❉ A sure-footed global epic.
“Of course I can. I’m not just sexy.”
Hurrah for Peter Harness and Steven Moffat. The Pyramid at the End of the World showed that their partiality towards global blockbusters has reached the point where the drama and epic scale now work seamlessly together. If Harness’s Kill the Moon (2014) was a little heavy handed on the right-to-life symbolism – three women deciding if a gargantuan, moon-sized egg baby should live or die – and the Zygon two-parter from 2016 wore its real-world parallels with the War on Terror a little too heavily, Harness’s script for the 2017 series was an original, well-constructed alien invasion tale wrapped around interesting things to say about commitment, love and how a seemingly innocuous chain of events can have catastrophic consequences.
Under Harness and Moffat, the Monks introduced in last week’s Extremis – arriving on Earth in the Middle East in their pyramid control centre, in a nod to the Stargate movie (1994) – were revealed as a highly original enemy. You can’t get a more disconcerting alien invader than one that allows armed representatives of the three most powerful nations in the world into its spacecraft and then ignores them as it calmly goes about its world-dominating business, knowing there’s nothing Russia, China and America’s combined firepower can do.
The Monks had the edge over humanity in using history as a weapon and their coup de grace was a sci-fi Faustian pact – give us your planet or we’ll let you all die, and by the way you’ve got three minutes to think about it or the Doomsday Clock, the marker for global catastrophe, strikes twelve. This was a neat subversion of what looked and sounded like an action thriller, as the customary motifs of military jets, jeeps, armed soldiers and high-ranking commanders had nothing to shoot at and were rendered impotent by an intangible threat.
How the daily routine of the two Argofuel scientists Douglas (Tony Gardner, as engagingly dissolute as he was in Fresh Meat (2011-2016) and the diminutive Erica (Rachel Denning, just as impressive here dramatically was she was funny opposite Warwick Davis in Life’s Too Short, (2011-13)) intersected with the big plot happening on the other side of the world was well thought through and clever, with the Doctor and co. initially believing the doomsday threat was a military one – an obvious conclusion to make in a time of international tension.
The beauty of the script was that small, apparently innocuous events led to catastrophic mistakes, in this case Douglas and Erica’s accidental creation of an all-consuming bacteria. This point was made by images of Erica’s broken glasses and an empty bottle whose contents Tony had heartily consumed – innocuous happenings in themselves, but important parts of the chain reaction of disaster as, for example, Tony’s vision blurred at the wrong moment.
I do wonder why though, if the Monks were that all-powerful and all-knowing, they had to tap into Argofuel’s security cameras? Although it allowed a handy way for the Doctor to locate the source of the impending bacteriological apocalypse, it did seem to be the one weak spot in the writing. And come to think of it, why did the Monks need a huge simulation of the Earth (Extremis) if they scan the whole history of the Earth and pin-point a global threat so easily?
That aside, Daniel Nettheim’s direction was so assured that you could forgive these minor flaws. The military ordnance on display was impressively cinematic, the Monks’ lair impressively sinister and the Monks themselves impressively other-worldly, particularly with the way that macabre, whispering voice didn’t sync up with their mouth movements. The way the Monks dispatched politicians and military who didn’t live up to their expectations – “we must be loved” – was also satisfyingly gruesome.
The ever-improving trio of the Doctor, Bill and Nardole were on top form. The former two had some wonderfully witty dialogue while the Doctor, still blind and beginning the episode in a reflective mood, again assumed the mantle of world President and later became as confident as a mid-period Tom Baker – “Thank you for playing the big pyramid game”, “It’s your planet, I can’t just give it away” and especially “It’s Nardole. He’s not my fault.”
Although Bill began the episode with what now looks like the running gag of an interrupted date, at the end of the episode she became the critical focus of the story – where the Secretary-General of the UN and military commanders had failed, her fierce love and respect for the Doctor ironically gave the Monks what they wanted. Bill learned her friend and mentor was blind – a fact he’d kept from her behind his rock star shades – and restored the Doctor’s sight to save his life so he, in turn, could save the day. The trade-off was a breath-taking, bitterly ironic finale, which at the same time emphasised just how far the pair’s relationship has developed over the course of this series.
A crisis is clearly building. If anything, next week’s episode looks even better.
❉ ‘Doctor Who’ airs on BBC One every Saturday at 7.20pm. Click here for episodes and extra content.
❉ Series 10: Part 1 was released on DVD & Blu-Ray 2 May 2017, with Series 10: Part 2 available on 17 July 2017. Complete Series 10 available on DVD & BD later this year
❉ Robert Fairclough is a film and TV journalist and blogger and a regular contributor to ‘Doctor Who Magazine’ and ‘SFX’. He is the author of books on the iconic TV series ‘The Prisoner’, and co-author (with Mike Kenwood) of definitive guides to the classic TV dramas ‘The Sweeney’ and ‘Callan’. His biography of the actor Ian Carmichael was one of ‘The Independent’s Top 10 Film Books of the Year for 2011.