The Story at the Beginning of the Arc

Review of The Pyramid at the End of the World
Warning: This review contains episode-specific spoilers and wild speculation about future episodes.

I would be really interested in knowing how the writing work was split between Peter Harness and Stephen Moffat on The Pyramid at the End of the World (TPatEotW), because while it didn't feel completely Moffat-y, there were some distinctly Moffat qualities to the episode. Specifically, on first viewing, we get to the end and feel like we've been on a heckuva ride, but it's not until we step back and reflect that we realize there were things that didn't make sense along the way.

This is one of the features of Moffat's writing that has consistently frustrated me. It's wonderful on an immediate, gut level; the audience is easily swept up in the breadth of emotion as the story barrels along. Yet it is only that rapid-fire inevitability of plot development that keeps us from saying, "Hang on—that makes no sense." We have no time to process the bits that don't quite jibe, and thus they get swept away in the current of the story and we forget about them until we have clambered back out of the river and notice them swirling in an eddy downstream. Then they keep bobbing around, catching our eyes in a way we simply can't ignore them any longer.

There were two issues that I specifically felt detracted from the episode in that I-can-ignore-the-niggling-feeling-until-after-the-fact manner. The first was the safety protocols at Agrofuel Research Operations. While I loved watching events at the lab unfold, knowing as I watched that they were what was going to "end" the world (even if I didn't know for much of the episode precisely how), there were also several moments that left me shaking my head in disbelief.

For example, the instant Douglas removed part of his clean suit, I knew he was a dead man. Even putting aside the narrative convention that practically guarantees such an outcome, in what setting where one is required to wear a suit protective suit of that nature would it ever be deemed no big deal to breach it? He removes the helmet and Erica's reaction is a nonchalant, "What're you doing?" She's barely even concerned!

Further, Douglas appears completely incompetent. He reaches into a vat of dead slime with no respiratory protection, just slops some up and runs through an "airlock chamber" without closing any doors behind him. While it's been well established that he's hungover to the point of debilitation, for something this severe, I have a hard time believing that adrenaline and his training would not have combined to keep him sharper than this.

It also seems unlikely that a facility that regularly deals with various bacteria would have such a poorly designed air filtration system. Why would it remove "toxins" from the lab and then spew them directly into the atmosphere around the building instead? Why wouldn't the designers have engineered the shit out of it to account for just such a situation as this: unwanted bacteria throughout the lab? I have too much respect for the people who build this type of facility to believe it would ever be so poorly done.

The other major objection I had to the story was the Monks' conditions for helping save Earth. Here my concerns are twofold. First, I was troubled by the twisted use of the term "consent." I am perhaps especially sensitive because of how the concept of sexual consent has been pooh-poohed by (in particular) men who feel entitled to women's bodies. Confusing the meaning of the word thus bothers me a great deal.

In some ways, the Monks reinforce a positive message about consent. "You act out of fear," they say to the Secretary General. "Fear is not consent." But later, when Bill finally asks them point blank what consent means for them in this context, they reply that "you must ask for our help and want it and know you will then be ours." If that's not a creepy, twisted interpretation based wholly in entitlement, I'm not sure what is. At any rate, it left a really bad taste in my mouth.

My other concern with the Monks' restrictions was their insistence on love. "We must be wanted. We must be loved. To rule through fear is inefficient," they say, and "To rule, there must be love," and "Love is consent. We must be loved." And yet that is not at all what happens when Bill agrees to let them have the Earth in exchange for their help in saving the Doctor. They recognize her motivation ("You act out of love.") and yet not one whit of that emotion is aimed at them.

Yes, Bill acts out of love, offering her consent for the Monks to do what they will as long as the Doctor lives. But it is love for the Doctor that she offers, not love for the Monks—which, by their own repeated statements, is what they require. Twice they say specifically "We must be loved" (emphasis mine). So how does this qualify? That inconsistency is going to stay with me like a poppy seed wedged between my teeth.

Given the amount of space I've just spent ripping on the failures of the episode, it would be understandable if you were to believe at this point that I didn't like it. However, despite its shortcomings, I actually quite enjoyed it. The idea that the Doctor could sort of accidentally broker world peace and then brush it off as irrelevant is simultaneously amusing and depressing.

I also love that Doctor Who continues to do its part to increase representation in media by showing all sorts of people just being people. Bill and Penny, two queer Black women, having a date (even if it does get weirdly interrupted yet again) was a refreshing sight. Similarly, the fact that potential new Companion Erica ("Seriously, what are you doing when this is all over?"—which, of course, indicates she's doomed to die a horrible death in the next episode) is a Little Person but that it's not a plot point is fabulous. She's simply an intelligent, skilled woman who works as a lab tech at a biotechnology firm. That's the kind of representation we can always use more of. Kudos to the casting director.

Sometimes I watch the show more particularly with a writer's eye, and there were a couple such moments here. We have been shown over and over that, despite her lack of formal undergraduate education prior to meeting the Doctor, Bill is especially observant and clever. Even just two episodes of her failing to cotton on to his blindness therefore feel contrived. By the end of TPatEotW, it's clear why she had to be, but the fact that it's so easy for the audience to say, "Oh, so that's why," tells me that the storytelling conceit isn't well executed.

Similarly, forcing Nardole out of action at a critical moment (because he has human lungs, apparently? What? Didn't the Doctor say these bacteria would eliminate all life on Earth, not just human life, though, so... why specifically human lungs?) is blatant authorial manipulation to force Bill into taking a particular action, as the only remaining possibility for saving the Doctor.

Going back to marks in the positive column, TPatEotW added a couple more callbacks to past episodes to the tally for the series. After the discovery that three major military powers standing down is insufficient impetus to reverse the Doomsday Clock (as an aside, how many other children of the Cold War found it weird that that concept had to be explained?), the Doctor tries to figure out what else could be the threat. "Narrow it down," he says, and I flash back to Nine's identification of the inhabitants of Raxacoricofallapatorius. Not long after (around the 29:00 mark), there's a musical callback, as hints of "The Majestic Tale (Of a Madman In a Box)" float through the background.

Despite its flaws, I liked TPatEotW. I enjoyed the ride, even as I questioned some of its turns, and I'm looking forward to seeing where the story goes next. I just hope that we get back to the one-off adventures soon, rather than the series arc continuing to snowball through the next five episodes. I wouldn't want TPatEotW to be reduced to "the story at the beginning of the arc."

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Comments

I too was appalled by the safety precautions in the lab. It shouldn't even be possible to open both doors in an airlock situation. And as for venting toxins into the atmosphere... isn't that what that kind of system is designed to prevent?

But at least the moon didn't turn into an egg and trees didn't magically appear so I suppose we're ahead on this one.

I did like the pyramid though.

By Kara S (not verified)
mrfranklin's picture

HAHAHAHAHA!!!

Yes! If there's no egg-moon we're definitely still ahead of the game!

By mrfranklin

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