There’s a reason Voyage of the Damned was one of Russell T Davies’ cleverer scripts. It’s the subversion of expectations which it pulls off convincingly and almost sadistically. For those that don’t remember: a crisis arose, people’s lives were in danger, and the Doctor, leaping into action, started to perform his normal routine of promising everyone he was going to save them—and proceeded looking like he was going to do exactly that. It didn’t look like a particularly promising episode at that point. A bit of light Christmas fluff where, to nobody’s surprise, the Doctor saves the day, everyone gets a happy ending and the Doctor ends the episode wearing a green Christmas party hat and digging into a plate of turkey with the attractive one-off companion at his side. That’s not what happened. Everyone died—everyone, that is, that the audience cared about—apart from the most loathsome character and a sympathetic fraudster. To be sure, there was something of a happy ending—this was Christmas, after all—but not the one the Doctor or the audience wanted or expected.
The Pyramid at the End of the World is a bit like Voyage of the Damned. The final act of this episode saw the rug pulled violently from beneath what had been looking up until then like a fairly tedious and banal the-Doctor-does-clever-things-and-saves-the-day-hooray sequence of events. I certainly had my cheek resting on my fist by the time the Doctor discovered that he was about to be thwarted by a door. Maybe I should have seen the twist coming—it was all looking just a bit too trite and tedious and the Doctor’s cocky jokes were sounding just a bit too cringey this time. I don’t know if that was an intentional misdirection, i.e. whether it was intentional that the audience were supposed to be thinking at that point “Oh, good, here we go, the Doctor’s about to save the day again, haven’t seen that before.” Maybe it wasn’t intentional. If it was, it was really quite some deft writing that set up the twist that followed as a brilliant subversion of expectations. If it wasn’t—well, it still worked.
It’s just really interesting to see the Doctor vanquished as a result of his own hubris. It’s not something we see very often, for obvious reasons—if done too often it’d undermine the profile of the character as an unvanquished hero. But when it’s done, it’s always interesting, and it’s most interesting when, as it looks here, the consequences are dire and far-reaching. It’s a theme Moffat has been playing with a lot recently—he did the same thing in Series 4 of Sherlock, where he made Sherlock’s hubris crash down upon him with traumatic consequences. It was interesting there (even if that particular episode was rather lacking) and it’s interesting here. It’s interesting to see the invincible hero lose, and lose badly, for once, even more so when he bears the blame. And in this instance it prompted one of the most sincerely emotional and heartfelt scenes in the Capaldi era. The Doctor’s confession to Bill and Bill’s subsequent surrender to the monks, though stupid, was genuinely moving. For what has been an especially cerebral series so far, it’s good to have some genuine heart.
But other than that, though, this episode really was a bit dull, wasn’t it? It’s not a bad episode by any means, and it certainly stands up to a rewatch, but this was a very middle-part-of-a-trilogy episode. You can forgive it its dullness because it’s part of a trilogy and not a standalone story, and because of its position sandwiched between the more interesting beginning and conclusion of the trilogy, but it’s hard to believe Peter Harness, who delivered the astounding Zygon two-parter last series, couldn’t have turned in a better final script. The focal point of this episode is the three surrenders to the monks. Phil Sandifer thinks that’s a political allegory about people who vote for the likes of Trump. The whole “We must rule through love” thing makes me think there’s something in that, but it’s also clear that any political theme was incidental and not the point of this episode, unlike Harness’s previous efforts, Kill the Moon and the Zygon two-parter. Nor is it particularly strong enough in its own right to make this episode very interesting.
There was one rather good bit—where the assembled armies launched a collective armed assault on the pyramid, and the monks effortlessly beat them off. The bit with the monks in the cockpit was rather good. But it was brief. That and the monks’ presence in this episode have caused me to reconsider my opinion of them, though. Last week I was of the opinion that the monks were another undistinguished and lazily-conceived iteration of the nondescript-humanoid-Doctor-Who-alien trope. This week they were better. They had an eerie and otherworldly presence, especially when they were put jarringly against the backdrop of the desert or in the cockpit of a fighter jet. The enigmatic space pyramid was a great touch, too. The monks were done justice in this episode, and they contributed substantially to a tense and chilling atmosphere. As an alien invasion, this episode just felt right, even if it lacked substance. This episode took its cue from productions like Torchwood’s Children of Earth and Arrival that alien invasions should feel completely surreal—if not positively apocalyptic—and as though the world has suddenly entered a weird alternate reality, unlike under Russell T Davies, where alien invasions were typically played for laughs.
To end on a speculative note—this episode didn’t give us any more big clues about who the monks are or what their significance might be, but there were two things we should have picked up on. First, the monks’ humanoid form isn’t their true form, but a form they bear when appearing to humans. This could just be because it was easier and cheaper to design scary-looking humanoid aliens than silly-looking non-humanoids and that this was their excuse. Or it could not be. I have a feeling that there’s more to the monks than it seems, because they don’t seem like either a one-off or repeating villain, because they’re too big to be a one-off villain but not repeatable enough to be a new repeating villain. But anyway—secondly, the monks made a very conspicuous point about requiring love and consent to rule. The Doctor’s question, “Why do you need consent?” was answered with a cryptic declaration about needing to be loved. Which wasn’t really an answer we could do anything with. The monks’ insistence on needing loving consent before they could take the planet doesn’t make sense if the monks are a race anything like the human race. And, maybe I’m being too generous here, but I doubt it was just a pointless device to pad out the script by making the characters go back and forth from the pyramid for the whole episode. For my part, although I’m still sceptical, the Mondasian Cyberman theory of the monks is still live. I can see how their cyber-calculations might have come to the conclusion that it would be more “efficient” to procure the “love” of the Earth’s population before attempting to rule them. But let’s wait and see.