Season 10, Episode 7 “The Pyramid at the End of the World”
Directed by Daniel Nettheim
Written by Steven Moffat and Peter Harness
Starring Peter Capaldi, Pearl Mackie, Matt Lucas, Togo Igawa
Air date: May 27, 2017
This week on Doctor Who, the Doctor continues his adventure in the world of the occult conspiracy thriller. An Egyptian-style pyramid appears in the middle of a hot zone in Central Asia. The Doctor and Bill are summoned to investigate. The Doctor is still blind, and has not yet told Bill about it.
What do they find? What does it all mean? The episode pulls together some interesting literary symbols and ideas in order to create jeopardy, but it falls apart a bit at the last minute. To find out why, read on…
First off, Steven Moffat and Peter Harness bring their own version of the concept of the Illuminati to Doctor Who. After first seeing the Monks in last week’s episode “Extremis,” we are presented with a powerful new enemy that, like the Silence, seems to have been mucking around with Earth for a while now. Yet, that’s about all we’re told about them.
This week, we learn more. They show up in a pyramid and their power seems rooted in their ability to know the past and influence the future. Why is the pyramid important, the script even asks? The episode has its answer, but here’s mine: the technological equivalent of occult power. Look on the back of an American one dollar bill and you see a pyramid with an eye in the capstone. The pyramid of the title immediately ties into the notions of Freemasonry, the All Seeing Eye, and quiet manipulation of the world through its leaders and markets that are the bread and butter of occult conspiracy thrillers. One need only look at works as diverse as “The Illuminatus Trilogy,” Foucault’s Pendulum, and yes, the works of Dan Brown, to understand the tie in.
At the same time, Moffat and Harness pull something of a nasty trick to bring the Doctor into the center of the action. When the Doctor was trapped on Earth during the UNIT era of the early-to-mid 1970s, the show played with the outsider/insider nature of the Doctor within UNIT. On the one hand, he’s now a government employee, working with the military, and very much the insider able to influence events as a part of the system. On the other, he’s largely doing that for none of the usual reasons (money, power) and instead doing it for a place to work, eat, and sleep while trying to escape the exile imposed on him by the Time Lords. That’s very much the role of the prisoner, the dissident, and yes, the outsider.
Here, we do away with all that and just make the Doctor the ultimate insider. From a dramatic point of view, this does make a certain amount of sense. The Illuminati are always interested in having insiders join their ranks, and the Doctor would not be very interesting to them otherwise. It enmeshes the Doctor and Bill in the story. Yet, it’s a cheap trick. Doctor Who tried the same sort of thing with Tom Baker in “The Invasion Of Time,” and it doesn’t work. It’s all rather deus ex machina. Boom! Here, you have power. There is no struggle, no compromise, no dramatic meat.
Finally, we get to what I think the episode does most effectively: explore the concept of the Faustian bargain. Occult relationships are ritual relationships, based on true belief. They cannot be mere transactions. That makes arrangements with the Monks into matters that involve truly selling the soul. What makes you sell your soul? Jeopardy does the trick, and not just for you, but also for those you love. With the ritual nature of invoking the help of the Monks, the show effectively underlines what the sale of a soul looks like and how the deal demands fidelity. This deal binds, because it’s done not for petty reasons, but for righteous ones.
Of course, it helps if that jeopardy feels real. Here, I think, is where the wheels come off. I’ll try not to touch on any spoilers, but I do have to say that it touches on the Doctor’s blindness. He’s apparently put in jeopardy because he’s blind and his sonic sunglasses/screwdriver can’t get him out of it. For one thing, that strikes me as more than a little lazy. It’s as if Moffat and Harness had to tie things up in a hurry and couldn’t think of a better way in time. For another, Doctor Who has played a lot with regeneration energy during the last 10 years, doing everything from creating a human/Time Lord meta-crisis to having the Doctor heal River Song’s injuries with a little zap. So, Doctor heal thyself. No? You can’t? No Sisterhood of Karn to help you out this time? Amazing technology can’t help you out? The Doctor’s magic is pretty weak and his magic is a central pillar of the show. That’s a well that Steven Moffat has had no trouble drawing on in the past. To have it so suddenly constrained here feels odd.
The rest of this episode is cast with red shirts. That’s another place where it is weak. All the other characters are disposable cut outs. I thought that the “Zygon Inversion” was terribly effective because it concerned familiar characters. Here, I kept hoping for Kate Lethbridge-Stewart and UNIT, only to come up empty.
So, I think we get a mixed bag again with Doctor Who this week. The episode explores some interesting ideas. The performances from Peter Capaldi and Pearl Mackie are strong. Yet, it didn’t quite hang together for me and feel completely realized.