After last week’s self-congratulatory mess ‘Extremis‘, it was with some trepidation that I sat down to experience the second part of Steven Moffat‘s ‘Monk Trilogy’ of Doctor Who episodes. This time around, Moffat was co-writing with Peter Harness – creator of the wonderful Zygon two-parter which was a highlight of the show’s ninth series. The Pyramid at the End of the World is a similarly intelligent piece of writing and does a great job of escalating the threat of the Monks, while also continuing the character development that has marked this tenth series of Doctor Who out as a special swansong for Moffat and Peter Capaldi.
We pick up the action with Bill’s (Pearl Mackie) date being interrupted by the Secretary-General of the United Nations, who is keen to bring the Doctor (Capaldi) back in his capacity as President of Earth. A pyramid full of Monks has popped up at random in a crucial strategic location, causing a military stand-off exacerbated by the ticking of the Doomsday Clock. The Doctor attempts to moderate negotiations, still hamstrung by his blindness. Meanwhile, a pair of scientists (Rachel Denning and Tony Gardner) experience a series of misfortunes that seem initially unrelated to the rest of the plot, but inevitably intersect with the main narrative in apocalyptic fashion.
‘The Pyramid at the End of the World’ relaxes into the pace that a three-part story allows, elegantly building the stakes that were so depressingly absent last week. This is a solid piece of tension-building and mystery, which gives the Monks an infusion of terror. The calm and detached way in which they brutally dispatch various characters helps to sell them as a believable threat, adding real weight to the final decision that is made to hand them control of the world – with all of the unknown consequences that entails.
Moffat and Harness do a solid job here of tidying up some of the mess that has been created in recent weeks. Capaldi’s blindness hasn’t even come close to meeting the potential of such an odd character move, so it’s good to see that the Doctor will likely be working at full throttle by the time the trilogy wraps up. The entire episode, in fact, is a showcase for many of Capaldi’s best moments as he gets to do plenty of anti-war grandstanding, while also nodding his head towards the fact that violent intervention is occasionally a valid tactical and defensive move.
It’s when it deals with diplomacy and morality that modern Doctor Who is at its best and there’s both of those issues in abundance in ‘The Pyramid at the End of the World’. The entire episode is an enormous Mexican stand-off and it’s compelling to watch Capaldi’s battle as he first tries to avert war, then turns his attention towards the more pressing crisis happening elsewhere. It’s then that the story takes a weird turn, with the Doctor and Nardole (Matt Lucas) working out the threat far too easily. The episode, though, has a neat message that war ultimately proves here to be a secondary concern to a more biological threat, skewering humanity’s blindness towards any issues beyond geopolitical dick-swinging.
The episode also creates a pair of compelling and likeable guest stars. Denning and Gardner are entertaining to watch and Denning, in particular, has a stellar rapport with the Doctor when they work together in the episode’s closing moments. She’s that rare breed of guest star who would be welcome back on as many occasions as she fits into the story. Pearl Mackie is underused throughout much of the episode, but delivers perhaps her best acting of the entire series in the final scene, which provides a hell of a cliffhanger on which to sell next week’s explosive finale. Could we be on course for a partial regeneration next week?
Next week: Missy is back and it looks like prime Moffat nonsense, but he didn’t write it, so it might be good. Fingers crossed.
Doctor Who is airing on Saturday nights on BBC One and is available on BBC iPlayer.
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