13/09/2019

Series 10 - The Pyramid at the End of the World & The Lie of the Land


The Pyramid at the End of the World 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.
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.



The Lie of the Land reviewed by Roger Jones.
Being the third instalment of a trilogy, shared by three writers puts a huge weight on the Lie of the Land and Toby Whithouse. The trailer already had speculation that this was a retread of Last of the Timelords or Turn Left, fuelling the over-familiar and wearisome accusations of creative bankruptcy. So how did they do? Pretty well thinks Roger Jones, who of his own free will, shares his thoughts, which are the Truth.....
First of all, we should be clear what this story was not. It was not The Last of the Timelords. While the companion seems to be set up as the one voice of freedom fighting against the new regime, that trope is swiftly inverted, where it is the Doctor that is actually building the resistance. Admittedly there is a 'psychic link' element in common, this is not used to create miraculous superpowers through faith - it is simply a more familiar trope, a mechanism used to suppress the world with a design flaw that is used against it. In other ways it is also very different, showing smaller, more personal rebellions, echoing its themes of individual free will.
A more useful comparison might be made in the opening acts to Turn Left in its evocation of a fascist, dystopian future, where people are easily turned against each other. Interestingly, that also had the underlying theme of individual free will.
Secondly, this is not another 'love conquers all' story. This is a story about the strength of individual imagination and free will. It happens that the 'subroutine' in Bill's mind that crowded out the Monk's programming was about her Mother - but it could equally have been about, say, a fictive time travelling alien so strongly imagined they seemed real (hard to credit I know!); the key was the link required the conviction to be pure.
The main strengths of this episode where in the acting, the sound design and the direction. Peter Capaldi continues to shine, and uses his 'Invasion of Time' moment to show what a creepily splendid villain he can be. His TV broadcast used his gaunt features and splendid overbite to full effect. His acting 'turns on a dime' - his flip from quisling to jester, his sudden bursts of joy when he seizes on a plan, his despair when he thinks Bill is about to be lost - marvellous. His chemistry with Pearl Mackey is terrific - are we really only going to get one series of this? What a shame.
And Pearl as Bill manages to carry potentially mawkish seems with her (imagined) mother with real conviction, as she does the emotional roller coaster of her rescue, disenchantment and reconnection with the Doctor and her brave determination to atone for opening the door to invasion. Even the underused Matt Lucas as Nardole shows some of his humorous acting chops.
The sound design in the episode was particularly good, most notably the disconnect between the voiceover through the firefight in the Pyramid. This emphasised the disorientation of the participants caused by the false reality broadcasts, also supported by the nice visual glitches throughout the episode.
The person with the biggest challenge was the writer. Unlike a stand-alone story, this had to justify the lead-in over several episodes. The writing was generally strong, with a leavening of humour (fake news central indeed!). The conversation with Bill's mother and extensive use of voiceovers felt unnatural at first (show, don't tell), but all played into the resolution - the constructed version of her dead mother was so continuous, present and pure for Bill, it was the perfect key to break the Monks' psychic link, just as her selfless desire to help the Doctor was the perfect key to establish it.  If I were to criticise the writing it is in the resolution - it was wordy, but the mechanics of it were still not so clearly explained. Moffat also deserves credit for some of the more effective parts of the script. In particular, the long portrait of the Capaldi Doctor as detached in his view of how humanity is best served played incredibly well for the scene where the Doctor had apparently turned to help the Monks. Finally, whichever of the two of them came up with the line "In amongst the 7 billion, there's someone like you ... that's why I put up with the rest of them." has provided the words for countless weddings to come.
So did the episode make a good conclusion to the Monks trilogy? Generally yes, but I felt the weight of the three was very much with the first, Extremis. In effect that was a prequel, followed by a two-parter. As a resolution to that two parter, it had an admirable increase in the pace and action. More to the point, it has moved the characters on - and in particular has moved on the relationship between the Doctor and Missy, which is clearly setting up the end of the series. With the Doctor putting Missy through an apparent 'cold turkey' treatment for her addiction to wickedness, it is intriguing to speculate how genuine her conversion or remorse is. It is easy to imagine this is simply a trick - but some genuine transformation might be more interesting, and her more ruthless and unsentimental approach to 'doing good' might make for interesting stories, and echoed the 'quisling' Doctor's apparent plan to save humanity by cooperating with the Monks.



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