It would be an exaggeration to say that Doctor Who is now approaching the levels of serialization more common to shows like The Walking Dead or Daredevil, but it’s getting there. Steven Moffat had said that he wanted to start “blurring the lines” between whether stories were one, two, or more parts and he’s certainly achieved that. The result is a season that, as we edge into the second half, feels more consistent in its tone and theme than perhaps any season before.
The Doctor’s fateful space walk in an exposed vacuum in “Oxygen” continues to have lasting consequences, and not just in the very obvious way of his being blind. The Doctor seems less trusting of himself now, less willing to simply assume he’ll be able to busk a last minute solution off the top of his head. He even green lights a military attack early on, even though he strongly suspects it will be useless, because he’s not willing to wait for inspiration to strike him with one of his patented offbeat plans. But parallel to that is his lingering inability to admit weakness, to ask for help freely given, and this comes back to bite him too; with his refusal to tell Bill the truth about his blindness until it’s too late & has devastating consequences at the episode’s climax.
That’s accomplished in a supremely clever moment where, just on the point of victory, the Doctor’s genius plan hits a terrible snag that’s both unforeseeable and somehow inevitable. It also builds perfectly on the episode’s mission statement, delivered “Before the Flood” style in an early scene, the Doctor noodling on his guitar as he lectures the audience directly about the tiny, untraceable moments that build and combine until disaster is unavoidable. A broken pair of glasses here, a decision to stay on for ‘one more’ drink there, a little white lie to a companion that’s selfish yet hardly going to threaten the fate of the planet… and suddenly it’s the end of the world.
The Doctor’s speechifying is interrupted, in a neat response to all the fan questions about that previous fourth wall breaking scene with Beethoven’s Fifth, by Bill knocking on the TARDIS door – “Are you talking to yourself in there?” Ms Potts thankfully gets more to do this week after her rather slight contribution to “Extremis” but she gets some humorous call backs to that episode too. After Shadow Bill had her date with Penny (Ronke Adekoluejo) ruined by the Pope unexpectedly showing up in her flat, and the Doctor consequently encouraging the real Bill to chase down the real Penny while there was still time, this week opens with their first real date being ruined by… the Secretary General of the United Nations (Togo Igawa) showing up in her flat. It’s a moment that doesn’t really make sense (how can the UN have worked out that Bill is the Doctor’s current companion, but not that the Time Lord is her tutor at St. Luke’s?) but it’s worth it for the laugh. Ultimately, though, Pearl Mackie gets heavily dramatic material to work with towards the episode’s close. A large part of the companion’s role, since the days of Ian and Barbara, has been to be the Doctor’s conscience. Here though, the conflict is between Bill’s temptation to surrender and the Doctor’s iron determination to save the Earth at any cost. Trapped between the revelation of the Doctor’s lies and the offer of the Monks’ version of ‘truth,’ the final decision falls on Bill’s shoulders.
Colonel Brabbit (Eben Young) and the Secretary General (Togo Igawa), professional ruiners of date night
Unexpectedly, the Shadow World continues to play an active part in events. Having served its purpose to introduce the Monks and the imminent danger they represent, it might have seemed destined to be dumped from the plot early on. But the Monks’ entire scheme continues to rely upon it, as they use its intricate model of the planet to not represent the present and test scenarios as they were last week, but to actually predict the future. Briefly we get to see back inside too, where – put on fast forward a year into the future – things are looking pretty bad, with the Shadow People extinct.
Like the Furies of old, the Truth Monks use the threads of their Shadow World to plan out and guide humankinds’ destinies
In fact, the follow through from last week is so strong, and the themes and characterization across “Oxygen,” “Extremis,” and “Pyramid” so consistent, that it’s slightly difficult to believe that they’ve been from three different writers. Either everyone has been atypically collaborative on where their episodes meet, almost like the US writers’ room system, or Steven Moffat has been working overtime and finessing the links between them to be totally seamless. This entry in the sequence is from Peter Harness, who previously gave us the astonishingly awful “Kill the Moon” (easily in my Twenty Worst Stories Ever list) and the superlatively brilliant “The Zygon Invasion/Inversion” (conversely in my Five Best Stories Ever list). This tale of mysterious pyramids, biochemical lab whoopsies and discussions on the nature of predestination isn’t quite up to the level of his Zygon two-parter but it definitely puts to bed any fear that that story was just a blip. The only real point of criticism I can offer to “Pyramid at the End of the World” at all is that, even for Doctor Who, and even considering that stated concept of small bad decisions multiplying by each other to create massive consequences, the script is propelled along by the guest characters being one of the most stupid collections of numbskulls the Doctor has encountered on his travels. Almost nobody does anything remotely sensible at any point. It’s remarkable. It’s slightly excused by the Monks having to search the whole of human history to find a tipping point exactly like this, with so many poor decisions and so many idiots all intersecting in one situation, but still.
The sole slight exception is scientist Erica (Rachel Denning). She actually makes some pretty poor decisions of her own, but once the Doctor shows up at her lab she falls quickly into a role as his capable assistant – intelligent and resourceful and only half a step behind him in his thought process. She even gets a tentative offer of a berth on the TARDIS, which has historically doomed a character to death ever since Lynda with a Y and survives… so far. It’s also laudable that having cast an actor with restricted growth, it has no bearing on the story whatsoever and goes completely unremarked upon.
Douglas (Tony Gardner) and Erica (Rachel Denning) are having a very bad, not good day – but unfortunately are about to bring the rest of the world down with them
That plan of the Monks is something that I don’t think we’ve seen on Doctor Who before. They require the human race’s consent to be ruled. Consent that must be freely and honestly given but which can never be revoked. And so they’ve used their shadow world to predict humanity’s future with pin point accuracy and find a pain point – a singular day that’s a turning point for the human race, where the world dooms itself to disaster – and then offer to change that future in return for absolute rule of the planet. It’s a nice new form of alien invasion and one that presents a new challenge to the Doctor as he basically has to compete with the Monks to persuade the world that he can save it first. The way he goes about it, too, is genuinely clever and well thought out by Harness. Usually I’m not a fan of supernatural, or effectively supernatural, threats in Doctor Who and, with their almost vampiric need to be invited in as the world’s new rulers, zombie like appearance and their unexplained ability to reshape the world at will, the Monks veer dangerously close to that but somehow they get away with it. In part that’s because there’s still more to learn about them and hopefully it will deliver a satisfying rounding out of their origins and methods.
The dessicated Truth Monks demand “consent from power” to spread their dominion over the globe
This mid-season arc has been of such high quality that pressure on next week’s “The Lie of the Land” to deliver a fitting and satisfying conclusion is sky high. Based on the previews, it will and Toby Whithouse being on scripting duties is a very good sign. It also promises to bring the Vault saga to a climax, and perhaps even a close, and provide an inversion of a classic story structure. If it’s half as dark and funny as it looks, we’re in for a good time. It’s exceptional, in any event, that we’re heading into the eighth episode of the season with all the excitement and anticipation of a season finale.
[Five TARDISes Out of Five]
Doctor Who airs on Saturdays. On BBC One in the UK on at 7.20pm GMT, in the US on BBC America at 9pm EST, in Canada on Space at 9pm EST. In Australia it airs on ABC on Sundays at 7.42pm.
This episode is due out on DVD and Blu Ray on May 29th
By: Peter Nolan