Monday, 29 May 2017

Earth faces a simple and inescapable choice – stability and strong government with the Monks, or chaos with the Doctor...

After Extremis saw the Monks run a simulation to analyse all Earth’s weaknesses, it turns out that the human race was about to wipe itself out the very next week. Which is an outrageous coincidence but a neat link into ‘The Pyramid at the End of the World by Peter Harness and Steven Moffat’ – a title card as extensive as the episode’s ambitions.

Harness seems to have become the guy brought on board when Who wants to do a political thriller with contemporary relevance, and for good reason – his Zygon two-parter was my highlight of Series 9. Pyramid returns to the same approach, and indeed the same fictional Middle Eastern country – in an area of Turmezistan where the US, Chinese, and Russian armies are facing off, a mysterious pyramid appears, and the Monks give humanity a warning that the world will end unless they accept the aliens’ help... and invasion.

Ah, but there’s a twist! The end of the world comes not, as it seems, from war between superpowers, but from Brian off of My Parents Are Aliens being hungover and accidentally creating an evil biotoxin. Oh, Brian! It’s a very clever plot structure to maximise stakes in what could easily be an overly talky episode – we know exactly where both storylines are heading, even before the Doctor does, and the outcomes are scarily apocalyptic, so the tension is in whether the Doctor will work it out, and whether he’ll be able to stop it.

So does he? Well, yeah, pretty easily. He goes straight from figuring out that the armies are a diversion to concluding that it can only be a biological accident. Sure, there was a line cut from this scene about terrorism being another option, due to the recent attacks in Manchester, but even with that in, it feels like a big jump to the correct answer. Maybe some clues to what caused the apocalypse should have been planted in the images they saw of the destroyed world?

And that’s not the only thing that didn’t quite work for me in this episode. The Monks are still failing to convince as villains. I watched all of the original Star Trek series last year and they’re reminding me of a villain trope from that which my flatmate and I came to call the ‘omnipotent pretentious space twat’ – arbitrary and ill-defined godlike powers, lack of any characterisation other than their perceived superiority, daft robes. 

They also fulfil the very Steven Moffat trope of villains defined less by their own personalities and more by their effect on people; they’re clearly here to allow the episode to tell a story about humanity, but their own unbelievability, in contrast to Series 9’s very well characterised Zygons, weakens that story. Just look at the plan from their perspective – why do they need consent, exactly, and why does it need to be motivated by love? Why does Bill’s motivation for giving consent mean that the whole human race is going to be fine with them? It makes no sense at all. 

That human story they allow is actually an interesting one, or at least a very relevant one. It’s about why people would choose to be ruled by those who promise to keep them safe – those who promise strong and stable leadership, maybe – without really looking into how that’s going to play out for themselves, or without fully considering how else society’s problems could be solved through less easy but ultimately better options. It’s a bold theme to explore in Saturday night sci-fi, and the script has some interesting things to say on the issue. It offers up more questions than it does answers, being more of an exploratory political piece than something like Thin Ice’s strongly polemical ‘racism is bad’ message.

But again, it doesn’t nail it. The military leaders lack characterisation, and so plot developments feel like going through the motions rather than human-led drama. That guy failed the test because of fear, these guys because of strategy – that’s those ticked off the list of points to make. We never get a real sense of the Secretary General's fear, or of what protecting the Earth at any cost means to the other leaders. Even the moment when they supposedly solve world peace feels limp because there never seemed to be much conflict between them. And is it me, or is the actor playing the American guy really quite bland?

Then there’s the other story – the Doctor’s blindness. It’s still a nice twist to have him struggling with this disability, but it doesn’t really go anywhere until the final sequence. And then, when he finally reveals his secret to Bill, it’s almost immediately fixed. Because the Monks can do that, apparently, despite needing to hack UNIT’s CCTV to even see into the lab. There’s that magical elixir of sight I predicted, then. It’s such a cop-out, and there was so much more potential in this blindness storyline that’s gone wasted. Perhaps the episode would have worked better had the Doctor revealed the blindness to Bill earlier on in Turmezistan – it would have avoided the repetition of the secrecy beats, and would have given Bill, underused again in this episode, some actual drama in how she reacts to this, making her final decision more relevant to what came before it.

...huh. As I’ve written this review, I’ve realised I’m being very negative, perhaps unfairly so. I admire what this episode tries to do. It has some really bold ideas, and is a real change in approach for this kind of story. But in too many ways, it just isn’t quite there. Still, particularly when it comes to Doctor Who, ambitious failures can be more fun than boring successes.

The next episode is the third part of this Monk trilogy, and looks a lot like Last of the Time Lords...

  1. Oxygen
  2. Thin Ice
  3. Extremis
  4. The Pilot
  5. The Pyramid at the End of the World
  6. Knock Knock
  7. Smile


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