“The Pyramid At the End of the World” is the second part of a kind of trilogy forming the heart of the middle of this tenth series of Doctor Who. The storyline revolves around the mysterious Monks, who we learned last episode had been using a complex computer simulation to prepare for their conquest of Earth. This episode advances that story even further as the Monks make their move and their invasion begins. But though I found much to enjoy in “The Pyramid At the End of the World”, overall the episode wound up feeling like a serviceable if unspectacular set-up bolstered by a couple of intriguing aspects.
The episode is written by Peter Harness and show-runner Steve Moffatt, and both of their attributes as writers are represented. Harness’ previous stories for the series (“Kill the Moon” and last series’ Zygon two-parter) are somewhat controversial with fans, though I appreciate his boldness and fearlessness in confronting big ideas within the narratives of the story. And this episode doesn’t shy away from that aspect, either, with its references to the nature of consent and a plot revolving around the Doctor’s personal flaws and how they cause everything to spiral out of control.
After the event so fast week’s episode, the Monks have materialized an ancient pyramid in Turmezistan, which gets the attention of Earth’s great powers and sends the Secretary General of the UN looking for the Doctor, also known in these circumstances as the President of Earth (an element that I frankly find too goofy even for Doctor Who). Still blind, the Doctor dives into the situation as he and his companions struggle to uncover just what the Monks want and how to defeat this seemingly unstoppable force. Meanwhile, the biggest threat to Earth may already be in motion at an unassuming research laboratory. Will the Doctor put everything together in time? Or will his hubris and vanity at keeping his disability a secret lead him to even greater mistakes?
The strengths of the episode are pretty effective. There’s an interesting marriage of Harness’ predilection with exploring political or social ideas with Moffatt’s trait of giving adversaries a thematic hook. In this case, it has to do with the Monks’ obsession with consent, and requiring what they deem “true consent” to save (and therefore take over) the planet from destruction. In this way, Harness is able to illustrate ideas about what consent really is. I do think that this story explores the topic in much less direct way than Harness’ previous scripts, and therefore the issue winds up feeling a bit more indistinct and mushy than it should (a lot like the “choice” allegory in “Kill the Moon”, where I’m still not 100% sure where the episode comes down on the Doctor’s actions). Still, it’s nice to see Harness and Moffat taking a big fat swing at an issue.
Similarly, I also enjoyed the way the plot and the resolution of the episode revolved around the arrogance and hubris that the Doctor often relies upon to save the day. But in this case, those traits in fact fail him and make things much worse. The Doctor’s desperate efforts to keep his blindness secret was always going to come back to haunt him; things in this show never go well when the Doctor lies about big things to his companions. Though it’s an obvious mistake that make us all irritated with the Doctor, it’s a mistake that makes sense given who he is. It’s this element that makes the climax of the episode work and work extremely well.
But I found that the elements revolving around the Monks leading up to the climax never quite felt as compelling to me as they should have. This didn’t feel like the apocalyptic adventure that forms the middle of an epic storyline, but rather a sluggishly paced opener to a fairly standard two-parter. Much of the energy that drove the revelations of the previous episode felt dissipated as the plot spun its wheels waiting to get to a climax that the episode could have reached in half the running time. We still don’t know enough about the Monks, their aims, their true nature, to be hugely invested in them beyond their being a threat. The scenes of the UN forces (and why exactly isn’t UNIT involved? Was Jemma Redgrave already booked?) felt like a million other scenes we’ve seen in Doctor Who where the Doctor is clever while military folks or government officials bicker and look foolish. It’s perfectly okay to repeat yourself, but it’s always important to ensure even familiar elements never feel rote or casual.
While the Pyramid scenes spin their wheels, though, the elements revolving around the research lab are great and by far the most compelling aspect of the earliest parts of the episode. The scripts gives us two interesting and well-defined characters in Erica (the terrific Rachel Denning) and Douglas (Tony Gardner). The script shows us how the smallest of actions can have big consequences as events at the lab continue to get worse and worse. Any scenes in involving Rachel, Douglas and the lab are where all the real jeopardy and energy came for me, while the more overt threats of the Monks and the Pyramids felt more generic and familiar.
The episode is well-directed by Daniel Nettheim, however, who injects some interesting visual touches that support the thematic concerns of the script. Like the rest of the series thus far, the episode looks great, boating a nice design aesthetic and some great location work. And, as always, the performances are fantastic, with the always brilliant Peter Capaldi anchoring the proceedings. However, everyone is terrific, especially Rachel Denning, who makes a great impression as pseudo-companion Erica. And this brings me to the casting of the episode, which saw a wide and diverse variety of actors, none of whom are diverse for story reasons. It’s nice to see Doctor Who making that a priority, and proving to nay-sayers that casting outside the box can pay off and not be distracting (as anti-diversity proponents often claim).
“The Pyramid At the End of the World” is perfectly fine, for the most part, at least from a plot point of view. I was never on the edge of my seat until the final five minutes though, and I’m still a bit concerned with how generic I found the Monks in this episode. I like where the climax of the story leaves us for next episode, definitely, but I couldn’t escape how ordinary the elements leading up to that climax felt. If it hadn’t been for the interesting thematic elements and the refreshing research lab section, this would have wound up feeling like very standard Doctor Who; enjoyable, conformable, but not mind-blowing at all. In the final analysis, it winds up being serviceable with a few compelling elements. 7/10