The Pyramid at the End of the World

Story No. 294 Turmezistan
Production Code Series 10, episode 7
Dates May 27, 2017

With Peter Capaldi
Written by Peter Harness and Steven Moffat Directed by Daniel Nettheim
Executive Producers: Steven Moffat, Brian Minchin.

Synopsis: A pyramid has appeared in Turmezistan, and the Monks are here.


Three to Doomsday by Niall Jones 13/10/23

The advantage of spending time in a simulated universe is that, once you get back to reality, you can live that part of your life over again and hope for a better outcome. So it is for Bill, who just wants to enjoy her date with Penny -- without the Pope bursting in this time. At first, the signs seem good. Of course, Penny doesn't believe a word of what Bill tells her about living in a simulation and being tutored by an alien, but it doesn't put her off either. They reach Bill's house and have tea. Things still seem promising. And then the Secretary General of the United Nations bursts in and things, once again, fall apart.

By essentially repeating a scene from Extremis, writers Peter Harness and Steven Moffat present The Pyramid at the End of the World as a counterpart to that episode, rather than as a sequel. The simulation is re-run, only this time it's for real. Like in Extremis, the Doctor and Bill are called on by a powerful global figure and taken to a foreign location in order to solve a mystery. Meanwhile, things go badly wrong for a group of scientists. What differentiates the plot of The Pyramid at the End of the World from that of Extremis, however -- aside from the absence of Missy -- is that, in the end, the Doctor loses.

Not that that seems likely at first. For much of the episode, the Doctor is placed in an unusually powerful position, invited to put on the mantle of President of the World, a role he last assumed in Death in Heaven. Taken by the Secretary General of the United Nations to Turmezistan, where an ancient pyramid has suddenly appeared, he finds himself in a room with senior military officials from the USA, Russia and China -- as their superior. He may be blind, but he still seems one step ahead of everyone else. When the Monks appear and everyone's phones show the time as 23:57, it takes him seconds to work out what's going on. It's the Doomsday Clock, a symbolic way of measuring humanity's proximity to extinction, repurposed by the Monks as a countdown. The apocalypse is coming, but, thanks to the Doctor, it doesn't look like it'll be starting in Turmezistan, as it doesn't take him long to persuade three of the world's most powerful armies to put aside their differences and work together for the sake of humanity.

By bringing in these international components, Harness and Moffat present the story as being a political thriller, full of action and plot. The Turmezistan setting also references back to Harness's earlier episode, The Zygon Invasion, in which the fictional country was a safe haven for Zygon terrorists and the target of UNIT drone strikes, suggesting parallels with the contemporary situation in Syria. In The Pyramid at the End of the World, however, the country's status as a highly militarised disputed region suggests closer parallels with Kashmir. The difference in how Turmezistan is presented between the two episodes highlights the flexibility that using a fictional country allows, as the political situation can be adjusted to suit the requirements of a story without it clashing with current events.

While the precise borders of Turmezistan are never sketched out, the '-Stan' suffix clearly places it in Central Asia, while the 'Turmez' part of the name recalls the Uzbek city of Termez, located just across the Amu Darya River from Afghanistan. Turmezistan may be fictional, but it sounds like a real place.

The Turmezistan plot is certainly intriguing, but there is also a problem with it. Chartered planes, top diplomats and vast armies are all very well, but they're not very Doctor Who. Surely this is a show about a 'madman with a box', not the President of the World? Fortunately (or not), while the Doctor and co are inspecting pyramids in Central Asia, the real disaster is unfolding in a biochemical research lab in Yorkshire, far away from the grand sweep of geopolitics.

At the beginning of the episode, the Doctor monologues that 'the end of the world is a billion, billion tiny moments'. As it turns out, the end of the world is a pair of smashed reading glasses and a bad hangover. In the end, the misfortunes of two scientists matter more than the decisions of politicians and generals. This is Doctor Who: global catastrophe rooted in everyday problems.

The scenes in the lab are interspersed with the scenes in Turmezistan, hinting that the latter plot might be a red herring. They are also more character-based, focusing on scientists Erica and Douglas. Their first scene together lasts just two minutes, but is full of personality. The rather-worse-for-wear Douglas is understandably grumpy and laconic. Of the previous night, he only says that 'There was drinking. There were breakages.' A stylish shot of a smashing wine bottle fills in the rest. Erica, by contrast, is chipper and funny, with actress Rachel Denning putting in a charming and charismatic performance. Both come across as ordinary people trying to do their job in compromised circumstances. They are fundamentally human, far easier to invest in than the generic soldiers and diplomats of political thrillerland, so much so that Douglas's sudden and rather gruesome death comes as a genuine blow.

Here, the end of the world almost comes about due to a misplaced decimal point, not nuclear weapons or a global war. The idea is great -- original and mischievous, but also scarily plausible.

When the Doctor steps into this situation, he seems to be firing on all cylinders, with a simple plan to avert catastrophe. It's the sort of thing he could probably do in his sleep: rig up an explosion, set a timer and run away as fast as possible. Job done. Everyone saved. Back to the TARDIS. Only, this time, the Doctor's blind and unable to operate a simple combination lock. He can only save the world by surrendering his life. The only way around this is for Bill to accept the Monk's invitation and grant them permission to take over the world.

The Doctor's failure here comes down to his own character failings and, in particular, his inability to confide in Bill about his blindness. This isn't the first time we've seen the Doctor brought down by his own failings, however. The Tenth Doctor's vain attempt to save the doomed crew of Bowie Base One in The Waters of Mars is the textbook example of Time Lord arrogance. Despite these parallels, there are interesting contrasts to be drawn between the way that the two Doctors act. Whereas the Tenth Doctor becomes something of a monster, steeped in entitlement and self-righteousness, the Twelfth Doctor that saunters through the end of this episode isn't that different from his usual self. Instead, his character traits seem ever-so-slightly exaggerated. He makes slightly too many jokes, is slightly too charming and congratulates himself just that little bit too much.

To my mind, this speaks to what makes Peter Capaldi's Doctor so great: there is no clean distinction between the different aspects of his personality. His heroism, humour, darkness, melancholy and grumpiness all co-exist; they come out at different times and to different degrees, but they're always there, so that you cannot obviously speak of a Dark Twelfth Doctor or a Sad Twelfth Doctor in the same way that you can for the Tenth Doctor.

As an episode that begins by reiterating its predecessor and ends with the Monks seemingly victorious, via an international crisis and a scientific catastrophe, it's fair to say that there's a lot going on in The Pyramid at the End of the World. Like Extremis, which similarly yokes together seemingly disparate plotlines and genres, it broadly works. While the political thriller aspects may seem a bit out of place, the story ultimately rejects scale for intimacy, focusing on how small actions can lead to grand consequences.