Previously on Doctor Who, “Extremis”
“The end of your life has already begun. There is a last place you will ever go. The last door you will ever walk through. The last sight you will ever see, and every step you ever take, is moving you closer.”
This season’s episodes have started with their share of serious philosophical speeches carrying double meaning, and this week’s is no exception, referring to both the end of the world and the imminent regeneration of the Twelfth Doctor. Saddled with the longest title in the history of Who, “The Pyramid at the End of the World” was co-written by Steven Moffat and Peter Harness, previously of “Kill the Moon” and “The Zygon Invasion/Inversion” where you’ve previously heard the fictional country Turmezistan, now the epicenter of Earth’s conflict with the Monks. This trilogy—indeed next episode is part of this surprise arc—also shares a director with the Zygon episodes, Daniel Nettheim, as well as two central pillars, namely the Doctor as President of Earth and deadly enemies masquerading as a semi-friendly face.
A veiled political commentary, its effectiveness is somewhat questionable considering the layers upon layers used to make its point. Compounding this is that the argument is not completely made, which is, to my estimation, the dangers of party line devotion. Don’t give carte blanche to anyone. Question authority. Look to the greater good. Stay woke. The signposts are there. The substance? Not quite. I also question where the thematic use of slavery and racism is going, as the writers seem to be blending true slavery and racism with dilute versions, i.e. the Doctor watching Missy, his caring for Earth, etc., which extrapolates to the darkest view of obligations forged through love. Maybe I’m reading their intentions incorrectly, but it is disingenuous to use true slavery as a springboard to examine the bonds of willingly-formed relationships and political stupidity. Or is this contrast to make us realize that those bonds are not slavery and we should all wake up? I’m reminded of the metaphorical throwing of noodles to see which ones stick, rather than a coherent recipe.
As for the quality of the episode, results may vary. The devastating consequences of this deal, highlighted by the frightening light over Bill’s heart and Nardole’s sudden collapse, were a breath of fresh horror-scented air in comparison to the rebounds of the last few episodes. Performances were particularly effective for Bill, Nardole, and scientist Erica (Rachel Denning), who was a fantastic one-off companion, much like Sally Sparrow, soothing and smart. The rest were sadly disposable from the moment they appeared on screen, and even the handshake of “giving peace a chance” scarcely warmed my cold, dead heart. I thoroughly side-eyed the Doctor’s Snowden-like research methods, followed by whiplash-quick narrowing down Ground Zero. Was this another clue at the sympatico between the Doctor and Nardole or just snip-snap writing convenience? I also did not find the Doctor’s self-pep talk amusing, although his physical comedy in the lab was top notch. Lastly I questioned the Monks’ ability to heal the Doctor; regardless of their true identity… HOW?
Sometimes Love Dooms the Day
The story itself is not a complicated one, but the overall idea piggybacks onto the Doctor’s disability, a manifestation of one of this season’s many themes: sight. Besides the obvious, consider Bill’s induction into the reality of aliens on earth, Missy kept from our view, and even Bill’s foster mother unable to see Bill as a gay woman. This episode compounds these concepts with a double whammy. The Monks land a 5,000 year old pyramid in Turmezistan and sync the symbolic Doomsday Clock to everyone’s devices, bringing the UN, America, China, and Russia to the brink of conflict while offering to exchange “guaranteed” peace for subjugation, all to distract from the real danger. As the Monks tap into the Earth’s monitors, two blurry-eyed, Agrofuel Research scientists having the most mundane of days blunder into the apocalypse by mistakenly releasing a megadose of mutant plant-eating bacteria.
While the world powers debate the effectiveness of allying against the aliens, and ultimately take the deal, the Doctor continues hiding his blindness successfully. Not surprisingly, it’s the American general who galvanizes the other two military leaders to “strategically” surrender Earth, believing it is the only decision available, but none, including the Doctor, have a clear vision of what the Monks’ control means.
Unable to provide the Monks with pure motives to form the “link,” all of the leaders die, and Nardole, manning the TARDIS, is struck down by the bacteria, leaving Bill as the Doctor’s, and Earth’s, last standing representative. The Doctor swoops in to purge the lab from its toxic contents but is foiled from escape by a simple manual lock that he can’t see, leading to Bill bargaining away Earth’s freedom for the Doctor’s eyes, leaning on all of those Trust Me’s to make it right in the end.
When are companions going to learn that doesn’t always work to their advantage?
“Power must consent.”
Under the umbrella of thematic slavery, the Monks exploit the concept of consent. They note that neither fear nor strategy are as effective in forming the “link” as love, recalling the utterly traumatizing end of Torchwood’s “Children of Earth.” Only Bill with her love for the Doctor can offer them enough consensual submission to strike the deal, but, with the fate of the world at hand and the Earth’s ultimate defender struck blind, does Bill really have the power of true consent? Do they care? Like all imbalanced relational equations, no and no. The exchange is only the click “OK” after the virus has been downloaded, its true nature yet to be revealed.
Grooming Earth to give this consent is where “The Pyramid at the End of the World” dips strongly into politics again. The Monks ignite humanity’s desire to be safe and cared for without responsibility. To rule through fear is inefficient, yet they necessarily inspire fear before offering the opportunity to fix things indefinitely without explaining the price. Everyone is so desperate for the solution that no one asks, speaking to the haste with which people turn over their lives to trusted parties without understanding of their motivations and capabilities. This commentary addresses not only the imbalance of power, but the enthusiastic embrace of that power. The most nefarious of all Judases, betrayal of humanity out of love for one’s own people, followed by complicit blindness to the price. The American general is all too proud to state that if anyone has power, he does, but doesn’t ask for the bottom line and dies ironically.
Sound familiar? Continuing along that line is their question, “Do you have power?” Bill claims she is nobody and has no power, but as someone with emotional ties to the Doctor, she has much power. This could easily be interpreted as the political cry of having no power to change things, no significant vote, when in fact individuals have all of the power. Sadly, these ideas are quite hidden, diluting the episode’s weight, which could have been positively scathing.
“We have chosen this form.”
The final thematic idea explored is duality and choice of identity. Not unlike the Doctor’s changing identity to reflect his inner state and Nardole’s choice of face, the Monks mention that they chose this appearance for our benefit. If decrepit mummies in monk robes are the best they could do, how much more horrifying is their true identity? The season’s preview photos feature the Doctor with Mondasian Cybermen, throwbacks from “The Tenth Planet,” in which the First Doctor discovers that the original inhabitants of Mondas, Earth’s twin planet, have replaced their limbs with cybernetics. Their tall bodies and oblong heads certainly fit the Monks’ general outline, and the Cybermen are fond of appearing in disguise (“Army of Ghosts” and “Dark Water”). Their use of “form a link” and particular corruption of “consent” seems to confirm a technologically-based nature. For less certain evidence, look to their coordinated march back into the pyramid.
Alternatively, the Monks could be Time Lords in disguise, potentially the Doctor’s old nemesis Rassilon, who is skilled at managing alternate timelines, creating long-running simulations, and channeling Time Lord energies into reshaping the universe. As President and leader of the Prydonian Chapter the Doctor mentioned in “Extremis,” Rassilon was also a primary figure in the Time Lord’s war against the Vampires, which Bill jokingly posed as a possibility for their identity. Being Time Lords would explain the Monks’ ability to heal the Doctor’s eyesight, the pyramid with control center (TARDIS?), and the red robes. Theoretically, they might specifically be seeking the Doctor to reclaim his regeneration energy and use it to save themselves. Rassilon has even had dealings with the Cybermen in the comic “Supremacy of the Cybermen,” so these two theories might not be exclusive. If true, this conflict would pit the Doctor and the Master against the Time Lords with Earth in the balance, which would be fitting in so many ways. Whatever the answer, there isn’t much season left before all is revealed, including the Doctor’s own change in nature.
Quotes, Theories, and References
- Theory: Is the solution apparent from the wink this episode fails to give, the only one not to reference Missy or the Vault?
- I enjoyed the juxtaposition of the Doomsday Clock vs. the bomb’s counter clock, with the Doctor’s fate determined by a simple combination lock.
- “Oh my God.”
“No, I’m the Doctor. But it’s an easy mistake to make. It’s the eyebrows.”
- Nardole’s natty button microphone–very fun.
- Poor Bill’s relationship with Penny seems to be doomed to interruption by significant figures; last week, it was the Pope, and this week it’s the UN Secretary General.
- Jamie Hill, who plays one of the Monks, also played the Foretold in “The Mummy on the Orient Express” and will play two more aliens later this season.
- In Doctor Who, humanity tends to decide for the wrong thing. See: the Abilene Paradox.
- “I don’t know the President. I wouldn’t have even voted for him. He’s orange.”
- “It’s not my first dead planet.”—the first one was Skaro.
- A similar pyramid appeared in “The Keys of Marinus.”
- The holes in the UN base windows recalls, “I love the round things!”
- “Every trap you walk into is a chance to learn about your enemies. Impossible to set a trap without making a self-portrait of your own weaknesses.”
Doctor Who S10E7
"The Pyramid at the End of the World"
Starring: Peter Capaldi, Pearl Mackie, Matt Lucas, Ronke Adekoluejo, Tim Bentinck, Andrew Byron, Daphne Cheung, Rachel Denning, Tony Gardner, Nigel Hastings, Jamie Hill, Togo Igawa, Eben Young