Reviewed: The Pyramid at the End of the World

It’s currently two and half minutes to doomsday. As your sip your coffee this morning, consider this: the Paris Agreement intended to prevent global warming from reaching its disastrous ‘red line’ is set to fall through, superpowers all across the world at this very moment are gearing up to engage in cyber-offensives, and America’s nuclear codes have been left in charge of the former host of The Apprentice. Are we witnessing humanity’s slow, gradual march towards self-ruin? This is a question one can’t help but ask after watching this week’s latest Doctor Who episode.

Spanning just over 45 minutes (honestly, I had to check in disbelief), The Pyramid at the End of the World is one of those rarities in Modern Who that’s capable of delivering a full-fledged story to viewers that feels expansive and deliberate, never rushed. Telling an invasion story, as co-authors, Steven Moffat and Peter Harness have, over the course of three episodes has given them the space and opportunity to present a confrontation more complex in its delivery and resolution than audiences normally get to enjoy.

Sure the Monks are ‘bad,’ their motivations are imperialistic; but imperialism, as Pyramid reminds us, can be complicated too.

Beyond the rotten faces of the Monks (“we have chosen this form to look like you,” one Monk says chillingly) lies a dark pathology humoured by their own technological dominance: they want their authority to be assented to and loved, using their advantage of foreknowledge to choose the most opportune moments – global catastrophic risks – to stage interventions in the lives of their future subjects. It’s in this sense they’re more despicable than the Doctor’s typical adversaries – such as the Daleks, Cybermen, or the Weeping Angels –  the Monks have all of the heightened technology and all of the knowledge of the Time Lords, but share none of their conscience or their sense of responsibility.

With this story, the second instalment of the “Monk trilogy,” Harness and Moffat introduce us to the global catastrophic risk facing Earth – a biochemical experiment gone wrong that the Monks hope to exploit – but it’s the piecemeal manner in which these events are set-up which is the story’s greatest strength.

At times, dare I say it, Pyramid feels like the best kind of emulation of Classic Who. Side-plots and developments are established, bit by bit, throughout the course of the episode – a hungover scientist, broken glasses, bacteria in a laboratory, visitors from space, a doomsday clock – dovetailing satisfyingly for a belter of a third act. When the moving parts laid out by the co-authors finally come together, the true nature of the story is revealed: we’re watching the end of civilization as we know it as a chain of small, incidental mistakes, including the Doctor’s. Foreshadowing this is the Doctor’s brilliant opening monologue, which begins with the ominous warning that “the end of your life has already begun.” Sometimes insignificant things, “there is a last place you will ever go, a last store will walk through, a last sight you will see,” the Doctor reminds us, inherit significance by the simple chronology of events: “Every step you ever take is moving you closer. The end of the world is a billion, billion, tiny moments.”

As was the case with Series 9’s The Zygon Inversion, the marriage of Peter Harness and Steven Moffat’s writing with Daniel Nettheim’s inspired direction makes Doctor Who feel as contemporary and relevant as it’s ever been with this latest adventure. Current, in the political sense of the word, but also in a production sense. For instance, the playful take on the “Previously…” intro allows Pearl Mackie’s Bill (and by extension, the show itself) to quickly refresh viewers on the mind-warping events of Extremis with irreverence, cheek, and efficiency.

Just as The Zygon Inversion will forever be associated with the contemporaneous, migrant crisis in real life, Pyramid is also a creature of context.

When the Doctor, Bill, and Nardole arrive onsite to Turmezistan, we find the world’s superpowers, China, Russia and the US, in a military standoff. It echoes the increasingly fragile state of affairs that we appear to be living in, as institutions of peace, security, and global governance are weakened (such as the UN, reduced in this episode to ‘observing’ the crisis) and nationalist, ‘Cold War’ sentiments appear on the rise. Indeed, Harness couldn’t have been more prophetic with the timing of the episode’s transmission if he had tried. The same week as Pyramid aired, the real President of the United States refused to endorse the terms of the NATO treaty wholeheartedly and blurted to the Philippines leader that nuclear submarines could be prepositioned off North Korea; North Korea, a fragile (if not failed) state, lies geographically at the intersection of Russia, China, and a US ally, South Korea – just like Turmezistan.

The Monk’s exploitative and manipulative use of information reflects the challenges of today; just as the Doctor struggles to gain the confidence of the warring factions in Pyramid, I think it’s fair to say we’re caught in a similar battle for public trust in real life. When the demise of civilisation comes, Moffat and Harness posit rather damningly in Pyramid, that it won’t arise out of force; humanity will endorse its own subjugation erroneously. It will be our decision, our vote… a series of mistakes that we’ve made all on our own.

Like the rest of Series 10, The Pyramid at the End of the World exceeds its own simple premise artistically and socially. Whereas past Doctor Who episodes have often felt as though their authors hadn’t expanded their stories beyond the initial pitches given to them – “dinosaurs in space,” “robot gunslinger,” “ghosts in a haunted house,” – Harness’ Pyramid is an elevated production. It’s clever, topical, and complete. The appearance of the pyramid itself is merely a hook for viewers. The real story of the episode is far more nuanced: the evolution of little events into big conclusions and the false benevolence of imperialism.

Together, The Pyramid at the End of the World and last week’s Extremis have raised some big hopes and expectations for the Monk trilogy’s conclusion this coming Saturday with returning Doctor Who veteran Toby Whithouse’s The Lie of the Land.

  • Lived With Otters

    So swept up in the “Wait. What?” of some of the science (yep, the pyramid showing up doesn’t bother me but yet I get lost in the plot holes of the “biology”…), the continuity of the episode crumbled for me. Thank you, Richard for reminding me that there is a forest somewhere in all those trees!

  • secretlybadass bar

    Good to see you back guys and gals.
    Monks! On a Plane!!
    Sorry Richard, but I just can’t get excited about this one. I’ve loved almost everything in S10 up to this point, including the overt Message, but lost patience with Pyramid.
    Only one pair of reading glasses – they’re cheaper than a coffee for heaven’s sake; a good scientist not checking her colleague’s work when he’s clearly not up to it and she knows it, the Doctor calling the moon ‘dead,’ Bill still not guessing, the airborne bacteria strangely being ‘safe’ in the part of the lab where Erica and Gloopy had been analysing it, and where it had infected Nardole, the improbable chain of command that left those three then Bill in charge of earth… Where was UNIT? Arghh. ‘I can’t stand the confusion…’ I just hope all those ludicrous ‘mistakes’ were in fact clues that this was yet another sim; preferably created by the Doctor and Missy to lure the Crumblies into a trap.
    Nevertheless, PC, PM and ML were still the best combination for years. The ‘are you following me?’ gag was a delight. Finding out where the real threat was by working out what the Monks were watching was terrific. And Bill and Nardole unhappy with this trigger-happy Doctor. But even I got sick of the egg-spotting, the HB line in the sand etc. And I’m not going to accept the Crumblies are disguised cybermen, despite all the Moff teasers (that three-in-a-row left turn looked less like cybermen than a motown backing group) , until they start SIngggg-soNGvoi…ses.

    • Peter Rabytt

      I think that’s a very good summary Bar. For me this episode was ok, but no more than that. I found what was presumably supposed to be a building tension to be more frustrating waiting. The lab stuff made no sense at all, went on for an eternity, and so was irritating. I am not a fan of returning to the President of Earth stuff…….I don’t think The Doctor should be the authorities. The instruction to bomb the pyramid felt odd and un-doctor like…..and stupid. There were too many plot holes for me. Why didn’t the doctor just use his phone to show Bill the door combination on her phone so she could guide him? If they were not worried about carrying the infection out on them (and the doctor did rummage around in the gunk when planting the bomb so it should be all over his hands at the very least) then why not just leave and blow the place up from the outside, rather than go through that palava just for the plot device of getting trapped???? I agree, I hope this was another non reality. So mmmmm not a great episode for me….couldn’t get into it…..though my son liked it more than me…..

  • Ranger

    Welcome back! Hope none of you had to work too hard over the bank holiday weekend to get TDWC back up.

    I was expecting not be to as swept away as the first in the trilogy – the second part is never as good as the first and last.

    But I did enjoy it, there were obvious plot-holes as Bar has said (though Bar, I want to know where you are buying your reading glasses! I only have one pair as I don”t want to have to sell my remaining kidney). Poor old Penny, first the Pope and then the Secretary-General, hahaha! But really got excited with the teaser trailer for the third part – Bill shooting the Doctor and starting the regeneration? Btw The Radio Times seems to think that Kris Marshall is a certainty in it’s review!

    • secretlybadass bar

      Just pound shops, that chain of supermarkets that has something in common with Peter’s surname, you know the sort of place. Got my most expensive pair – £3.99 – from little general stores in Fort William. And there’s still never a pair in reach when you need them…

      • Ranger

        Ah, you clearly have a lot better eyesight than me as I can’t get mine from those places

  • Dr. Moo (lying the land)

    I liked it but didn’t love it. It has some iffy pacing early on and a lot of the characters felt like caricatures at times. Despite that, it’s still an excellent episode for what it is, which is set-up, so I’m inclined to be kind to it and give it a 9/10, but open to changing that pending a rewatch of all three parts together.

  • krumstets

    Why exactly cannot the Doctor fix his eyesight? With access to all of time and space and super futuristic science he can’t fix it. Why?
    The Doctor and five other people in a room deciding what to do about the Aliens. Seriously?
    Bio Labs with brightly coloured liquids in tubes?
    Ha ha, the list goes on…

  • Planet of the Deaf

    Enjoyable, and some great bits…but also some plot related flaws, with too many conveniences to make the story entirely satisfying

    The whole blindness concept has to me over the last 3 episodes been slightly unsatisfactory, as for most of the time the Doctor has been too effective. If someone can fool everyone (the rescued crew members from Oxygen, Bill, the members of the Vatican, the generals etc) then either his sonic glasses are too effective OR the other people are completely slow to not notice something that something weird was going on or at least look a bit puzzled at some point.

    Then, Bill asks the monks, and they can restore a Time Lord’s sight. Why would she think they can do that anyway? She’s seen them killing people, not restoring the sick! And how can they fix it, when he can’t?