It’s Friday, and I’m in the park with Edward. It is a weekly ritual: this odyssey of library books and shopping and sausage rolls and then going on a bear hunt on the back of a Wicksteed rocking horse. Later I will drop him at nursery and then go to the cafe and write. I am half thinking about the details, in between chanted verses about swamps and coal mines and radioactive wastelands, when the messenger app pings.
“So you’ve seen it, then?” said Phil. “What’s it like?”
“It’s shit,” I said.
“Well, it’s not ‘Kill The Moon’ shit,” I added. “More ‘Into The Dalek’ shit. It’s not that it’s a bad episode, more that it’s just interminably dull.”
Peter Harness has never been one to shy away from a good moral argument. His Who writing speaks volumes (at least the bits Steven Moffat didn’t do himself). ‘Kill The Moon’ turned from a Hinchliffe-esque horror story into an abortion debate that immediately went south faster than Ronnie Biggs in 1966. The Zygon episodes were better, if also rather worthy in places – a reputation they’ve largely gained retrospectively, being perhaps the last Doctor Who stories to hold a strong political subtext until…well, this one. Harness is not afraid to tackle the big themes, even if (as it turns out this week) he appears to have not a great deal to actually say about them.
If anything, ‘The Pyramid at the End of the World’ suffers from Difficult Second Album Syndrome, or at least second act fatigue. There’s nothing inherently wrong with it, except to say that nothing very much happens. That’s something we’ve got used to this series, but that it’s suddenly a problem is less a hallmark of collective boredom and more the fact that a ponderous narrative like this does not sit well with the alien invasion badge the episode wears at its heart. This is the middle part of a trilogy, a fact that we’re never really allowed to forget.
The Doctor’s blindness is part of it. Reduced to a shell of the man he once was, he’s left stumbling both figuratively and literally, relying solely on Nardole to supply descriptive narrative of the details the sunglasses miss: as a way of instilling dramatic tension between the Doctor and Bill it works, but it was already tiresome last week and another dip in the pool doesn’t do the writing any favours. It doesn’t help that it now takes the Doctor twice as long to do anything, given both his visual impairment and a newfound despondency that places Capaldi at the episode’s dramatic centre – making the story more about him than it usually is.
This sort of personal journey approach works fine when you’re watching a character piece – as we did with, say, ‘The Pilot’ – but it’s less successful when large chunks of the story revolve around the Doctor travelling from one place to another, interacting with supporting characters who are presumably baffled as to why they’re having to contend with a cantankerous retired prog rock guitarist, and wondering when the real hero’s going to show up. “Coordinate your attacks,” the Doctor says with stunning nonchalance when the military commanders suggest a show of force (although it’s enough to wipe the smug expression from Nardole’s face; too bad we’re the only ones who got to see it). “If you demonstrate strength and unity, they might choose to step away.”
This is deliberate. The whole thing is less an act of purposeful deception (as it was when he opened the door to the space zombies, for example) and more a Doctor who’s feeling his way in the dark literally as well as metaphorically – something that makes sense given that this is the first time we’ve actually seen him in action properly since the events of ‘Oxygen’. Capaldi comes to the part with a new sense of weariness this week – perhaps even more overt than the melancholy figure who wandered into the camouflaged TARDIS at the beginning of ‘Hell Bent’ – staring through a glass darkly, brooding on the end of the world to the extent that he inadvertently causes it. As self-fulfilling prophecies go, this is as nihilistic and bleak as we’ve seen for some time, a clear forerunner to the next episode, in which the decrepit have inherited the earth.
But things get cluttered when the characters don’t really have time to breathe. The Monks appear, and then reappear, and then there’s a scene in the pyramid that looks like a modern art exhibition and then an imagined apocalypse, and then a bit more talking and then, finally, a bit of tension, and the problem is that none of it is very interesting. I said earlier that nothing happens: this is, perhaps, not entirely true. It is more accurate to say that it feels like nothing happens. The potentially interesting military leaders (at last, supporting characters I could almost get behind) are reduced to a series of military cliches and, in one scene, an excruciatingly tepid display of artificial comradeship, before being zapped into the ether.
Certainly casting has rarely seemed as diverse at it is this week. The international flavour is part of that, but it feels like the middle of ‘Four To Doomsday’, with a dwarf thrown in for good measure. That’s not to do Rachel Denning a disservice – of all the supporting cast she’s easily the most likeable, and it’s a shame that her appearance within the context of the story consists largely of babysitting a hungover colleague. (And for the record, Steven, we know that the world ends with the slamming of a door. We got it the first time. There’s no need to show it to us on multiple occasions. That’s the sort of thing your predecessor did, and we didn’t like it then either.)
If anything, it is the Doctor’s obstinacy that causes his (and the world’s) eventual undoing, something that was foreshadowed last week in a now-defunct conversation with Nardole (of course it is happening in your head, Doctor, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?). Nardole – at his best when he makes sudden, astute observations that crystallise the thoughts we’ve been having for years – is the one who tells the Doctor that “The moment you tell Bill, it becomes real. And then you might actually have to deal with it.” Far from the dashing, tedious hero we’ve encountered, this is a man who tactically misjudges an elementary problem and is doomed as a result. It’s the sort of character flaw you expect to see in superhero movies – we saw it in Iron Man, we saw it in Spider-Man, we saw it in The Avengers. Heck, we even saw it in Lego Batman.
And in itself, that’s not a bad thing. It’s worked before. ‘The Caves of Androzani’ employed a similar conceit: it is the one that tops the polls, and yet it is the one where the Doctor loses. ‘Midnight’ saw the Doctor snatched from the jaws of death by the grace of a nameless, unbelievably unselfish airline stewardess, and showed why it’s always a bad idea for a socially dysfunctional genius to travel without an entourage of middlemen to smooth over the bruised egos. This sort of thing goes right back to ‘The Daleks’, by way of ‘Warriors of the Deep’. Stories in which the Doctor blunders into a bad situation and makes it worse can be marvellous. Unfortunately, this week’s wasn’t one of them.