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So, Extremis left us with questions aplenty, but also a compelling cliffhangar. With the Doctor still blind and Bill in the dark about it, the time travellers have their work cut out for them. Fittingly, the same can be said for the episode’s co-writer, Peter Harness, previously authoring the rather poor Kill The Moon in Series 8, and the enjoyable but rather average Zygon Invasion/Inversion two parter from Series 9. Like Cotrell-Boyce, Harness’ return wasn’t high on my list of anticipations, but in the same way that Cotrell-Boyce made a strong comeback with Smile, can Harness follow suit?
In the second of a three parter, a mysterious Pyramid materializes in the middle of an Asian warzone, between the three superpowers (U.S.A, Russia and China). Still trying to hide his blindness, the Doctor investigates and finds that the ‘Monks’ have a simple bargain: they can stop an oncoming apocalypse, but only if the humans give their consent, the right to be dominated, out of ‘love’ and not fear.
The recurring idea behind all of Harness’ Who stories has been what humanity will do when faced with a terrible choice. Past idealism or cultural values, what would Earth actually do when faced with destruction? Indeed, after so many alien invasions, why not do one where the only way they can come is by invitation? Harness always aims high, and full props to him, but just like twice before, it always feels like it falls short of its goals. The humans, outside of Bill and lab technician Erica, feel like mouthpieces for the different scenarios the episode is pushing, and not well developed or even well characterised people. Harness makes it hard to care when the Monks’ terrible powers kick in because it lacks an emotional tie to the humans, which weakens a big chunk of the plot.
However, the strength of the Zygon double parter carries over here: the emotional bond of our leads is extremely strong, and does save the episode from being hollow. The Doctor’s efforts to stay calm, even under pressure, Nardole’s concern and, most importantly, Bill’s reaction to all this is extremely well done and allowed the ending to feel like a big gut punch, even when everything else wasn’t especially strong. In addition, the midpoint twist was done far more effectively than in Zygon, and helped add to the Monks’ menace, as opposed to feeling drawn out like the former.
It undoubtedly sounds like a broken record by this point, but it’s still true: Capaldi and Mackie are spot on once again, and really help support the drama of the episode with completely natural chemistry. You don’t questiion for a moment what they mean to each other. Lucas, too, gets in a few funny lines, though less standouts than last episode. Tim Bentinck’s vocals as the Monks is as every bit as sinister as before, and just the way he delivers seemingly benign claims of love and consent is genuinely unsettling.
Indeed, the episode is very well produced and directed: the pyramid is a great combination of practical and digital, its interiors suitably claustrophobic and alien, and the variety of locations help sell the global nature of the story. Deserts, citites, underground labs, ancient spaceships, it just gives you a substantial sense of scale. The editing is also effective, allowing us to jump between multiple locations without ever feeling that the story’s rambling or confused.
The Pyramid at the End of The World keeps the overarching story moving forward decently, and has a pretty thrilling ending. However, Harness simply isn’t at home in sandpits this big, as the micro is where he excels, far more than the macro. The ideas he grapples with are compelling, but just not quite within his reach, either because of the format or just his limitations as a writer. It’s his second best episode for sure, but I won’t be sad if Harness takes a break after Moffat goes.
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