Wednesday 31 May 2017

WHO REVIEW: 10-7 "The Pyramid at the End of the World"

After last week's strong opening, part two of the "Monks Trilogy" was something of a disappointment. While it definitely had its moments and was quite an enjoyable episode overall, "The Pyramid at the End of the World" failed to hold together logically. And yes, I know, it's Doctor Who, and that frequently fails to hold together logically. However, it's one thing when an outlandish setting in a haunted house or some other galaxy doesn't quite make sense; it's another when an ostensibly realistic story is riddled with logical flaws.

Which is a shame. The story is well-structured, with an escalating threat that has a palpable sense of inevitability about it. The use of the Doomsday Clock is clich├ęd, true, but it works because the Monks are using it as a blatant attempt to unsettle the assembled humans. It's also a potent reflection of the times - the clock starts at three minutes to midnight here as a sign of impending apocalypse, but the real life committee that sets the time of the hypothetical clock have recently set it to two-and-a-half minutes to. 

Perhaps that's the problem though. It looks good and has some potent imagery, but the story doesn't hold up to even the lightest scrutiny. I love the idea that armageddon will be the result of human careless and incompetence, and let's be honest, that's pretty likely. The events in the lab run alongside the seemingly more important events in the pyramid and the TARDIS, and it's never anything other than obvious what they're leading to. It's that inevitability that makes it compelling. It's the logical flaws that damage this half of the story so much, though. There are simply too many of them piling up. Is there really no one who can take over this extremely delicate work from the hungover guy and the woman with no glasses? Are there no safeguards built in to prevent a mistyped element being put into the mix? While it's easy to sympathise with poor Douglas about the hangover, there's no excuse for his staggering stupidity: taking off his mask, leaving the airlock door open. For that matter, what kind of airlock allows both doors to be opened simultaneously? Have neither of the writers ever seen an airlock? This lab, with its potentially deadly biological samples that must be kept in strict quarantine, vents into the atmosphere periodically. The list goes on - it's too many little problems to shrug off, and makes it all feel too contrived.

There's clearly some interesting thoughts behind the Monks' plans and their strange modus operandi, but it's not clear what those thoughts are. I'm hoping the final third of the story will provide some perspective. There's a case to be made that this is an anti-democratic story, or, at least, a story that examines the potential problems of democracy. The episode ends with Bill making what is, objectively, the wrong choice (although it's a choice she makes out of faith in the Doctor, faith that is not unfounded. He will, after all, save the world again next week as she believes he will). This comes in the same episode that establishes that Trump is the POTUS in the Doctor Who world. The flaw with democracy is that anyone can make the wrong decision and send us down the wrong road, and we've seen plenty of that in the last twelve months. 

This, in a story that brings back the Doctor as the President of Earth. He's brought in by the Secretary General of the UN, and doesn't go unchallenged by his human colleagues, and in the end, doesn't get to make the decision that seals the world's fate. Nonetheless, he's back in an unelected position that even he didn't want. It worked fine when it was a one-off joke in Death in Heaven, but I'm not keen on the Doctor being able to step in as ruler of the world at any time. It's different when it's Gallifrey (of which he has been President three times now), that's a fantasy world. Putting him in charge of the Earth gives him too much potential power in any contemporary-set story.

The Monks remain opaque. There's some fascinating insight into their psychology, although it raises more questions than answers. Their appearance is apparently their attempt to pass as human, raising some questions about just what sort of creatures they are really (including the obvious: have we met them already?) Their need for consent to invade the Earth is intriguing in itself, their equating consent with love more so. There's no clear meaning here, and again, I hope that "The Lie of the Land" sheds some light on matters. Selecting three military leaders is a poor move if they do not allow decisions made by way of tactical judgment. They have, after all, modelled all this in their simulation - shouldn't they know exactly who to bring in to give them the right response? Charitably, we might assume it's all calculated to leave Bill there at the right moment for her to hand over the world to save the Doctor. There's also the obvious difficulty when using consent as a theme in SF - it's a heavy metaphor. "Fear is not consent" immediately suggests a rape allegory, something that isn't held up by anything else in the story but is the first thought of almost everyone watching (but not those, apparently, writing it).

This trilogy of episodes is the modern equivalent of the old six-parter, and they always had difficulty keeping momentum in the middle. The only other recent equivalents are the final triptych from last season, and further back, the Master trilogy at the end of series three. Like those, the success of "Pyramid" will depend on how the story holds together as a whole.

Thoughts on casting: The regulars, who continue to be brilliant together, own this episode, which has a fairly forgettable guest cast. The exception is Rachel Denning as Erica, who makes for a very likeable and relatable scientist. High praise is due to the BBC for casting an actor of reduced stature without it ever being part of the role or mentioned in dialogue - exactly the sort of equal representation we should be working towards.

Tony Garner tries his best as Douglas but, since he only gets to play "hungover tit," has little to work with in a dramatic setting. A pity, this, because he's a decent actor. He's been in plenty of things, but I'll remember him best for My Parents Are Aliens (in which he was the alien foster parent who didn't regenerate).

Also, it's come to light that Sean Pertwee was up for appearing in the series, but couldn't because of commitments to Gotham, another good argument for the cancellation of that show. Assuming they weren't going to ask him to reprise his dad's role, surely he was originally going to play the soldier actually played by the quite similar Nigel Hastings.

General stray thoughts: Given the apparently random choice by both the aliens and the production team to make the spaceship appear as a pyramid, is there anything more to it than "what looks cool and imposing?" On the same lines, is there any actual limit to the Monks' powers, beyond "whatever the story needs right this minute?"

Also, where were UNIT during all this?

Best lines: 

"You look like corpses."

"You are corpses to us."

This review is for my sister Rebecca, who already covered the most salient points.

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