Sometimes the slightest shift in emphasis or tone, or the slenderest over-reliance on something which looked great on the page but doesn’t quite translate to the screen, can upset the balance of an episode. The Pyramid at the End of the World has a fantastic conceit at its heart, a script stuffed with memorable moments and quotable dialogue, and is positioned in Series Ten so as to achieve maximum impact; this is Doctor Who, just as it was in Oxygen, finding new things to do with the format and the characters, even after fifty-plus years of telling stories.
But it didn’t quite work.
It’s hard to put your finger on just why. There were any number of minor instances of directorial and authorial decisions which didn’t quite seem to come home, but which in any other episode might easily have been forgivable and quickly forgotten about. The Monks stepping in time through the desert back to their pyramid looked silly, but not that silly, for example, but coming off the back of a tremendous and joyously audacious effects sequence this one simple shot served to underline the ridiculousness of the spectacle in a way that undermined rather than complemented it. Or the image of the three most powerful military leaders on Earth discussing the future of humankind, with barely an aide or second-in-command to be seen, was just about acceptable in that Doctor Who, all-the-cast-you-can-afford kind of a way, until the moment the Doctor thrust them in front of Google and suddenly they all looked implausibly ludicrous rather than pleasingly preposterous. Peter Harness’ first Doctor Who, 2014’s Kill the Moon, had several similarly improbable moments but rode them on a wave of incredulity that worked for some and staggered others, but Kill the Moon never hit the middle ground that The Pyramid at the End of the World seems to occupy, wherein the suspension of disbelief is stretched beyond breaking point but in a manner that forces you to keep wanting to make up for it.
The point at which it became apparent that something was afoot was when Peter Capaldi, hitherto nicely subdued due to his blindness but counterbalancing that by being extra playful in public, made a very ostentatious first contact with the aliens in a scene that imparted some vital information but played out so inconsequentially it felt almost like he’d just delivered them their mail. There was a huge, tension-packed build-up to the interaction, entirely punctured by the “Not ready to talk yet” / “Okay, fair enough” moment everybody involved noticed it wasn’t yet time for the story to begin proper. Thereafter, all the suspense the episode might have mustered was dissipated either by the sense that everything was being spelled out too much in advance of developments, or that the episode was wilfully trying not to ride its clichés to the extent that many of its situations lost any sense of authenticity.
Of course, what all of this was building to was Bill’s surrender to the Monks, a resolution that would have been brilliantly intense and filled with righteous, frustrated compromise, if on the one hand the Doctor’s predicament hadn’t felt so deliberately mundane that the lack of a more banal solution to it became ridiculous, or if Bill’s ignorance of the Doctor’s blindness hadn’t by this point begun to make her look rather foolish. It’s not out of character for someone who initially thought the TARDIS was a kitchen to exhibit a lack of awareness about the most obvious things while picking up on much less obvious things much more quickly, but it is becoming an issue that there are certain ways in which she’s demonstrated herself to be an entirely inappropriate travelling companion for someone who is, as they put it a few weeks ago, on the business end of an intergalactic helpline. It’s more than likely that Toby Whithouse’s incorporation of The Man in the High Castle into the series’ repertoire next week, will both address and/or redress Bill’s shortcomings, but The Pyramid at the End of the World ultimately presents her as a hindrance, and a fatally dangerous one, and while that might be an interesting place to take a character – particularly as Pearl Mackie plays the dilemma just as well as she performs absolutely everything else – it’s still an odd one. Our hearts are supposed to go out to Bill, that’s the emotion the scene is drawing on, but instead there’s the feeling that everybody on set is wearing an “I’m with stupid” t-short under their costumes, and that all the arrows are pointing straight up.
The notion that Steven Moffat has deliberately dumbed down his final series of Doctor Who, in order that those who might not have cared to keep up with the last couple of series might be welcomed back on board, is also having a negative effect on the episodes, particularly noticeable here. We saw far too much of Douglas and Erica, his hangover and the biological agent angle were made far too much of, for there to be any surprise as to how the episode would progress; those sleights of hand and moments of revelation that Moffat has become so associated with were all there in the plot, but all too obviously forewarned of to really work. There were also unanswered questions – that may yet be addressed next week, but currently look like ill-thought through plot conceits – left dangling; why a pyramid? Why the need to be invited? Conceits that undermine the Monks’ position as a legitimate adversary.
All of which is to say that The Pyramid at the End of the World was an episode with the potential to be extraordinary. It took Doctor Who by the scruff of its neck and led it to the very edge of its capabilities. This was a story in which the bad guys won, and did so thanks to the writers giving the Doctor’s companion an impossible and emotionally wrenching predicament. It was, in many ways, what The Sound of Drums perhaps should have been; a very personalised end of the world scenario, Moffat’s vision of the series laid bare.
And it was very entertaining to watch, a surfeit of unforgettable images bound together by the apprehension that for once things wouldn’t turn out well. There was a foreboding about the situation from the very start, and as events progressed, that sense only increased until it became manifest. It goes without saying, Capaldi, Mackie and Matt Lucas were incredible, they always are, and the guest cast met them and matched what they were doing. It was incredible to look at, a motion picture on a television budget, deceiving the audience into thinking more of it than the production could possibly afford to put there. And the pre-titles sequence was filled with hilarious and largely unexpected moments.
But it took an extraordinary story and did its damnedest to make it feel ordinary, and that’s a real shame because this episode was very close to being one of the highlights of Series Ten; as it is, it’s a more than acceptable juncture in the ongoing narrative, but one that has somehow conspired to be a little less than the sum of its parts.
DR. WHO SERIES 10, EPISODE 7: “THE PYRAMID AT THE END OF THE WORLD” / DIRECTOR: DANIEL NETTHEIM / WRITER: PETER HARNESS, STEVEN MOFFAT / STARRING: PETER CAPALDI, PEARL MACKIE, MATT LUCAS, TOGO IGAWA, RACHEL DENNING, TONY GARDNER / RELEASE DATE: AVAILABLE NOW ON I-PLAYER (AIRED 27TH MAY)