For most of its forty-five minute running time, The Pyramid At The End of the World is fine. And it isn't much more than that but there isn't anything wrong with being just fine. But it is telling when the finer points of an episode come from scenes which rely on a knowledge of what came before and after. The episode's opening comes up with a fun little way of integrating the 'previously' moments from Extremis with Bill's second attempt at a date with Penny. And given that almost all of Extremis didn't actually happen to the characters, it does make sense to add a little extra context on how much the characters are aware of what happened in the computer simulation. And that this date too, is interrupted, not by the Pope this time but by a group of soldiers and the Security General of the United Nations, is a nice - and funny - little touch on the gag in the previous episode.
Once the episode gets under way, well, its still just fine. And because it is a script from Peter Harness, you can expect a certain amount of politics to be included, just like it was in Kill the Moon and The Zygon Invasion/The Zygon Inversion. All the pieces are included too. Americans, Russians and Chinese armies are sat on the brink of war, the mysterious Monks keep on using words like 'consent' and 'power', but the story is ultimately about the dangers of bioengineering. But even that isn't the big crescendo moment for Harness' story this time, instead he doesn't beat around the bush and throws caution to the wind and confronts the matter head on. There isn't an equivalent here to Clara, Courtney and Lundvik deciding what to do about the hatching moon or the Doctor's anti war speech, it is just that, up until the last five or so minutes, there isn't a lot of substance to the pyramid related action.
It is too much to say that none of what comes before the ending actually matters - the Monks are the main adversaries here and Humanity could submit to them at any moment. It is just that all the action in Turmezistan feels so plainly in service to setting up the climax. The closest thing to that moment comes when the Monks are talking about consent and how people must give themselves over willingly. In fact, the concept of consent has received huge media attention lately, especially in terms of sex and rape, and this episode feels like it does have some larger social commentary attached to it.
And I'm not saying that you can't take the Monks' statements about how power must consent, how one can't consent out of fear or strategy and how that it is only love that can consent - especially as their the villains and their opinions should be taken at face value - and construct some larger point out of it all. It is just that none of it hangs together in any obvious way. The smallest stretch is that its possible to say the episode is talking about how those in power can manipulate power dynamics and gaslight others into thinking that they are the one in control as a way of coercing consent. That is actually the kind of idea that Doctor Who would do well to explore it just feels like too much of a stretch to say that this episode does. This certainly isn't Thin Ice where author, Sarah Dollard sprinkled modern terms like 'privilege' and 'whitewash', into the larger and clearly laid out social commentary. This is more like Harness' previous adventure, Kill the Moon, where it is still unclear - three years later - whether he recognised that the episode's climax was actually playing an awful lot like an analogy to the topic of abortion.
But The Pyramid at the End of the World does have its strengths. Most of this have something to do with character. Rachel Denning and Tony Gardener bring the same kind of quality to their roles as Erika and Douglas as Corrado Invernizzi and Laurent Maurel did in Extremis. The decision to have us meeting Douglas when he is hungover gives him a sense of multidimensionality to his character. We are meeting him on an unusual day which implies that there is a usual version of Douglas that Erika knows and we would have otherwise have met. And Erika is one of the few guest characters on Doctor Who, who shows enough competence that you can easily imagine her solving a much less convoluted problem like this without the Doctor turning up to save the day. She quickly realises the scope of the problem before her, works out where Douglas went wrong, takes the necessary steps to ensure the safety of her co-workers and provides enough assistance when the TARDIS does eventually arrive. The Doctor should have offered her a spot as a companion.
A lot of this episode eventually comes back to the TARDIS team. While we were lead to believe that Matt Lucas's Nardole would be a lot like Danny Pink, appearing here and there, he has now appeared in every adventure since, The Husbands of River Song and has moved from a number of cameos to a fully-fledged companion. Both he and Peter Capaldi make for a hilarious comedic duo, both Nardole and the Doctor are sure they are smarter than each other and it takes some serious acting chops to pull off a moment like the 'Are you following me?', moment like they do. Nardole also goes against the idea that the companion isn't allowed to be as smart as the Doctor. Indeed, he is just as knowledgeable as his friend and the way he hacks his way into UNIT security cameras and can operate the TARDIS suggests he has some considerable intelligence. But he isn't a match for the Doctor and he has a real flair for missing the obvious. That's the direct opposite of Bill's perceptiveness as her lack of experience doesn't mean that she isn't capable of making the right decision at a crucial moment.
And now lets talk about that ending! I'll just lay out a few little niggles first: Now, I'm sure that Harness's script or the direction from Daniel Nettheim clearly laid out the geography for the lab. I was a little confused as to which bits where contaminated, which bits weren't and which bits it was alight to breath without a helmet on. When I was first watching this episode I was so confused by the geography of the lab that it pulled me out of the adventure slightly, which was problem when everything else worked. And I'm not too sure about Nardole collapsing at the moment when he needed to tell the Doctor the combination to the door so he could escape before the explosion. But I'm willing to roll with it - considering how everything played itself out in the end.
The Doctor's final predicament is similar to the end of The End of Time Part 2, which similarly pays off something which had been built up over previous episodes. There it was the myth that he would knock four times, here it is the Doctor's blindness. Both have a resolution that is simple and heart-breaking. The Doctor did manage to defeat the Monks with mere minutes to spare, don't lose sight of that fact. The Doctor had won. He had saved the world, just as the Tenth Doctor had done by defeating Rassilon and sending Gallifrey back to hell. But he is defeated in the simplest and most personal of ways, completely undone - not by the complex machinations of the Monks - but by a simple combination lock, something far too simple for the sonic screwdriver to help him. His own hubris and refusal to tell others what is wrong with him also plays a part in his eventual downfall. Erika could have anticipated the problem with the lock had she know about the Doctor's blindness and the resolution is one that mixes mundane bad luck with the Doctor's own character flaw's. Its perfect.
And all this allows The Pyramid at the End of the World to end on an unexpected note. The episode teased the Doctor's defeat to the Monk's omniscience, has him turning the tables on them and Bill making an executive decision, even if it means the enslavement of the human race. The Doctor doesn't ask her to do this, rather demanding that she allows him to face the consequences of his actions but she refuses, honouring the Doctor's most basic of principles, even when there is the smallest of chances to save someone's life, you do everything in power to try. Future problems can be met and dealt with in due course as there is no value in sacrificing someone's life in an effort to avoid an uncertain fate. If the Doctor is still alive, he can still save the world and that is what Bill demands him to do in the closing minutes before everything changes. And then there is the final line from the Monks.
"Enjoy your sight Doctor. Now see our world!"
What a line to end the episode on! But that is probably all I'm going to remember from this episode, especially when it is sandwiched between the brilliant Extremis and the interesting Lie of the Land. The rest of the episode is just decent. And that isn't the worst thing to sit through for a final brilliant five minutes...