Here’s our Doctor Who series 10, episode 7 ‘The Pyramid at the End of The World’ review. There are plenty of spoilers here, so if you want the non-spoilery version click here.
You wouldn’t have expected it from his first episode, but Peter Harness has turned out to be Doctor Who’s most prescient and up-to-date writer.
His last episodes, ‘The Zygon Invasion/Inversion’, captured the mood of a time when radicalisation was on the minds of millions, and Peter Capaldi’s iconic anti-war speech quickly turned into a politicised rallying cry on social media. Now, in the midst of the most geo-politically unstable time of this century, Harness has returned to write about – what else? – the impending doom of planet Earth.
If that sounds a little gloomy, then let’s be clear: ‘The Pyramid at the End of the World’ is as philosophically bleak as Doctor Who gets. It’s the kind of episode where a heart-warming show of togetherness between three armies on the precipice of conflict gets about two seconds before things move back onto the subject of the world’s end. Certainly, this season has taken a turn from the family-friendly warmth of ‘The Pilot’.
That’s the thing about Doctor Who – it’s incredibly versatile, and if it wants to tell a three-part meditation on what terrifies us in 2017, from non-existence to apocalypse to fascism, then it’s well within its rights to do so. ‘Pyramid’, for me, works because it’s so unconstrained from the usual structures of an episode, even that of an opening half of a two-parter.
Philosophy over action
As with ‘Extremis’, there’s much more theme than there is plot here. After last week tackled truth and reality, ‘Pyramid’ picks up new subjects and crafts them into a nightmare: the thin line between fear and love. The Monks’ pathological need for consent for their invasion is more than just a gimmick to enhance their unsettling villainy – it’s an opening for an exploration of what our emotions drive us to do when rational fact doesn’t seem to be adequate.
Plot-wise, there are flaws to be found here. The guest characters are really just empty vessels for Harness’ themes, and rarely do their decisions feel psychologically realistic. Right down to their powerful statuses, they’re representatives and symbols, not people, which draws the sting from the moments that their earnest consent obliterates them. Thematically, though, it’s fascinating to see the Monks cajole and push these people into those fateful decisions, and in a way that seems eerily reminiscent of certain real-world events.
Trying to impose political metaphor onto a work of art whose explicit intention can’t fully be discerned is always going to be a subjective matter. But ‘Pyramid’ doesn’t shy away from the politics of it all, whether it’s the Trump joke at the start or the thorny subject of a conflict between the world’s three great military powers.
It may be that the Monks, powerful and influential group who claim to foresee disaster, overload those watching with frightening rhetoric, and then reveal that they’re the ones holding the supposed key to survival, but only if they’re let in through the front door, are just a clever idea that Steven Moffat or Peter Harness came up with, and nothing more. But there’s enough parallels there to events that have unfolded in the past year that it’s hard not to feel reminded of certain things.
Usually, Doctor Who works as escapism – but if it reflects our world back at us in as acute and thoughtful a way as ‘Pyramid’, with just enough leeway that it can be seen as just a good story too for those not inclined to agree with the metaphor, then it can create something no other show with its finger to the pulse can match.
From Arrival to The Stand
Truth be told, though, I expected the entire episode to be more along the above lines than it ended up being. ‘Pyramid’ sets itself up in such a way that a biting exploration of military brinkmanship seems the inevitable end-point, but all along, the real key to the story is staring the viewer in the face, in the form of those constant cutaways to a mysterious lab.
It’s not a gasp-worthy twist, as such, because the wrongness of the scenes at the lab builds quickly enough that, by the time the Doctor twigs, it’s pretty easy to figure out that it’s the source of catastrophe the Monks are talking about, but it’s still a clever pivot into an entirely different kind of story. ‘Extremis’, with its shift from The Da Vinci Code to The Matrix, pulled a similar trick.
Here, we’re going from Arrival to Stephen King’s The Stand. The bio-weapon gone wrong conceit is one just as well-worn as an ‘it was a simulation!’ twist, but ‘Pyramid’ does well only to pivot fully into the bio-lab story once the clock on the episode is running out, allowing the episode to skirt over the details and focus solely on the ticking-clock tension of the virus’ imminent release into the atmosphere.
Doctor Who rarely tackles existential threats like this without a face that can be put to it, and it’s a credit to Peter Capaldi’s energised performance and the taut pacing of the final act, juxtaposing the solution to the problem with the continuing deceit and obfuscation of the Monks that the abstract threat of the virus still feels urgent and frightening.
And it’s that virus threat, however intangible, that leads ‘Pyramid’ into its ultimate reason for existing – the cliff-hanger. Like last week, this is, when it’s stripped down, set-up, but it builds enough of a compelling narrative with the ticking Doomsday Clock and the intriguing specificity of the Monks’ offer that this Monk trilogy continues to feel like a set of interconnected, but complete, episodes. There’s resolution to be found here in the immediate threats that spur the Doctor and Bill to action throughout the episode… but at a cost.
Bill’s final choice, between an ailing Doctor and the entire world, is a fantastic emotional peak for the episode. It may rest upon sketchy foundations in terms of plotting, as it’s predicated on the sonic sunglasses failing to work for a simple number dial when they’ve worked for clocks and other detailed objects throughout the episode, and those inconsistencies do weigh down the emotional grandeur of the moment a little. But those final moments stand up on their own two feet anyway, thanks to Pearl Mackie’s terrific performance that reveals her, once more, to be the heart of the episode.
Her heart-broken, infuriated reaction to the Doctor’s lie conveys the full extent of her complicated feelings about her discovery, and that’s channelled into a quietly sad resolve to save the Doctor above all. It’s here, it seems, where Bill finally affirms her commitment to the Doctor as so many companions have done before her, putting the entire fate of the world in his hands in the biggest gamble imaginable. Series 10, to its credit, has built and built to this ending as the Doctor and Bill’s friendship has deepened, and this feels like the first point in the series where such a plot development could be pulled off in a way that’s true to Bill’s character.
The ending of ‘Pyramid’ marks the third cliffhanger on the bounce, and it’s an incredibly intriguing one in spite of its relative predictability. What’s interesting is that, while the trailers and promotion have sold Bill (and Nardole) as the heroine of the episode and the Doctor as a brainwashed stooge for the Monks, this cliffhanger would seem to suggest the opposite occurring, as Bill is the one to make the deal while the Doctor looks on in horror. Just how we get to the situation the trailers are promising, then, is going to fuel yet another week of nervous anticipation – and that’s without that ominous gunshot in the promo…
‘Pyramid’ wasn’t without its narrative inconsistencies and contrivances, and it doesn’t quite have the intricacy of construction that ‘Extremis’ used to such great effect. But as an unerringly tense development of the Monks that opens up some fascinating, topical questions with an unflinchingly dark tone, this was another solid and rewarding episode in a season that’s been nothing but consistent. Just one part of the trilogy to go now…