|More likely than not, aliens invented airplanes.|
It’s May 27th, 2017. Luis Fonsi, Daddy Yankee, and Justin Bieber remain at number one with “Despacito,” while Liam Payne, Charlie Puth, Harry Styles, and DJ Khaled also chart. Narrowly missing the top ten is Ariana Grande’s “One Last Time,” which re-enters the charts more than two years after its last appearance. This provides us a grim transition to the news, where a terrorist attack at the Manchester Arena kills twenty-two people during one of her concerts. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey stage their final circus show, while on the day of this story six out of seven leaders at the G7 summit reaffirm their commitment to the Paris climate accord. No points for guessing who the odd man out is.
Meanwhile, on television, we have The Pyramid at the End of the World. The Pyramid at the End of the Worldmay or may not have the messiest gestation of any Moffat era story. Certainly it has the messiest one to play out in public. Announcement of Harness’s involvement was left extremely late, and when it came he was laden with the season’s only cowriting credit. The story of this finally emerged in Doctor Who Magazinein Ben Cook’s preview of the episode, in which Moffat made an unprecedented public apology to Harness for how the story was handled. Describing his drafts as dazzling, Moffat notes that he “was imposing too many things on Peter—put this in, put that in,” and explains that the final draft of The Pyramid at the End of the Worldcame due at the same time that Moffat’s mother fell ill, and that Moffat, lacking the time to work closely with Harness to polish the script, literally wrote the final draft by his mother’s deathbed. As he puts it, “I don’t feel great about that—Peter deserved better from me, frankly.” Clearly this is an immensely sad story, and a reaction along the lines of blame or second-guessing the decisions that got made is beyond unhelpful. Nevertheless, the archeology project of excavating the stories that The Pyramid at the End of the Worldcould have become is interesting and fruitful in its own right. And since I happen to have all of the draft scripts handy…
The Pyramid at the End of the Worldbegan life as a script entitled We Dare Not Go a-Hunting, was submitted on April 28, 2016 (Drake was at number one with “One Dance”). This was to be the first part of a two-parter, the second half of which would be called For Fear of Little Men. Harness never wrote a full draft of part two—there’s about twelve pages of loose scenes (compared to 49 pages of the fully drafted We Dare Not Go a-Hunting). Behind the scenes, what went wrong here was simple: Harness had a vacation scheduled that conflicted with the required production schedule, and so his contribution was pared down to a single episode, with Toby Whithouse assigned to write the concluding half of the story.
We Dare Not Go a-Hunting/For Fear of Little Menis clearly an early draft even in terms of planning the season—most obviously, there’s no Nardole in it. But structurally, it’s essentially The Pyramid at the End of the Worldextended over two episodes, albeit with some absolutely major changes. Extremishadn’t been grafted onto the start yet, and so the entire “monks simulating the world” business is absent. As is the entire bioengineering accident. And the notion of people having to consent to the monks’ invasion. And the whole blindnes splot, Actually, another thing that’s not here are the monks, reduced to a solitary monk entombed in a deep meditative state that doesn’t stop decomposition but keeps you alive, and who is orchestrating events in response to a Taliban lookalike that seeks to blow up its idolatrous tomb.
But the basic setup—a selection of armies all squaring off around a mysterious artifact with the Doctor in the middle trying to sort it—is there. This time it’s the American, British, Russian, and North Korean armies, with thinly veiled versions of Donald Trump, Jeremy Corbyn, Vladimir Putin, and Kim Jong Un in charge of them, but the setup is the same. (The Trump analogue, Donald Brabbit, notably has his surname stick around through to the final draft, even as the character changes to a colonel in the military with no obvious Trumpian features.) On top of this there’s the quasi-Taliban and a feminist militia modeled after the YPG. The Monk’s involvement is to give the four leaders (and the Doctor, although his is accidentally intercepted by Bill) a golden ticket with which to compete for the Monk’s aid in winning whatever conflict is about to emerge. The cliffhanger comes when the four leaders are taken into the tomb and it emerges that Bill, not the Doctor, holds the ticket; the Doctor retreats with Bill to the TARDIS, but the Monk snatches her anyway and plants a bomb on the TARDIS.
The script is both an overstuffed banquet and one with a strongly absurdist bent—the Putin analogue, Ilya Rashkolnikov, is introduced arm-wrestling with a topless bodybuilder wearing a Donald Brabbit mask, for instance. But this is normal for Harness—the early scripts of Kill the Moonwere similarly messy and all over the place, and his work generally has a tendency to start by leaning into its most ridiculous and often outright funny premises and then refine itself into something more serious. (Which is either the reason his apparent pigeonholing as the writer for political thrillers is frustrating or the reason it works; hopefully some day we’ll find out.) The politics are aggressively and probably excessively on the nose, but there’s a lot there and the script crackles with brio and ambition.
As for For Fear of Little Men, it’s harder to pin down exactly what it wants to do from what’s essentially 25% of a script. Also, nearly half of those twelve pages consist of a scene in which Donald Trump… sorry, Brabbit is strangled by his own toupee, which is utterly delightful, surely had no chance of ever making it to screen, and may or may not give any useful clues as to what the episode would have been about. The more substantive scenes make it clear that Harness was looking to comment on the great man theory of history (in one particularly nice bit the Doctor snarks, largely to Brabbit, that “There’s an individualistic theory that great history is shaped by Great Men. I don’t buy into that. I do, however, believe that lousy history is shaped by Lousy Men”) in which it is rejected in favor of a history that is not focused on vast armies and powerful men (hence, presumably, the choice of William Allingham’s “The Fairies” for the title quote).
Once it became evident that Harness was not going to be able to write a two-parter, however, this structure needed to be abandoned in favor of one that could lead into The Lie of the Land. Harness’s second effort, entitled “The Visitors at the End of the World,” was submitted on September 5h, 2016 (Chainsmokers, with “Closer”). By this point it’s clear that the bones of the series were in place: Nardole is included, the Doctor is blind, and it’s explicitly leading into The Lie of the Land, with the Doctor delivering an opening monologue from the prison ship he’ll be on in that story. This also means the endpoint of the episode has changed to what it would eventually be on television: Bill making the decision to accept the Monks’ help and, in doing so, enabling their conquest of the world. But Extremisis still clearly not in place yet—the Monks operate by traveling in the gaps between universes looking for vulnerable moments in history and getting the people in the heat of the crisis to let them into their universes to take over.
In terms of this story in particular, as opposed to the evolving shape of the overall arc, the plot remains focused on the military aspects, with Harness crafting a Doctor Strangelove/Failsafe-style “nuclear war breaks out because of a stupid error” plot in which a botched Chinese hack provokes the Americans. Stripped, as this version is, of the larger political scale, the limitations of this start to become apparent, with the whole thing feeling weirdly rooted in a Cold War dynamic. All of which is ultimately emphasized by Harness’s most interesting decision, which is to write the episode as a single scene. This was, by his own admission, probably the sort of thing one should ask about before just doing, and led the episode to be unusually tightly focused on a sort of action thriller proceduralism as the Doctor and company race to defuse the situation. The result is technically impressive, but, if we’re being honest, conceptually flat.
This resulted in a couple versions of a script called First Contact (number 122). These are dated September 22nd (Chainsmokers again) and then two back to back on October 19th and 20th, both numbered draft two (James Arthur with “Say You Won’t Let Go”) . There’s still no reference to Extremisin them (although the Monks are now modeling and simulating eventualities to identify points where the world might end, the Doctor does not enter the story knowing they’re coming), which is staggering given that the production block with this and Extremisstarted shooting on November 23rd, and gives a strong sense of how rushed the final form of this was (and offers Whithouse at least some excuse for failing to have the Monks actually say anything anywhere in The Lie of the Land). But other than that, the bones of The Pyramid at the End of the Worldare all basically in place. The first version still has Kate Stewart in it, as it did as We Dare Not Go A-Hunting(she was absent from The Visitors at the End of the World), essentially doing what the Secretary General does in The Pyramid at the End of the Worldsave for the bit where he gets killed. But, crucially, the misdirection whereby the Monks appear in the middle of the military when the real crisis is elsewhere is in place, and by the final version of First Contact (number 122) the major beats of the “woman breaks her glasses and her coworker is hung over and disaster ensues” plot are all in place. (Charmingly, Harness has Erica working for Global Chemicals.)
In most regards, these scripts are the final episode. And they suggest that most of the compromise from Harness’s original vision came not in Moffat’s bedside rewrite but, as Moffat notes in Doctor Who Magazine, from the imposing of various elements that had to sync with the stories on either end, which necessarily made the story stop being about the political concerns that were evident (and fascinating) in We Dare Not Go A-HuntingMoffat’s rewrite ultimately just sharpened this, confirming its status as a story largely about getting from point A to point B. When this story became about getting to the start of The Lie of the Landit lost a lot of its ability to be about anything. Structurally, its only half of a story, bringing the Doctor to a crisis whose resolution (and with it a large part of what ever point it’s going to make) belongs to another episode with very different concerns from the ones that spawned the concept and, indeed, the entire arc.
What are we to make of this? As I said, I am uninterested in offering any sort of judgment here. Even leaving aside the intensity of personal circumstances that forced Moffat’s hand, there’s simply no way for me to issue any sort of judgment on the changes without being an asshole. Either I say that being aggressively rewritten improved the scripts that Harness was nice enough to send me or I make him an accomplice to a hit job on his former boss. And more to the point, it’s impossible to tell—you can’t compare rough scripts that are full of possibilities that needs shaping and honing to a finished and transmitted episode. When dealing with something as deeply compromised as the Monks arc, the potential of a story that exists half in your own head is too seductive to draw any reasonable conclusions. What we can do, however, is see what the raw materials were like before circumstances imposed a story arc that was largely compromised into existence, with all the good and bad that implies. And however it might have turned out, the story underneath The Pyramid at the End of the Worldis an interesting and compelling set of ideas in its own right. One doesn’t have to compare it to what the story actually became to be sad that we never got to see it. Even if it probably wouldn’t have actually given us Donald Trump being murdered by his own toupee.