Doctor Who The Pyramid at the End of the World review: a peculiar blend of the deadly serious and hilariously hokum

The zombie Monks plant a pyramid in a superpower hotspot but the real danger to the world lies in a lab in Yorkshire...

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★★★★ After a run of succinct episode titles, The Pyramid at the End of the World is one of the longest in the history of Who. It looks peculiarly clunky in the title sequence (especially with two writer credits below it) and is a pig to type, so hereafter I’ll use the not-quite-acronym TPATEOTW. 

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TPATEOTW is an enjoyable if peculiar slice of Doctor Who, in that it strives to be deadly serious most of the time, but it is also occasionally hilarious – sometimes deliberately, sometimes inadvertently. 

I was hooting that Bill’s date with Penny is again interrupted. Last week it was by a peeved and perplexed Pope and took place in a virtual-reality simulation. This week she’s dating Penny for real, regaling her with an account of that far-fetched incident and then, just as they’re back in the same position, they’re interrupted by the Secretary General of the United Nations and his gun-toting bodyguards. 

Only in Doctor Who can you get away with such bizarre farce. And only in Doctor Who would the UN Secretary General deem it necessary to storm a young woman’s apartment in Bristol as part of his plan to gain an audience with the Doctor – who, we are reminded, is elevated to President of Earth in times of crisis. In modern Who, his sidekicks are not sidelined; The Powers That Be acknowledge that The Companion is an essential part of the Time Lord package. I love that. Even if it’s silly. 

It would be easy to chortle at a lot of TPATEOTW. It is hokum. The zombie Monks – creepier last week – exude much less menace mincing about in the cold light of day. They take themselves terribly seriously, poor dears. They move arthritically and whisper solemnly. (Remember it’s Tim Bentinck, aka David Archer, doing the voices.) They drone on about their need to be welcomed by humankind: “We will be invited.” Only by our total acquiescence can their weird invasion succeed. “Those who hold power must consent to our dominion,” the chief Monk moans. “We must be wanted. We must be loved.” There there! 

Even so, the Monks’ powers seem limitless. They achieve an awful lot while fondling their fronds in the heart of their pyramid. In Extremis, they created a simulation of Earth throughout its history “from day one to now”. This included a copy of the current Doctor and his Tardis (so surely, by extension, every Doctor and Tardis that ever landed on the planet), but the goofballs don’t have the initiative to capitalise on that. In TPATEOTW, they suspend a warplane in the sky and upend a submarine on land. And with an impressive, almost magical wave of beneficence – beamed from Turmezistan to Yorkshire – they cure the Doctor’s blindness. The one man who could defeat them.

It’s all dotty but I’m glad there’s a whiff of silliness to detract from an otherwise pervading sense of doom. We can get that any day of the week just by switching on the news. Our own Doomsday Clock is twitching towards catastrophe. In TPATEOTW, everyone’s watch or phone turns to 11.57 and then proceeds towards midnight. The end of their world is nigh. 

TPATEOTW brings together the superpowers, by planting a pyramid in Turmezistan, the strategic intersection of their domains (actually the wilds of Tenerife). If anyone wonders why our friends at Unit aren’t involved in this particular crisis, it’s because they aren’t dispensable – unlike these bore-off American, Russian and Chinese military leaders. A trio in search of personality. They die horribly (marvellous disintegration effect), while the Doctor and Nardole suss out that this scenario has been “a trick of misdirection”. The internecine affairs of the superpowers are not what will lead to cataclysm. Co-credited writers Peter Harness and Steven Moffat ensure that the trigger is being pulled in an unexpected quarter. This is Doctor Who. Science makes for a better threat. 

The most effective strand of TPATEOTW follows two English scientists at Agrofuel Research Operations in Yorkshire and their slow-burn bio-disaster. (Exec producer Brian Minchin tells me that Agrofuel was “all shot on location at Swansea University. We built the airlock doors into the existing lab.”) It reminds me of Terry Nation’s 1970s serial Survivors: one slip from a scientist and deadly bacteria will escape and wipe out all life on the planet.

I’m not sure about the actual science here, the big tubes of coloured liquid emptying and the scientist Douglas misplacing the decimal point (11.89 to 118.9). But it’s chilling. As is the notion that a minor co-incidence (illustrated by two breakages: his bottle, her specs) leads to a cock-up in their laboratory with almighty consequences. 

This section is told in the tradition of BBC1’s Casualty, where complete newcomers are introduced and the viewer waits anxiously for some calamity to befall them. I particularly like the female scientist (played by Rachel Denning) – the mundanity as she sets off for work, gets on with her job like anyone with a routine workload to plough through; her matter-of-factness with her colleague. It’s only when disaster strikes and the Doctor lands in her lab (“Who the hell are you?”) that she shines, and at last we learn her name, Erica. As she hits on an explosive solution, the Doctor sees her potential: “Seriously, what are you doing when this is all over?” 

If at times Nardole and Bill seem abandoned by the storyline, they remain vivid focus points on screen and provide answers while the Doctor is floundering, and not just because of his blindness. He needs these two. They’ve become a sine qua non. The three leads excel. I forget all Matt Lucas’s previous broad comedy characters. He is Nardole. I’m concerned when he lies stricken on the Tardis floor at the end. Pearl Mackie is the emotional human heart of the story, and Peter Capaldi is so wonderfully assured as the Doctor, sweeping up the swagger and gravitas of Jon Pertwee’s Doctor, the aloofness and flippancy of Tom Baker’s Doctor (“Thank you for playing the big pyramid game!” made me laugh) and projecting his own fully formed Time Lord. 

During this tenth series the observant fan will have noticed allusions to the earliest days of Doctor Who. There was Susan’s photo in The Pilot. The Doctor becoming Bill’s “grandfather” in Knock Knock. The Tardis fluid link mentioned in Oxygen goes back to the first Dalek story (1963/64), as does the Doctor’s line in TPATEOTW: “It’s not my first dead planet.” (That was Skaro.) The controlling pyramid is like another in The Keys of Marinus (1964). There’s also a subliminal design reference. The circular holes in window shutters in the UN base (below) echo the roundels in the original Tardis control room. That’s no co-incidence.

I’m really appreciating Murray Gold’s music this year – in that I hardly hear it at all on first viewing. It’s not a spin cycle of orchestral themes drowning out crucial dialogue. Watching an episode again, I notice its effectiveness in creating mood and tension. The throbbing underscore during the pyramid scenes is marvellous.  

On balance, TPATEOTW is an engaging middle chapter, confidently told, that glides over its sillier aspects in the pursuit of portents of doom. It chimes with me. 

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Every story since 1963 reviewed in RT’s Doctor Who Story Guide

Series ten reviews: 

Episode one: The Pilot ★★★★

Episode two: Smile ★★

Episode three: Thin Ice ★★★★★

Episode four: Knock Knock ★★★★

Episode five: Oxygen ★★★

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Episode six: Extremis ★★★★★