Tag Archives: monks

Chance, choice and The Pyramid at the End of the World (2017)

pyramidend

Poor Erica (Rachel Denning). We’ve all had those days where small, unforeseen events spark a chain reaction which turns your whole day into a massive clusterf*ck.

First, your reading glasses get smashed, so you can’t read a chemical formula at work. So you ask one of your colleagues to do it, only he’s chronically hungover and gets it wrong. Before you know it, you have to lock down the lab for fear that you’re about to release a killer biochemical agent into the atmosphere and bring about the end of all life on Earth. Admittedly none of my days have spiraled out of control to that extent, but it makes me grateful that I don’t work anywhere with the potential for catastrophic accidents: nuclear power stations, military bases or the like. Because I forget my glasses all the time.

The Pyramid at the End of the World is about these random events, at least in part. The crux of its story is that the alien Monks have drawn attention away from what’s going on in this tiny Agrofuel facility, so as to aid their attempts to gain humanity’s consent for them to intervene and save the world (more about the Monks’ complicated strategising later on). In doing so, the Monks are pointing out that we as humans are concentrating on the wrong things, and around the world, there are all sorts of things going on with the potential to go randomly and disastrously wrong about which we remain blissfully unaware. So that’s reassuring.

Co-writer Peter Harness likes to present global disasters in his Doctor Who stories. All three have examined how individuals cope under the pressure of dealing with worldwide threats and the decisions those people make when scared and desperate. Often, the people who are making those decisions are military; all three of his stories have army personnel front and centre. This helps sell a gritty… well, I hesitate to type the word “realism” to describe stories with Zygons and baby moon dragons, but you know what I mean. It also helps to contrast the military thinking to these problems with the Doctor’s (Peter Capaldi) more off-the-wall approach.

For the Doctor, the role that chance plays in this story is critical, because it brings about his failure. Having pinpointed the Argofuel lab as the hotspot, the Doctor arrives, teams up with Erica, and finds a solution in record time (it’s to blow everything up. What a mercurial genius! So different from his military friends). But his plans all come undone when he suddenly finds himself on the wrong side of a locked door, with a combination lock he can’t open on account of his temporary blindness. This random event – someone’s retro decision to put a 1970s lock in a 21st century state-of-the-art facility’s door – leads to the Doctor’s certain doom. Bill (Pearl Mackie) has to ask the Monks to save him, thereby consenting to their takeover of the world.

So that’s the first world presented to us by Pyramid. A world of everyday events where chance events upend everything. It feels real and plausible. I believe it. But there’s a second world presented to us within the same story, and it deals not with chance, but with power. And this world doesn’t convince me for a second.

*****

In this other world, the Doctor is the President of the World. It’s a repeat of a plot point used in Dark Water, and an excuse to get the Doctor into an ersatz Air Force One and pretend we’re in a sci-fi version of The West Wing. I have never bought this. It seems antithetical to who the Doctor is – he’s never worked from a position of prominence, let alone a position of authority. He’s saved the world from the behind the scenes, not from centre stage. And the idea that the superpowers of the world, led by narcissists and despots would cede power to the Doctor during a time of grandstanding global crisis doesn’t ring true. Lord help us, they’d all be there, jockeying for the best camera angle.

The Doctor is picked up by secretary general of the UN (Togo Igawa) and taken to the fictional hotspot of Turmezistan (West Wing aficionados will recall that that show had a fictional middle east trouble spot as well). There he coordinates the efforts of the world’s three largest armies. The American, Russian and Chinese commanding officers all fall in behind him, making friends, taking the Doctor’s lead, even undertaking some light Googling on his behalf.

It just doesn’t seem plausible that three great military leaders are going to allow themselves to be hogtied into a joint planning meeting, make solo decisions based on their nations’ interests and accept the leadership of a grumpy Scotsman. For some reason, Doctor Who never quite pulls off these attempts at geopolitical realism; it’s one world the series can’t seem to build. They should have stuck to a UN peacekeeping force, with one belligerent general to spark off. Basically, it should have just been UNIT, but instead, we get the Doctor as President, aided and abetted by the bigwigs of the world’s armies; a scenario which is both atypical and implausible.

Then there are the Monks, the most cautious alien invaders the show has ever presented. They run countless simulations to make sure their takeover plans are going to work, even though they seem to be able to do anything with their quasi-magical powers. Their modus operandi is equally methodical. They will take over a planet and enslave the population, but only if they are asked. Further, they can’t be asked out of strategy or fear, they have to be asked out of love. There’s a lot of fiddly stipulations here, but the chief Monk (Jamie Hill, voice Tim Bentinck) insists, “we must be loved. To rule through fear is inefficient.” You want to know what else is inefficient, buddy? Asking a planet’s population to consent in a needlessly complicated way before you enslave their sorry arses. Apple just does it by forcing people to accept incomprehensible terms and conditions with a simple “accept” button. C’mon, Monks, it’s the 21st century.

Where does all this leave us? With a collision of two worlds: one which is embedded in a worryingly familiar reality, where everyday human foibles will bring about the end of the world before we’ve even noticed there’s something wrong. The other is an inherently unbelievable world of geopolitical negotiations, between the leaders of the world and a strangely bureaucratic alien threat. In the first, the Doctor acts like the Doctor: working things out quietly and saving the world out of view. In the other, the Doctor’s not even the Doctor, but a President, rubbing shoulders with world leaders and coordinating their military forces. It’s what makes The Pyramid at the End of the World a story which feels like it’s constantly cutting between two very different visions of Doctor Who.

LINK TO The Ghost Monument: The Doctor carries sunglasses in both.

NEXT TIME: One solid hope is worth a cartload of certainties as we attempt to fix the hinges on Warriors’ Gate.

The highs, the lows and The Lie of the Land (2017)

lie of the land

Sometimes, we get the best and worst of Doctor Who in one single episode. So come on down The Lie of the Land, which for me shows both those things in short order. It’s a tale of two scenes.

Let’s get the first and worst out of the way. It’s the most infamous scene in the story, and perhaps, in time, will become the most infamous in the whole of the new series. It’s the one where the Doctor (waspish Peter Capaldi) goads his companion Bill (Pearl Mackie) into shooting him, for no good reason.

The story goes that in a world subjugated by alien Monks, the Doctor has gone over to their side, issuing regular video sermons like it’s 1984. Bill is convinced he’s faking it and concocts a plan with fellow companion Nardole (Matt Lucas) to rescue the Doctor from the prison ship on which he’s being held.

(It’s easy to see why Bill jumps to that conclusion. Faking being bad is a standard Doctory ploy. And it’s not just that scenario which feels familiar. The whole episode, focussing as it does on what happens when the invaders have won and established a totalitarian regime, feels like a retread of The Sound of Drums/The Last of the Time Lords, complete with scenes of people being dragged from their family homes and towering statues of the dictators in question.)

Once Bill and Nardole arrive on the ship, they find their way to the Doctor’s office, but it appears they have made a critical miscalculation. The Doctor hasn’t been faking it. He really has given up and capitulated to the Monks. He berates Bill for causing the situation by asking the Monks for his sight back. He threatens to hand her over to the guards. For Bill, who has spent months fighting against the Monks’ mind control and struggling to hold on to what’s real, this is too much. Distraught, she snatches a gun and shoots the Doctor three times in the chest.

Which is when the Doctor fakes a regeneration, reveals the bullets were blanks and reverses his fake out. He was fooling her all the time. He’s not in league with the Monks. Nardole and everyone else in the room was in on it. He played out this macabre charade, because “I had to just check that you weren’t under the influence and testing me.” The end result is Bill humiliated in a room full of people, after her friend psychologically tortured her to the point where she attempted to murder him. For the sake of a cheap trick.

The Doctor faking that he’s gone bad is everywhere from The Invasion of Time to Mindwarp. And the Doctor breaking down his companions’ faith in him is equally common from The Curse of Fenric to The God Complex. But never before has the Doctor coerced one of his friends into murder. Sure, it’s an exercise in “how far can we take this?”, complete with an ersatz regeneration. But it’s not important to the plot, it’s instantly forgotten and it’s unnecessarily cruel. Bill never gets to redress this emotional abuse and humiliation. It’s the most poorly judged moment since the show’s return; the equivalent of the strangling in The Twin Dilemma. May we never see its like again.

But then – the second of these two remarkable scenes.

The Doctor and Bill realise they need some intel to help them beat the Monks so they decide to open the Vault and consult Missy (Michelle Gomez). There isn’t a Doctor Who story around which wouldn’t be enlivened by a scene with Missy and this one is straight out of The Silence of the Lambs, in which serial killer Hannibal Lecter is consulted by young detective Clarice Starling on how to catch another murderer. Like Lecter, Missy issues her advice from within a cell. She taunts and flirts with our heroes. She is, despite being caged, in complete control of the scene. One minute she’s a school mistress, circling her enclosure, correcting the Doctor’s faulty reasoning. The next she’s a vamp, rolling around on the top of a grand piano.

The Doctor and Bill have come asking for Missy’s help and she knows it. She starts with bragging that she could easily escape if she wanted to and then starts the horse trading. She wants a 3D printer and a pony apparently, but that’s a transparent lie. She already has what she wants. That’s the Doctor’s attention.

Better than that, the Doctor is going to be in debt to her and she can use that to her advantage. She’s correctly anticipated the situation and she knows that to defeat the Monks. Bill has to die. “Awk-ward,” Missy sing songs when she breaks this news to Bill, her steely eyes revealing that she knew this was where they were heading all along.

And it ends beautifully, with Missy pointing out that the Doctor doesn’t have a monopoly on virtue, and that the answers he seeks aren’t always easy.

MISSY: I’m sorry your plus one doesn’t get a happy ending, but, like it or not, I just saved this world because I want to change. Your version of good is not absolute. It’s vain, arrogant and sentimental.

And after watching the scene where the Doctor indulged in mental torture of his best friend, who could argue with the vain and arrogant part?

It’s a delicious, elegant scene. But it seems to me there’s so much untapped dramatic potential here. Imagine a better version of that first scene where Missy taunts Bill into defeating the Monks by shooting the Doctor. Or if the Doctor had indeed teamed up with Monk and Bill and Nardole had to release Missy to defeat him. Where might we ended up under these or any number of other scenarios? Not, I hope with an ending where the all powerful alien conquerors are defeated by a memory of Bill’s mum. Not since Azal was confused to death by Jo has a badass been defeated more bewilderingly.

I realise I’ve been a little more judgemental of this story than I am usually am in these posts. But as you might have guessed from my thoughts on Extremis, I find the Monk trilogy unusually frustrating. Clearly trying to do something new, but so clearly mired in what’s been done before. And in The Lie of the Land’s case, being muddled in tone and plot alike.

But then I remember that showrunner Steven Moffat was distracted at this time of script editing this by the death of his mother. Apparently, he was struggling to complete this episode as she passed away. That’s unspeakably sad and it goes some way to explaining the unevenness of this adventure. If there’s ever been an episode where we need to cut the Moff some slack, it’s surely this one.

Still, it doesn’t change the fact that The Lie of the Land is one moment clumsy and morally dubious, the next smart and stylish. I keep coming back to The Twin Dilemma. Like that infamous story, it leaves us with the queasy feeling that the companion is not safe in the Doctor’s presence, because at any moment she might find herself on the wrong end of his changeable morality. And that we as viewers aren’t in safe hands, in an episode which swings between such extremes of quality. With the good and the bad in such quick succession, it makes for an uneasy rollercoaster ride of a story.

LINK TO Carnival of Monsters: both feature Cybermen cameos.

NEXT TIME… Right then, troops. No, not troops. Team? Gang? fam? We end the year with the new Doctor in The Woman Who Fell To Earth.

 

Heresy, hearsay and Extremis (2017)

extremis

It’s just as well that Extremis takes place not in the real world, but in a computer simulation. That helps explain why no-one in that world behaves in any believable way.

Let’s say you’ve just read a document which reveals that the world in which you live is a fabrication: a test run for wicked aliens to rehearse an invasion. (A kind of Android Invasion but where random numbers rather than newly minted coins and misprinted calendars are the tell.) Sure, you might be shocked. You might even be appalled. But would you really top yourself? Amongst all these brave readers, wouldn’t there be someone who would react with curiosity, or defiance, or even wonder? Surely, at the very least, you’d tell someone.

To be fair, after an awful lot of to do in Extremis, someone finally does tell someone else. It’s Piero (Francesco Martino), the unusually handsome priest (that’s his sitcom name), who has found his way into the Haereticum (it contains forbidden texts, so I assume things like Travels without the Tardis, Gary Downie’s Doctor Who Cookbook and Zamper). And when given the chance, he emails this explosive work to CERN. Interesting choice. I mean, if you wanted to convince someone to blow up the world, you could have chosen Donald Trump of Kim Jong un. Instead, he chose a group of scientists – rational seekers of the truth of things, unburdened with superstition. The one group of people you could safely assume would react with sobriety and rationality.

But then the CERN in this ersatz world is a strange place too. It’s staffed by Nicolas (Laurent Maurel) who speaks and a lot of extras, who don’t. On the whole, this odd crew seems to be taking mass suicide pretty well. OK, so there’s a couple of people with hands in heads and staring moodily out of windows. But most of the others are wandering around politely like it’s Inge from accounts birthday and they’re waiting for a Hadron Collider shaped cake to arrive. Companions Bill (Pearl Mackie, again given very little proactive to do) and Nardole (Matt Lucas) look more bemused than unnerved. I’m with them.

The other odd thing going on is the weirdly interventionist actions of the upper echelons of the Catholic Church. The Pope (Joseph Long) drops in on the Doctor to ask him to take on a special mission. “You don’t do this,” notes the Doctor. “The Pope doesn’t zoom round the world in the Popemobile, surprising people,” and he’s right. The Popemobile doesn’t zoom anywhere, it’s designed to amble.

Anyway, it’s very unlikely papal behaviour. But again, this is a computer simulation so in this reality, presumably the Pope does make home visits, is aware of the Doctor and his capabilities and is unafraid to transact with a man who could jump in his time machine and disprove the existence of God at the drop of a tall pointy hat. And presumably the Vatican never thought of getting someone to read the Veritas in padded cell with no way to harm themselves. And they never thought of simply destroying it.  And they never thought of… well, about a dozen different ways you could stop reading people a book. But to be fair, once they realised they couldn’t simply burden the Veritas with a crippling, lifelong guilt, they were probably all out of ideas.

***

Meanwhile, in another part of the story, the Doctor is being led towards his execution. But – fake out! – it’s not his at all. It’s Missy’s (Michelle Gomez) and the Doctor’s on hand to deliver the killing blow. Nardole turns up in a robe to deliver a stern but incomprehensible message from the missus. There are lots of meaningful stares between characters. It’s all a bit gradual, but at least it confirms that it’s Missy stuck in the vault the Doctor ends up guarding. And the scenery’s nice. And the Doctor’s gets his best coat ever.

But it ends on something truly stomach churning. To scare Ranfando the executioner (Ivanno Jeremiah) off, the Doctor once again goes for the gambit of letting his reputation as the supreme defeater of bug eyed monsters do the scaring off for him. I’ve noted before how inherently undramatic this is, but up until this point, this tactic has just been smug and irritating. The version Extremis gives us is particularly nasty and inherently unDoctorly.

This particular wheeling out of the Doctor’s track record is accompanied by the beeping tally of how many people he’s killed. It’s his kill record and it’s enough to terrify a man who has a fetishistic attraction to death. So the Doctor wins this battle, not by cleverness or cunning but by being a notorious murderer. The executioner does a comedy “gets frightened and runs off” bit, but it’s not funny. It’s awful. That the Doctor’s resorted to killing people is no surprise. But he’s always regretted it. Never before has he bragged about it in order to win the day.

All this adds up to a sort of un-Doctor Who story. Sure, the Doctor fights against an alien menace, but he doesn’t actually defeat them. He doesn’t save anyone. The best he does is sends himself an email, and it’s not like it contained any information which actually helped him against the Monks in The Pyramid at the End of the World. And none of it actually happened anyway. So it can’t help but be 45 minutes we’ve spent getting precisely nowhere.

***

There’s one line though that’s got me a bit flummoxed. It’s when Missy is surprised to see the Doctor, even though another Time Lord needs to preside at her execution, and he’s the only one this side of the end of the universe.

MISSY: Thought you’d retired. Domestic bliss on Darillium, that’s the word among the Daleks.

The word among the Daleks?  Whatever could this mean? If the Daleks have started to have gossipy little chats around the water cooler, that’s a real development:

ZEG: Well, I’ve heard he’s shacked up with that Song woman in a restaurant for 24 years.

TARRANT: Ooh, that Rose Tyler is going to blow her little blonde gasket when she finds out!

Turns out it that River has sent Nardole to remind the Doctor that virtue is only virtue in extremis – that it’s easy to the right thing when there’s no pressure, but when the chips are down is when we discover the true importance of doing the right thing. (It’s a surprise he needs to reminded of this after The Day of the Doctor, The End of Time and all the rest but there you go).

Quite why the ultimate expression of this is to save Missy’s life, I’m not sure. I mean, the Doctor was never going to let her die, so it’s hardly an example of virtue in extremis. And more crucially, why would River want him to save Missy’s life? On the face of it, this is a terrible idea, as the Doctor’s efforts to rehabilitate Missy lead directly to the disastrous events of World Enough and Time, which will eventually kill him. Makes you wonder why River has it in for him.

Ah well. More people failing to behave in a believable way.

LINK TO Rose: companions living at home in flats with overbearing mothers/step-mothers.

NEXT TIME: When you smile, I want to see those teeth! We sign up for The Happiness Patrol.