Last weeks episode Extremis was bulging with ambition but lacking in execution. It was the first episode of a three-arc serial, meaning The Pyramid at the End of the World had a lot to do, not just in terms of continuing the plot and setting up the finale, but in pulling together the mess it inherited. Does it succeed? Sort of, mostly because it resets some aspects of the story, but largely because of the cliffhanger ending it serves up.
An ‘ancient’ pyramid appears overnight. Every clock in the world begins counting down to the Earth’s destruction. Three opposing armies lie ready to annihilate each other. An alien race stands ready to offer humanity a deal that could save them, but also enslave them. It’s a terrifying race against time to save the world. Will the Doctor be forced to accept their help?
There is less of a juggling act here, a more focused tale that is certainly an improvement over Extremis. It actually streamlines what has been set up and marries it to a smart structure, with dramatic events juxtaposed against scenes of two technicians working in a biotech lab. A ancient pyramid, appearing at the intersection of US, Chinese, and Russian forces, stirs up the panic levels of the planet. Inside are the Monks we met last week, but their simulations and deliberations seem to have led them to not pursuing invasion by force, but at a certain time, when humanity will embrace there presence and accept their rule, when they can step in and ‘save mankind’. It’s clever storytelling, framing how the world is just a few steps away from annihilation, and not from something extra-terrestrial either, but devices of our own making.
The episode still undermines itself through plot points that don’t seem to work. Firstly, why a pyramid? If these are aliens intent on announcing their presence and their impending salvation of mankind, why hide in a ancient monument? Also, what do these aliens really want? Their motivations remain murky even after two episodes. In fact, they seem to have done a 180 in terms of behavior, veering from shadowy figures watching and panning, to just plomping themselves out in view of all to see, offering salvation. The latter does work better. “We must be loved” is their invasion cry, requiring genuine consent to ‘save’ the planet, as those attempting to deceive meet a grisly fate. As the Doctor remarks, “fear is temporary, love is slavery.” It’s a fascinating idea, of consent, of manipulating and taking advantage of people in need, a special kind of coercion that goes beyond fear or threat.It’s a dark and intriguing point but one not fully explored; maybe the final installment expands on this. Like Extremis last week, there feels like there are any number of far more elegant ways to get there. More than this, Pyramid, with a little tinkering, could have made last week’s episode redundant.
There are highlights though. A running joke of Bill and Penny’s first date being interrupted is great. Last week the Pope, this week the Secretary General of the UN, who next week? Capaldi impresses as ever, really showing the quiet vulnerability of this wounded Time Lord. Mackie really sells the most important scene in the entire episode, while guests Tony Gardner (Douglas) and more notably Rachel Denning (Erica) do sterling work. Nardole is entertaining enough, serving as something of a conscience of the Doctor, bouncing ideas off himself, which works fine but feels redundant, like a dilution of the role Bill should be playing. It’s still unclear what larger part he is required to play in this season’s storyline. Oh and that ending of course. It all stems from the Doctor’s blindness, in two ways: he can’t see the lock to enter a combination being immediately obvious, but more pertinently, he can’t see the danger approaching, this not being the Monks nor their offer, but Bill’s concern and how she might go against his instructions and take their offer just to save the Doctor. Yep, the Doctor, while blind, foils the catastrophe meant to dive humanity into the arms of the Monks, but in doing so leaves himself trapped, unable to enter a door release code. Bill gives away the Earth (her “consent”) to restore the Doctor’s eyes, so they lose anyway. Her trust in, and affection for, the Doctor is precisely what leaves the world in the hands of this Ali threat; it’s a nice reversal from how such traits usually help save the day.
It sets us up nicely for next week’s conclusion, the teaser for which suggests something like an alternate reality, one where the Monks are entwined with humanity, a ruling class and people not aware of what’s real or not. The Doctor himself is leading a resistance of some form. Is it an alternate timeline, or just some form of mass deception, mind control a la the Master’s takeover of Earth back in The Sound of Drums?
The Pyramid at the End of the World largely course corrects the mistakes of Extremis, and while still laden with inconsistencies, delivers a entertaining romp. One that ends on a brilliantly constructed ending and sets up a final act in the tale, what looks like a compelling installment in The Lie of the Land.