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Doctor Who: The Pyramid at the End of the World (Review)

The Pyramid at the End of the World is very much a Peter Harness script.

Much like Kill the Moon, The Zygon Invasion and The Zygon Inversion, the climax of the episode boils down to a set of characters in a contained set making an impossible moral choice in the abstract. Harness very much writes Doctor Who in the grand tradition of science-fiction allegory, the use of the show’s absurd framework to ask broad philosophical questions about the human condition in general and this political moment in particular. Harness is writing Doctor Who in the great political tradition of The Happiness Patrol.

Without a thread of doubt.

Harness is a writer with his finger on the proverbial pulse. The Zygon Invasion and The Zygon Inversion were essentially metaphorical explorations of radicalisation and immigration, touching on two of the hot-button political issues of the season. The Pyramid at the End of the World essentially updates the root metaphor for the current climate. The Pyramid at the End of the World is essentially a story about what it takes for people to make truly unconscionable choices. At what point does an ordinary decent person consent to be governed by a monster?

This is very much in tune with the popular consciousness in 2016 and 2017. After all, the British public voted for Brexit largely in support of xenophobic platform that borrowed imagery from Nazi Germany. The American public elected a leader who believed that most Mexicans were rapists and that all women wanted him to sexually assault them. At what point do these objectively horrific ideas seem palatable to the average person? The Pyramid at the End of the World reaches the same answer as Harness’ other Doctor Who scripts: when people are very afraid.

“Why didn’t you tell me you’d had fibre installed?”

In the wake of the four introductory episodes, Steven Moffat’s final season of Doctor Who comes into focus. The Pilot, Smile, Thin Ice and Knock Knock were all about introducing the new season and establishing Bill Potts as a character in her own right. However, once that table-setting exercise was complete, the season could move along to more interesting and challenging ideas. What does Doctor Who look like in the age of Donald Trump? What does Doctor Who look like in the era of Brexit?

The middle third of the season offers some interesting thoughts on the subject. Oxygen harked back to the socially-conscious science-fiction of the eighties, the pointed critiques of Reagan-era capitalism that suddenly had a lot more relevance in an era where governments seemed to be fixated on setting a cash value on a human life. Extremis engaged with an even tougher question, wondering what use Doctor Who might be at a time when people were genuinely living in fear of the hatred and paranoia exhibited by their friends and neighbours.

Barrier to entry?

The Pyramid at the End of the World feels very much like a brief written in the context of this mid-season engagement with the broader political mood. The Pyramid at the End of the World is essentially a meditation upon political compromise. It is about locking a bunch of people in a room and asking them to surrender their freedom and their autonomy in return for safety and security. It is a potent metaphor for the act of voting, one very much in keeping with Steven Moffat’s reflections on the act in The Beast Below.

The monks remain a fascinating creation, in large part because they exist almost entirely apart from the version introduced in Extremis. The monsters that built that simulation were not particularly invested in consent or benign rule. Gloating to the Doctor in the Oval Office, those grotesque creatures seemed like any other ominous antagonist. As such, the revelation of how they plan to take over the world is made in The Pyramid at the End of the World. Given that this revelation is the core of the episode, it has the effect of almost reworking the monks as a concept.

I don’t have no time for no monk-ey business.

Of course, it remains thematically consistent. The monks are manipulators of information. In Extremis, they used that information to build a perfect model of the world to simulate their invasion. In The Pyramid at the End of the World, they use that information to manipulate mankind into capitulating to them. There may be little in Extremis to suggest their behaviour in The Pyramid at the End of the World, but it is certainly in keeping with what was established about them. As the Doctor reflects, complex systems tend to look different on the outside.

The monks remain a fascinating creation. There is definitely something satanic or occultish about them. They show up in a gigantic ancient pyramid, a symbol that has very strong mythic basis and strong ties to movements like Freemasonry. Their appearance is certainly demonic, with their torn leather skin and their pointed ears. Their red robes and the use of the phrase “monks” certainly adds a religious context to their threat. In The Pyramid at the End of the World, the creatures even offer mankind a deal with the proverbial devil.

The Pyramid at the End of the World establishes the monks as a particularly insidious monster. They do not conquer mankind through force. “We need consent,” they explain repeatedly. They manoeuvre mankind into a position where they consciously choose to surrender themselves to these monsters. This is not invasion, because that would be simple. This is capitulation and erosion. This is a manipulation of an existing system, warping and distorting into an unrecognisable shape. This is democratically endorsing dictatorship.

Lab work.

Steven Moffat’s final season of Doctor Who takes place through the prism of Brexit and Donald Trump. This is reflected in a variety of ways, from the shot of the President having committed suicide in Extremis through to Bill insisting that she would never have voted for “the President” because he is “orange.” However, it is also represented through the fundamental metaphors at the heart of the show. The monks are very clearly representative of concepts like Brexit and Trump. They are the embodiment of an unconscionable choice, validated by consent of the governed.

Like Donald Trump and UKIP, the monks never lied about who they were. They were entire honest about being creepy and scary and fascist. They never claimed to be good guys.  They never offered their services free of charge. They never tried to trick mankind. They never pretended to be selfless or decent. The people dealing with the monks, the people who consented to surrender to the monks, they knew exactly what they were getting, just like those “moral” individuals who voted for Donald Trump knowing how he treated women and minorities.

Two minutes to midnight.

This is the most terrifying aspect of the current political climate. Trump and Brexit were not imposed upon people. They were democratically elected, even if Trump failed to secure the popular vote. Had they arrived through some other mechanism, it might feel better. However, like the monks, they had to be invited. “Maybe they’re like vampires,” Bill suggests. “They are not vampires,” the Doctor responds. As unsettling as it might be to think about, the public chose to vote for Trump, and the people chose to vote for Brexit.

The Pyramid at the End of the World places a lot of emphasis on this idea of ownership and responsibility. The narrative of Brexit and Trump tended to be one of retaking control, of voters asserting their will upon an increasingly disconnected political class. “It is our planet,” the American official warns the Doctor, a nod to the sort of resurgent nationalism and angry self-determination that powers such movements. Of course, the irony is that these decisions do not empower voters. Instead, they ultimately cost voters.

Three of a kind.

“Being smart is not giving your planet away,” the Doctor advises the assembled representatives of mankind. However, that is exactly what these officials intend to do. There is a powerful irony; just like those people who voted for Brexit to increase funding for the NHS have empowered a government that intends to strip it down and privatise it, just like Trump voters who wanted their leader to “drain the swamp” have watched their candidate invest more power in established economic interests.

The Pyramid at the End of the World seems to be a science-fiction allegory about how a person might justify making the proverbial deal with the devil. This is very much in keeping with how Harness approaches Doctor Who, with The Zygon Invasion and The Zygon Inversion playing as extended metaphors about why young immigrants might radicalise and why communities might feel anxious about immigration. Doctor Who is almost a sterile lab to Harness, a framework through which these political questions might be worked.

Harness’ tendency to literal metaphor is polarising to fans of Doctor Who. For some viewers, the revelation in Kill the Moon that “the moon is an egg” was just a bridge too far. However, The Pyramid at the End of the World plays into the power of science-fiction to build absurdly literal political metaphors. The Pyramid at the End of the World not only features a literal doomsday clock, but its title and key plot element are a nod to the rather poetic description of a United States radar facility built in North Dakota.

Talk about a pyramid scheme.

In The Pyramid at the End of the World, the Doctor suggests a very simple reason why seemingly decent and compassionate people would make the compromise with the monks, why they would surrender their autonomy and their freedom. To Harness, fear is the great human motivator. It is fear that drives mankind to vote to kill the alien in Kill the Moon. It is fear that leads to bloodshed in The Zygon Invasion and The Zygon Inversion. It is fear that leads all of the parties to surrender themselves to the monks.

Harness suggests that the current political climate is an inevitable result of a culture of fear dating back years upon years. The paranoia that drove the War on Terror. The anxiety simmering beneath the Cold War. Harness suggests that it does not matter of what exactly people are afraid, it only matters that living in fear for so long will inevitably drive a person to extremes. The fear that drove people to elect Trump and vote for Brexit might not be exactly the fear in the wake of 9/11, and it might not be the same fear that took root in the Cold War. But it is still fear.

Fear goes viral.

It is a very timely metaphor, particularly given the week in which it aired. The United Kingdom is in the middle of an election cycle involving a paranoid and fear-mongering Tory government that is stoking nationalist anxieties. Following a horrific terrorist attack on Manchester, the government deployed nearly a thousand armed soldiers to the streets. That is a worrying image, one that underscores just how powerful fear can be as a political motivator. When people are afraid, they seek comfort and security, regardless of the price.

Harness’ script is very well observed. The episode adopts a similar structure to Extremis, a literal disconnect between the action and another (seemingly disconnected) story thread. In fact, this two-thread structure is even reflected in the teaser between Bill and Penny that repeatedly skips back and forth between “previously” and “now.” It is an unconventional structure for the opening of an episode in the middle part of a multi-episode arc, but it cleverly continues the story threading from Extremis and sets up the threading in The Pyramid at the End of the World.

He wears his sunglasses at night.

In Extremis, the action cut between the Doctor’s inquiries into the Veritas and the Doctor’s witnessing at the execution of Missy. In The Pyramid at the End of the World, the action cuts between the large-scale confrontation outside the eponymous pyramid (between the United States, the Chinese and the Russians) and much lower-key crisis in a laboratory. It is a fascinating element of structural continuity between the two episodes. Extremis and The Pyramid at the End of the World are very different from one another, but these little touches keep them in synch.

This contrast between the two threads in The Pyramid at the End of the World is archetypal Doctor Who. It is a story about the human face of these sweeping events. The Doctor finds himself caught up in an epic geopolitical crisis, but the fate of the world boils down to a set of broken reading glasses and a really bad hangover. As the Doctor narrates over the teaser, “The end of the world is a billion, billion tiny moments. And somewhere, unknown, in silence or darkness, it has already begun.” It is a very effective reminder of the scale at which Doctor Who operates.

Who is pulling the strings?

In its own way, it taps into the same core anxiety that ran through Extremis. The previous episode suggested that reality was broken, that the world was a lie. The Pyramid at the End of the World plays a variation upon that theme. It suggests that the world is fragmented, that so many different things are happening at once, filtered through so many different perspectives. At one point, the Doctor struggles to identify the threat because he has too many different cameras to see it through.

The Pyramid at the End of the World suggests an infinite number of apocalyptic scenarios. Any number of events that might bring the world to a swift end. Even within the seemingly narrow search parameters of deadly genetically-modified bacteria, there are still thousands of candidates. The Pyramid at the End of the World captures the frantic pacing of the modern world, the constant near-apocalyptic tenor of the news coverage, the sense of impending doom that looms so large over contemporary culture.

Enemies in their (pyra)midst.

There is also a political point being made here. The spectre of war is a distraction, with the monks planting the pyramid at a strategic juncture between these three geopolitical powers in order to distract from the actual threat. It plays like a cynical commentary on the way that politics operate. Wars are frequently seen as a headline-grabbing distraction. It has been suggested that Bill Clinton bombed Iraq to distract from the Lewinski Scandal, while it has also been suggested that Trump bombed Syria to draw attention away from his Russia woes.

In the meantime, important problems simmer away in the background. “What’s already on our radar that we should be worried about?” the Doctor asks. After all, humanity faces any number of existential threats. Global warming runs the risk of rendering the planet uninhabitable. The ever-widening wealth gap between rich and poor will only lead to further political instability. Drought and famine kill countless people every year. However, none of these issues generate the same political traction (or media coverage) as conventional warfare.

Daylight robe-ery.

The Pyramid at the End of the World is a very clever and very pointed political commentary. It is in some ways building on the challenge posed by Extremis. The previous episode wondered what might be the point of Doctor Who in the era of a resurgent political right. This episode instead wonders what questions Doctor Who should be asking in that political climate. The answers might be unsettling, but the questions are definitely right.

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10 Responses

  1. Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. When I started reading them0vieblog, the reason I loved it was that it made me see things in stories that I’d never seen before. I just finished watching the Pyramid at the End of the World, and I thought that it was a very well-made episode of Doctor Who. I read this review, and I was floored. Everything you observed is almost certainly correct, and flows right from Harness’s previous work. I’m going to enjoy re-watching this. Just a note I found interesting: in this episode, the Doctor shows how much he’s learned from Clara. He made her choose what to do in Kill the Moon, 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. I loved that bit.

    • Thanks Kyle.

      And good spot on the organic character development from Kill the Moon, actually. Which I have a great deal of affection for.

  2. It’s an insightful review but to be honest I’m not sure I agree entirely. Or perhaps I should say I think the message either much more ambivalent than you are suggesting or simply delivered in a very flawed manner.

    I made the point back in the ‘The Zygon Invasion’ and ‘The Zygon Inversion’ that there was no actual pro-case being argued (‘the Zygon’s are good for Earth’), simply a negative one (‘we can’t kill the Zygons’). The Zygons seem to have absolutely no culture of their own, literally stealing their very identities from humanity and they are only saved by a massive, enforced conspiracy to hide them. There is no Zygon literature, no Zygon restaurants, no sense of a living breathing immigrant community interacting with Britain. That’s hard to reconcile with a pluralist, celebration of multiculturalism – in fact it feels much more like an exhausted, defeated acceptance that allowing the Zygons to stay was a mistake but ‘we’ are stuck with them now. I’m not sure whether that was intentional reading but in some ways it seems like on some level Harness agrees with a UKIP reading of politics but simply takes it to a much more humane level. Tolerance is not depicted as a good in and of itself but simply as a wearying but morally necessary burden. It is a pretty bleak reading I know, but it does seem to be what the episodes are saying.

    Likewise it is incredibly easy to read this episode as espousing right wing libertarian views – almost out Trumping Trump. The national and even international (the UN Secretary General!) figures are impotent elitists and even their cooperation with each other is barely represented as a positive and solves nothing. The planet is in the end troubled not by nationalist warmongering but by affable scientists clumsily messing about in God’s domain. Emotion, represented by Bill’s love for the Doctor saves the day, easily trumping the cynical eggheads who only end up killing themselves. For all Bill’s topical instance that the president is ‘too orange’ there are precious few signs of Trumpism and the actual politics onscreen is arguably far more redolent of the 1990s than the 2010s – a deep suspicion of all governments and an international consensus.

    I don’t think that’s all intentionally baked into the script but as I said I think either Harness is rather ambivalent and cynical or something went seriously awry somewhere.

    • Totally agree with this. To the extent that the episode had a social commentary, it wasn’t very well articulated. The whole bit about the whimpering, powerless UN Secretary General seems like it could have come straight out of the Republican foreign policy playbook. And I disagree with Darren in that Trump/Brexit both did lie many times about what they represented. They both made highly unrealistic promises that they have or likely will break.

      I agree with another comment that it makes no sense for the monks to think appearing as human corpses would reassure people. If they could simulate all of human history shouldn’t they know that people don’t like mummy monsters? I think Babylon 5 handled a similar situation much better with the Vorlons. The Vorlons appeared to humans (and other races) as angels, so humans would learn to trust them. That makes much more sense than appearing to humans as a bunch of degraded corpses.

      Also, that lab has the worst safety protocols in history. Douglas reached Prometheus levels of stupidity by removing his helmet and keeping it off when he knew that there was a deadly pathogen. Seriously, can’t Doctor Who hire science consultants to catch this sort of thing?

      • To be fair, I’d argue the whole point of the Monks appearing as desiccated corpses is the same point of having them be explicit in their plans to take over the world. The entire plot of The Pyramid at the End of the World hinges on the fact that mankind knows pretty much exactly what they are getting, that they are not being tricked or lied to, that they cannot pretend they didn’t know exactly what they were doing or who they were dealing with.

        After all, people who voted for Trump knew exactly what they were getting. A racist misogynist with authoritarian tendencies and little respect for democratic norms. Sure, you may not have been able to predict the exact nature of the sh!tshow that he would rain down, but there was no sudden switch, no grand con. Donald Trump was transparently a liar and a con artist, and the people who voted for him did so knowing that to be the case.

        The same is true of Brexit. The people voting for Brexit were voting in favour of a xenophobic backwards-looking campaign run by people who borrowed Nazi propaganda, knowing that it would hurt future generations and damage the country’s economic and political stability. They may not have know exactly that it would lead to threats of war over Gibraltar, but they knew exactly the sort of monster that they were letting in.

        I actually think that’s the beauty of the episode. We tend to think that people have to be fooled into making poor choices, into surrendering their freedoms, into enabling monstrous policies and individuals. The truth is that they just have to be a little be desperate, and they have to believe that it will give them a momentary advantage.

    • I think there’s a solid argument to be made the Harness is deeply uncomfortable with democracy as a concept, if only because of the decisions that it justifies. Looking at Kill the Moon, I’d have said that he rejected majoritarianism that was typically mistaken for democracy, but The Pyramid at the End of the World makes it pretty clear that… nope, talking about actual democracy. Which, to be entirely honest, is a frustration that I’ve felt myself over the past couple of years, so I can empathise. Although, obviously not to the same degree as Harness.

  3. No allegory is perfect, especially when it must function primarily as mainstream entertainment and therefore (quite rightly) privileges intrigue and thrills over political commentary. Obviously there is no way that this episode could function as a “perfect” allegory for today’s political reality – how could it?

    Having said all that, I would be amazed if Darren isn’t 100% correct about the primary concerns, preoccupations and intentions of this episode’s creators. This is a top quality and highly perceptive review that instantly had me re-assessing my response to the material, and reconsidering what it actually “is” and how it works. Great stuff!

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