dark Water” or even “The Name Of The Doctor,” where too much of the story comes across like throat-clearing before the big reveal at the end. And it is a bloody great reveal, but let’s just hold off a bit longer.
It’s too much to say none of what comes before that matters—after all, the monks are the main adversaries here, and humanity could surrender its freedom to them at any moment—but all the Turmezistan stuff feels so plainly in service of setting up the concluding chapter of this story. The closest thing to an exception comes with the monks’ talk of consent and how it must be freely given. Consent has received plenty of increased attention in recent years in the context of the larger discourse around sex and rape, so it sure feels like there ought to be some larger social commentary to its repeated usage, but… not really? I don’t think?
I’m not saying you can’t take the monks’ statements about how power must consent, how one cannot consent out of fear or strategy, and that only love can consent and—especially given they’re the villains, so their perspective shouldn’t be taken at face value—and construct some sort of larger point out of all this. But none of it hangs together in any obvious way. The smallest stretch is probably to say the episode is saying something about how those in control manipulate power dynamics and gaslight the other person into thinking they are the one in charge as a way of coercing consent. That’s the kind of idea a show like Doctor Who would do well to explore, but it feels like way too much of a reach to say that’s what tonight’s episode does. This isn’t “Thin Ice,” where Sarah Dollard’s script sprinkled in modern terms like “privilege” and “whitewash” as part of a larger, clearly laid-out social commentary. This is more like Harness’ previous “Kill The Moon,” where I believe it’s still unclear three years later whether either he or Moffat recognized that episode’s climactic conflict played an awful lot like an abortion allegory.
In any event, “The Pyramid At The End Of The World” does have its strengths, most of which have to do with character. Rachel Denning and Tony Gardner bring the same kind of lived-in quality to Erica and Douglas that Corrado Invernizzi and Laurent Maurel did for their characters in “Extremis.” The simple writing decision to have us meet Douglas when he’s hungover creates a sense of multidimensionality for his character. We’re meeting him on an unusual day, which necessarily implies there’s a usual—and likely rather posh, given his accent and general poor man’s Colin Firth sort of vibe—version of Douglas that Erica knows and we would otherwise meet. As for Erica, she belongs on that select list of Doctor Who characters who convey enough competence and intelligence that you could well imagine her solving a less extreme version of the problem without the Doctor showing up to save the day. She soon recognizes the scope of the problem before her, figures out what Douglas did to create the issue, takes steps to protect the other workers, and provides plenty of assistance when the TARDIS does arrive. No wonder the Doctor offer her a spot as a companion.
A lot of this comes back to the TARDIS team. While it was claimed before this season that Matt Lucas would be more Danny Pink-style recurring play than fulltime companion, he’s now appeared in every episode since “The Husbands Of River Song,” and the last few weeks have seen him move seamlessly from cameos to featured status. He and Capaldi are a terrific double act, with both Nardole and the Doctor convinced they are smarter than the other. It takes some serious comedic chops to pull off an old-school, vaudevillian gag like the “Are you following me?” bit, but both know just how to pitch the joke so that it lands without calling undue attention to itself. Nardole also refutes the idea that it’s not possible to write a companion who knows as much as the Doctor, as it defeats the whole purpose of someone there to ask questions and serve as audience identification figure. Nardole is just as knowledgeable as the Doctor, and his skill with hacking UNIT cameras and operating the TARDIS suggests some serious intelligence, but he’s no match for the Doctor’s wisdom, with a real flair for missing the obvious. That’s the opposite of Bill’s perceptiveness, as her lack of experience doesn’t mean she’s not just as capable of making the right decision at the crucial moment.
So then, let’s talk about that ending! There are a couple small caveats I’ll throw out: I’m not sure there are any actual continuity errors, but neither the script nor Daniel Nettheim’s direction manages to lay out clearly the geography of the lab, which parts have been affected by the bacteria, and where it’s safe for humans to remove their helmet. That’s not an invitation to start diagramming the lab to explain how it all makes sense—just an observation that, while watching the episode in the moment, I got confused enough by where in the lab was and wasn’t safe that I got taken out of the story, which is a problem even if everything does technically work. Anyway, it’s also a bit contrived to have Nardole pass out just so he can’t use the TARDIS camera to help the Doctor get the right combination in, but I’m willing to roll with these given how everything else comes together.
The obvious comparison for the Doctor’s final predicament is “The End Of Time: Part Two,” which similarly pays off something that had been set up over multiple episodes—there the “he will knock four times” prophecy, here the Doctor’s blindness—with a resolution that is simultaneously low-key and heartbreaking. The Doctor managed to beat the Monks while completely blind and mere minutes to spare. Don’t lose sight of that: The Doctor had won. He had saved the world, just as the 10th Doctor had defeated Rassilon and sent Gallifrey back to hell. He’s defeated in the smallest, most personal of ways, undone not by the complex machinations of the Monks but by a simple combination lock, a piece of technology too simple for the sonic screwdriver to help him with. He’s also defeated by his own hubris and refusal to tell others what is wrong with him, as Erika could have anticipated the problem with the lock if she had only known he was blind. It’s a resolution that mixes mundane bad luck with the Doctor’s own character flaw. It’s perfect.
And it allows “The Pyramid At The End Of The World” to end on an unexpected note. I suppose some viewers won’t know that next week’s episode represents a continuation of this story, so perhaps not everyone proceeded on my assumption that the Doctor was going to lose. Either way, the episode teases the Doctor’s defeat to the Monk’s apparent omniscience, has him turn the tables on them, and then forces Bill to make an executive decision to save him even if it enslaves humanity. While the Doctor doesn’t ask her to do that, indeed demanding that she let him face the consequences of his actions, she refuses, honoring the Doctor’s most basic principle: When there’s still even the smallest chance to save somebody’s life, do everything you can to save them. The problems of the future can be met and dealt with in due time, and there’s no value in sacrificing someone’s life in an effort to avoid some uncertain fate. After all, if the Doctor is still alive, he’s still here to save the world, and that’s what Bill demands he do in the final moments before everything changes. And then there’s that final line from the Monks.
“Enjoy your sight, Doctor. Now see our world.”
What a line, and what an ending. That’s probably what I’m going to remember from “The Pyramid At The End Of The World,” especially when thinking of it as the middle entry between the brilliant “Extremis” and the seriously intriguing-looking “The Lie Of The Land.” The rest of the episode is mostly just unobjectionably decent, which isn’t the worst thing to sit through for five minutes of utter brilliance.
- Bringing back the conceit of the Doctor as the president of the world in times of crisis was… an interesting choice. It’s a goofy concept, the kind of thing that probably works a lot better when mixed in with UNIT, Kate Stewart, and Osgood, if only because UNIT as a general thing has been a little goofy since at least season eight of the classic series. As it is, the Doctor’s suddenly reactivated presidency is a bit of an odd fit for the more grounded approach to geopolitics this episode tries. (Which isn’t to say anything about the geopolitics of tonight’s episode are realistic, but it definitely feels like it’s trying to imitate how things work in real life as opposed to how they work in the Doctor Who universe.)
- Tony Gardner is another The Thick Of It alum to join Capaldi on the show, alongside Chris Addison from his recurring role as Missy’s henchman in the Nethersphere and Rebecca Front in the Zygon two-parter. Gardner is admittedly a bit of a deeper cut, but Dan Miller had his moments as a crucial player in Malcolm Tucker’s machinations. Funnily, Front is the only one of those three who actually shared any scenes with Capaldi on Doctor Who. Also, this is as good an excuse as any to say it remains a damn shame Armando Ianucci didn’t write a Doctor Who episode for Peter Capaldi, but oh well.
- Much as I don’t think Daniel Nettheim was able to explain the geography of the lab as clearly as he could have, I did like the cutaways to the broken reading glasses and the smashed bottle. It’s a nice way of selling the Doctor’s opening point that the smallest things can trigger the end of everything.
- Before Capaldi leaves, I need to figure out the full list of guest characters the show teased as potential companions. There were a ton in series eight, for a start. And yeah, Erika seems like she would have been great. It would even let Capaldi fully recreate the William Hartnell era with a four-person TARDIS!