Saturday, 10 June 2017
Doctor Who: The Pyramid at the End of the World (Episode Review)
... You know, it was nice to enjoy this series without dreading what the next episode would bring for a while. Really, up to now, the stories themselves have been middling to pretty good. Sure, they might have been less ambitious than past outings, but the fact Doctor Who's ambition was continually outstripping the writers' capabilities was its greatest failing. It looked like they had finally learned their lesson. Then this happened.
The Pyramid at the End of the World dives headlong back into the sheer stupidity which has plagued Capaldi's run from the start, leaving you facepalming repeatedly at how it fails to make use of the fantastic concepts at work. Also, and this has to be stressed, because we're back to the bloody gimmick villains again. Not "gimmick" ones where technology is at work, or there's some archetype at play, but the ones which have some single defining theme like "You must not do this or they will kill you!" or "You must do this to survive!"
And no, it's not the sensible stuff like just dodging lasers. Still, we're not going to get anywhere by sitting back and making general complaints, so let's just see how far down this rabbit hole goes.
The premise this time is that, in the wake of the last episode, the Doctor is preparing to face the Monks. He knows that they can overwhelm anything the Earth can throw at them, and that they have full knowledge of his every trick and stunt, yet he knows nothing of them. They could be motivated by quite simply any means and pull off any stunt to accomplish their victory. As such, when they arrive in force in the joining point between several major world powers, hidden away within a thousands of years old pyramid, he must prepare himself for anything...
There are a few general good points here despite the above criticisms. Nothing truly major, and usually superficial elements or ideas over anything truly core to the story. For example, the introduction quickly establishes and develops the point that the Doctor does prepare and plan for events when needed. He is putting in effort to try and counter things before they take place and, while he often invents or develops points on the fly, he isn't above rethinking or trying to preempt an enemy before they become a real problem.
The handling of Bill's relationships was also remarkably well done once again, both in terms of focus and humour. While the actual gag with her step-mother might have been a bit on the nose, the execution by those involved helped it work, as did the reflection upon the insanity of the Doctor's lifestyle. If it is kept at this level from here on rather than simply overwhelming the series, it could be a nice return to the balance we had before Moffat's run on Who. The same even goes with the Doctor himself and his association with the powers of the Earth, especially when he's pressed into service as President once more. It's a song and dance we have seen before now, but there were enough new elements and humourous jokes to prevent it wearing out its welcome, and it helped that he once more largely ignored his duties.
The actual concept behind the Monks is a decent one - if extremely flawed in many, many respects - and if it was given more time to be fleshed out you could certainly see how it could work. They're not exactly evil in many regards, and while there is an extreme ambiguity to their actions, this sort of peaceful invasion is certainly an interesting point to work with. While hardly the most original idea, and something done far better in other works, it's always a nice change to some of the secret invasions or massed assaults by the likes of the Daleks or Cybermen. Or the stupidity of the Jihadistaniclism Zygons or Terror. No, I am never going to let that go. It further helps that their power is clearly displayed at several points to establish them as a very, very clear threat to the world as a whole and a few money shots go into showing this off. Including one genuinely fantastic bit with a submarine, which personally made me start to take them very seriously as a foe.
Finally, and most importantly,we had some payoff to the Doctor's blindness. While we still get no bloody answers as to a few obvious solutions to his loss - even the obvious solutions - it works with a few established ideas. The jokes are there early on, but you finally see how it catches him out in a rather blatant way. It's actually well executed enough that you don't see it coming amid the drama and, despite all that is going on around him, it's well executed enough to be worked into both the loss Earth will suffer and previously established points. Above anything else, there was at least some intelligence present here when they were devising this particular element of the overall plot. Not much, but some.
There are a few good elements still present besides this of course - Capaldi is still on point, the side characters have good performances throughout and despite the stupidity of the ending it's obvious Peal Mackie is doing her best to convey the personal drama of the moment. Unfortunately, the rest is very, very mixed, and extremely stupid.
A major failing here from the start his how incredibly divided the two stories actually are. Yes, there are two here, with one only truly coming in to play at the end. It's supposed to better set up the idea that the villains of the story are almost working to counter humanity's worst elements - or at least set up something to make it seem that way - but there's no connection between the two. Save for the final bit where the Doctor comes in to save everything, it's almost filler, thrown in much like the Missy segments were last time to help pad out a story with a lot of speculation but little direct action. It's well acted, and there is some tension going on, but the connection is so tenuous and the threat comes in so late that it fails to build towards anything. Plus, even if you do ignore the logical leaps made to join the two together, or put down how the Monks know of this to their more supernatural and precognitive abilities, it brushes far, far too many questions under the rug.
Actually, that's this episode as a whole - Jump to the end goal but ignore the questions which might arise from introducing it. Some you could put down to part three of this tale, but others not so much. For example, the Monks require veneration and love over simple control to rule. This is put down to the need to avoid rebellions, and could even link to their powers in some way. Okay, fine, let's accept that for a moment. If you do think that though, why in the hell have they done it in such an obtuse way? They repeatedly target groups of leaders one at a time, try to force them to bow before them out of love, and kill them when it's not "pure" somehow. No mention is made of the population which follows them, nor even of the "pure consent" they need despite repeated rejections. So, are they just going to ignore this for the rest of the planet, or are they going to kill everyone one-by-one?
Another massive problem stems from how the world responds to this at all. For starters, U.N.I.T. is nowhere to be seen, despite being one of the best possible responses to help deal with an invasion short of the Doctor himself. The same goes for Torchwood, but you can somewhat forgive that as they have not been seen in some time, yet even without that the rest of the world keeps forcing the story into deeper and deeper idiocy. Despite running to the Doctor for help right at the start, even placing him in a position of supreme power, they overrule his orders, ignore his commands and even disobey his advice at every turn. This just repeatedly makes things worse, and their very involvement rapidly becomes a borderline running joke within the story.
Even the Doctor himself loses several of his brain cells with each stunt, starting with his push to have every nation on Earth try to blow up the aliens in one move. These are a group who just teleported into existence without warning and have been shown to have such high tech that they can pull of a real-time interactive version of the Matrix just to be used for tactical predictions. Given that races with a fraction of this technology have come close to conquering the world, the very idea that he is even considering this is simply insane if not character breaking, and is present only to make things worse. There are obvious alternatives, even good ways this could have been spun to help present the situation as the best of many bad options. Yet, there's no effort made to build upon this or structure it like a series of events getting worse like a political thriller. Instead, it's just laid bare to try and beef up the enemy, and makes humanity look as if they're beating their head against a brick wall.
Even if you could forgive some of the bigger bits like this due to their scale, you then have a thousand and one smaller frustrating elements which keeps enhancing the stupidity of the tale. Bill, for starters, somehow hasn't picked up on the fact that the Doctor is blind, despite it being obvious to damn near everyone else involved. We are talking about someone who now wears glasses 24/7, both indoors and outside, while also requiring someone to read notes, give directions and even cite basic the appearances of gigantic landmasses. This stops being amusing after about the halfway point, and simply starts being infuriating instead as you're rolling your eyes at how she's missing the obvious. The same issue even carries over to a few other supporting characters as well, and with almost anyone who meets him failing to pick up on many obvious points, from how their foe works to the simple fact he cannot read.
Then, just to make things worse towards the end, the entire story behind the lab takes a turn for the suicidally dangerous. We have arguably the single worst scientist Doctor Who has ever seen manning a research station to test something on plants. It all goes horribly wrong, and kills the lot of them. So, what happens next? Not only does the guy ignore almost all protective gear - the stuff we see them using earlier - but he runs in, grabs some of it and runs out to use it in analysis. This is while leaving the airlocked room open and just studying the stuff in an un-quarantined environment. Astoundingly, he somehow ends up dead. I simply could not guess how such a careful and determined man could ever have this happen to him, nor for that matter how the Doctor seemed hell-bent upon following his example. If you're unfortunate enough to watch the episode, you'll see he effectively does the same thing.
Yet, all of this isn't the worst of it. Nope, we then have Bill atop of this. Now, as a companion she's actually done a great job thus far as the Doctor's foil. She's the surrogate character, but brilliant in her own odd way and sidesteps just about every damn character trait which has caused problems for many major female figures under the Eleventh and Twelfth Doctors' runs. Apparently, someone felt they needed to make up for that though, and promptly made her sacrifice the world largely for her own benefit. While it cannot be fully explored without spoiling the story, let's just say that we have the same thing that happened in the Wedding of River Song and Hell Bent happen here, but the story tries to present it in a noble light. It doesn't work, and if anything it comes across as an act of sheer desperation and ignoring the Doctor's understanding of events.
On a scale of wince-worthy to screaming-at-the-television, this one strays into the territory where you're just rolling your eyes and swearing under your breath repeatedly. There's a few good moments which do crop up in places, and it would be wrong to claim that there's nothing great about this story, but the stupidity does still shine through. However, for once i'm almost tempted to give Moffat a pass on this due to rather sad circumstances which made writing this tale absolute hell. While you can find full details on other websites, let's just say that he was typing out drafts of the story while sitting at someone's hospital bedside. This doesn't immediately render any criticisms null and void, but it does at least make them understandable given such distractions around him. and I can personally admire the man's dedication to still try and finish the tale despite that.
Admittedly though, having the man who gave us Kill the Moon as the other writer didn't help.