I Point and Laugh at Archeologists (The Pyramid at the End of the World)
|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.
June 3, 2019 @ 4:13 pm
This is a really cool peek behind the curtain. Thanks El and Thanks Peter Harness.
Whilst I don’t want to say anything much, because this sounds like an almost unavoidable situation, it does seem like two-parters are best written by one person or writing team. I mean, Beneath the Lake/Before the Flood might well be no-one’s favourite episodes of Doctor Who, but it at least feels vaguely whole instead of being as disjointed and confused as Lie of the Land.
June 3, 2019 @ 4:28 pm
Counterpoint: The Girl Who Died/The Woman Who Lived is amazing.
June 3, 2019 @ 4:50 pm
I’m not convinced it’s a two-parter in hindsight. Because Me is in 4 episodes, it feels more like an origin story and an introduction to her.
It’s the exception that proves the rule. There is one lingering thread that continues to spin further out from a base-under-siege story, and whilst the sieged-base isn’t that interesting by itself, it knows how to create an atmosphere leading to exactly the right moment.
The Woman Who Lived almost doesn’t need a first part. It could be rewritten to be about an immortal figure the Doctor has known for ages.
It certainly doesn’t have the whole issue that no-one ever seems to understand the Monks, and each script has to rely on assuming that the other scripts flesh them out. And I really like Extremis and Pyramid.
June 3, 2019 @ 6:29 pm
I respectfully disagree on “Beneath the Lake/Before the Flood” not feeling disjointed. Apart from the location changing, the rules of the episode change wildly between the two episodes. There’s not really any way to justify O’Connell’s ghost suddenly appearing in the future in real time while Prentis’s ghost was allowed to roam well before the “temporal” moment in which he is killed.
I think the real takeaway is that two-parters are a tricky situation no matter who maps them, and that they really only work when its writer(s) has worked out all the logistics of where this story is going to end BEFORE fleshing out the exciting build-up part of it. There seems to be quite a number of examples within New Who of two-parters that started off exciting, only to completely flop on Part 2. More and more, I’ve been convinced Moffat may have indeed been the only writer out of all of them who cracked the nut on how these types of episodes work.
June 3, 2019 @ 9:10 pm
The rules of that two-parter are a complete clusterfuck, but then again, so is a lot of Dr Who. (Though the real issue is more why the Doctor’s ghost appears when it does. Prentis was killed at that point in every timeline, O’Connell went back was how I took that scene.)
But the characters stay the same, an arc is resolved (even if it’s lame and a border-line offensive cliche about falling in love with the signer), the mystery that begin the whole thing (what’s in the tomb) is resolved.
Which isn’t much, but it’s a damn-sight more than Lie of the Land. I’m talking about actual skill here, but rather, the basics of a story at all. Which the Monks trilogy just doesn’t have. Or at least to me. I get the argument that non
This isn’t the same, by the way, as when Moffat changes everything between parts of a two-parter. Even The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon kept Mark Sheppard around and Death in Heaven kept the plot of Dark Water even if it changed the scope and tone.
June 4, 2019 @ 7:58 am
“cliche about falling in love with the signer”
I know that’s just a typo but now I kinda want to see a world where that’s a cliche.
I agree with Xaldel about knowing the ending before you start building up to it – after all, the best writing advice I’ve ever heard just says “write the first draft, and then in the second draft make everything look as if it was planned”. But aside from the plot, one should also know the theme of the story. In that regard two-parters written by the same person are better simply because one person is unlikely to suddenly drop the theme they’ve been exploring before. Even when Moffat changes everything in part two, he’s clearly telling the same story e.g. about memory or accepting love or the power of stories. The monk trilogy doesn’t have that.
June 3, 2019 @ 4:32 pm
Fascinating stuff; not quite what one expected of TARDIS Eruditorum, but your explanation of why you cannot do what you usually do is indeed a dilemma best avoided. We commenters are in a similar position, of course; so here’s what I’ll say: if the original decaying-monk-upset-about-tomb-desecration story had been produced unaltered, with that premise, then I would have been very disappointed if it hadn’t included a nod to “The Abominable Snowmen”.
June 3, 2019 @ 6:28 pm
Fascinating! I’d love to get to see a Harness story in full-on absurdist mode someday.
In terms of ‘Pyramid at the End of the World’, I’ve seen it twice and had an identical opinion twice: that it’s as brilliantly performed and written and paced as Doctor Who ever gets, so it’s a pity the (nth-draft kludge of a) story is so dumb. On balance, I enjoy it, and it’s lovely to see a midget cast in a role where her being a midget is never mentioned and is 100% irrelevant to the story.
But: I cannot, even for the sake of a goofy adventure story, believe in a simulation so accurate it would know when a dangerous beaker would break somewhere in the world. Or believe the auto-discharging system of the biochemical research station. Or believe in the military leaders of the U.S., Russia, and China — people chosen for patriotic national service who among other things have been trained in the “logic” of nuclear warfare — rapidly deciding to accept alien rule under any circumstances whatsoever.
The purity of Bill’s love is also a little questionable. I really don’t mind the “We need consent” premise; consent is a good standard in many situations, after all. Why the monks think her gratitude would make her transfer the love onto them, though… seems a leap of faith, that.
June 4, 2019 @ 2:31 am
It seems key to add that “the moon is an egg”, for example, is very easy for me to accept, because it’s wondrous and fun. Asking me to swallow impossible things only because it helps the author move the pieces from one square of the board to the next? That’s what i expect from much duller shows than Doctor Who.
June 4, 2019 @ 8:04 am
Yeah, the logic of consent here didn’t make much sense. Bill was clearly acting out of stategy, as well as the generals before her… And anyway, it’s not consent if they monks are basically holding a gun to everyone’s head…
“it’s lovely to see a midget cast in a role where her being a midget is never mentioned and is 100% irrelevant to the story.”
I loved that too! She was a cool character. And the first side character in ages, I think, who got invited to travel in the TARDIS and didn’t die 10 minutes later. So that’s cool too.
June 5, 2019 @ 5:41 pm
“Bill was clearly acting out of stategy, as well as the generals before her…”
I’ve thought about this some, and I think the best way to rationalize it is that the generals were acting out of immediate fear or out of a ‘conceding now is the best option’ mindset, but not without the idea, in the back of their minds, that they’d betray the Monks first chance they got — what they called stragegy: a tactical retreat instead of a surrender. Whereas Bill was actually ready to sacrifice the Earth, no taksies-backsies, in exchange for the Doctor’s life, if that’s what it took. Not meaning she wouldn’t try to take the Earth back… but she would have done it again in a heartbeat even if she never did manage to undo what she’d done.
June 3, 2019 @ 8:47 pm
Now that really is some very solid archaeology. Just like an archaeologist is supposed to do, delivered without judgment as to what was the best or not, only with the facts of the matter itself.
From the time I first watched these three episodes, I thought the Monks arc was the most ambitious of Moffat’s entire time in Doctor Who – a set of stories and their antagonist linked by theme instead of plot per se. Not knowing any of these production facts at the time, I concluded that this was simply a Whithouse screw-up: a writer who already didn’t get a lot of the subtlety in Doctor Who continuing to fail to understand what the story is actually about. It makes for an excellent reminder of how difficult fantastic television really can be to make.
Praise aside, I have to be a stickler about Trump’s toupee. He in fact doesn’t wear a toupee, but wears a double-combover. The only hair he has left is on the side and back of his head, which he grows extra long, and then styles up from the sides and back, sweeping down to his forehead. The whole assemblage is secured with enough hairspray and sculpting product to cause serious aberrations in the White House toiletries budget.
If only his hair could come to life, and enfold him inside of the combover until he suffocates. On a fictional television show, of course.
June 3, 2019 @ 10:58 pm
This is intriguing, and a very well-placed coup in dealing with what must be the Doctor Who story/s with the most troubled gestation since Trial of a Time Lord. Probably no coincidence that it’s another multi-writer portmanteau.
Presumably it was because of the satirical thrust of the first version that North Korea featured rather than China – which did indeed end up in the episode when the satire got dropped – Kim being a well-known grotesque, whereas surely few in the audience would even be able to name Xi Jinping. (Aside – has any Chinese leader since Mao really registered in Western consciousness as any kind of personality, as really anything much more than a name? Even Deng Xiaoping? It’s quite odd. I suppose that may change with Xi’s establishment of a Mao-style personal dictatorship, but there’s little sign of it yet.)
On which topic, it’s hard to avoid some curiosity about how Corbyn was going to fit into this rogue’s gallery. Having only his writing to go on, I don’t know if Harness is a fan (could go either way), but it seems unlikely he’d get the kind of kicking the others would, especially in a story about an impending multi-sided war, given his peacenik credentials. But an actively favourable treatment would be liable to land up framing Britain as the sensible, mature country among a bunch of stupid, swaggering thugs, which would be an especially odd position to find yourself taking in the second half of 2016.
June 3, 2019 @ 11:35 pm
Oh wait, no, it was April. Teach me not to check.
Also I did an apostrophe crime with “rogue’s”.
June 4, 2019 @ 7:39 am
I just wanted to say that I was over halfway through the essay before I realised you actually had the drafts and weren’t spoofing a la Henrietta Street.
Which I guess says something about Peter Harness’s drafting habits?
June 4, 2019 @ 10:11 am
I… was at this comment when I realised!!
June 4, 2019 @ 6:53 pm
Well, crap, now I’m doubting myself.
June 4, 2019 @ 10:37 pm
In the podcast with El just after this episode aired, Peter Harness did describe pretty much exactly that first draft, and given his usual tendency to be kinda batshit insane and rather political, I see no reason to doubt it
June 5, 2019 @ 4:29 am
You’re right, of course, I just always doubt myself after realising I’ve changed someone else’s understanding of the world.
June 4, 2019 @ 7:13 pm
How generous of Harness to share those drafts with you! Very interesting look behind the curtain, and I love those originally titles (I also like Pyramid at the End of the World, which has a similar faerie aesthetic, a la Morris’ Well at the World’s End). Moffat’s public apology was also generous of spirit. This sounds like one of those unfortunate situations where it was no one’s fault, really. Just life.
June 11, 2019 @ 8:37 am
This was one of the most fascinating EP entries I’ve ever read. I enjoyed this archeology a lot. Thank you.
God, that first draft sounds so unappealing to me. Not objectively bad, but that sounds like something I wouldn’t be able to force myself to watch.
It’s kinda fascinating to me how little sense the monks make as a villain. Knowing the behind the scenes story now, I’m not surprised, but it’s still a beautiful trainwreck. They have the ability to simulate entire worlds and can insert themselves into people’s thoughts but still require consent to take over? I mean, the only way to make sense of it is to assume the monks just have a kink for people begging them for help.
June 24, 2019 @ 6:08 am
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September 11, 2019 @ 5:12 am
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