The Pyramid at the End of the World Review
A recurrent and to my mind fascinating theme of Peter Harness’s Doctor Who work has been its distinct hostility to democracy. Kill the Moon hinges on the flagrant disregard of the expressed wishes of humanity, while the Zygon two-parter ultimately endorses the existence of unelected guardians who lie to people in order to keep them under control. I should stress, if it’s not obvious, that my fondness for this is not straightforwardly a quasi-neoreactionary rejection of democracy or endorsement of dictatorship – rather it is specifically the extent to which the episodes themselves seem conflicted on this. It’s a bit of grit that complicates the show’s default ethos of liberal centrism – something that extends naturally out of its embrace of rebelliousness and dissent, but that the show usually avoids having to look at head-on.
So it’s not especially a surprise that Harness, writing in the heat of 2016, turns in a script that is more explicitly about the terrible decisions that humanity makes than ever before. This time there is no undemocratic savior to be had. Indeed, there’s not a savior of any kind – the bad decision is taken and the bad guys win. The Doctor’s scheme to stop them is basically for naught. For the most part it’s an even bigger defeat for the Doctor than Extremis was, and is certainly the most bluntly pessimistic thing Harness has written for the show.
For the most part, this works. Certainly it’s something I’m glad the series did. But as with Oxygen, there’s a grimness to it that keeps it from ever quite being fun. There are moments of humor, to be sure, and it’s difficult to seriously suggest that an episode marching towards an ending like this while also situating itself as the middle part of a trilogy that starts with Extremis would be very frock. But there’s a nagging frustration – a sense that “geopolitical thriller” is not the Doctor Who subgenre that Harness was best pigeonholed into. I mean, I can see why it happened – many of the best bits of both Kill the Moon and the Zygon story were the overtly political bits. But what made those stories really sing was the juxtaposition between the snarling politics and the baroque ridiculousness. Here, lacking a fundamental part of the equation, Harness is… well, still fantastic, to be clear, but not at the ecstatic heights of the last two seasons. Which, to be fair, you can thus far say about Series 10, which is starting to shape up a lot like the back half of Series 7: no disasters, but no stone cold classics either.
And of course, we should be clear: this is an absolutely bonkers political thriller. Which is to say, it’s still clearly Doctor Who, and not just because of touches like the corpse monks or the “strands of history” plastic tubing. The Doctor Whoness of it comes as much from what isn’t there, like even a vague account of why the Russian, American, and Chinese militaries are in close proximity in a foreign country or where the hell the entire rest of the chain of command is. This is the iconography of a political thriller, sure, but only in a purely formal sense.
No, the actual driving structure of the episode is the three surrenders, which mark the actual clear set of efforts to resolve the situation. Conceptually, this is great – especially as related to the notion of consent. It takes the baseline theme of “why do people vote for the Leopards Eating People’s Faces Party” and builds on it. On a superficial level, this weakens the politics slightly, in that the easy and accurate answer to the question is fear, which is ruled out when the Secretary General is disintegrated. But this serves to sharpen the overall critique. Yes, sometimes we vote Leopard Eating out of fear or out of some sense of tactics. But the really ugly horror – the awful truth at the heart of it – is that we do it out of love. It’s easy, looking at ardent Leave voters or the #maga crowd, to frame the choice in terms of economic anxiety, or to talk about how voters are lied to and distracted by cynical attempts to play on racism. And sure, yes, that absolutely happens. But for the most part, this obscures the fact that there are people who just love the idea of Donald Trump. The apocalyptic shitstorm unfolding outside our browser windows is something people want.
This, however, brings us to the one thing about the episode that feels to me like a concrete problem, and why, despite enjoying it a great deal, it’s going to be the first Peter Harness script to not top the ratings: the decision to have the bad ending be entirely Bill’s fault. It’s not that I particularly mind her reasoning – and I greatly appreciate the explicit acknowledgment that her logic is that the Doctor will be able to win the world back so that this isn’t just “the companion is an idiot” story. But “more than just that” is the best you can do with that resolution, which is one that doesn’t particularly feed into the thematic structure. I mean, sure, yes, even good people are susceptible to bad causes, but every effort was made to have us think of the Secretary General and the soldiers as good people too. (Well, every effort short of actually characterizing them, but that’s not the point.) It’s an arbitrary resolution that jars with the episode that had come before.
Which is a pity, because that underlying episode structure is great. The sense of growing dread provided by the lab scenes, which are clearly flagged as “the thing that will end the world” is artful. It’s got multiple great twists and casually elegant concepts, some central to what it’s doing, some deployed with charming casualness. The intercut “previously”/Bill and Penny’s date opening is brilliant. It didn’t quite sweep me into the breathless reverie that Kill the Moon and the Zygon two-parter did, but that’s straightforwardly the only standard by which this can be said not to have worked. If, as it sounds like is the case, Chibnall spurns Moffat’s stable of new writers for the program, all three of them went out on worthy notes that raise the question of the writer of The Hungry Earth/In Cold Blood and Dinosaurs in a Spaceship would want to do that.
- This is the most crowded title card in series history, and either the joint longest, second longest, or third longest title, depending on whether you count spaces and which title you prefer for a Hartnell-era story (or indeed whether a title that never appears on screen counts at all).
- When grousing about the lack of strong thematic unity, it’s difficult not to wonder about the cowriting credit, especially given Moffat’s public apology to Harness for not letting him finish the script on his own. I don’t have any special insight into this – for the most part the script felt more like Harness to me than like Moffat, but Moffat has pretty consistently been a pretty invisible hand in his cowrites. But one assumes that Moffat would have done the lion’s share of tying it to Extremis and The Lie of the Land, in which case the Bill resolution would be his, providing at least some explanation of why it doesn’t quite fit the rest of the script. But I do wonder what Harness’s original structure was.
- One explanation of the ending that’s utterly unsatisfying from any perspective other than my own is that it’s simply an inversion of Kill the Moon, in which the companion makes the wrong choice instead of the right one, and thus brings Harness’s triptych of stories to a nice and symmetrical ending. And there’s something to that – for all that Bill’s choice was wrong, it was the choice that sustained the narrative of Doctor Who, and its negative consequences shouldn’t take much more than 45 minutes to sort out. Though man, if only the Doctor had bothered to explain regeneration to her back in Knock Knock.
- I’m willing to say with some conviction that making “the Doctor doesn’t want to tell Bill” the primary drama of the Doctor being blind was a mistake.
- An obvious thread of interpretation that I’ve only started to wrap my head around is based around the wording of “consent.” This could go a lot of ways. On one level, it’s tempting to read it in the same way as the abortion metaphor in Kill the Moon, which is to say as an accidental implication that probably would have been caught if the writer and executive producers weren’t all men. And yet the equation of consent with love and explicit line “fear is not consent” seem at first glance to make it a pretty robust metaphor for sexual consent. If so, however, any metaphor is going to go far better with a BDSM/kink-inflected reading of “consent” than a rape-based one.
- But, of course (and this applies to my primary gripe about the episode), Harness’s scripts have never yielded to straightforward allegorical readings, and an attempt to have this episode be a doctrinal political statement in the way that Oxygen and Thin Ice were is going to fail. Harness’s starting point has always been things that trouble him, as opposed to things that he believes. Which is to say that the thematic questions are firmly features, not bugs.
- Unsurprisingly the doomsday clock image got a smile out of me, whether or not it’s a Watchmen reference (and I’ve no particular reason to think it is.)
- The best detail of the episode: the Monks’ pyramid-shaped monitor.
- Speaking of the monitor, I’m glad that Harness’s usual focus on mediation and the act of watching was in play. Also that Capaldi got an address to camera. Pity nobody argued frantically over whether to push a button.
- For the Americans, my review of the penultimate episode of Class, in which you can watch as something just snaps in my ability to tolerate the show.
- Podcast on Thursday. See you then. (Well, also on Tuesday for some Proverbs of Hell, but you know.)
- Thin Ice
- The Pyramid at the End of the World
- The Pilot
- Knock Knock
May 28, 2017 @ 10:54 pm
I think this season is shaping up to be a lot better than Series 7b, because that season often felt very safe in what it did, whilst this one has openly argued against capitalism, had a mid-part three-parter full of existential uncertainity and lies, punched racists, and has Peter Capaldi in it. In short, 7b could never had something as well-made as ‘Extremis’ in it, and I think that if ‘Smile’ had appeared in 7b it would have been lauded as a great for that season, just as ‘Cold War’ was.
My main problem with Peter Harness’s scripts is that if he isn’t an allegorical writer, then a lot of the production tries to make him one. The big sign saying ‘Abort’, the term ‘radicalised’ set next to a monochrome flag with a non-latin language on it. These things either carry disturbing connotations or don’t work when carried out, yet are too specific to be generalised.
Finally, I think I prefer Bill to Clara because the show is letting her be wrong alongside the Doctor. Clara had plenty of moments where she was flawed, but the show never let her be quite so human as Bill is here. It fits with Capaldi’s flawed, impulsive but noble Doctor (not that those elements weren’t in Matt Smith’s and David Tennant’s performances, but here the charisma feels connected to the flaws rather than masking them if that makes sense).
May 29, 2017 @ 9:48 am
Agreed about series 10 being visibly better than series 7 – I’m not sure I agree with Phil’s “no out and out classic” statement – I’d certainly be more confident making the case for “Oxygen” and “Extremis” (Phil’s top 2 here, and mine) being amongst the best of Doctor Who than the best episodes in series 7. And the overall shape and ideas of the season are much more satisfying than Matt Smith’s final run, at least so far.
May 29, 2017 @ 10:02 am
I basically think S10 is 7B “done right”, by which I mean that it has similar fascinations – 7B is the easiest season before this one to make a coherent Marxist reading out of, IMO – but is just much better made, feels like people are on the same page more, and has no terrible Nightmare-in-Silver-like clunkers.
May 29, 2017 @ 10:03 am
This is not to say I like it as much as 8 and 9, though, because “7B done right” still doesn’t really touch those two, even if the last couple of episodes have felt like they’ve leaned more into more complex Moffatty territory.
May 29, 2017 @ 2:56 pm
I definitely wouldn’t say 2017 is the best Capaldi season. To me, nothing has surpassed the damn-near-perfection of the 2014 season, thanks to that Clara-Danny arc and all the consistently brilliant episodes throughout that year. But I also think some of the individual episodes in 2017 – particularly Thin Ice, Oxygen, and Extremis – are reaching into classic territory. Thin Ice, especially.
As I’ve been saying with Phil on Twitter last night, though, I think I’ve figured out a lot of the tricks and tropes that keep recurring in Harness’ Doctor Who stories. And I can’t not think of them anymore. More details at my own blog, as I ride Eruditorum’s coattails as usual.
May 29, 2017 @ 4:28 pm
It’s certainly not quite there for me yet either. Series 9 still is my favourite series of NewWho (with Series 8 a strong contender for second favourite). But maybe it’s Capaldi, Mackie and Lucas, but I think there’s a lot more to enjoy here than in most of the Matt Smith era. But Capaldi is my favourite NewWho Doctor, so it might be difficult to say without a full interpretation of the show.
May 28, 2017 @ 10:56 pm
“Misdirection: don’t look in the direction the arrow’s pointing, look where it’s pointing away from”.
Knowing this is the middle section of a three-part story we can speculate from the direction of this episode that the final part will detail the success of the invasion and ultimately. We assume, its defeat. So that’s where the arrow is pointing. We need to decide where it doesn’t want us to look.
In this oddly low-key episode, full of quiet moments of meditation and inconsequential actions having major ramifications – a broken pair of glasses, a hangover, a lie – the plot seems to proceed at an odd pace, with little motivation beyond puzzlement. The blinded Doctor is not the only character in the dark here. No-one knows what’s going on. The United Nations, the three super powers on the brink of war, even the invading aliens themselves all seem to lack energy or motivation. Is it possible the aliens really do just want to be wanted?
The Monks’ neediness here is an odd beat and I’m sure the key to this story is contained therein. Demanding consent. love, acceptance before they’ll help us. Testing our sincerity with their disintegrating touch of truth. Is there an echo here in Bill’s regularly interrupted dating experiences? Are the monsters this time simply controlling, relationship abusers. Asking for humanity’s love only to cruelly reject us. Maybe it’s not them it’s us?
Or is there more to these creepy robed invaders than a malfunctioning dating app? Is it possible that their plan really is to save us by assimilation? “We assume this form to look like you” they state, “To us you look like corpses”. Their constant requests sound like a program asking to be installed and this sounds like familiar tactics – my money is still on the reveal being that these guys will turn out to be the Mondasian Cybermen.
The next week trail had echoes of previous apocalyptic episodes where the companion is left to pick up the pieces after the ‘death’ of the Doctor – Martha in ‘Last of the Time Lords’ and Donna in ‘Turn Left’.
But as we know this was all about misdirection and on Moffat’s past record we should know that his final episodes of multi-parters rarely do what you’d imagine or take you where you expect to go. There’s some rug-pulling and heel-turns ahead so I’m looking forward to next week where we learn that everything we know is wrong.
May 28, 2017 @ 11:10 pm
There were so many things in what the Monks were saying and doing that point to them being the Modasians, that the whole way through the episode I was thinking that I can’t imagine my that my reaction to it if they’re not, being anything other than “well, that would have worked better if they were the Mondasian Cybermen”.
May 29, 2017 @ 8:06 am
I’m the opposite – I would be profoundly saddened and disappointed if they turn out to be the Mondasians. I like the universe to feel large and expansive, not one where every alien turns out to be every other alien 🙁
Also I just like that Moffat has a third brilliant alien villain to put alongside the Weeping Angels and the Silents. The Monks are a great new threat, IMO, and they’d be seriously undermined if they were just … Cybermen.
May 29, 2017 @ 9:55 am
I would usually totally agree. But in a series where we know that the Mondasians are going to turn up anyway, I would want the Monks to be less similar. I think that the whole thing about requiring consent – love even – to make ‘the link’, whatever that turns out to be, is an interesting thing to do with the Mondasians, which seems to fit and build on what we know of them already. Alternatively, it’s an interesting thing to do with an entirely unrelated villain – but not in such close proximity to the Mondasians. Doing both in the same series would feel odd to me, I think.
Also, I really want to hear David Archer do the Mondas voice.
May 29, 2017 @ 10:04 am
I suppose, unless one reads it as just a dramatic mirroring. “These are the themes we’re interested in this year”.
May 29, 2017 @ 10:14 am
Aww, now I’m torn. I’m not sure I want them to be the Cybermen any more. The trouble is if they’re not, and Moffat doesn’t pull some other kind of surprise, the Monks will turn out to be just another tedious vaguely ecclesiastical Moffaty rules monster. For me their similarity to the Angels and the Silence does them no favours. Also looking at the series structure I don’t know how a Mondas reveal would work. We’ve got the Ice Warriors turning up in between too. I’m going to wait and see before I speculate further.
May 29, 2017 @ 2:18 pm
“There were so many things in what the Monks were saying and doing that point to them being the Modasians,”
There really were, weren’t there?
So where is it pointing away from?
May 28, 2017 @ 11:22 pm
The ending isn’t all Bill’s fault, is it? Had the Doctor actually told her about his blindness (and told Erica as well), Bill wouldn’t have been forced into that decision.
May 29, 2017 @ 1:03 am
How would telling Bill have changed anything?
May 29, 2017 @ 2:35 am
If Bill wasn’t blindsided by the revelation she could have thought, “Hey Doc, why don’t you stream what’s in front of you to my phone and I’ll guide you, as you are clearly too busy selfishly moping over your selfish decision to work it out”
May 29, 2017 @ 6:21 am
Just want to flag that “blindsided” was an incredibly poor choice of words and entirely unintentional, I don’t think cheap puns at the expense of blind people are particularly funny
May 28, 2017 @ 11:38 pm
The importance of humanity’s Consent to being ruled reminded me of Hobbes’s Leviathan, in which he argues for absolute monarchy.
From the Wikipedia entry: The commonwealth is instituted when all agree in the following manner: I authorise and give up my right of governing myself to this man, or to this assembly of men, on this condition; that thou give up, thy right to him, and authorise all his actions in like manner.
May 29, 2017 @ 12:15 am
I disagree with the notion that Bill made the ‘wrong’ choice – because the choice wasn’t really a choice at all. This strikes as a bit ‘blame the victim’. If a villain holds a gun to someone’s head and says ‘choose’ – why are we so eager to fault the person put in that position, rather than the actual villain who created the choice in the first place.
That being said, if this is a game in which we must decide whether Bill’s choice was right or wrong, it was certainly the right choice, because she chose for the Doctor to live – and where there’s life there is hope. As she herself said – at least with the Doctor alive – there is a chance – there is hope. It strikes me as a very dark place to go if you argue that Bill should have let the Doctor die.
May 29, 2017 @ 1:05 am
But no villain held a gun to anyone’s head; the Doctor screwed up. Bill took the initiative in saving him, making a deal with evil world conquering monks to do it.
And, I mean, I think “choice that got the world conquered” is pretty straightforwardly the wrong one. Like, the presumption of correctness runs pretty hard in a different direction than that.
May 29, 2017 @ 2:57 am
Okay, maybe obvious question here, but I want this cleared up, just to be sure:
By “right” and “wrong”, do we mean “correct” and “incorrect” or “moral” and “immoral”?
Because my take is Bill’s action was “moral”, though probably not “correct”. The Doctor points out that we don’t know what the Monks want; obviously, it’s probably bad, and we’ve seen the “next time” trailer, but for all Bill knows they may be genuinely altruistic, or heck, they might turn around, high five each other, say “We rule!” and then head off to the next planet they want to nominally be “rulers” of like gamers 100 percent completing a game.
Wouldn’t that be a twist?
May 29, 2017 @ 10:50 am
Given that they’re exploiting an easily preventable impending catastrophe to blackmail the world into submitting to their rule, and killing anyone whose declaration of surrender isn’t fulsome enough, I think you could get some pretty long odds betting on the altruism hypothesis.
May 29, 2017 @ 10:12 pm
Well, they are aliens.
They’re allowed to have an alien sense of morality.
But really I interrupted myself with an off joke when the “is right/wrong about being correct, or being moral?” question is what I really would like answered.
May 29, 2017 @ 3:01 am
I’m not so sure it’s such a binary decision that Bill’s made. She’s made a very risky decision without knowing the potential outcome, but it hasn’t (and won’t probably, due to the nature of the show) proven to be wrong yet. From her POV the Doctor is going to die. Even if his sacrifice stops the immediate threat, what if the Monks have a plan B – another disastrous tipping point up their sleeves? Humanity
would be back at square one without the Doctor’s help. In my opinion she hasn’t necessarily made the wrong decision – just a damn risky one.
May 29, 2017 @ 4:49 am
I agree – I think Bill’s calculation was that she has more faith that the Doctor, alive, will be able to deal with whatever her consent to the Monks unleashes, than that the rest of humanity, without the Doctor, will be able to deal with the Monks’ plan B.
From her perspective, with the Doctor alive there is still hope.
May 29, 2017 @ 5:32 am
Which, knowing the show, is pretty correct as far as decisions go.
Just maybe not in this situation (especially since next week it seems the Doctor is not the one who saves the world?)
May 29, 2017 @ 11:00 am
And it does look like taking quite a handbrake turn to go from Bill surrendering in the face of the Doctor’s vocal objections this week to (apparently) “the Doctor gives in, so Bill and Missy have to save the day” next week.
May 29, 2017 @ 10:45 am
Since this seems to be my season for comparing everything to The Beast Below, I’ll remark that there’s an echo of Amy’s “Forget” vote, and the Doctor’s reaction to that.
May 29, 2017 @ 2:24 am
Couldn’t get behind this one. Last week Moffatt made us really feel existential horror of simulationism, however garbled his version of that was. Then we get a story released at a time when the doomsday clock is closer to midnight than it has been since the cold war, where the possibility of nuclear self destruction is never too far from the headlines, and Harness makes it an abstract problem that feels entirely removed from human experience.
The three representatives were sketched so vaguely, their motivations seemed to be “do the thing the plot requires me to do at this point in this sort of story”. Poorly drawn guests have been a bit of a thing this season, but in a story whose major beats are tied to these characters and their choices, you really do need some characters to work with.
The test of consent was… pretty naff. The payoff that Bill was motivated by love made no sense- she didn’t love the Monks any more than the other representatives did, who surely surrendered as much out of love for humanity as they did fear of its destruction/strategy. Everyone acted out of fear, love and strategy simultaneously, Billy included- it’s particularly crap writing to position these motivations as mutually exclusive. But in a story in which none of the characters acted in a convincingly human way, I’m not surprised Harness didn’t consider this.
I can usually forgive plot conveniences and big flashy ideas if they serve something bigger, or if the story is told at such a clip that you don’t really notice until afterwards (as was the case with Extremis and The Curse of Fenric). But this one was so slow you couldn’t help but think about how empty and messy it was- why a Pyramid? Why do the monks require “consent” and “love” (yea they gave us a sort of answer but it was plainly rubbish considering the decision they made at the end despite Bill’s motivations being as suspect as everyone else’s)? Was the bacteria in the air in the facility (as it seemed to affect Nardole)? If so, then why wasn’t the doctor more concerned about sterilising himself and Nardole?
And this shouldn’t be a big one but really bugged me- we’ve seen that the doctor can record, stream and email footage from the sunnies just last week- why couldn’t he stream the door lock problem to Bill?! He had plenty of time! They could have come up with a better problem here, so it just felt super lazy and artificial. It was just one of a number of tediously obvious and unconvincing Big Choices made to progress the plot.
The Lab scenes worked really well, though. I loved the series of human errors that lead to the contagion, I love how it was obviously signposted to the audience while we waited for the Doctor to catch up. The contrivances and logical leaps the Doctor took to work it out, however, were about as naff and unconvincing as the rest of the story.
The advantage of keeping Whithouse for the closing third was that, for all his faults, he is good at dramatic set pieces and villain confrontations. That they usually fall flat due to a lack of ideas underpinning them shouldn’t have been a problem with Moffatt and Harness sketching out those ideas beforehand. But as is, I think they’ve left him woefully unprepared to deliver a satisfying conclusion. We still know about as little about the Monks as we did last week, except insofar as we know that they’re unlikely to be developed into anything interesting. Unless Whithouse pulls a rabbit out of a hat, this three parter is going to be a bit of a sad blip and wasted opportunity for the series.
May 29, 2017 @ 2:30 pm
“They could have come up with a better problem here, so it just felt super lazy and artificial. It was just one of a number of tediously obvious and unconvincing Big Choices made to progress the plot”
I was genuinely expecting the twist to be that the Doctor solves the lab’s ridiculous insecurity measures, everything’s sorted out and then, oops, Nardole opens the TARDIS doors and it’s all happening anyway… Which would probably have been a bit cheap, but at least would have followed on from the set-up.
May 29, 2017 @ 3:27 am
I think that my favorite part of the episode was the way that it highlighted how the Doctor’s evolved since Kill the Moon, in a way that relates to Harness’s nervousness about democracy. In that episode, he made Clara choose what to do, knowing full well what the correct choice was and making her come to the right conclusion because it wasn’t “his choice”. Clara rightly pointed out how incredibly stupid and patronizing that was, and here he takes it to heart. Not only does he know what the correct choice is, he takes responsibility and refuses to let the humans here make the wrong choice. It still isn’t his planet, but he takes Clara’s role and says no. That it doesn’t work doesn’t really change the legitimacy of that.
May 29, 2017 @ 8:08 am
Absolutely, this. The “Kill the Moon” parallels were lovely.
May 29, 2017 @ 8:15 am
As expected, Phil, your best review of the year is the one where you’re talking about the Harness episode. Something about him seems to bring about the best in you.
“this serves to sharpen the overall critique. Yes, sometimes we vote Leopard Eating out of fear or out of some sense of tactics. But the really ugly horror – the awful truth at the heart of it – is that we do it out of love. It’s easy, looking at ardent Leave voters or the #maga crowd, to frame the choice in terms of economic anxiety, or to talk about how voters are lied to and distracted by cynical attempts to play on racism. And sure, yes, that absolutely happens. But for the most part, this obscures the fact that there are people who just love the idea of Donald Trump. The apocalyptic shitstorm unfolding outside our browser windows is something people want.”
All of this, in particular, is excellent.
“the “strands of history” plastic tubing”
Surprised not to see you mention the Fates of Greek myth – the Monks are all-seeing, all-knowing. They write our teleology and measure out our days. Chilling stuff.
May 29, 2017 @ 9:28 am
I really enjoyed this episode while watching it. It was tense, the stakes felt high and the Monks were suitably creepy. But thinking about the episode later, I feel like there were a bit too many plot contrivances that it turn made the whole thing feel a little hollow.
The lab’s very bad security measures are the biggest culprit here. The “broken glasses” and “hangover” scenes gave the impression that the end of the world would be caused by little human errors piling up. But then the male lab worker completely disregarded any safety protocols in a way that can’t be explained by his hangover. The airlock in the lab allowed for both doors to be simultaineously opened, defeating its entire purpose. And the air filtration system is somehow designed to just vent chemicals into the atmosphere? I don’t mind the shoddy science, it’s “Doctor Who”, but all these plot-motivated lab design choices made it feel contrived. It was like the “takes-two-to-operate” booth that killed the Doctor in “The End of Time”: a very visible plot device. And that, in turn, made me question why the Doctor couldn’t just take a photo of the door mechanism with his glasses and ask Bill for help. I don’t normally look for real world logic in DW, but this episode actively invited me to do so with its setpieces.
(I feel like these contrivances for plot’s sake are a general weakness of Harness’s writing. I had similar reaction to both Zygon episodes and “Kill the Moon”. He grounds his episodes in the aesthetics of a serious political thriller… but then solves his plots with characters making stupid decisions and boxes with buttons on them).
I’m also a little disappointed by the way the Doctor’s blindness factored into the plot. I completely buy his reluctance to admit he’s weaker now and I enjoyed how it resulted in Bill selling the world to the Monks but it didn’t really amount to much. The device he used last episode to steal the sight from his future regenerations felt like the proper price to pay for overcoming this serious injury. But here he just got his sight back with no problems whatsoever. Sure, it cost him the Earth, but we all know he’ll fix that in 45 minutes next week. I didn’t expect the Doctor to stay blind forever or anything but… I dunno, I guess I was hoping for more.
Having said all that, I still really enjoyed the episode and I’m excited for the final one in this little triptych. Pearl was fantastic and so was Capaldi. And Nardole fits so seamlessly now into the story now that it feels like he’s always been there. Which is great. More Nardole please!
May 29, 2017 @ 11:02 am
The airlock that doesn’t lock at least one door at a time, and the fume hoods that allow fumes to come out the front are just the pinnacle of terrible containment that makes a school science lab look secure.
May 29, 2017 @ 3:08 pm
I thought of Erica and Douglas’ lab as a sly argument against privatizing all dangerous research, or expecting potentially dangerous scientific research companies to regulate their own safety procedures. Corporate probably decided that they could save a ton of money by cutting the crap out of safety and security. I see the same idiotic attitude in the Canadian oil industry.
Same goes for their having hired a clearly irresponsible idiot like Douglas who’d get super drunk the night before he had to be at work handling substances he should have known were dangerous as all hell. He probably couldn’t get hired anywhere that paid better, so he ended up with these corner cutting dicks where his unprofessionalism ended up costing him his life.
May 30, 2017 @ 8:47 am
Riggio: maybe. But none of that was in the episode itself. If it was meant as a critique or parody, surely they could’ve added some lines about greedy suits to set it up, couldn’t they? They did just that in “Oxygen”, after all.
And even if you were right, there’s still the artificial constraint of “dangerous machinery that can’t be shut down even though the sonic screwdriver/sunglasses can do precisely that in 90% of the episodes”. Come on, writers, at least handwave it with a deadlock or something…
“Pyramid…” asks us to treat it like a political thriller with its emphasis on bacterial threats, armies on the brink of war and the UN Secretary General. This suggest that we should treat the lab as “like reality unless noted” (as the TvTropes would call it). And that’s precisely the problem. This lab couldn’t be real. Not with so many obviously terrible security measures. It should’ve been either an old, decrepit lab with outdated equipment that malfunctions (plus human errors) or a modern, visibly secure one that gets compromised in a one-in-a-million-chance by some small flaw in the system (plus human errors). Both of those would be believable within the political thriller genre. Instead we got this weird middle ground: a modern, supposedly secure lab that operates like it was designed by an idiot, staffed by idiots. To me that just screams “plot device”.
May 29, 2017 @ 7:55 pm
My husband’s reaction was much the same. He was enjoying the episode until the Doctor got his sight back. Why do the the Monks need consent but can mess around with him getting his sight back? He feels that these inconsistencies with teh internal logic of the plot are getting too numerous, and has been burnt too many times before assuming that there is an in-universe explanation. The previous most recent example was in The Pilot, when the bit of gunk could follow the TARDIS all around the universe into the past as future.
It was just too obviously not in keeping with the previously established setting that it jerked him out of his suspension of disbelief.
He also can’t imagine that the monks could accurately model a complex event as the Doctor, especially with time travel.
Since he has not seen any spoilers I kept my mouth shut about the nethersphere being a piece of technology that could model him.
I obvously looked upset, so he cam up with a good thing to say about this series:
“At least they haven’t brought back the Daleks or the Cybermen, they are keeping it fresh”
May 29, 2017 @ 9:32 am
Oooft. What a plodding mess.
The series of small, human mistakes leading to the end of the world should have hinged on something more compelling than two people who do dumb things for no reason. But, of course, that would require character motivations, which would require characters. I don’t know, usually I couldn’t give two stuffs about plotting, but this story had so little happening or going for it. There wasn’t anything interesting to look or think on.
All the plotting of this, from the lab, to the terms of consent, to the Doctor’s blindness causing his downfall, is linked by the theme of ‘stuff happens’. Which I suppose is a step up from the wonky politics of the Zygon two parter, but this was essentially a hollow and useless bit of television that failed to even be slightly fun. Blech. Not a fan.
May 29, 2017 @ 10:02 am
Mm, I have to say I’m all for redemptive readings of Doctor Who, but I found very little to work with here personally. Some neat central ideas… executed with all the commitment to logic and realism of something on CBeebies. Season 7b was no great shakes (apart from Hide) but I’m finding it hard pressed to say that Season 10 is any better at it – more than half the season down, and the only one I’d really be willing to describe as “good” so far is Oxygen. Ho hum. New broom next year.
May 29, 2017 @ 10:29 am
I’m another one who thought this was feeble. A lot of the absurdities have already been mentioned by dm and Przemek, but I’ll throw in the fact that there’s apparently a combination lock to stop unauthorised persons getting out of the secure area (why?), and the fact that the marvellous system for automatically contaminating the outside world with any nasties currently sealed inside the lab cannot be deactivated, disconnected or sabotaged (something that makes even less sense within the magic-screwdriver-waving conventions of Doctor Who than in reality).
If you’re making that little sense, you need to move briskly, with plenty of distracting fireworks, the way Extremis did. This one makes you stare at its nonsensical contrivances for sooooo looooooong that they become impossible to ignore. (Face the Raven did a similarly lousy job with the mechanics of “Doctor gets into a trap he can’t get around, so companion does something unwise to save him”, but held back on revealing the device for most of the episode and then moved swiftly on to the consequences, so it was less obtrusive. Plus it had actual characters.)
The nonsensical plot contrivances and the non-characterisation of the one-off cast might be partially excusable if it had all been in the service of ideas that actually went anywhere. But having set up a scenario applicable, as has been mentioned, to anything from constitutional theories of original contract to BDSM, to me it simply failed to explore the ramifications. “I’m doing this”, “No, don’t!”, “I’m doing it anyway”, is about as much as we get, even on a literal level. Remarkably, this is a Peter Harness script whose greatest flaw is that there’s not remotely enough debating in it.
One result of that is that if there is to be any actual investigation of the concept of “conquest by consent” and its resonances, it has been left to Toby Whithouse. [Pause, tilt head, peer over top of glasses] The dreadful thought occurs that maybe the decision to give him the climax of the three-parter could actually be connected to his track-record in this regard – given that the Monks present as a sort of natural complement to the Tivolians, was Moffat even inspired to introduce this storyline by the, er, brilliance of Whithouse’s creation?
May 29, 2017 @ 11:28 am
I’m really hoping that this was not the end of the Doctor’s blindness. The defeat of the monks next week could be capped by them taking their ‘gift’ away on the way out, leaving him blind again. That would be a third case of “getting your sight back” then failing which… I want this Doctor to die blind. Is that too much?
How much creepier to have the Mondasian Cybermen appear in an episode where the Doctor’s frustration level with his blindness is so high that he might actually be willing to consider an artificial eye?
May 29, 2017 @ 2:41 pm
A mixed bag for me. Bits I liked included alien invaders who kept refusing to win because people were surrendering for the wrong reasons and the Doctor facing consequences for his own evasiveness (though the combination lock was pretty ridiculous and arbitrary–a keypad would have made the problem go away instantly).
I haven’t seen anyone recognize that Bill’s decision at the episode’s end is the inversion of the Monks’ behavior earlier. They know something specific and terrible will happen but refuse to intervene in order to save the planet unless they first are given what they want. Bill also knows something specific and terrible is about to happen, and she chooses to do something strongly against her interests in order to intervene and save the Doctor. And interestingly, she acts against the Doctor’s express wishes (without his consent) while the Monks insist on receiving consent before they respond.
Whether that contrast lands in the next episode is, to my mind, a big question, because while it’s interesting it may also end up being incoherent.
I have a big problem beyond the contrivances mentioned above relating to the lab: and really, any proper lab will have an actual airlock and a “sterilize now” option for the sealed tank where something went wrong, and absolutely will be a closed environment that does NOT vent its contents automatically into the atmosphere!! Shouldn’t writers at some point do a little research into what they depict?
What’s being criticized, it seems to me, is science itself. Too dangerous. Too irresponsible. The antiscientific elements here simply can’t land in any other way. I’d be fine if, like The Green Death, the corporation were the problem here, taking shortcuts left and right in terms of safety. Maybe this lab was repurposed and it was “too expensive” to retool the air filtration system, despite the dangers. That would dovetail nicely with “Oxygen.” But the episode fails at that almost completely. No corporate logos, no mention of the corporation or think-tank’s name beyond the establishing shot’s caption, almost no conversation about work conditions, nothing about safety short-cuts or budgets.
For that matter, what precisely were they experimenting with? Bacteria-resistant crops? Pesticide bacteria? The classic series would have at least mentioned “super-grow formula; we could feed the world” or in some way have vaguely established what they were up to. But in this episode, despite having the space to establish something, they may as well be alchemists in a generic lab mixing bacteria-modifying reagents to turn plants into gold.
The series has been critical of scientists before (Invasion of the Dinosaurs and Robot spring immediately to mind) but there has generally been some basis of the criticism beyond “they were experimenting while near-sighted/hung-over” and the suspicion expressed has generally had a direction besides “science is too risky.” By omitting any sense either of the benefits to be had by the research they were conducting or the non-scientific apparatus (whether corporate or political) driving the problems, the episode implies that science threatens to destroy the world and that the solution is to blow up the labs.
I find that somewhat disturbing. Especially when grounded upon such ignorance about what safety measures would be taken in a lab like this one.
May 29, 2017 @ 6:41 pm
I don’t agree with the idea that since “science” is what produced the disaster that the episode is criticizing “science” as a concept. You wouldn’t argue that any movie featuring a plane crash is an indictment of air travel, for instance. Rather I took it as an illustration of the precarious state of the world in the 21st century; our technology has advanced to a place in which a misplaced decimal can spell the end of humanity. That, to me, is a commentary on the fact that humanity has yet to adequately reckon with the amount of power that many individuals wield, the fact that things could all go south very quickly, and the fact that it could be caused by people other than the ones “in charge”. This is echoed in Bill’s deal with the monks: she was placed in a situation where her decision, which she wasn’t prepared for, ended up deciding the fate of the planet.
May 29, 2017 @ 7:49 pm
I suspect the choice of technologies was significant as well – biotech seeking to convert plants into gasoline.
May 29, 2017 @ 10:38 pm
I didn’t suggest the episode was critical of science, but of scientists. Just like the three generals (who had even less characterization) represented the military, the two scientists stood in for what researchers could do.
If the episode wanted to criticize cost-cutting measures, or even sloppy safety procedures, it would have done so.
It doesn’t even do anything with the biofuel angle. I missed that like Phil missed Quill’s physical change at the end of the latest Class episode.
May 30, 2017 @ 1:50 am
“I didn’t suggest the episode was critical of science…”
Well, apart from in the sentence that reads:
“What’s being criticized, it seems to me, is science itself.”
May 29, 2017 @ 4:37 pm
An alright episode. Having seen Alien:Covenant the night before I’ve really no tolerance for plot convenient stupidity in terms of characters actions and equipment & protocol design, so the climax with the airlock should have been rewritten – if some kind of code locking is required it should be a tactile keypad with a raised bump on the 5 to allow for a situation where somebody has lost their sight due to an accident with the chemicals they’re working on and needs to leave the room urgently as a result to seek medical attention. I can get what they’re going for – a ‘for the want of a nail’ chain of events, but it needed a rethink.
If it’s a sly dig at privatization of research then some sort of manager above Erica & Douglas needs to be there pushing them on because profits are more important than safety.
The whole ‘consent needs to be pure’ is dubious – they’re saying that pragmatism is not acceptable, and try to find someone who’s got into a position of power without some degree of pragmatism, and a fear of the unknown, which is what would happen when the Monks take over the world is again, perfectly understandable.
About the Monks, at this stage they have to be the Mondasians, either that or Moffat trolls the audience at an epic level by revealing them as Mechonoids. Also the whole concept of consent and them benevolently taking care of us reminds me of Richard Brautigan’s All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace poem which includes reference to cybernetics, the study of control & communication…
May 29, 2017 @ 9:21 pm
I think that Moffat’s last 3 years can be characterized by a sort of scripting laziness. Most stories he’s had a hand is penning seem to be short either a polishing draft or at least commit an error that should have been caught on the readthrough.
Last week had the Doctor telling the executioners to look him up under ’cause of death’ and, given that they were just trying to execute a Timelord, it can easily be mistaken for him bragging — “Look what I’ve survived, come at me!” Instead it was telling them to look up who HE’S killed and even the slightest dialogue tweak could have removed that ambiguity. Unintentionally ambiguous dialogue moments like that have abounded in the last couple years; sometimes in moments conveying plot-essential information.
And then there’s a fundamental carelessness about re-introducing Missy in ANOTHER plot that involves a large-scale simulated reality… which is unrelated to her. Mundungus Fletchers all over the place.
I was spoiled by RTD who would obsessively comb over his drafts and tweak this shit… but it’s not just a stylistic difference between writers. Moffat’s scripts in his first few years didn’t have these gaffes either. It’s like Steven Moffat has zeroed in on the exact amount of effort that is required for him to do his job and decided that is good enough.
(I dislike the man’s writing for different reasons than most, I think.)
That said, Nardole is a fantastic creation this season.
May 30, 2017 @ 9:08 am
Well, he’s been writing and producing two big shows (with the 50th anniversary thrown in for good measure) for years now. I think it’s not so much laziness on his part as being way too overworked to have time and strenght to comb over his scripts.
May 30, 2017 @ 9:47 am
Fair enough. But he could, you know, task someone else with doing that. And he’s there for readthroughs where there are literally a dozen people paying attention to the flow of the dialogue.
Moffat was also the guy who got into a Twitter argument after Time of the Doctor wherein he declared that he wasn’t interested in how plotlines are resolved or tying up details, just telling good stories. I think losing Matt’s series 8 burned Moffat out BADLY. The particular type of sloppy I’m complaining about really started to come to the fore after Smith’s departure.
(He was also burned out by doing 2 shows at once.)
May 30, 2017 @ 10:05 am
Could he, though? He works for the BBC, it’s their decisions and their money.
Anyway, I agree with you about Moffat’s tendency to ignore plot threads and details if they get in the way of what he perceives as “good story”. I mean, why can’t you work on both? There’s also the matter of what Moffat’s “good stories” are. As Phil pointed out many times, he’s fond of narrative substitution. But pretending to tell one story and then switching to a different one only works if the other story is better than the first one. And I’d argue that not all of Moffat’s were. In such cases all you’re left with is disappointment and a feeling of being cheated. Such was my experience with “Time of the Doctor”.
May 30, 2017 @ 11:42 am
I haven’t read The Writer’s Tale, but didn’t Davies’s writing for Doctor Who involve an awful lot of white-knuckled deadline-headbutting? Certainly if he was an obsessively meticulous rewriter of his own work it didn’t show in most of his scripts, which tended to be a frustrating mixture of brilliance and glaring sloppiness. He created a lot of disjointed messes that looked as though another draft.could have made them classics. One of the things that makes Midnight stand out from the bulk of his Doctor Who writing is that it actually feels finished.
Roderick T. Long
May 31, 2017 @ 5:15 am
“to allow for a situation where somebody has lost their sight due to an accident with the chemicals they’re working on”
Or, for that matter, if the power has gone out and they have to operate the lock in the dark.
May 29, 2017 @ 7:16 pm
I’m both curious to see how this story finishes and at the same time just kind of wanting to get on with it – not something I’ve felt at any other point this series. The amount of rather slow talk-based scenes which seem to be designed to put off the moment of doom when it’s going to be a choice between defying the monks and saving the Doctor. And why oh why was he so determined not to tell Bill about his blindness? I know there is usually an element of the character not wanting to show vulnerability, but this was a little ridiculous. I’d be curious to know if other people see this as consistent with the version of the Doctor played by Peter Capaldi.
I would agree that if the message here was meant to be ‘privatisation led to this’ (and I would be happy with that) then it should have been clearer – it didn’t cross my mind when watching on Saturday. It really did look more like ‘this is what happens when people are careless.’ A bolder political thrust, as in episodes already mentioned above, would have improved things. Funny to think that Classic Who forty-odd years ago might have been better at this kind of thing…
Planet of the Deaf
May 29, 2017 @ 11:44 pm
The whole blindness concept has to be been slightly unsatisfactory, as for most of the time the Doctor has been too effective. If someone can fool everyone (the rescued crewmembers from Oxygen, Bill, the members of the Vatican, the generals etc) then either his sonic glasses are too effective OR the other people are completely slow to not notice something that something weird was going on or at least look a bit puzzled at some point.
Then, Bill asks the monks, and they can restore a Time Lord’s sight. Why would she think they can do that anyway? She’s seen them killing people, not restoring the sick!
May 30, 2017 @ 2:40 am
my review of the penultimate episode of Class, in which you can watch as something just snaps in my ability to tolerate the show
So Class never does get better? I kinda figured that would be the case, but I’m still sorry to have it confirmed. Still, with just one episode left, I suppose I’ll watch it for the sake of wrapping things up.
July 1, 2017 @ 10:51 pm
What bugged me about the episode was the presumption of the military leaders to speak for the world. I didn’t vote for any of those clowns. Not that I would have been in a position to vote for Bill either. I guess I don’t like the idea that one person can decide the fate of the whole world without the consent of the whole world. At least Clara had the chance to ask the whole world about blowing up the moon.
The fact that it was three generals attempting to make the decision was just extra frustrating.
Maybe the UN Secretary was in the best position to actually speak for the world because his job is to negotiate with the representatives of every country. But ah, who gives a damn about the UN.