Who ever said a little bit of setup in a story was a bad thing? Sometimes the second part of a trilogy has to primarily act as a setup for the third part, but that doesn’t mean said second part can’t also stand on its own as a story. All the best middle parts of trilogies do that. The one that comes to mind, naturally, is The Empire Strikes Back. It very much is a setup for Return of the Jedi, but it’s frequently considered the best of the Star Wars films. Why? Because it also tells its own story. The Pyramid at the End of the World does the same thing. Being the middle part of the Monk Trilogy, The Pyramid at the End of the World acts as a setup for the final part, The Lie of the Land, while also succeeding in telling a story with character moments, stakes, and consequences. Written by Peter Harness and Steven Moffat and directed by Daniel Nettheim, The Pyramid at the End of the World follows the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and Bill (Pearl Mackie) as they investigate a mysterious 5,000-year-old pyramid that has just appeared overnight in Turmezistan, the strategic military point that the three biggest armies of the Earth are positioned at. Inside the pyramid are the Monks, the race of beings from Extremis who plan to take over the Earth. The Monks say that humanity is about to destroy itself, and only they (the Monks) can save us. But consent must be given. Will the human race consent? (Spoilers ahead!)
Like I said, The Pyramid at the End of the World‘s primary mission is to set up the events that will occur in the finale of the Monk trilogy, The Lie of the Land, that airs next week. And it does this with panache and skill. Picking up from pretty much where we left off last week (Bill is on her first date with Penny – this time, a real one!), the Secretary-General of the U.N. (Togo Igawa) appears in Bill’s house, whisking her and the Doctor away to Turmezistan to investigate the pyramid. Meanwhile, in a biochemical lab somewhere in Europe, two scientists – Erica (Rachel Denning) and Douglas (Tony Gardner) – are working on some kind of bacteria that ends up going horribly wrong. Thanks to a misplaced decimal point (due to a hungover Douglas), the bacteria mutates into a deadly strain that kills anything it touches upon contact. Faced with imminent destruction and an increasingly close-to-midnight Doomsday Clock, humanity must decide: Will it die or will it consent – with love – to the Monks and be saved (and subsequently dominated)?
As a premise, this is a pretty intense one, and it’s executed with all the intensity you’d want. Obviously, humanity was – at some point – going to consent to the Monks, but the way in which it happened surprised me, and I think that’s what elevates this from pure setup to something of emotional importance for the characters. On the surface, yes, this episode exists solely so that The Lie of the Land can exist next week. The episode has to end with the Monks controlling the Earth, that’s the end game. It’s the how-we-get-there that ends up having emotional resonance; Bill – in order to save the Doctor (who is still blind and has found himself locked in the lab, where he’s just set a bomb off to sterilize the bacteria, with only a combination lock between him and freedom) and restore his eyesight consents to the Monks’ power. This is a continuation of her character arc, her trusting in the Doctor, and her overt levels of compassion. She refuses to let the Doctor die, even if it means saving the entire world, and it’s a really interesting concept. It gives consequences to the Doctor’s lying to her about his eyesight and will place some kind of strain on their relationship going forward.
That’s how you make the middle part of a trilogy actually matter. Sure, the plot can act as a setup for the finale, but you make sure the characters grow and develop throughout the course of the episode, and you ensure that their actions will have some kind of consequences. This is precisely what Peter Harness and Steven Moffat do with this episode. At its heart, the episode is about the consequences of the Doctor not telling Bill the truth when he lost his eyesight back at Chasm Forge (episode 5: Oxygen). Had the Doctor just told Bill about his blindness in the first place, perhaps the ending of the episode could have been avoided. But, alas, then we’d have no story. But, it’s those consequences that make this episode have importance. It also helps that, even though it’s a setup for next week, the episode does still tell its own story and doesn’t rely on you seeing next week’s episode to finish the story. Next week is the sequel to this week, but The Pyramid at the End of the World tells the complete story of how the Monks come to control Earth. That story is begun and finished in this episode, alone.
On the technical side, the episode continues to be impressive. The acting is top notch, particular from Peter and Pearl. Their scene at the end of the episode is rather moving, and they’re not actually in the same room! So, that’s a pretty good test of acting abilities. The rest of the cast is good, if somewhat underused. But that tends to be the case when you introduce a fairly sizable guest cast for only one forty-five minute episode. The costumes for the Monks are visually interesting. The Monks are sort of a cross between an old-style Hollywood mummy, but with the tattered robes of a monk. It’s an interesting design, especially once it’s revealed that the Monks are basically projecting themselves in this image so they look “similar” to humans. It’s always good to have a visually interesting monster. Daniel Nettheim’s direction continues to be visually interesting. I love the way he’s been using the Doctor’s sonic glasses – which the Doctor is using as a stand-in for his lost eyesight – as another camera angle, letting us see exactly what the Doctor sees. It’s a clever little trick that adds some flair and suspense to the episode. The rest of his touches are equally fun and interesting, and he was a very good choice for these past two episodes. It’s a shame he won’t be the one to complete the trilogy, but next week’s director appears to have directed quite a good episode, too.
Ultimately, The Pyramid at the End of the World is the middle part of a trilogy about the mysterious Monks that is able to stand on its own feet as its own story. It’s compelling, suspenseful, tense, and emotional. Getting to see the Doctor as the President of the World again is always fun, and the episode delivers on that concept. Is it the best episode of Doctor Who? No. Did it need to be? No. It does what it needs to do while also having its own identity and being enjoyable, and I commend it for that.
I give The Pyramid at the End of the World four and a half out of five wands.
Doctor Who continues next week with The Lie of the Land, airing at 7:35 pm on BBC One and at 9 pm on BBC America.