Doctor Who: The Pyramid at the End of the World
Writers: Peter Harness, Steven Moffat
Director: by Daniel Nettheim
Starring: Peter Capaldi, Pearl Mackie, Matt Lucas
There is no series more intimately familiar with the end of the world than Doctor Who. From the petrified forests of Skaro in The Daleks to the alternate earth shown to Sarah Jane in Pyramids of Mars, the Doctor has seen his fair share of dead worlds. Familiarity isn’t always a harbinger of stale storytelling, but the fact that the Doctor has seen the end of the world so many times takes some of the stakes out of trying to prevent it from happening. The Monks, alien monsters first glimpsed in Extremis, manipulate this moment in an abusive act of malign negotiation with the inhabitants of Earth. Yet with so much of the screen time devoted to giving in to the methodology of these monsters, the most recent episode seems destined to falter. In The Pyramid at the End of the World, the end is coming, but it hasn’t been prepared for.
One of the key themes The Pyramid at the End of the World evokes is inevitability. We knew little about the Monks or their plans last week, and it’s clear from their simulation that the key power they wield in their invasion is knowledge. The world is ending, and the countdown of the Doomsday Clock is unstoppable. They’re a compelling force at this point, with some incredible creature design that give their wordless mouths and grotesque, corpse-like facial features, as that’s what humanity already seems to be from their perspective. They know humanity’s weakest point and strike, claiming to be able to save the human race from oblivion if they consent to invasion. While the Doctor obviously sees the holes in this plan, he does little to convince the human race of alternatives. Meanwhile, we see the unremarkable chain of events that ultimately leads to this apocalypse as they happen.
The Pyramid at the End of the World opens on a cleverly intercut sequence that juxtaposes Bill telling the story to her date alongside clips from last week. It’s another chance for Bill to try to date Penny after their virtual experience was interrupted by the Pope in Extremis, but when they’re interrupted by the Secretary General of the UN, you begin to think this pairing just isn’t going to work out. It’s the start of another episode that puts the Doctor in the position of being the President of Earth, complete with the presidential plane and endless soldiers. While there are military personnel all over The Pyramid at the End of the World, it’s an episode that’s sorely missing Kate Stewart and the rest of the UNIT team, seemingly for no other reason than the fact that Kate would have the entire invasion sorted in ten seconds flat.
Peter Capaldi brings his immense charm to the Doctor even in dire circumstances, delivering a rebellious performance that’s marred only by his character’s refusal to admit to anyone but Nardole that he’s blind. The opening transition from the Earth to the top of the Doctor’s head was beautiful, as was the following sequence where the Twelfth Doctor meditates by speaking aloud with his guitar. The tension that comes from keep his blindness secret from Bill is more frustrating than anything, especially after last week essentially gave him a do-over on how to deal with the issue. It hurts doubly so because Bill is such an impressively empathetic companion. In contrast to her endless positivity, the Twelfth Doctor comes off even more emotionally distant than usual.
Adding to the feeling of inevitability are those scenes set at Agrofuel Research Operations, featuring the grounded, realistic performance of Rachel Denning as Erica. The Pyramid at the End of the World gives her character a role that, refreshingly, isn’t dependant on her stature. Denning portrays the character as capable and intelligent, a sharp contrast to her hungover lab partner. The episode continually cuts back to her story, keeping the ticking clock on the audience’s mind and ultimately ends in a collaboration between Erica and the Doctor that seems to take place on equal footing. Erica remains a powerful figure in her own space, giving this episode at least one wonderful aspect of inclusion that shows that there’s still forward growth in the ideology of the veteran series. The fact that the Doctor offers Erica a companion role (likely to be revoked in the New World Order next week) is a testament to how impressive the character could be in terms of representation.
The issue of consent does not go unaddressed by this writing team, but it seems that their understanding of the concept is fundamentally misunderstood. The Monks giving humanity the choice is not dissimilar to the choices the Doctor delegated to his companions in Kill the Moon or Thin Ice but it feels wrong the way these Monks judge whether the consent given is pure, especially considering the consent they finally accept. The phrase “love is consent” should have been eradicated in an early draft. Let it be clear. Love is not consent. Consent is is given willingly, without coercion, and may be taken away at any time. It is not an unconditional invitation in the way that “love is consent” implies.
The one glorious highlight of The Pyramid at the End of the World comes when the Doctor finally finds himself admitting he can’t see. I had been waiting for a moment the Doctor would need to ask for help due to his impairment, and the fact that it was such a simple task that couldn’t be overcome made me enormously happy. The Doctor trapped behind glass, begging for Bill not to sacrifice anything for him, brings to mind The End of Time where the Doctor sacrifices himself for Wilf. It seems so obvious in retrospect that the moment of weakness for humanity was when the Doctor was impaired. Unfortunately, while I had hoped we could also carry forward his blindness with everything out in the open, it seems like it’s the end for blind Twelfth Doctor stories until Titan Comics, Big Finish, or other expanded universe works find a narrative gap to slip more in between the established canon.
I’ll hold off on an official verdict for this story until the end of the Monk trilogy of episodes, but it’s undeniable that last week’s Extremis packed more of a punch where The Pyramid at the End of the World failed to land. There are moments, such as the Doctor faltering in his confrontation with the combination lock on the door, that definitely get my blood pumping, but The Pyramid at the End of the World misses its final swing and makes some fairly uncomfortable statements on consent in the midst of what could have been purely a crowning moment of empathy for Bill. Hopefully the aspects I find most fault with are setting up the pieces for next week, which seems enough like Turn Left to keep my ears perked in the mid-season hump of the most controversial season of Doctor Who yet.