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Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Doctor Who S36E7: The Pyramid at the End of the World

Doctor Who
Series 36, Episode 7
The Pyramid at the End of the World.

Sometimes, sometimes, the critical reaction to Doctor Who episodes make me feel like I'm going a little bit mad. Because after no end of critics giving warm and enthusiastic praise to what has, thus far, been a very middling, milquetoast series in my eyes, we have those same critics saying that this episode is 'nothing special.'

That surprises me, because I'd say that this is easily the best episode we've had this series. It's still not really a scratch on any of Doctor Who's really good episodes, but it's a significant step up from any of the episodes we've seen so far in this series, with an interesting concept and a certain amount of spark and zeal that has been missing in the previous six episodes.

Taking place in the real world in the aftermath of the simulation that made up episode six, this week's episode sees a pyramid materialise in the contested region of Turmezistan, containing the Monks from the simulation. Informing several military leaders and the Secretary-General of the UN that the world will soon end, and employing an array of mind games, the Monks offer to save the world, but only if someone with authority consents to their dominion out of love. Meanwhile, in a laboratory somewhere, a series of innocuous mistakes ends up creating a super-bacterium that can eat through flesh.

As mentioned before, this episode is co-written by Steven Moffat and Peter Harness, the latter of whom wrote the kind of terrible Zygon episodes from the last series. Not exactly a confidence inspiring combination, but I was determined to give the episode a chance anyway.

Bill and Nardole.

It got off to a good start, too, with a pretty clever 'previously on' segment that juxtaposed the events of the previous episode with Bill talking to her date, only to then comically mimic the outcome of that same date in the simulation by having the Secretary-General of the UN (who is never named, but obviously meant to be Ban Ki-Moon) burst into her house.

What this episode really has going for it, though, is a relatively interesting concept. The plot's eventual conclusion -- Bill giving her consent out of love for the Doctor, dooming the world for at least (and indeed at most) an episode -- wasn't a shocking one. It was practically a given from the moment we found out that the Monks needed someone to give consent out of love that Bill would be the one to do so, especially when the series has been trying to build up the grandfather-granddaughter esque relationship they have.

(Any shock factor that does come from that likely has more to do with Doctor Who not often doing three parters, especially partway through a series.)

In fact, just in general, this episode is low on shocks. We know from the moment we're told the world is going to end that it'll be because of what's happening in the lab, and we know that the Doctor's blindness will present some kind of obstacle, and we even sort of know how the mini character arcs of the three generals are going to pan out.

A Monk, being monkish.

(There's something of a Casualty vibe to the lab sections, as a couple of scientists -- one dangerously tired -- potter about their day to day life, as we wait for the inevitable calamity that will shove them into the main plotline of the episode. There's a potentially compelling tale in a scientist making a tiny, innocent mistake and inadvertently dooming the world, but this episode -- with its Monks, pyramids, threats of war, and mysterious talk of love, authority, and consent -- doesn't much explore it.)

This isn't an episode of tremendous surprises, but it is an interesting one nonetheless, and the key mystery -- why do the Monks need or want 'love' and what will that allow them to do, and how -- is an interesting enough one to carry the episode on. It would have been nice to see the show make a little bit more of that. There's an argument that could be made that the whole thing about consent and power dynamics is meant to be some kind of allegory, and -- maybe? I guess? Peter Harness is fond of allegory and moral messages, but they're always far too incoherent to make heads or tails off, and this episode is no different. I have an inkling that he might have been trying to make a point, especially when issues of consent loom so large in societal discourse, but I have no clue what it was even meant to be.

Some other people.

We do get some kind of pay-off on the Doctor's blindness, though, even if it's not much of a pay-off: After two episodes of being barely inhibited at all by not being able to see, the Doctor is undone by a combination lock and his own refusal to tell anyone else he's blind, thus prompting Bill to give her consent to the Monks. It's not a stunning pay-off, let's be honest. It's workaday, rendering his whole blindness into set-up for this moment.

Still, a solid enough episode, and if they pull it off, the next episode looks like it could be really good.

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