If, after the thrilling bait-and-switch cliff-hanger of last week’s “Extremis”, you were looking forward the Monks Trilogy’s “Empire Strikes Back”, bad news: you’ve ended up getting “The Phantom Menace” instead.
When a five-thousand-year-old pyramid appears overnight in a disputed area between American, Russian and Chinese forces, the Secretary-General of the United Nations invokes the protocol to appoint the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) President of Earth, to sort the problem out. Still concealing his blindness from Bill (Pearl Mackie), the Doctor quickly discovers the Monks are finally making their move. However, these are no forceful conquerors; the Monks will take no action until the human race consents to their invasion.
Where “Extremis” offered us complex riddles and Vatican intrigue, however, “The Pyramid At The End Of The World” offers us talking. A lot of talking. And nowhere near enough Missy as we were expecting (i.e. none).
There are some great things going on in the episode amidst all the talking: the doomsday clock is a fun gimmick to lend a much-needed sense of urgency to proceedings as the Monks increase the pressure on the human race to capitulate in order to be saved from inevitable destruction. Turmezistan, Doctor Who’s go-to non-geospecific country whipping boy gets another outing after its debut in “The Zygon Invasion” and, thanks to some clever direction from Daniel Nettheim, manages to feel much more authentically international than last time, larglely successfully masking the limitations of a BBC budget. Bill also comedically confirms that Trump is President of the USA in the Whoniverse too, although it raises a question over who the Monks expected to be President as it clearly wasn’t Trump slumped in the chair in the Oval Office in the Monks’ simulated world. Perhaps they didn’t get Putin’s memo.
We don’t really get to learn a great deal more about the Monks in this episode, no doubt a reveal being saved for the climax and while the title of the episode tips a nod to Douglas Adams, what we do learn of the Monks seems to owe more to a dark twist on Terry Pratchett’s “Thief Of Time” which featured History Monks similarly concerned with the threads of reality and time.
The section of the episode set away from the perplexing pentahedron feels a little bit cheaper by comparison. The episode’s card up its sleeve is that the impending apocalypse which the Monks are counting on to force humanity’s hand will not come from a military conflagration but from a series of unfortunate events leading to the creation and release of a voracious and deadly pathogen. The ineptitude of the scientists and the lack of proper safety procedures in the lab means this episode can also stand as a very early prequel to “Alien: Covenant” and no doubt Ridley Scott is already concocting a five-movie series to link the two together to form a gigantic stupid scientist oeuvre. There’s a laziness to the writing in that the Doctor is apparently simply immune to the pathogen which literally dissolves human and plant life but the episode, having spent much of its running time on talky talky scenes, hasn’t really got a lot of options but to start taking easy shortcuts as the ending approaches.
It’s in the ending the episode manages to haul itself up from mediocrity with a barnstorming and dramatic last ten minutes which manages – just – to make the preceding forty minutes feel worthwhile. I feel slightly cheated at the easy restoration of the Doctor’s sight, though. It’s all a bit too anti-climactic for something they’ve built up for three episodes so far. In fact, anti-climax may at this moment be the Doctor’s most dangerous enemy, more so than the Monks themselves. Arguably it’s a brave decision to construct a three-part story only to have the first two episodes be almost exclusively set-up. The payoff better be worth it.