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.