There are a lot of comparisons to be drawn between this weekend's "The Pyramid at the End of the World" and its preceding episode, "Extremis" — mainly in that they're both setup for a story that's really yet to shift into high gear. But, they're also both examples of how Doctor Who can transform a humdrum episode into something marvellous in its final moments.
Like "Extremis" before it, "The Pyramid at the End of the World" is mostly set up — which makes it even weirder that this is a three-part story about the Monks that has, so far, seemingly decided to save much of what's actually the deal with these guys for next week's episode. At least, unlike "Extremis", which was mostly in serve of one solid ending twist that rendered most of itself inconsequential, "The Pyramid at the End of the World"'s escalation in its last 15 minutes more than made up for the fact that two thirds of its run time was a bit ponderous getting there.
Part of that is built into the premise: An ancient Pyramid has landed in the middle of a standoff between the armies of the US, China and Russia, threatening to be the catalyst of a new World War, prompting the UN to invoke the Doctor's "presidency" of Earth again (a title used in the past as more of a joke and excuse to bring him into the action, but here ultimately proved to be the sham it always was, considering the generals decide to ignore the Doctor's plan) to get him to investigate.
But, similarly to "Extremis" and its computer simulation, this set up was actually fake in and of itself — the Monks and their spooky Pyramid were nothing more than a decoy for the Doctor, Bill and Nardole to figure out while the real end of the world comes about in a Yorkshire bio lab called Argofuel, where random chance (plus a set of broken glasses and a boozy all-nighter) leads to the creation of an airborne virus that can turn any living matter into a puddle of goop in minutes.
It's an interesting set up — in that instead of being a meticulously crafted plan, the real threat is a butterfly effect from what were otherwise completely harmless random events — but also a slow burning one, made slightly wearisome for the audience by the fact we know from pretty much the get-go that the real danger is away from the Pyramid, and we're just waiting for team TARDIS to catch up and figure it out too. It makes much of "Pyramid", while on its own totally fine, feel like it's itching to get into gear.
But man, when it does, it delivers a truly spectacular bit of Doctor Who. Pretty much from the moment Nardole and the Doctor home in on Argofuel as the place about to end the world — oddly quickly, I found, given the episode had earlier done a good job of showing the Doctor and his team trying to work the mystery out bit by bit, something Doctor Who doesn't do enough at times — "The Pyramid at the End of the World" exploded into action. Literally, even, given that the Doctor's plan to save the day involved him blowing the bejesus out of the lab in order to sterilise it of the deadly new gunkify-ing virus. And he would have gotten away with it if it hadn't been for a manual door lock!
What makes the moment the Doctor realises he can no longer hide his blindness so tragic was that he came so close to saving the day without having to reveal his biggest fear: That he's weakened and compromised. Early on in the episode the Doctor told Bill that sometimes you can be so gripped by a fear that even just saying so becomes petrifying in and of itself, and throughout, his attempts to reveal to her that he's still blind make it clear he was talking about his own fear of being blind rather than the impending end of the world. The Doctor had basically done everything right, only to be undone by a combination lock he couldn't even see: Not by the Monks, but a door and a deception of his own making. It's a startling moment of hubris for the Doctor — and brilliantly mirrored the episode's wider exploration of cause and effect, cashing in on the Doctor's own brashness in "Oxygen" at the worst possible time.
That moment of failure, in turn, makes Bill's own decision to consent to the Monks (trading the enslavement of humanity for the chance the Doctor can see again and fight back against it) so powerful. It all comes back to something that this season of Doctor Who has been playing with in every episode: The value we put on a single life. Here, Bill realises that the Doctor living, and seeing again, is worth being put through the horror of not just being judged by the Monks — and potentially facing a grim death — but also an uncertain, grim future where they rule the Earth. Because if the Doctor still lives, there's still hope for the day to be saved and the villains to be defeated.
And if he can do it while blind, then maybe freeing Bill and the world from the Monks doesn't seem like such a daunting task after all.
Assorted Musings (In Time and Space)
- Poor Douglas the scientist. His death was alarmingly sudden for whatever biological disaster he'd accidentally cooked up, but also, maybe one of the grossest Doctor Who has done in a while — much more effectively shocking than the Monks' sandy-disintegration thing.
- I really hope "The Lie of the Land" somehow opens with Bill having a third attempted date with Penny going hilariously awry, but considering how grim it looks, it'd be a pretty weird way to carry on a running joke like that.
- So what can the Monks actually do? They can take new shapes (they mention their current form is one they have recently taken), they're good at creating alternate realities, they can see the future, they can disintegrate people, they can swap places with another person at will. I hope we get an inkling of just why they seem so incredibly powerful in next week's episode, given that we're seeing them ruling over the Earth.
- Speaking of that Bill/Penny scene, we've pretty much got confirmation that Donald Trump is the US President in the Doctor Who universe. That might be the most petrifying plot beat of all, really.