The Pyramid at the End of the World
As he did last season with a tension-packed Zygon two-parter, writer Peter Harness (with Steven Moffat taking a co-writing credit) again sets out to nearly destroy planet Earth, and again he skillfully takes us on a paranoid, politically charged ride. Last time, it was UNIT at the forefront of the battle; this time, it’s three major world powers. Picking up in the real world from where we left off in the horrific simulation last week, the Monks invade Earth for real, but first they need our permission … and they set out to get it by offering to save us from ourselves.
In the fictitious country of Turmezistan (originally conceived for the aforementioned Zygon story line), three massive armies — American, Russian, and Chinese — are in a standoff. In the midst of the tension, a 5,000-year-old pyramid appears out of nowhere, throwing all parties involved into a tailspin. The Doctor is needed in his capacity as president of the Earth, and apparently the simplest way to find him is through Bill who is on her date with Penny when troops, followed by the secretary general of the U.N. (Togo Igawa, Eyes Wide Shut), burst into her apartment. Bill is on the radar of governments now. Meanwhile in the TARDIS, the Doctor plucks notes on his guitar and grimly ponders the future.
The Doctor: “The end of your life has already begun. There is a last place you will ever go, a last door you will ever walk through, a last sight you will ever see, and every step you ever take is moving you closer. The end of the world is a billion billion tiny moments, and somewhere, unnoticed, in silence or in darkness, it has already begun.”
While this speech mirrors certain events in the episode, the season is also at a stage where this Doctor is starting to get an inkling his time may be drawing to a close. The blindness is surely a factor. Living in darkness, he knows he can’t go on like this, not if he’s to lead the life to which he’s become accustomed. He most likely even has regeneration on his mind. Perhaps because he feels he’s got nothing to lose, he puts himself to the test in this episode, often with a pomposity that is the harbinger of his failure to come.
The Doctor: “Those Monk creatures I told you about … if they’ve modeled every event in human history, if they’ve simulated entire events streamed from day one until now, think what they’d know. Think what they could do with that.”
Two scientists — Erica (Rachel Denning) and Douglas (Tony Gardner) — go about their daily routine. A confluence of her broken reading glasses and his hangover results in the beginning of the end of the world, only neither scientist knows it.
The Doctor, Bill, Nardole, and the TARDIS are all flown to the site of the pyramid where the Doctor seeks an audience with a Monk, who emerges from the structure. It confidently explains to the Time Lord that they will rule the Earth and they will do it by invitation from the planet. The Monk disappears back into the monument and simultaneously all phones and clocks shift to 11:57 PM — a sinister aping by the Monks of the Doomsday Clock. Between the Pope, Bill’s Trump dig, armies converging, and the recent real-life moving of the Doomsday Clock, Doctor Who has felt eerily prescient over the past two weeks. Also, references to terrorism were trimmed from the episode in response to the Manchester bombing. While this sensitivity is understandable, the sequence poses questions relevant to the story line. Perhaps the cut material will be reinstated at a later date (unlike “Robot of Sherwood”).
As the president of the Earth, the Doctor encourages the militaries to take action against the pyramid, insisting a show of strength is crucial. After its crew is mystically replaced by Monks mid-flight, an American bomber jet is grabbed by a massive beam emanating from the pyramid and peacefully set down. Similar results befall a Russian nuclear submarine. The Monks appear to have near godlike powers. The whole gang enters the bowels of the pyramid to confront the aliens head on. The Monks share a vision of the future a year from now — an entirely dead planet, devoid of all life, yet explain that they can avert the oncoming catastrophe and save the future.
Monk: “We must be wanted. We must be loved. To rule through fear is inefficient.”
“Power must consent” is their other turn of phrase. The Monks insist that they be asked to take over as rulers. The Doomsday Clock hits a minute to midnight and the terrified secretary general steps forward. A Monk “reads” him and declares he is acting out of fear, which is not consent. It destroys the man with a wave of a withered hand, instantly and horrifically reducing him to a pile of dust.
The representatives of the three militaries believe WWIII to be near, so they agree to give peace a chance … yet the clock stands at a minute to midnight. The Doctor deduces the threat is biochemical in nature and that the Monks have hacked the camera of the lab where the disaster is about to happen. Nardole hacks and shuts down the cameras for all the labs. The Monks, with their seemingly infinite powers, can simply turn the cameras at the watched lab back on, of course, and that’s the lab he and Nardole travel to … in Yorkshire.
Having seen Douglas melt before her eyes, Erica is in crisis mode. She’s shocked by the sudden arrival of a police box in her lab, yet adapts quickly to the demands of the commanding figure that emerges from inside. A ventilation system set to go off in 20 minutes will disperse the bacteria into the air (a seemingly short-sighted feature for a biochemical lab). The Doctor decides the only solution is to blow up the lab. Back at the pyramid, the soldiers have their own plan: giving their consent to the Monks. Informed they act out of strategy rather than love, the fate of the trio is the grisly same as the secretary general’s before them. Only Bill is left standing, the last representative of Earth. In the lab, the explosion is nigh when the Doctor realizes he cannot exit due to a combination lock he cannot see. On the phone, he finally confesses his blindness to Bill. It’s a dramatic revelation and her reaction is torn and desperate.
Since the beginning of this season, Bill has found numerous ways to keep distance between herself and the Doctor. It came off as streetwise and cool, but it seems Bill is actually afraid — afraid of letting the Doctor in. She’s learned to rely only on herself, living a life without parents, and along comes the closest thing she’s ever had to a real one. Note the way she gushes about him to Penny early in the episode, beaming while describing the bizarre details of “Extremis.” Whatever would she do if suddenly he was gone? (In hindsight, I owe “Knock Knock” some apologies for these angles it slyly explored.)
In a simultaneously beautiful and terrifying moment, Bill throws the entire planet into slavery in order to restore the Doctor’s eyesight so he can save his life. The Monk confirms her intentions as coming from a place of love. The Doctor’s vision comes into focus while Bill begs him, “You better get my planet back.”
Monk: “Enjoy your sight, Doctor. Now see our world.”
Though the Doctor beat them in the simulation, in the real world, he failed to conquer the Monks, perhaps in part due to hubris. The stakes on Doctor Who are at an excruciating high, with the Monks seemingly unstoppable. It’s as if demons from the mind of Clive Barker were suddenly in charge of Earth. Next week’s episode should be pure madness.
Odds and Ends
• Ace Bits: Erica’s dwarfism is never once mentioned or commented upon; the innovative previously/now sequence covering Bill and Penny’s date; the Veritas simulation of “Extremis” playing a big role in this narrative.
• A recurring aspect of Harness’s scripts is monumental life and death decisions for humankind.
• The sonic shades reveal that Bill is 26 years old.
• The Doctor’s line, “It’s not my first dead planet,” probably references the very first Dalek episode, “The Dead Planet.”
• Big round of applause for director Daniel Nettheim, who helmed both this week and last. He took two great scripts and made utterly compelling yet very different end products out of each.
• Speaking of China and Doctor Who, check out this news item. Of particular note is that the BBC appears to envision the series as going for at least another five seasons.
• Some talented people I know spent several years writing a book about the history of Doctor Who fandom in America. It’s called “Red White and Who” and, at over 600 pages, it looks absorbing and exhaustive. You can pre-order it here.