Doctor Who Review: The Pyramid at the End of the World

The Pyramid at the End of the World (written by Peter Harness and Steven Moffat) presents us with two moral dilemmas.

Its premise is that the monks from Extremis, having modelled all of human history, land in a disputed area of Turmezistan (you remember, the fictional country from The Zygon Invasion) to show humanity a vision of a nightmarish future: one year from now, all life on Earth is gone. They offer humanity (represented by the Doctor, Bill, Nardole, the Secretary General of the UN and officers from the Chinese, American and Russian armies) a choice: the monks can stop this disaster, but only if the people of Earth consent to the monks’ rule.

The first moral dilemma, then, is: what’s more important, humanity’s future or humanity’s freedom?

In the episode’s closing minutes, though, Harness and Moffat present us with a second dilemma. In an effort to stop the Earth being destroyed without the intervention of the monks, the Doctor is blowing up a laboratory which has accidentally engineered highly dangerous super-enzymes. Being blind (although his blindness seems conveniently selective), he can’t see the combination lock to get out of the room where the bomb is, and he admits this to Bill over the radio.

So the second moral dilemma is this: what’s more important, the Doctor’s future or humanity’s freedom?

The problem is that only one of these dilemmas is a genuinely interesting moral choice. The second one is, by any reasonable moral standard, not. Bill’s decision to save the Doctor’s life, dooming seven billion humans to enslavement, is not only moronically stupid – especially given the Doctor’s express wishes not to be saved – it also turns her into a carbon copy of Clara Oswald, a woman for whom the Doctor was literally the most important person in the universe. Bill’s only known the Doctor for six episodes, at least one of which she’s spent arguing with him, and now she’s claiming to love him?

What’s frustrating about this is that someone at the BBC has clearly been making a massive effort this series to make sure minorities are represented on Doctor Who, from the black and Asian people in the Regency-set Thin Ice to the lady scientist with dwarfism in this episode. But stupid, sexist writing like this – writing that keeps presenting women as incompetent, impulsive and totally centred on the one man in their lives (even when they’re not even straight, ffs) – lets it all down.

The other problem with the episode, which makes it all unravel when you start thinking about it as a moral dilemma, is one of definition. For instance: what the monks’ rule will mean for the people of Earth never gets adequately explored. The Doctor points this out as a reason not to make the deal with them: humanity should retain its sovereignty. But the Doctor is at this point President of the World, as per Death in Heaven. How would the monks’ rule – their “protection”, as they put it initially – be any different from the Doctor’s stewardship of the Earth?

The episode gets similarly muddled with its idea of consent. The monks are demanding that whoever makes the bargain on behalf of humanity consents “purely” to their rule – out of love, not fear or strategy, because ruling through love is more efficient than ruling through fear. (This feels uncomfortably like a metaphor for sexual consent, but I’m not exactly sure if it’s meant to be, or what the point is if it is.) In fact, they disintegrate both the UN Secretary General and the three officers precisely because their consent is not pure, not out of love.

Bill’s consent is out of love – but it’s love for the Doctor, not for the monks. And it’s clear that she’s consenting on the basis that the Doctor can probably rescue humanity. So how is her consent different from the strategic consent of the others? Presumably they consented out of love as well as fear – love for humanity? The monks’ demand for consent makes a sickening, superficial kind of sense, but it’s a stupid way to invade a planet in practice, because who’s going to love someone who makes them choose between freedom and survival?

That’s how the episode feels to me: shoehorned to fit yet another Love Conquers All plotline that defines love narrowly and exclusively. Doctor Who is not soap opera: it works much, much better when the Doctor’s just a raggedy man in a blue box being clever and helping where he can. Not being bloody President of the World and partaking in sickeningly sentimental plots.

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