“It’s a 5000 year old pyramid. There’s one problem with that, one little problem. It wasn’t there yesterday.”
So, we’re into the middle part of the ‘Monk trilogy’ in this week’s Doctor Who, and while Steven Moffat’s still on writing duties, this time he’s enlisted the help of Peter Harness, who I thought did rather well with the Zygon two-parter in the last full season.
This could easily lead to a clash in styles, but actually, The Pyramid at the End of the World hung together just fine. The overall plot is clearly Moffat’s but many of the trappings are equally clearly Harness’. Returning from The Zygon Invasion is the fictional wartorn country of Turmezistan, the Doctor’s emergency status as President of Earth, and his UN-sponsored presidential jet.
This gave the whole thing a slight feeling of familiarity, but actually, the multi-part story this reminds me most of so far is 2007’s Utopia / The Sound of Drums / Last of the Time Lords. Here as there, we have what initially seems like a standalone story leading into something bigger; also here as there, the second part has ended with what looks like victory for the baddies. It remains to be seen whether the resemblance will continue for the final part of the trilogy, the first three-parter since that one.
But the trouble with being the middle chunk of a three part story is that it’s hard to assess it on its own – technically, it has neither a beginning nor an ending! Still, on its own terms I found this enjoyable, though there may be room for a rethink after next week’s conclusion. Director Daniel Nettheim certainly gave it something of an epic feel, with the overseas location, a plethora of extras, and realpolitik touches like the UN Land Rovers storming through the desert disgorging blue-hatted UN troops.
As the UN were so heavily involved, it seemed a little odd not to have seen UNIT, especially since they were mentioned towards the end of the script. I can only assume that Jemma Redgrave wasn’t available to play Kate Lethbridge-Stewart this time round, so Moffat wheeled out the UN big guns rather than something like the endless succession of Brigadier standins we saw in the 70s.
It’s a shame not to have seen Kate again, but let’s face it, the UN Secretary General does rather outrank her. It also made for an amusing reprise of last week’s disastrous date interruption for Bill. Though the Pope is probably more intimidating to someone struggling with her sexuality than the UN Secretary General, it certainly put the kibosh on that evening. Actually I’m sort of glad about that – while Penny seems nice, I don’t really want a rerun of the whole Clara/Danny thing that came to dominate season 8.
It was a nicely structured script, the sense of foreboding set out right from the start as the Doctor mused that the end of the world could already be under way, caused by “a billion little things”. Those “little things” here were worryingly believable – a broken pair of glasses, a hangover and a misplaced decimal point. The story of the lab accident unfolded gradually in parallel with the sequences dealing with the Monks, giving it a satisfying feel of two plots gradually coming together; top marks for Rachel Denning and Tony Gardner as workaday scientists Erica and Douglas.
But what do the Monks want, and who are they? Since we’ve one more part next week, the ep served up some tantalising tidbits without actually revealing any answers. So, apparently they’ve chosen to look like that (an odd choice, as Colonel Brabbit observed), meaning that they actually look like something else. I wonder what that could be?
It also seems odd that, with the power to take over the planet, they won’t do it unless asked. That’s surely significant, as must be their condition that they need to be loved to rule. As the Doctor put it, “fear is temporary – love is slavery”. Ominous indeed.
There was a genuine sense of mounting urgency about the piece, cleverly accentuated by the use of the Doomsday Clock to convey the oncoming global catastrophe. The script also took the time to build the concept of consent to the Monks’ rule, as attempt after attempt failed on the basis that the consent wasn’t ‘pure’ enough. The Monks are a pretty chilling creation, and the revelation that they can turn you to dust was certainly liable to scare any little kiddies watching.
That said, this felt more like a grown-up Who story than some recently; I wonder how many parents had to patiently explain what a hangover is, and why it might lead to the extinction of life on Earth. However, presumably for pacing expediency, it felt like there were a few plot holes and improbable leaps in logic here. Why would anyone build a lab with biohazard containment which automatically vents potentially contaminated air into the atmosphere even when on lockdown?
And while the Doctor’s plan to find the one lab the Monks were monitoring was a typically Doctor-ish bit of cleverness, it did seem like a remarkable leap in logic to go from realising the threat of WWIII was a misdirection to suddenly guessing what the real threat was. After all, even outside of a nuclear war, there are other things that could wipe out life on the planet than a micro-organism. But Nardole leapt straight to the right answer with the Doctor not far behind. Lucky for them – and us.
That’s mostly quibbling though, generally this felt like a good script without being particularly great, that served the purpose of a middle part – perhaps not as effectively as The Empire Strikes Back, but then you can’t have everything. And despite his first effort, the dire Kill the Moon, Peter Harness did a good job with the Zygon two-parter. On that occasion, a serviceable first part was followed by a really good second part; we’ll see next week if he (and Mr Moffat) pulls that off again.