2017 Series Episode 7 - tx 29/05/17. Written by Steven Moffat and Peter Harness. Directed by Daniel Nettheim. Episode reviewed by Estelle Hargraves.
Mid-way through an unusual three-parter, `The Pyramid at the End of the World` brings us more of the Monks from last weeks `Extremis`, this time in real life instead of cyberspace. Some might see the last episode as ultimately a waste of time, given that it involved a computer simulation. A programme run by the Monks to determine the most vulnerable point in Earth's history for their invasion, being a simulation, meant nothing much happened in the real world other than the Doctor receiving an email to himself about the Monk's hitherto invisible threat.
In my opinion however, there's nothing wasted about such an elegant exploration of one of the more fascinating theories that straddle science and science fiction - see Marcus Chown's The Never Ending Days of Being Dead for more on why, mathematically speaking, we're infinitely more likely to be living in a computer simulation than the real world. There's only one reality versus a presumably high number of advanced civilisations by the end of the Universe, whose ultimate aim would surely be to run just such a simulation, of the entire Universe's history. The Monks are evidently members of this kind of advanced civilisation.
Fast forward to this week's episode and the Monks have disguised themselves as corpse-like creatures in a spaceship taking the form of The Great Pyramid of Giza. They've landed in Turmezistan, site of `The Zygon Invasion`, apparently a zone at which the Russian, Chinese and American armies meet, giving the impression that imminent world war between "the three most powerful armies on earth" is the cause of fatal instability for the Earth. This misdirection means time is lost before the Doctor deduces the real cause - in turbo-charged Sherlock Holmes style - a biochemical incident at a lab in Yorkshire, the result of a research experiment mistake. The writing and performance of the scientists in the Agrofuel lab is beautifully realised - in a few short scenes we get a real sense of them as people and affectionate colleagues. The always-impeccable Tony Gardner as Douglas is dangerously hungover and Rachel Denning's Erica is a winning combination of efficient and caring. Unfortunately, Erica's glasses getting smashed as she leaves for work means Douglas needs to input the calculations for Stage 2 of the trial and makes an error that somehow turns their bacteria samples into a deadly mixture which, as the Monks saw, would be toxic to all life on Earth. This barren wasteland, shown to the Doctor, Bill and the various representatives of the United Nations, by the Monks timey-wimey glowing fibres, can be prevented only by submitting willingly and "purely" to the Monks, they claim. Submitting through fear or for strategic reasons is “impure”, and results in your destruction. Bill's eventual and desperate surrender, trading the Earth for the return of the Doctor's eyesight and his escape from the toxic lab, is made through love, which the Monks seem to find essential to becoming successful slave overlords, in Big Brother style.
Pearl Mackie is an absolute joy in this - from playful flirting with new love interest Penny, to excitement in her growing confidence and ability in the Doctor's world, to taking responsibility for the fate of the Earth against the Doctor's wish. Matt Lucas as Nardole is also a wonderful presence, bringing a beautifully-judged lightness of touch to proceedings, covering for the Doctor's ongoing pretense that he isn't blind. It seems like an inexplicable decision to keep this from Bill, but then again, when does the Doctor ever willingly admit to his weaknesses? Especially given that he's in an uncharacteristic mood for battle this week, condoning the armies attempted attack on the Pyramid, not showing much of his distaste for soldiers this time. Incidentally, a reference to terrorism as one of the suggestions about what could cause the catastrophe, was apparently removed at the last minute after the Manchester attack this week.
As for the Monks, what do we know of them? For starters, they appear to have some kind of mastery of time, and they have a spaceship which can disguise itself. So far, so Timelord. Their appearance isn't their true form, so who are they really? Are they an enemy we already know? And their ambition is to rule Earth as ultimate dictators, much like we saw with a certain Vault-dwelling person, assuming it really is Missy in there. They also presumably saw the true future, not a destroyed Earth but one saved by the Doctor at the last minute, given that it still resulted in their success. And they can also change events in time, if changing the past was actually the way in which they mysteriously restored the Doctor's eyesight. As a Time Lord, it seems inconceivable that the Doctor wouldn't know of another time-meddling race, and seeing as next week's trailer shows him as a kind of Lord Haw Haw figure helping the Monks, it looks like their misdirection skills will be coming into full play in the enslavement of the Earth. A thrilling instalment in a series which, for me, hasn't put a foot wrong.